I have always loved Sukkot. Sure, Passover has narrative; Yom Kippur has the holiness; Hanukkah has….latkes. But Sukkot! Sukkot has magic.
It starts with the building of the sukkah, almost an imaginary castle to be used for a week while picturing our ancestors in ancient Israel sitting in theirs. There is still something almost otherworldly about the beautifully set table, the decorations personalized family by family, the ritual of serving and eating outside as we pray for clear skies and of course the seasonal swings—warmer or colder depending on how the Hebrew calendar syncs with the secular one. I think about decorating my childhood sukkah with my parents when I was a child, then another one with my children and now a third with my grandchildren.
Yet, growing up, the most magical part of this most magical holiday was for me the lulav and etrog. They called to mind the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, swarms of people making their way to Jerusalem for the holiday. It was the stuff of dreams.
As a child in the synagogue where my late father was the rabbi, only a few families actually had their own etrog. Back then, they were expensive. Exotic. They were hard to find and usually the shammes (sextant) of the synagogue, a man no doubt of Eastern European origin and often a Holocaust survivor, would make the purchase on behalf of the congregation. And since the ritual around them was a bit esoteric, so many who were already second-generation American were happy to “borrow” one for a quick shake.
Today, in any Jewish neighborhood there are markets where the tables groan with the weight of countless etrogim that can be bought at any price point, from a few dollars for a “beginners etrog” to hundreds of dollars for a perfect specimen that beautifies the holiday and the very mitzvah of using it.
Once, I was mesmerized by one etrog in particular. To this day I see it.
You see, there was a man in our congregation, a tremendous philanthropist, whose children were my best friends. He traveled the world at a time when most thought that going to Miami was a big trip. He had been to Israel countless times, had family there and even business. Most were in awe of him.
Every Sukkot he received a brown box in the mail. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. Covered with stamps from Israel and a myriad of postmarks, it evoked far off places, locales beyond our experience and things foreign and unknown. And, in this box, was an etrog. But not just any etrog, but a bright green one. A perfect and striking emerald. So while everyone else had a standard yellow variety, this man held in his hands what seemed to me to be true magic. Glamour, mystery… This bright green etrog ignited my imagination and forever made the yellow etrog an object of mediocrity for me.
And the philanthropist knew it too. Although he had a collection of beautiful silver cases for his etrog, even he didn’t want to break the spell, so he brought that exceptional object to services in the brown box it came in. After each holiday, I would ask him for the packaging and, once in my hands, would carefully removed the stamps for my collection. My obsession was solidified.
I later learned that not only was the object of my ardor a mystery; it is also somewhat controversial. In the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda argues that bright green etrogs are invalid, or not kosher for use. The Rosh cites Tosfot’s assertion that an etrog that is green but will turn yellow over time is valid, since it must be a complete fruit in order for it to turn yellow. The Shulchan Aruch (648:21) codified this view, but in the Mishna Brurah the rabbis decided that one should not rely on the fact that the etrog might turn yellow at some point unless it has already started to do so.
Perhaps I was just drawn to its novelty, or maybe I intuited that it held in its history something special and thought-provoking. Whatever the case, every year before Sukkot I scour the markets, stall by stall, booth by booth, looking for my perfect green etrog, controversy be damned. And every year, I always manage to find one. After all, magic, as they say, is magic.
Related: Etrog Man