Of the four species of plants that we have a mitzvah to take together on the holiday of Sukkot—the lulav (palm frond), etrog (citron), hadas (myrtle) and aravah (willow)—the etrog stands out. It is the most beautiful of the four, and—let’s face it—the most expensive.

Citron trees are small and delicate, and they only grow in warm climates. Although one can get a kosher etrog from a number of different countries, some are particular to get their etrog from specific regions. Many, including Chabad, prefer “Calabria etrogim,”grown on the southern Italian coast in the region of Calabria. They can also be referred to as “Yanover etrogim” since “Yanova” is Yiddish for Genoa, the port city in northern Italy whence these etrogim would be shipped to other parts of Europe.

Why are these etrogim so prized?

Grafting

The coastal city of Scalea, center left, near the arch of the boot of Italy. (Google Maps)
The coastal city of Scalea, center left, near the arch of the boot of Italy. (Google Maps)

According to Jewish law, a “kosher” etrog to be used for the mitzvah cannot have grown on an etrog branch that has been grafted onto another species. Since the citron tree is a very delicate and weak tree, it is often grafted with the rootstock of another citrus tree, thus enabling it to survive a tougher environment. The produce of this grafting is genetically indistinguishable from bona fide non-grafted etrogim. As nice as these fruits may appear, they are unfortunately not fit to be used for the mitzvah on Sukkot.1

For this reason, we only use etrogim that come from trees that have an established pedigree. In fact, Rabbi Moses Sofer was of the opinion that an etrog is similar to a kosher bird in the sense that we only use one that has a strong tradition of being a kosher species.2

Since for over 1,000 years, our ancestors used Calabria etrogim, as there was a tradition that these etrogim were not grafted, we use them as well.3

(However, after World War II, some Calabrese farmers started grafting their trees. As a precaution, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instructed that the etrog orchards be supervised so that no grafting take place, and, additionally, that there be at least two supervisors on hand at all times during harvest, ensuring that the etrogim being picked and shipped were only from these ungrafted trees.)

Moses’ Etrog

How far back does this tradition go?

Many write of a tradition going back to the days of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040–1105), and the Baalei Tosafot, who specifically used Calabria etrogim. 4

But this tradition can be traced even further back. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught that when G‑d told Moses that the Jews should take an etrog on Sukkot, they were in the desert, where no etrogim grew. So Moses sent messengers via the Clouds of Glory5 to gather Calabria etrogim.6

“Fat of the Earth”

When blessing his son Esau, Isaac promised that his “dwelling place shall be the fat places of the earth and of the dew of the heaven from above.”7 The Midrash explains that “the fat places of the earth” is a reference to “the part of Italy belonging to Greece”— the south of Italy, which is called Magna Graecia.8

We try to use the most attractive and highest quality items when bringing an offering or doing a mitzvah, as the verse states, “All the superior quality [lit. fat] should be given to the L‑rd.”9 Thus, we want our etrogim to come from “the fat of the earth.”

Replanting Calabria Etrogim in Israel

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—chooses a Calabria etrog on the eve of Sukkot (Oct. 3, 1990). Since the founding of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Chabad rebbes have done all they could to obtain etrogs from Calabria for the holiday. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—chooses a Calabria etrog on the eve of Sukkot (Oct. 3, 1990). Since the founding of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Chabad rebbes have done all they could to obtain etrogs from Calabria for the holiday. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked about taking Calabria citron seeds and planting them in Israel, he was very encouraging of the idea. He explained that although there are still strong reasons to use etrogim that actually grew in Calabria, this would at least mitigate the issue of only using etrogim that have a tradition of not being grafted, since the Israeli farms would be under constant Jewish supervision and care.10