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The Case of the Missing Etrog

The Case of the Missing Etrog

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It was the second day of Sukkot and my husband came home and cheerfully informed me that his lulav and etrog were nowhere to be found. He had given his set to a yeshiva student who was making rounds to hospitals and nursing homes, to give patients the opportunity to fulfill this important mitzvah. The young man, in turn, had passed in on to someone else who promised that he would personally return it. The chain broke down at that point but it was clear that someone had my husband's set of Four Species, and it was not him.

Unfortunately, I was unable to digest this news with the same equanimity that my husband displayed. A lulav-and-etrog set is not cheap--somewhere between $100 and $200 for a nicely grown, plump, unblemished citron and a firm, straight-backed lulav branch. This is on top of all the additional holiday expenses--new clothing and shoes for all the children, festive meals nearly every night.

Before I reacted, though, I recalled a story that I heard in childhood, of a poor rabbi who sold an heirloom set of tefillin, his only valuable possession, in order to afford a beautiful etrog. His wife was so incensed at what he had done that she grabbed the etrog and bit off its tip, rendering it unfit for a blessing.

My sympathies at that moment were completely with the rebbetzin, and I probably would have done worse things to the etrog, had it been in my possession. But our precious set of Four Species was currently in the hands of a well-meaning yeshiva student, who at the moment was trudging around Brooklyn to find Jews who had not managed to acquire their own set. This image calmed me down somewhat, at least enough to ask through clenched teeth: "And if you must lend out your lulav and etrog, why can't you at least buy a cheap set just for lending?"

"And why," my husband inquired patiently, "should a Jew in the street make a blessing over a lulav and etrog less beautiful than the one I choose for myself?"

I found it difficult to argue with his logic. People who spend over $100 on a set of fruit and branches will fall for a mystical argument anytime.

I reminded myself of another childhood story, of a different rabbi (or maybe it was the same one?) who set out with the precious rubles he had hoarded all year, to purchase a truly outstanding set of Four Species. Along the way, he passed a poor coachman whose horse had just keeled over and died. The poor man was now left without any means of support. Without hesitation, the rabbi handed over the entire sum to the coachman to purchase a new horse. After all, he reasoned, blessing the Four Species is a mitzvah, and charity is a mitzvah, too. When everyone else in the synagogue blesses the Four Species, he will say his blessing over a horse.

Applying the rabbi's logic to my own situation, on the cosmic mitzvah scale there really is no difference if my husband makes a blessing over his set, or if that same set is used by hundreds of other Jews on the streets of Brooklyn. Mitzvah = mitzvah, right? Especially since the mitzvah is compounded many times over, by all the people using it.

I remembered one year when my husband's etrog had been returned to him covered with brown splotches, testimony to the dozens of hands that had gripped it. I had looked distastefully at the bruised etrog, thinking of the many hours he had spent browsing the etrog market, trying to find the most perfect, unblemished fruit. But my husband had seen it differently: "All the hand-marks make the etrog more beautiful."

Putting the missing-etrog saga into perspective, I couldn't be too angry. As the rabbi in the story had remarked to his etrog-chomping wife, family harmony is also a mitzvah, and if G‑d had seen fit to deprive them of one mitzvah there was no reason not to have the other. The rabbi kept his peace, and so did I. My husband mentally relinquished all claim to his lulav and etrog, and gifted it with a full heart to the student who had borrowed it.

We made do with borrowed etrogim for the duration of the holiday, as my husband's set never was returned. I still wish he had found a more reliable agent, but mess-ups do happen. As we say in Yiddish, zol es zain a kapparah--"let it be an atonement," and let our forgiving attitude in this instance stand us in good stead the next time we inadvertently lose or damage someone else's property.

I am writing this story nearly a year later. Looking back, I have to say that G‑d amply repaid us for the cost of the missing etrog. In fact, we were able to set aside enough money to easily meet all of this year's holiday expenses, including the most beautiful lulav and etrog that we can find.

Chaya Shuchat is the author of A Diamond a Day, an adaptation of the chassidic classic Hayom Yom for children, as well as many articles on the interface between Chassidism and contemporary life. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a master’s degree in nursing from Columbia University.
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Robert Berkovits Eastport Maryland September 18, 2013

Meanigful Mitzvah This story has in depth meaning which eclipses materialism as hinted at in the Rabbi Uri tale. That tale smelled of Red Heifer droppings. Reply

yehudis October 28, 2005

Learning the Lessons A really nice article! I like the way you applied the stories we know to your situation. Sometimes stories remain in books. We read them and say, "great story." But you took the lessons to heart! Reply

Anonymous Phoenix, AZ via chabadaz.com October 20, 2005

Great Very nice story! Gut Yom Tov! Reply

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