Wednesday 26 September 2018


Responsa of the Ramo.

The following article is a guest post by my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein, Rosh Yeshiva LeRabbonus Pretoria, South Africa:



Toward the middle of the fifteen hundreds, a new phenomenon arose which became the focus of much of the halachik literature of the time. Esrogim, imported from the arid regions of the Mediterranean, became questionable as to whether they may be used for the mitzva of Arba minim, the Torah's commandment to wave the four species, as the new Esrogim were a hybrid of citron and other citrus fruit. 

The best way to produce a robust and longer lasting citron tree was to graft the latter onto a lemon or lime tree, which could be achieved using several agricultural methods. The result was an Esrog that was also part lemon or part lime, and the hybrid Esrog became the center of much debate. The nomenclature used to describe the grafted Esrog is "murkav ". 

Since the purpose of this article is to educate more than complicate, we will explore the various opinions on the subject and offer a short analysis to give a principle to work with. This article is not exhaustive but since the murkav controversy continues until today, with some Esrog suppliers being accused of providing murkav specimens to the public, a brief guideline is more than enough, for as we know, without such guidelines matters can escalate into a veritable morass.  



The Levush - Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe. Orach Chaim siman 649 #4:

The problem with a grafted Esrog is due to its creation via prohibited means, for the Torah forbade the interbreeding of certain species of fauna and the splicing of two species of flora. Any object that was used or created by violating a Torah prohibition disqualifies it from being used again for sacred mitzva purposes. 


The Alshich Hakadosh. Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Alshich #106:

A grafted Esrog is viewed neither as an Esrog nor a lemon but rather as a composite fruit of both species intertwined. This disqualifies the fruit on three counts, firstly the Torah called for a complete Esrog and not half an Esrog. Secondly, that the Esrog component of the composite fruit may lack its minimum required bulk of the volume of an egg. And thirdly that the part of the fruit that is not a citron leaves the citron component missing half of its flesh. When an Esrog is missing flesh it is termed a חסר, an Esrog with a chunk missing, and is disqualified.


The Ramo, Rabbi Moshe Isserles. Responsa # 117 126:

A grafted Esrog is no longer an Esrog but a new hybrid fruit altogether, a fruit that the Torah does not recognize as a פרי עץ הדר, the required fruit of beauty or Esrog. The Ramo then goes on to describe the physical differences between a grafted Esrog and a pure one for his petitioner to discern for his congregants. The pure Esrog has a bumpy rind as opposed to a grafted one which has a smooth skin.

The pure Esrog has its stem indented as opposed to the grafted one where the stem lies flush on the fruit bottom. The pure Esrog has a thick rind with little juice to be squeezed from it, as opposed to the grafted one which has a thinner rind and juicy center. (A fourth mark is mentioned by the Magen Avraham as that the pure Esrog has its seeds lying vertical in the seed box, unlike the grafted one where the seeds lie horizontal, cf. infra). 


The Bach, Rabbi Yisroel Sirkis. Responsa # 135 136:

The grafted species of Esrog differs only slightly in aroma and texture from a thoroughbred Esrog and as such may be used for the mitzva. Although deferring to others the Bach sees no real issue with the murkav. 


Most of the preeminent Poskim  side with the Ramo, viz. the Magen Avraham (648:23), the Taz (ibid 649:3), the Shulchan Aruch Harav (648:31) the Shvus Yaakov (Responsa vol 1 #36  ) et al, that a grafted Esrog is really a new species of fruit that differs from the Esrog mentioned in the Torah, and as such is not fit for the mitzva. The rationale of the Alshich is not mentioned and that of the Levush is rejected (cf. ad loc). 

Thus far we have outlined the basis for disqualifying the grafted Esrog, revealing no room to manoeuvre, for even the Bach who was convinced of the fruit's validity still sided with his esteemed contemporaries in forbidding the use of such an Esrog. It seems to be an open shut case that any form of hybrid Esrog is not fit for use. 


However, the matter is far from over. Several key questions need to be addressed which will open the issue to more understanding. Firstly, there is no mention of such a disqualification in the Talmud and Rishonim when the list of the flaws of an Esrog are enumerated. This is perplexing and to excuse it by arguing that the technology wasn't used back then is erroneous, for grafting was mentioned in many mishnayos and theologically the Talmud deals with almost impossible cases to extract principles, regardless of the period's technology. 

So why should this case differ?  Secondly, we need to consider a botanical reality, that cross-pollination by bees between citron and other citrus trees has resulted in new generations of hybrid Esrogim. So in fact most, if not all Esrogim are essentially grafted ones nowadays. Some contemporary opinions proffer that grafting by definition means the splicing of already forming Esrogim to citrus branches and not the inception at pollen level of undefined plant matter. See Chazon Ish (kilayim siman 2 #16). 

However based on the Ramo and most Poskim this definition does not address the specific invalidation of the grafted Esrog, for as noted, the hybrid Esrog is no longer the sacred fruit by dint of its genetic adulteration,  so what difference should it make when the adulteration occurred? This is indeed a serious issue for we may be faced with the possibility that most or all Esrogim are no longer kosher! 

A possible solution to the above conundrum presents itself after a careful reading of the Ramo and the other Poskim. A grafted Esrog is disqualified only when it loses the identifying characteristics of an Esrog, which happens when the outer appearance is one of a new citrus fruit with binary features. 

However if the fruit bares its signature features of the bumpy rind, the thick center, the indented stem and the vertically lying seeds (which can be assumed if the external features are present. Shvus Yaakov cf supra), then this fruit is the fruit of beauty פרי עץ הדר, irrespective of the percentage of genetic purity present. This would also account for why the Ramo went to pains to provide the identifying marks instead of ruling out the use of grafted Esrogim, for the real determinant lies in the features of the fruit at hand and not really the subcutaneous microstructure.

If we understand the sources this way then all becomes clear. The Talmud did not need to mention the flaw of a murkav, for a simple approach of "if it looks like an Esrog it's an Esrog" needs no further elaboration nor specific inclusions in Tannaic literature. This approach is germane to the general Talmudic appraisal of objects based on their lay characteristics as opposed to their biological or microscopic makeup. (Cf. Responsa Yechave Daas vol 6 # 47).  

This would also account for the acceptance of Esrogim despite the possibility of cross-pollination ruining the purity of the species, for as long as the unique characteristics of the Esrog fruit are apparent to the naked eye the fruit qualifies for the mitzva. Coupled with the assertion of the Bach that the effects of grafting are negligible there is little room to be concerned when an Esrog looks the part. 

A similar conclusion is reached by Rabbi Efrayim Margules in his Responsa Beis Efrayim (# 56,circa 1800). After a long dissection of the Talmudic sources which reject the position of the Levush that a grafted Esrog is an object of sin, and that of the Alshich that the murkav is half an Esrog, the author provides the same context as mentioned above for understanding the Ramo and most of the Poskim that if the fruit looks like an Esrog it is an Esrog.

(I observe with interest that contemporary scholars who cite the Beis Efrayim choose to quote only several lines where the author posits that even the Levush would allow a hybrid seed to be reproduced. They divorce these lines from the rest of the Responsa and use them as the only basis for permitting second generation murkavim. After learning through the entire responsa we can see that quoting text without context is seriously misleading.). 


At his point the halachik literature is replete with various interpretations which either defend the above thesis or maintain that genetic purity is indispensable to the mitzva (And the plot thickens when we take for example the writings of the Tzemach Tzeddek of Lubavitch Responsa Orach Chaim # 64 who disqualifies any Esrog that has been adulterated, yet is quoted in the work Beis Rebbe page 75 as relying on the Rabbi Margules where necessary, permitting the Korfo grafted Esrogim!). 


When choosing an Esrog that bears all the hallmark features of an Esrog there should really be no concern whether the microscopic composition of the fruit is adulterated, and since all of our Esrogim bare the distinct characteristics of the Esrog there should be no doubt as to its validity. Unless dealers are certified as maintaining a rigid control over cultivation practices, including the prevention of cross-pollination, then no Esrog is genetically superior to another. 

And even if the authenticity of such a dealer can be established, the superior fruit would be nothing more than a hiddur, an added measure of observance, given the preponderance of literature supporting the logical and workable halachik guideline mentioned above.

1 comment:

  1. Oranges do not easily hybridise by pollen transfer as the seeds that develop tend to be parthenogenetic. That is why oranges reproduce reliably unless steps are taken to obliterate the parthenogenetic seeds. Is this the case with etrogim ?-tzarich iyun

    Interestingly the orange is a arguably a stable mandarin and pomello cross that dates back.I saw a paper to this effect that I can't find now.