Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Choosing an Etrog Set Ain't Easy

By Susan Esther Barnes

Sukkot – the Jewish festival of the booths – doesn’t start until the evening of October 12, but already I’m seeing ads online for Etrog sets – the packages you can get with the four species required as part of the Sukkot holiday rituals.

The idea is, you get an etrog (a citrus fruit much like a lemon), a palm frond, a willow tree branch (with leaves) and a myrtle tree branch (with leaves). You hold them in your hands, wave them, and recite the appropriate blessings.

Presumably, if you live in Israel, the four necessary components would be pretty easy to get. It’s all stuff that naturally grows there (or did at one time – apparently when Israel was founded there weren’t a lot of etrog orchards left, but more have been planted since then).

There are some etrog orchards in the United States, but even if they could grow enough of the fruit to meet the demand of the entire North American Jewish market, many people prefer to support the State of Israel by buying their Etrog sets from there. Luckily for us in the diaspora, there are several websites to help us in this endeavor.

One might think that buying an Etrog set would be fairly straightforward, like buying many commodities online. Search a few websites that sell the item, check prices as well as shipping and handling charges, and buy from the one that offers the goods at the cheapest price without looking too dodgy.

A quick search, however, reveals prices anywhere from $35 to $129.99 (if you don’t count the cute but not kosher plushie set that sells for about $15). Yet the photos for all the sets on most sites, from the cheapest to the most expensive, is all the same photo. What’s up with that?

Well, you see, you could do the shaking of the four species using the cheapest kosher set available (you could even grow and pick your own for free), and you would be fulfilling the miztzvah (commandment).

But there’s this notion of “hiddur mitzvah,” which means “beautifying the commandment.” Rather than just doing the mitzvah, you can go the extra mile to do it in a more beautiful way, by having a more beautiful etrog, or a straighter palm frond, or more or fresher branches, etc.

So sure, you can get the basic set, but if you have extra cash to spend, you can trade up and pay 3 or 4 times as much, or more, to make it more beautiful. And I kind of understand that. Still, there is a part of me that can’t help but wonder, “How much did the ancient merchant’s guild have to pay to get that stuff added to the halacha (Jewish law) so they could make more money?”

I mean, really, who needs all this pressure to trade up for some fancier flora to wave around before it dies? Ok, so don’t insult God by using old, wilted, moldy branches and leaves, but all the components are God’s creations. It’s all good. Just buy the cheap set and, if you’re feeling guilty, donate the difference in cost to your local food bank. That would be a real hiddur mitzvah.


  1. Already you're looking for lulavs etc? I bow before your diligence. The closest I've come is thinking to myself "You know, if I don't join a shul by October how am I going to get one?" (In the small city where I lived until this month, everyone bought this stuff through their shuls). Then I get distracted thinking of something else and forget the whole thing.

  2. Thank you, but I'm afraid your bow is premature. I'm not buying, I'm just looking.