Chapter 17


I believe the first time that I knew of the existence of the Chinese etrog was around 1994 when I read the book by Rabbi Yecheskel Leitner on the Mirrer Yeshiva during the Second World War. A sizeable section of this book is devoted to the Yeshiva’s five years in Shanghai. There is whole chapter on the question of their locating etrogim in China and how an expedition of two Jewish refugees with a Chinese guide resulted in them returning to Shanghai with the Chinese etrog, an etrog which had a number of fingers protruding from it. There were three differences of opinion on its possible permissibility for the mitzvah but Rabbi Leitner did not elaborate on the sources for these differences of opinion.

I, therefore at that time, entered into correspondence with Rabbi Leitner on this question. I then had no idea where I could locate him and so I sent my first letter to the publisher of his book with a request to forward it, which they duly did. In his subsequent replies to me, he quoted some purely general reference from the Shulchan Aruch and its various commentaries. He wrote nothing specifically on the discussions of the Mirrer Yeshiva on the question of the Chinese etrog, adding he didn’t think that any “additional material was published then on it nor deposited in the various libraries of the Mirrer Yeshivah.”

I would often ask people whether there was any archival material in the Mirrer Yeshiva from the period Shanghai but never received a positive answer. One of the people who at been amongst the Mirrer group in Shanghai, although only as a boy, lived for a time in Kiryat Arba. I asked him about this etrog and he told me that he didn’t even know that there had even been a discussion on this etrog.

Over fifteen years ago, an excellent book with numerous colour photographs to illustrate the laws of the Arba’at Haminim was published. Included was a photograph of an etrog which the author stated was the etrog with fingers. Now that I have studied many photographs of this Chinese etrog, I am sure that the photograph in this book is not of this etrog. However this book does give the source for a responsum on this subject. Using the Bar-Ilan Responsa Project, I was able to print out this responsum.

However for a number of years I did no further research on this etrog and only during the second half of the year 2008 did I decide to continue to research this subject.

I should first mention that about fifteen years ago I wrote a high school pupil’s workbook on the identification of the Arba’at Haminim, which of course included the etrog. In it I included simple botanical facts on the classification of flora, which included the citrus fruits. A few years later I brought out a workbook, for younger pupils on the laws of Sukkot - mainly on the Sukkah and the Arba’at Haminim - this time with many drawings, and it also included some botanical facts on the etrog, but in even simpler language than my earlier workbook, and I also wrote briefly about this Chinese etrog. I thus began my research in 2008 with at least a little knowledge of the botanical facts regarding the etrog in general, and in particular of the Chinese etrog.

Today, the starting point for much research is the Internet. One of the first things I found on it was a photograph of this etrog followed by a long paragraph in a foreign language – I didn’t even recognise the language - and therefore could have no idea whether it was even relevant to my research! I downloaded this foreign language paragraph and put it on Wikipedia Reference Desk – Language section, asking if a user could translate it into English. One user replied that the language was Hungarian but he was unable to translate it.

I continued searching on the Internet for material on this etrog and found a large number of photographs of it and also much material on its botanical properties, its uses, its commercial aspects and so on. Normally, to conserve ink on my printer, I print out material on “fast draft” and “black print cartridge only”. However in this case, since it was important for me to have fairly good colour photographs of this etrog, I printed out these photographs on the “normal” setting and in colour.

I also found on the Internet entire chapters from a botanical scholarly book on citrus fruits which I downloaded.

To do effective research, one requires a comprehensive bibliography. A librarian at the Kiryat Arba Municipal Library had just been informed from an organisation located at a kibbutz in the Galilee that they would prepare a bibliography free of charge on any subject. This librarian submitted my request for material on the “Chinese etrog” and soon after received a shortish list of such bibliography. One of the items was in a journal located at the University Library on Mount Scopus and on an occasion when I was there, I photocopied it. It dealt with a historical study of the acceptance and non-acceptance of different subspecies of various etrogim, but the Chinese etrog was not mentioned in this paper,

I considered it important to study the history of the Jewish community in China throughout the ages to see whether or not they used this Chinese etrog. From the Internet I downloaded a long list of books, learned papers and newspaper articles on the history of the Jews of China which were in English or Hebrew. I then carefully went through this list marking the items I considered could possibly be relevant. From the Jewish National Library catalogue appearing on the Internet, I could see that most of them were available there. I noted down their “call numbers” in order to save time when I visited that library.

I began by studying those dealing with the Jews of Kaifeng who had a history spanning over at least seven hundred years. My particular interest was how they observed the Festival of Sukkot and in particular I searched for any mention of the mitzvah of the Arba’at Haminim. I began by studying contemporary books and papers which had been written on the history of the Jews of China and then tried to go back to the original sources.

Amongst these sources are various letters and other notes written by the Jesuit Missionary Father Jean Domenge. These have been translated and reproduced in a book by Dehergne and Leslie which gives them both in English and in French. In describing the Synagogue, Domenge notes that there was a place in the Synagogue courtyard where they built the Sukkah. In one of his letters he writes that he was there during Sukkot of 1722. A Chinese professor at a Chinese University, whose specialty is the history of the Jews of China, wrote that Domenge wrote that he saw a Sukkah hut there in 1722. Although this is very likely, I could not find such a statement in the writings of Domenge. I therefore sent an e-mail to this professor asking him for “a primary reference for his [Domenge] seeing the sukkah hut.” but I never received a reply.

In the mid-19th century, missionaries succeeded in buying the various manuscripts including those containing the prayers recited throughout the year by the Jews of Kaifeng. Almost all these manuscripts finally ended up at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Microfilms of them have been made and these can be found at the microfilm department of the Jewish National Library. A list of these manuscripts giving details of the occasions during the year when these prayers are recited can be found in newspapers, books and learned articles on the Jews of China. About five or six of these manuscripts are listed as including prayers for Sukkot

I went to this microfilm department and with the help of their staff managed to locate these particular microfilms. In fact, each of them is a very short microfilm and I am rather surprised they did not put them together on one long roll. I studied these microfilms and found that in fact only two of them were relevant to prayers said on Sukkot. One of them included the entire Hallel but no reference to Arba’at Haminim. The other one which included a list of prayers recited on Sukkot included the word “lulav” but nothing more! I should mention that as far as Sukkot is concerned, these manuscripts have only fragments of the prayers for that Festival. Unfortunately there is no complete machzor for the Sukkot services extant.

Although the Jewish community of Kaifeng virtually came to an end by the middle of the 19th century, this was by no means the end of the Jews in China. It was at that period that Jews arrived first from Baghdad and at a later date from Eastern Europe, and they established a Jewish community in Shanghai. During the Second World War, the entire Mirrer Yehiva and others fleeing from Hitler, arrived in Shanghai. Although there are many books on the Jews of Shanghai, there is very little written (with the exception in a book on the Mirrer Yeshiva) on what they did to keep the mitzvah of the Arba’at Haminim.

There have also been some brief mentions in various newspaper and magazine articles on this subject. One of them is in the newspaper “The Scribe” which is published by the Exilarch’s Foundation in London. This newspaper had been scanned onto the Internet and can be downloaded. Another journal is “Nehardea” which is published in English in Israel by the “Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center.” The text can be found on the Internet and the actual journal is at the Jewish National Library. A further paper mentioning the Arba’at Haminim in Shanghai is “The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.” The text of this article can be found on the Internet. However the Jewish National Library only receives odd copies of this paper and, of course, the edition I wanted was not one of them, and so I had to make do with just the text from the Internet.

In the course of my research I found a paper by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky on traditions for various etrogim. I had come across Rabbi Zivotofsky’s name before in connection with traditions for the kashrut of various species of living creatures. Rabbi Zivotofsky together with Dr. Ari Greenspan have spent over twenty years interviewing old retired shochtim from North Africa and Yemen asking them whether they slaughtered this or that bird. They would periodically organise a day’s lectures on unusual subjects connected with kashrut. This would be followed by a dinner in which these exotic species of animals and birds would form the menu. When this dinner was held in Israel, the last course was kosher locusts. However when then held it in New York under the supervision of the OU, they were not permitted to serve locusts and had to make do with just chocolate locusts!

I sent an e-mail to Rabbi Zivotofsky asking him what material there is on the Chinese etrog. He replied by informing me of a short article in the journal “Techumin” which had appeared a few years earlier. Actually I had already found this paper in Techumin some weeks earlier.

In the course of my paper, I discussed, using the Shulchan Aruch and the various books which have recently been published on the Arba’at Haminim, the various laws concerning the etrog and how these laws related to the Chinese etrog. One of the points was that, in general, etrogim have seeds, but the Chinese etrogim does not. This problem had previously been raised in connection with the Moroccan etrog and a long book had been written (which can be downloaded from the Internet) to prove that this lack of seeds was not important. This book included letters in English from Professors of Horticulture to explain horticulturally why sometimes an etrog is seedless. I quoted from one of these letters and argued that the same explanation could be given for the Chinese etrog.

About a hundred years after the Rambam, there lived a Rabbi Tanchum Hayerushalmi who wrote a type of dictionary in Judaeo-Arabic on the words used by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah. In it he explains the word “t’yom” used by the Rambam as this Chinese etrog. Would the Rambam who spent his life in the Middle East have seen such an etrog? About 55 years ago, I was awarded a book entitled “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,” as a prize, for the “Best Essay” on the subject of Chanukah. Amongst the many hundreds of items in this book was one how someone had seen in the Rambam’s house an edible plant which looked like a human hand. This incident had been taken from the “Maasseh-Buch”. I found the German edition of this book, originally published about three hundred years ago, in the Scholem collection at the Jewish National Library and also an English translation, also at that Library. I suggested in my paper that possibly this plant in the Rambam’s house which looked like a human hand was a Chinese etrog.

An interesting point which I found from the botanical books and articles was the Latin name for this Chinese etrog. Some authors referred to it as Citrus medica var sarcodactylus whilst others referred to it as Citrus medica var sarcodactylis. This point intrigued me and I submitted a question on it to Wikipedia reference Desk –Science I received the answer “They appear to be used interchangeably in the scientific literature, though a perusal of Google Scholar seems to suggest that Chinese scientists tend to use sarcolactylis while Western scientists tend to prefer sarcodactylus. Which is correct is likely a matter of opinion…”

I decided that I would write the title of this paper “The Chinese Etrog” also in Chinese. Om the Internet are sites where one can translate from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English. I fed in the words “The Chinese Citron” and got the translation which consisted of four Chinese characters. To check the accuracy, I then fed in these four Chinese characters and received an English translation “Chinese citron.” As a further check I fed in the word “citron” and received the latter two of these four Chinese characters.

I also found a colour photograph of a Chinese etrog whose fingers had already opened to be placed on the cover page of my paper.

Having assembled all my information on the Jewish, the botanical and the historical aspects of this Chinese etrog, I was able to write up my paper. In it I included a botanical description of the Chinese etrog and its tree, how the various halachot on the etrog in general apply to the Chinese etrog, whether there had been a tradition in China throughout the generations to use this etrog, and the religious discussions on its acceptability. I clearly pointed out that the purpose of the paper was not to give a Halachic ruling on this etrog. This is for the Rabbinical authorities to decide.

My paper was ready in mid September 2008 and I immediately sent a copy of it to those who had supplied with information and I also put a copy on my website.

One of those to whom I had sent a copy was Rabbi Dr. Zivotofsky. He acknowledged receipt by e-mail on 23 September 2008 and wrote “It looks fascinating and I look forward to reading it.” A couple of days later he sent me a further e-mail: “I read your booklet. Very impressive research and quite interesting. Yasher koach. On page 6 you speculate that Chinese Esrogim should be able to be grown in Israel. You are correct. I have seen such plants. It seems to be no problem.”

At that period an article on the Jews of Shanghai written by Aharon Granevich-Granot, who had just visited that city, appeared in the English edition of Mishpacha. In it he wrote that he had been escorted around Shanghai by Rabbi Isaac Abraham, who was from the Abraham family who had planted the etrog tree in Shanghai. I learned that he is the Registrar of the Sephardi Beth Din in London and I sent him a copy of my paper.

After the Tishri Chagim, someone who had seen my paper told me that there had been an article on the Chinese etrog in the newspaper “Makor Rishon” a few days before Sukkot (the edition of 10 October 2008). I tracked down this paper in the Jewish National Library. It was an article by Rabbi Zivotofsky and Rabbi Greenspan on the different kinds of etrogim but only the last few paragraphs were devoted to the Chinese etrog.

A few weeks later I happened to come across an article in the American “Jewish Observer” by the same authors as the “Makor Rishon” article entitled “The Story behind the Esrog.” It included a section on the Chinese etrog and stated “Among modern poskim, the two poskim of the OU [Orthodox Union (of America)], Rabbi Yisroel Belsky and Rabbi Herschel Schachter, have both written teshuvos against the use of this strange esrog for the mitzvah.”

I searched for these two teshuvos but was not successful. I therefore sent an e-mail to Rabbi Zivotofsky asking him to “please let me know where these two teshuvos may be found.” He replied “They appeared in a source book prepared for a conference we had in NY [New York] in Feb 2006. I have scanned them and attached them along with the cover of this source book.” The subject of this Conference was “The Pareve Mesorahs” and according to the programme, which I then found on the Internet, there were papers on subjects which included fish, matzot, etrogim, tchelet, and the shofar. The page number on the page of the source book which I received was 219, so it must have been a very large source book!

[It was in the first weeks of 2009, (well after the publication of this paper of mine) that I learned from the Internet that there was a three volume set of books in Hebrew on the history of the Mirrer Yeshiva. I managed to borrow these books from a library and found in them several pages on this Chinese etrog. It was very similar to the description in Leitner’s book, but it did add a few details.]

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