A primary part of the celebration of the Sukkot holiday is the practice of holding and shaking the lulav and etrog. The lulav consists of three parts–branches from the palm tree, the willow, and the myrtle. The etrog is a citrus fruit similar in appearance to a lemon. The etrog, also known as the citron, was first cultivated in the Far East, possibly making its way to the Mediterranean region around 300 BCE via the armies of Alexander the Great. What controversy about etrogim (plural for etrog) became known as the Etrog Wars?
A. The “war” was between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in ancient Israel, during the time of the 2nd Temple. The only mention of the etrog in the Torah is in Leviticus 23:40, which references pri etz hadar or “the fruit of a beautiful tree.” The Pharisees used the citron during their ceremonies, while the Sadducees used the pomegranate. Members of the two communities almost came to blows during the celebration of Sukkot at the Temple, with each vying for the primacy of their fruit as the most beautiful. Ultimately, however, the approach of the Pharisees won out as the Sadducees community disappeared following the destruction of the Temple.
B. The “war” was between Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardic Jews in the 1800’s, with a dispute regarding the status of an etrog without a pitom, the tip of the etrog. Ashkenazic Jews did not require that the pitom be in place, perhaps because they generally had to bring in etrogim from Mediterranean regions, so the pitom was more likely to have broken off during shipping. Sephardic Jews, who lived where etrogim were grown, did not have this problem, and considered the etrog to be unkosher for ceremonial use if the pitom was not in place. Over time the Ashkenazic community adopted the Sephardic practice, with the great Ashkenazic Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ultimately ruling in this way in 1919 when he became Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, saying “The future, my brother, is with the pitom. Only with the pitom can we bless the lulav and etrog and live in harmony with our brothers from the Levant.”
C. The “war” was between etrog growers in Corfu, Greece and growers in Palestine, during the 19th century. Jews in Eastern Europe, where conditions did not allow for growing etrogim, were purchasing from Corfu as those etrogim were considered the most beautiful in the world. But Jewish growers in Palestine claimed that the Corfu etrogim were not kosher, as they came from etrog trees grafted onto lemon trees (a process that produced hardier trees). The dispute continued into the 20th century, with the esteemed Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook weighing in against Corfu etrogim, saying “The future, my brother, is with the kosher etrog, with the power of kashrut, and only with the kosher etrog will we win the battle of those who are against us, the Corfu mamzer [etrogim].”
D. The “war” was between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. They were debating the proper holding of the lulav and etrog. Hillel stated that because the lulav consisted of three items, it reflected three mitzvot, rather than the single mitzvah of the etrog. Therefore, the lulav should be held in the right hand, which was considered to be the more important hand. Shammai, who was left handed, stated that the lulav should be held in whichever hand was the dominant hand of the person, arguing that the more important hand was not always the right hand, but rather the individual’s dominant hand. As with most disputes between Hillel and Shammai, the predominate practice today is to hold the lulav in the right hand, per Hillel’s argument.
E. The “war” was between the Chabad community in Paris and a French car manufacturer. Prior to Sukkot, Jews everywhere, and in particular, Chassidic Jews, devote hours to shopping for the most beautiful etrog. Every year since 1983, Chabad of Paris has opened an etrog store in the weeks prior to Sukkot, where thousands of Jews come to make their holiday purchase. The store goes by its French name, Le Magasin Citroën, the citron store. In 1987, the auto manufacturer Citroën filed a lawsuit claiming that the store name violated their trademark. For the trial, Chabad purchased a Citroën car, painted it to look like an etrog, and parked it outside the courthouse, inviting passers-by to shake a lulav and etrog. The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Chabad, and Le Magasin Citroën has since then opened every year at Sukkot with an etrog-painted Citroën parked in front.