How to Buy a Lulav and Etrog
What to look for, how to care for it and uses after Sukkot
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Catalogue: A Do-It Yourself-Kit, edited by Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld and Susan Strassfeld, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
With regard to selecting the lulav and etrog, there is an operative principle involved called hiddur mitzvah. This is a bit difficult to explain. Essentially it entails going beyond the specification for the "legal" minimum-to select the most beautiful, elegant, and as nearly perfect fruits as possible.
Thus, although there are relatively few categories of absolutely unacceptable species, there are many criteria--we'll discuss these soon--relating to the level of beauty of the species. Much of the fun of buying sets is in making your own evaluations and selecting the best among large varieties. After knowing what the criteria are, choose what you like. You are the one who is going to have to live with your lulav and etrog for seven days.
You must pay the greatest attention to the selection of the etrog. Compared to selecting an etrog, choosing a lulav is like an afterthought. Begin the buying process with the selection of the etrog, then the lulav, then the myrtle, then the willows. It is with the etrog that the greatest variation exists and the greatest obligation for hiddur mitzvah--beauty-- applies (based on the etrog being "the product of the hadar [beautiful] trees").
It must have a pittam [a piece of the stem protruding from the end of the etrog]; there are some varieties which do not grow a pittam to begin with and are therefore usable. But if you have an etrog without a pittam, make sure that it is from such a variety and that the pittam did not simply fall off.
It should be a good yellow color.
It should have a pleasing, basically symmetrical, oblong shape.
It should not have little black spots on it or any permanent discoloration or disfiguration (rub your nail over it to see if spots will come off). An etrog without any discoloration or black spots at all is very expensive and almost impossible to find. Still, these imperfections should definitely be avoided around the top third of the fruit (toward the side of the pittam).
For even greater elegance, there should be lengthwise ridges extending from the bottom toward the pittam. It is also good if the skin is sort of evenly bumpy. Again, the choice is yours as to what is and is not a beautiful etrog-color, shape, size, smell, weight, etc.
It should be fresh--i.e., not dried up. It should be at least four tefahim (approximately 14") long so that it will shake well. Its backbone--a solid ridge from which the leaves spread--ideally should extend from the bottom all the way to the top.