When we at the EsrogimCenter.com tell people what we do, we get a lot of different and varied responses -- but they tend to all begin with the same word: “Why?”
Why Italy? Why esrogim? Why us? Why now?
As the old saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” And we’ve certainly got our reasons for doing what we do, year after year, for over two decades!
As with most things Jewish, there are seemingly endless explanations of why these four, what they represent. One famous explanation has the four species (orarbah minim) composing a spiritual body, just as the sukkah composes a spiritual home. The long, slender lulav is the spine, the elliptical hadas and aravah the mouth and eyes, respectively, and the esrog at the center of it all, as the heart. Another famous explanation has to do with the Sukkos theme of bringing together all of Am Yisrael, or the Jewish people -- each species represents a different stage of Jewish spiritual development. The willow, possessing neither fragrance nor taste, represents the Jew with neither learning nor mitzvos, or good deeds. The myrtle, with a beautiful smell but not fragrance, represents the Jew with learning but without good deeds. The lulav, with the sweet taste of dates, but with no fragrance at all, is the opposite, the Jew with good deeds but without any knowledge of Torah. Finally, the esrog is the shining example, with the sweet fragrance of citrus and the tart flavor to go along with it, a Jew both learned and committed to mitzvos, the crown jewel of Am Yisrael.
So what are they? Well, here are some of the basics:
Why esrogim? The list goes on and on, but let’s start from square one. Every year, Jews around the world celebrate the holiday of Sukkos, one of the three main holidays, or Shalosh Regalim, set out in the Torah. Each year, Jews build their Sukkah and eat, pray, and live in it for a week. The holiday commemorates the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert after their liberation from Egypt (which we celebrate on Pesach, or Passover) and before their entry into the land of Israel. There are dozens of customs and special foods eaten on the holiday; for a week, Jews change the way they live, the way they eat, even the way they pray -- that’s where the esrog comes in. The Torah commands us to gather four certain species of plants, as Sukkos is a harvest holiday as well. These four species are the lulav, or palm frond, the hadas, or myrtle branch, aravah, or willow, and, finally, the esrog, known in English as a “citron”.
Well, for one thing, why not? After all, Italy isn’t some exotic location to the Jews; in fact, there have been Jews in Italy for at least 2200 years! There have been Jews of great learning and accomplishment in Italy in nearly if not every century since, from the great Talmudist known as the RID, to the great Kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzato, or the Ramchal, who wrote in his famous books about the importance of the esrog to Jewish unity and illumination. The Alter Rebbe, a famous Jewish leader from the 18th and 19th centuries, held an unyielding determination to obtain an esrog from Calabria, a region in Italy, as the ideal place from which to get esrogim. After all, as the Rebbe pointed out, there is a story, or midrash, in the Talmud that tells how Moses himself sent for his own personal esrog from Italy! We figure if it’s good enough for Moshe Rabbeinu, it’s good enough for us!
OK, fine. So we need our esrogim! But why Italy?
When we pick and ship our esrogim we take utmost care to choose and preserve the finest fruits. It’s not just that we want to keep our esrogim pretty because we like pretty things -- we want to follow the spirit of the law, not just the letter, and uphold the Jewish dictum of hiddur mitzvah, literally “beautifying the commandment.” Each esrog is grown with a small protrusion, not unlike a tiny crown. But it’s not just for show -- the crown, known as the pitom, is required for the esrog to be kosher for use during Sukkos. It’s not just a fragile bonus, but a basic requirement of the mitzvah.
And those are the basics of what we do and why we do it! Of course, the questions don’t stop there, we know -- and neither do the answers. If you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at the Esrogim Center!Chag Sameach!