Although it is not one of the seven typical plants or fruits of Israel mentioned in the Tora (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates), the etrog is a native fruit of the land of Israel. This fact has already been suggested by Maimonides in his “Guide for the Perplexed” where he explained that the Tora instructed us to use these four specific plants, which were very common and easily obtainable in the land of Israel.
The etrog was such a predominant Jewish symbol, that it could be found in many mosaics and coins of ancient Israel. For example, in the coins of the year 66 CE, prior the destruction of our Second Temple, and especially in coins minted in the years of the revolt of Bar Kokhba, 130- 135 of the Common Era.
At that time, supported by Rabbi Aqiba, Bar Kokhba led an army that tried to rebel against the Roman empire and rebuild an independent Jewish state, but the rebellion failed.
The use of etrogim in the coins of the Bar Kokhba rebellion is even more touching when we remember the great discovery of the Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin, who found a perfectly preserved letter in the caves of the Yehuda Desert, written by Bar Kokhba himself, in which he describes the difficulties of his troops with some special supplies.
This is the text of the letter.
“Shimon [bar Kokhba] to Yehudah: …. I’m sending two donkeys and two men. I sent them to Yehonatan bar Masabla … you must ask them to carry donkeys and bring them back loaded with palm branches [lulabim] and etrogim. And also send other [men] to bring to our camp branches of myrtle [hadasim] and willow branches [‘arabot]. Make sure tithing (ma’aser) is already separated. Send all to my camp. Our army is very large. Shalom. “.
This is the original letter of Bar Kokhba in ancient Hebrew
The commander of the Jewish army (the last Jewish army before the current Israeli army, or IDF) is concerned and takes care personally that all his soldiers have the four plants, to celebrate this important precept in Sukkot.
But while originally from Israel, the etrog is also found on the coast of the Mediterranean. There are some places that are famous for the extraordinary quality of their etrogim, as Calabria (Italy), the island of Corsica (France) or the island of Corfu (Greece). One can find etrogim also in Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, etc.
But, how did the etrog come to those parts of the world?
The most accepted hypothesis today is that the etrog was brought from Israel to other areas of the Mediterranean with the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world, with a unique and very specific mission: to be used during the holiday of Sukkot.
Why researchers believe that?
Because unlike the lemon or other citric fruits, the etrog tree is relatively fragile, very sensitive to diseases that can affect its root, and lives for relatively few years (12-15, unlike the lemon that can live 25 to 30 years). In addition, the etrog demands much more water than other citric trees; and the fruit has almost no pulp. For which other reason, then, etrogim would have been planted in orchards along the Mediterranean Sea?
For a long time, etrogim were not grown in the land of Israel, and these “foreign” etrogim supplanted the etrogim from Israel. It was only in mid-19th century, on the initiative of Sir Moses Montefiore z”l, that etrogim were again grown in Israel
Many Jews in the diaspora use etrogim from Morocco, Italy, Yemen, etc. But it is good to remember that those etrogim as well have “Jewish” roots…