There are many interpretations of what the lulav and etrog represent as symbols of Sukkot. Many say the binding of palm, myrtle and willow — the lulav — and the etrog have a masculine-feminine symbolism, that each of the four species is an allusion to God, or that they represent different parts of the human body.
Just as plentiful as these symbolic interpretations are the practical ways to obtain these four distinct species that come from all over the world, most notably the etrogim that frequently come from Israel.
For many in the Baltimore Jewish community, ordering them through one’s shul is a tried and true approach.
“We’ve been utilizing a variety of different online services over the years. It’s been something that works quite well, though it’s not without its difficulties,” said Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland.
Axler added that on several occasions shipments of etrogim contained fruit that’s pitom had fallen off, rendering the citron non-kosher, although replacements with the pitom intact were shipped to the synagogue in a timely manner.
For most of his life, Axler and his family ordered lulav and etrog from whichever synagogue they were associated with at the time, although he has a fond memory of once picking out his own lulav and etrog rather than having it sent to him.
“I remember one time going to one of the Jewish bookstores in Philadelphia and getting to choose out my lulav and etrog from the store,” he said. “Those stores are harder and harder to find today, in part because of the internet, I think.”
Axler expressed interest in finding these kinds of marketplaces, but says the hustle and bustle of being a rabbi during the High Holidays doesn’t always leave him time to trek to different city centers.
“I think if I were closer into the Baltimore area and able to go and select lulav and etrog and different pieces from a larger display, that would be a lovely thing to do,” he said. “But this time of year, the close dates between Yom Kippur and Sukkot itself, it’s been more convenient to do this through online vendors.”
A popular place for community members to pick their four-species pieces is the annual Sukkos Sale at Congregation Shomrei Emunah. Congregant Josh Zaslow, who until recently was the youth department director at the synagogue, says the sale is the primary fundraiser for the shul’s youth programs throughout the year.
Although this is the first year Zaslow is not the shul’s youth department director, he is still organizing the Sukkos Sale, where he expects they will sell somewhere around 600 sets of arba’ah minim (the four species). The success of the sale, he believes, has much to do with the beautiful displays.
“When you go to a lot of places, it’s kind of cramped into tight corners. But we have a bunch of tables and it’s in a large and spacious place. We can help you find the perfect esrog,” said Zaslow. “I always say the esrog chooses the person, not that the person chooses the esrog.”
For Zaslow, selling arba’ah minim has a personal connection. His father, Darrell, who passed away a year and a half ago, grew etrogim out of a greenhouse in his family’s backyard in Cheswolde. His father would put out etrog trees around the property and give presentations about the citron at schools and shuls.
“My father had a real green thumb. They were his second love, almost. He had a real affinity for them,” said Zaslow. “Sukkos was his favorite holiday because he would take his trees out of the greenhouse and put them on Strathmore Avenue, it’s a major throughway with people walking to synagogue on Sukkos, and give them tours.”
If one isn’t so fortunate to know a person who grows etrogim locally, Israel is a common source for the citron.
Binyomin Ansbacher has been a manager at Shasbi’s Judaica Center on Reisterstown Road for nearly five years. As Shasbi’s is one of the region’s largest etrogim suppliers during the High Holidays, Ansbacher has seen his share of the citron, and knows all about their journey to the United States.
“They come from different orchards and different fields in Israel. They are typically shipped by cargo after being harvested, usually starting in early to mid-August,” he said.
Ansbacher says there are typically 50 carefully and individually packaged etrogim per case, and they are almost always shipped to New York City, where members from Shasbi’s pick them up and bring them to Maryland. He estimates they’ll bring back several thousand this year.
“We save the customer a trip by bringing them back to Baltimore. But we also sell to Silver Spring, various shuls and synagogues. We provide them with the merchandise for them to sell to their congregants,” he said.
Ansbacher said the etrogim growers in Israel take specific care to make sure that they are not blemished, not just a cosmetic concern as certain deformities can render the etrog non-kosher.
“If there is a branch that is protruding, that can harm the fruit,” he said. “If a leaf touches the fruit and leaves a mark on it that is permissible, that is part of the natural growth process, but people would prefer not to see that in the top third of an etrog.”
Shasbi’s sorts its shipments of etrogim by cleanliness, appearance, shape and color. These characteristics ultimately impact the price.
While the lulavim sold at Shasbi’s don’t come from quite as far away — Ansbacher says most of them arrive from California — the same scrutiny is shown for the lulav leaf.
“What makes a lulav kosher is when the very tip is completely closed and not open even a fraction of an inch,” he said. “There are people who will take a magnifying glass to the tip of the lulav to make sure it is not open even a fraction.”
While many may be content with a homely, albeit kosher citron at a more affordable price, Axler passes no judgment on those who want to go the extra mile when buying their etrog.
“There’s always some kind of article that appears in the Jewish press around this time of year about someone selling thousand-dollar, perfect etrogim off the back of a van in New York City,” said Axler. “I always kind of laugh at those articles, but to me it’s important to have a beautiful lulav and etrog as a part of the holiday. Rabbis aren’t supposed to have favorite holidays, but Sukkot is definitely mine.”