An etrog, or citron (Citrus medica), is an ancient type of citrus fruit that is a forerunner of many modern citrus cultivars. Etrogim, also known as Esrog, is grown in Israel primarily for use during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Citrons are also cultivated in Italy (where they are a traditional addition to Easter table decor), Greece, Morocco, Yemen, China, and Japan. There's even one commercial grower of kosher etrogim in California—John Kirkpatrick of Lindcove Ranch—who has dedicated a part of his citrus farm to the fruit. Citrons have a very thick rind and little pulp. Their skins are usually yellow, though some varieties are green. The skins are usually ribbed and bumpy, but appearance varies by variety as well. The etrog is similar to a (very large) lemon in appearance, color, scent, and flavor. Unlike a lemon, however, the fruit has a special role in Jewish ritual.
Etrogim and the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot
The etrog is one of the Four Species used in a waving ritual during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The other species are the lulav (date palm frond), Hadas (myrtle bough), and aravah (willow branch). The etrog is held with the rest of the Four Species before and during the Hallel and Hoshana prayers.
According to halacha (Jewish law), the etrog used in the mitzvah of the Four Species must have a perfect shape and must not have any blemishes on its surface. The etrog has a green stem at one end. And it may have an extension, called a pitom, at the other end. The pitom is the remnant of the part of the flower that received pollen during fertilization. An etrog that sheds its pitom during the growing process is kosher. But an etrog with a pitom that breaks off during the holiday is considered damaged and no longer kosher for performing the mitzvah of the Four Species.
Other Etrog Uses, and the Controversy Over Safe Consumption
The etrog is mostly rind, with very little pulp or juice. In ancient times and the Middle Ages, the etrog was used to remedy seasickness, intestinal ailments, and pulmonary troubles. The fruit has also long been considered a for fertility and easy childbirth; pregnant or laboring women would bite off the pitom after Sukkot, or eat jam made from the rind. Some collect etrogim after the holiday and use the peels to make jam, candy, baked goods, or liqueurs.
In recent years, however, some have questioned the wisdom of consuming etrogim over worries about heavy pesticide use on fruits meant for ritual purposes. Israeli etrogim have raised particular concern, as the fruits are difficult to grow, etrog farmers typically have only a short pre-holiday window to profit from the fruits of their labor, and the most prized etrogim are those that appear perfect.