Somebody, please find me an organic etrog

Rabbi Natan Levy argues the case for an ecologically sound Succot


September 21, 2010
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Shaking for Succot with lulav and etrog

Shaking for Succot with lulav and etrog

"It's concentrated poison." That was the bitter assessment on my proffered home-made etrog jam. Not because it tasted so bad, but because this particular guest was an avowed "greenie". As he put it, eating a batch of post-Succot etrog jam was equivalent to dipping one's liver in a barrel of weed-killer.

An etrog grower in Israel told me that with all the insecticides and herbicides he sprayed on his trees, he would have to be meshuggeh to eat the etrogs he cultivated. Another grower in Morocco assured me that an etrog was technically classified as a fruit, and beholden to the government-imposed parameters on pesticide use. Then, he confided in a quiet voice, because a single thrip (a small scaly insect that causes decolourisation on the peel) could lower the etrog's selling price by £10-15, he sprayed his etrogim more intensively than his other crops.

All this because the Torah demands a pri etz hadar (Leviticus 23:40), a beautiful fruit. An unblemished etrog can set you back by £40-70, while one with a few thrip-sucked white marks around the crown is off-loaded to the pre-barmitzvah kids for practice shakes. The more beautiful our etrog fruit, chances are the more pesticides it contains. I once asked for an organic etrog in Golders Green. You would have thought from the shocked look of the owner that I had asked for an etrog bundled in bacon.

This may not have been what the Torah had in mind. Beauty in fruit, according to the sages of the Talmud, does not rest solely on externalities. "What is the beautiful fruit tree? A tree where the trunk and fruit are of one taste" (Talmud Succah 35a). A strange definition, indeed! As anyone who has ever bitten into a raw etrog can attest, the etrog which is mostly pith does taste awfully like tree-bark, but this hardly seems to classify the etrog as "beautiful".

In order to understand the Talmud, we must return to Genesis, specifically to day three when God created the trees. "God said: Let the earth...be seeded with seeds of fruit trees making fruit" (Genesis 1:11). But "the earth brought forth…trees making fruit" (1:12). Rashi comments on a discrepancy here: "God asked literally for fruit trees, where the taste of the tree would be equal to the fruit. But instead the ground brings up trees making fruit, where the fruit alone can be eaten."

Perhaps the world is not yet ready for fruit that reminds one of its tree of origin. In Hebrew, to taste also means to discern and understand. If the means of production were so transparent, that in eating the produce- the fruit- we would be able to "taste" exactly where that product had come from, and everything it had undergone to reach us, would we ever be able to consume again? If, every time I bit into a juicy burger, I could "taste" the urine and blood soaked killing-floor of the abattoir, would I eat another burger? There is a danger in linking trees and fruit, produce and the means of production. The danger of too much guilt in the marketplace.

Yet, there is one tree, planted in the centre of Eden where the link between tree and fruit remains intact. According to the Midrash, "only the Tree of Knowledge contains the same taste in the tree as in the fruit". Adam is commanded not to take from that tree - not to take away the connection between food and the story of its origins. Knowing what we eat is important, knowing where it comes from is Gan Eden. Alas, we fail. Adam cuts the fruit from the tree, severing the last bond between the process and the product. To this day, I have no idea, nor could I easily find out, who picked the cocoa beans in my candy bar, and from which tree in which jungle it grew.

On Succot, we take the etrog - fruit and tree again linked in taste - and shake ourselves back into the Garden.

Is there not cruel irony, then, in the fact that the beautiful etrog, the fruit chosen to mend the severed link from tree to fruit, is so deeply laced in pesticides, that only a meshuggenah would eat it? Irony, in the fact that we devote hours examining every inch of our etrogs, yet never ask about the pesticides absorbed right under the skin? Have we become so focused on the external signs of beauty that we have forgotten that, in Judaism, beauty and responsibility, food appearance and food ethics, are one and the same? Organic etrogs, anyone?

Natan Levy is rabbi of Shenley United Synagogue

    Last updated: 11:50am, September 21 2010