Talmud pages

Sukkah 34

Is bigger better?

Every autumn, photos pop up on Jewish media featuring people searching the markets in Israel for the perfect etrog, the “fruit of a beautiful tree” — the first of the four species enumerated in Leviticus 23:40 that are required to properly observe the mitzvah of taking them up during the holiday of Sukkot. (For a poignant and humorous look at this subject, I highly recommend watching the iconic 2004 Israeli film Ushpizin — about welcoming guests to the sukkah.)

The mishnah at the very end of our daf turns its attention to the etrog; specifically, what might cause it to be rejected as unkosher. The second half of the mishnah gives many very specific parameters:

If boil-like blemishes arose on the majority of the etrog; if its pitom (the pestle-like protuberance on the upper, blossom end) was removed; if the etrog was peeled, split or pierced and is missing any amount — it is unfit.

However, if boil-like blemishes arose only on a small part; if its stem, which connects it to the tree, was removed; if it was pierced but is not missing any amount — it is fit.

A Cushite etrog, which is black like a Cushite, is unfit. And with regard to an etrog that is leek green, Rabbi Meir deems it fit and Rabbi Yehuda deems it unfit. 

What is the minimum measure of a small etrog? Rabbi Meir says: It may be no smaller than a walnut. Rabbi Yehuda says: It may be no smaller than an egg.

And in a large etrog, the maximum measure is so that one could hold two in his one hand — this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yosei says: It is fit even if it is so large that he can hold only one in his two hands.

The rabbis evaluate the beauty of etrogs according to three categories: size, color and imperfections. Imperfections ranging from fungus to damage (particularly, the removal of the pollination stem, called a pitom, on the blossom end of the fruit) render the etrog not kosher for ritual use. 

Color matters as well. Yellow fruit is ideal, and green is controversial. Black is definitely unfit. The problematic designation of the black etrog as “Cushite” (referring to a people from North Africa known in biblical times for their dark skin) is worthy of analysis all on its own, and this blog post on the subject by Joshua Hammerman provides an excellent one. 

Finally, we come to the matter of size, on which we see the largest (ahem) variety of opinions. On the subject of small etrogim, Rabbi Meir (whose opinion is ultimately rejected by the Shulchan Aruch) approves of a tiny etrog the size of a walnut (which might fit in well with a Sukkot diorama), while Rabbi Yehuda (whose opinion becomes the halakhah) says it should at least be the size of an egg. Regarding large etrogs, Rabbi Yehuda says an etrog of a size that would allow a person to hold two of them in her hand is the limit, but the halakhah follows the opinion of Rabbi Yosei, who says even an etrog so large that you need both hands to hold it is kosher. 

The idea that you would need to hold two etrogs in one hand is strange — after all, why would you need to do that? Later commentators offer an alternate meaning for shnayim b’yado — “two in his one hand” — suggesting that the mishnah is instead referring to one etrog and one lulav. This is a far more practical read since, after all, this is what a person holds on Sukkot

But there is some leniency to allow a very large etrog. Does that mean that bigger is better? It doesn’t actually seem so from our text. Instead, I think the rabbis envision a situation in which the etrog crop varies from year to year and from place to place. Such wide parameters make it more likely that Jews can find kosher etrogs to use on Sukkot. Observing the mitzvah of arba minim (four species) wherever one might be and whatever the agricultural situation is in any given year is the goal. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and according to the rabbis, size is only one factor to consider when selecting the perfect etrog.

Read all of Sukkah 34 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 10th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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