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After Sukkot is Over, Don’t Discard That Etrog!

The citron, essential for Sukkot rituals, can be put to many wonderful uses after the holiday

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(Flavio/Flickr (above); recipe photo (below) Rachel Barenblat)
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Absolute Citron

A look at the etrog, the lemony fruit that helps define Sukkot

There’s a Yiddish expression to describe something that has no value: “an etrog after Sukkot.” Considering that an etrog can cost $30 or more before Sukkot—the holiday in which this citrus fruit is ritually important—and yet seems to be worth nothing once the holiday ends, it’s an apt expression.

So, what can you do with an etrog after Sukkot? It would be wasteful as well as disrespectful to simply toss this exotic fruit in the garbage—especially when there are, in fact, many uses for it.

There is a rich folklore of Jewish customs concerning the post-holiday etrog. Traditionally, once it was retired from its ritual role, the etrog was turned over to women for secular uses. In The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, Michael Strassfeld notes that the fruit, with its breastlike shape, was considered to have a special relationship to women, and a variety of Old World practices connected it to pregnancy and birth. A childless woman who wanted to bear a son was advised to bite the pitom (tip) of an etrog. A pregnant woman who ate the etrog after Sukkot, according to the Talmud, would give birth to a “fragrant” child—the equivalent of a “good” child. And a woman in labor could ease the pain of childbirth, it was said, by placing the etrog’s pitom under her pillow.

The belief that the etrog could ease the pains of childbirth also extended to jam or jelly made from the fruit. My grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Russia, soaked etrog peel for days to decrease its bitterness and made it into marmalade, saving the precious jars of golden preserves to give postpartum mothers, including my own mother, to help them recover their strength after childbirth.

There are other classic ways of preserving etrog, or citron, that have less to do with folk wisdom and more to do with traditional uses of citrus fruits in general. The etrog can lend itself to a number of drinks. After Sukkot, John Kirkpatrick, an etrog-farmer in California, sells great quantities of the remaining fruit, as well as a related citron called Buddha’s Hand, to St. George Spirits for its citron-infused vodka. In Italy, a liqueur described as “the noble cousin of limoncello” is made with the rind of citron rather than lemon; Zaida Reuven, a Dallas supplier of etrog-and-lulav sets and author of The Esrog, calls such a liqueur “etrog schnapps” and provides a simple recipe. The citron peel could also be used to flavor other beverages, such as lemonade or sangria.

Remember, Jews aren’t the only people who use the etrog: Candied citron, in particular, has a long non-Jewish history. Since the 15th century, when citron peels were soaked in seawater brine for 40 days before being submerged in a sugar solution, it has been a signature flavor of Christmas cakes such as Italian panettone and English fruitcake. David Lebovitz, a pastry chef and cookbook author who lives in Paris, has experimented with making candied and glazed citrons. (As with all culinary uses of the etrog, it’s always a good idea to wash and scrub the peel to reduce any pesticide residue.)

Candied citron and citron preserves are fundamental to pastry making in Sicily, where the etrog (cedro, in Italian) is grown and sold. Tourists, seeing these giant citrons for sale alongside lemons and oranges at fruit stands, often remark that these are the largest lemons they’ve ever seen. But if they buy one expecting to find abundant juice, they soon realize their mistake: The pulp of the etrog is seedy and dry. The pith, however—that white spongy layer beneath the peel that is often bitter in lemons and oranges—is a wide expanse in an etrog and can be surprisingly sweet. Sicilians cut the pith into thin slices and sprinkle them with salt or sugar for a snack, or combine them in a salad with fennel, oil, salt, and pepper.

Ancient Greeks and Romans also ate etrog pith in salads, but in the ancient world the fruit’s most renowned quality—and likely what inspired Hindus and Buddhists, as well as Jews, to adopt it as a religious symbol—was what Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher and father of botany, described as its “exquisite odor.” Citron oil (“possessed of the most wonderful properties,” as one botanist wrote) became a sought-after luxury, the fragrance of royalty and affluence. In Roman times, when citrons adorned bridal chambers, it was also a perfume believed to inspire love. Botanists in antiquity offered a number of labor-intensive methods to extract the oil. One instructed the collector to rub cotton wool saturated in sesame oil onto the fruit as it grew, three times a day for 40 days. After these 120 rubbings, the perfumer picked the etrog and gently scraped the oil from the rind with a small silver spoon. Clearly the fragrance of etrog was thought to be worth such painstaking labor.

It’s far easier to make your own version of etrog-scented oil simply by infusing oil with the zest. Grate the peel of a cleaned etrog and put it in a small glass bottle so it fills half the bottle, then add almond oil, light olive oil, or another oil to the top. Set the bottle in a sunny place for a few days, shaking it a few times every day, then store at room temperature. Add a few drops of this scented oil to a bath, or fill a spray bottle with water and a few drops of the etrog oil for a pleasant air freshener.

Another way to employ the etrog’s lovely fragrance is to pierce the skin of the fruit and fill the holes with dried cloves, covering the etrog completely. As the etrog dries, it releases a wonderful scent and the whole fruit may be used as a “spice box” for the Havdalah ceremony to mark the end of the Sabbath.

If you have a green thumb, you may want to try growing your own etrog tree from seed. Remove the seeds from your etrog, wash them, and plant them in a well-drained potting mix. Keep the plants warm and moist, and repot when necessary. If you are patient and care for your citrus plant well, in about four or five years you may have your own home-grown etrog to use on Sukkot—and after the holiday ends.

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That’s not what I heard. I was warned not to eat the etrog because it is not technically a food product and therefore growers apply a whole range of agricultural chemicals in excess of legal limits for edibles. The problem is aggravated by the tree’s delicate nature and susceptibility to pests. Unfortunately the kashrut of an etrog doesn’t address the amount of chemicals used in its growing. So instead of advising people to eat them you should do some research into their edibility.

I’m the author of this piece and I did do research into this. I called the USDA department for regulations for imported fruits and
vegetables, and the expert there confirmed that the etrog DOES have to meet all
USDA regulations for food safety — “Intended use is not a factor,” she said.

“Can cost thirty dollars”? Hah! Buying a kosher Esrog (with the other three species) can cost a few hundred dollars, depending on its characteristics.
Most people pay anywhere from $50.00 and up, especially out of New York.

Esroger says:

Re Gnarlodius comment.

I am the United States only significant commercial grower of esrog citrons for religious use, marketed under the brand name Esrogei Rothberg California, for over thirty years. From the beginning, we have been Rabbinicaly Supervised (Rabbi Avrohom Tiechman, Kahila Koshrus, Los Angeles) and under regulation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). ALL commercial citron production must comply with the laws and regulations applicable to food products. Having worked under the intensive supervision of our Rabbi, the USDA, CDFA, FDA & DPR for those thirty plus years, I can assure Gnarlodius that all commercially grown citrons are technically a food product that can be consumed with confidence that they are safe. I would like to learn where the warning referred to came from in order to bring better understanding concerning the food safety question.

It is a requirement that citrons used for Succos be grown in compliance with HALLACHIC LAW to be valid for performing the mitzvah. And, hallachic law also requires compliance with ALL APPLICABLE CIVIL LAWS including those administered by the listed agencies. Therefore, the kashrut of the etrog DOES address the amount of chemicals used in its growing.
And yes, the tree’s delicate nature and susceptibility to pests does aggravate production of fruit of acceptable quality. Hence the seemingly high price of perfect fruit. We make every possible effort to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to minimize the use of chemicals and incorporate as many as possible practices that are implicit in organic production.
(And btw, HALLACHIC LAW REQUIRES that one needs to excercise extreme caution regarding propagating or passing rumors that may affect another’s livelihood.)

OK then, much thanks to you both for addressing that concern.

I have made wonderful Etrog Liqueur and everyone who has tasted it has loved it. I thouroughly wash the surface of the etrogim with a fruit/vegetable soap to remove any wax and pesticides. The fruit is then cut up and soaked for 1 year in a mixture of vodka and sugar. I take it out right before sukkot and strain out all the solids and then add extra vodka to the mixture. Decant and serve! It’s great.

Jonathan Gerard says:

My father used to make etrog marmalade after the festival. I used ours to play etrog football in our religious school on the Sunday after Simchat Torah.

The post-Sukkot etrog also is a wonderful sachet. Put it into your lingerie drawers for a lovely way to perfume your clothes.

tinadesign1 says:

For many years I made jam or some delicacy with the etrog after Sukkot. But after moving to Israel I was told that in order to get a “perfect” fruit the growers use chemicals and pesticides quite heavily – most of which remain in the skin – which of course is the most flavorful part. Needless to say, I no longer eat the etrog. Nice idea but not worth the risk.

Milhouse says:

hallachic law also requires compliance with ALL APPLICABLE CIVIL LAWS including those administered by the listed agencies.

Really? In what siman and se’if of Shulchan Aruch are “ALL APPLICABLE CIVIL LAWS including those administered by the listed agencies” incorporated by reference? You will not find it because it doesn’t exist. An esrog is perfectly kosher no matter how many laws and regulations, of this or any other country, were broken in its production. So long as it wasn’t stolen, or used in idolatry, and the tree is at least three years old, it’s kosher if it looks kosher.

In any event, the USDA’s only concern with imported fruit is pests, not pesticides.

Akiva Feinstein says:

(JLaw.com)

The Halacha is explicit and unequivocal: one is absolutely obligated to
pay taxes imposed by the government. The obligation stems from the
famous statement of Shmuel, “Dina de-malchuta dina,” literally, the law
of the land is the law1.
This halachic principle does not mean that Jews have to follow
secular law (the “law of the land”); it means that Halacha incorporates
the law of the land in which Jews live. In other words, where dina
de-malchuta dina applies, a requirement of secular law becomes a
halachic obligation as well2.

Obviously, this principle has limits. According to many Rishonim
(medieval authorities), the rule of dina de-malchuta dina applies only
to matters in which the government has a financial interest, such as
taxes and currency regulations3.
Other Rishonim take the position that dina de-malchuta dina applies
more broadly, including any matter of civil law which is the subject of a
specific governmental rule, provided the rule applies to all citizens
equally and the rule is enforced by the government. Though different
opinions exist regarding the precise scope of this principle, all
Rishonim agree that dina de-malchuta dina applies to laws of taxation.

Milhouse says:

This is absolutely false. It is ridiculous and almost heretical to claim that whatever laws and regulations the local legislatures, councils, and agencies according to their kind choose to make are incorporated into halacha. There is no basis for such a claim, and it is pure ignorance.

Yes, Shmuel said that taxes belong to the government, so one must pay them. What has that got to do with the topic? How do you get from there to an obligation to obey the law? You will not find anywhere in the gemara or Shulchan Aruch either 1) an obligation to obey the law, or 2) a prohibition on disobeying the law. Without finding either one, how can you make it up? All that both sources say is that dina demalchuta is dina. Since when is dina something that one must obey, or is prohibited from disobeying? Since when does it impose any obligation or prohibition on a person? You want to know what it means? Look at the four times it is cited in the gemara, and see what those four cases have in common. You will see that in none of those cases is anyone required to do anything, or prohibited from doing anything.

themotherinlawskitchen says:

What a great article. Informative and inspirational… I shall think about making some etrog curd next year.

Cyndi Schoenbrun says:

We have been saving my husband’s and children’s esrogim for years (theirs until they moved away from home). My husband pierced the top of many of the esrogim and we hang them in the succah as part of our decorations. The others, when dried look beautiful in a glass bowl as, say, pine cones or fall foliage does.

Michael P Froman says:

Don’t forget Etrog Marmalade, which I make every year. Take 1 or 2 etrogs, soak them in water for 6 days, changing the water daily. Cut into thin slices, removing all of the seeds. Boil for 10 minutes, throw out the water, and repeat 6 times. By this point, some of the bitterness is gone.

Add slices of 6 navel oranges, slices of 8 lemons, and 4 – 6 cups of sugar and cook slowly until you have marmalade. Place in jars, seal, and cool. Yum.

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After Sukkot is Over, Don’t Discard That Etrog!

The citron, essential for Sukkot rituals, can be put to many wonderful uses after the holiday

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