The Citron (Etrog) and its anatomy.

I just attended a fascinating lecture by fruit expert David Karp on the history of the citron (Citrus medica) or etrog in Aramaic. I’ve only encountered citron in a candied form buried deep within a fruit cake. I’ve also seen the bizarre Buddha’s Hand, another kind of citron popular in Asia as both food and medicine. What I did not know is the significance of citron in Jewish history. Citron is used in the rituals of the harvest festival of Sukkot. According to Karp, a tree mentioned in a passage in the Torah, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of goodly trees.” was, at some point, interpreted as citron.

For orthodox Jews the citron must be perfect. Teams of rabbis equipped with magnifying glasses and jeweler’s loupes carefully inspect each fruit, with prized specimens going for several hundred dollars.  Karp said this has had unintended consequences. It’s virtually impossible to grow perfect citron without pesticides. Workers in citron growing areas have increased rates of cancer. And it’s forbidden under Jewish law to use the fruit of a grafted citron tree, or even a tree descended from a grafted tree, making growing healthy specimens even more difficult.

I have to say that after taste-testing citron products in the courtyard after the lecture I was not at all tempted to snag one of the trees that Karp gave away. And the intricacies of Jewish law make growing citron for ritual use an arduous and expensive proposition–sadly, citron will not be a road to riches for us, even in our perfect growing climate here in Los Angeles. We’ll stick with our quince and apricot trees which, incidentally, along with citron are contenders for the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden (most apples don’t grow in Mediterranean climates). 

For more on the history of citron see, “The Secret Life of Etrogs” in the Jewish Journal.

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  1. I have never been tempted by citron after my first encounter with it in said fruitcake, but I wonder if it were dealt with at home like candied orange peel if it would be better, and maybe even palatable.

    Sadly, I don’t want to know badly enough to try it….

  2. Banana is also a candidate for “forbidden fruit”. Not the supermarket version, but a smaller, probably sweeter and seedier heirloom variety. So what do you all make with your quinces? My tree is going to give me fruit for the first time this year, but the only thing I know about quince is to not eat it raw.

  3. Jessica: Our quince tree is a baby, too, so we don’t know what we’re going to do with the fruit yet. This year we might get all of two fruits. We hear quince jam is quite nice, and there’s that fancy quince paste that gets served up with cheese–that’s about all we know!

  4. I have to say, I watched a movie called Ushpizin which featured, almost as a cast member, a seductively perfect Citron, for Sukkot I think.
    It kind of symbolized wealth, something like an episode of Cribs, when he was given some money in a tide turning moment, and was able to buy what was deemed the sex-citron.

    I have included a link for you to watch the entire thing in Hebrew!

  5. The fruit “forbidden fruit” was likely not a real fruit, but rather a forbidden action. It was probably a sexual sin, such as polyandry, since after commiting it, the participants realized why it was bad to be naked, and they quickly covered up.

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