A last story for Sukkot | Adath Israel

The Etrog by S. Y. Agnon, adapted

[By clicking on the links you will see the original story by Agnon and other interesting things]

If you want to know how precious the mitzvah of Etrog is to the Jewish people you just need to go to Meah Shearim before Sukkot. That neighborhood, which is like a withered plant all year long, becomes pleasure garden, with stores full of etrogs, lulavs, and hadasim. Jews from all over Jerusalem crowd into those stores, inspecting the etrogs, lulavs, and hadasim, or sharing learned insights about them.

Shmuel went to purchase an etrog for himself, since you know, the worse thing in the world is a stolen etrog. It has to be yours, even if a richer friend wants to lend it to you, they need to give it as a gift. And then, of course, you gift it back to them. The worse thing in the world is a stolen etrog – because from that mitzvah you acquire riches without end, mostly they say, a son. And so Shmuel pushed his way into the shop of a seller of old books, who abandons book selling during the month or so before Sukkot in order to sell etrogs.

The shop is full of customers, and the book seller, who had become an etrogger (that is, a seller of etrogs), was busy with his merchandise. Very, very busy. He leaped from corner to corner, from shelf to shelf, pulling one etrog out of its wrapping while wrapping another etrog back up.

If a person should say, “There’s a wrinkle in this here etrog,” the book seller transformed into an etrog seller is quick to remind the buyer that this wrinkle is to the praise of the etrog, for the fruit that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was none other than an etrog, and her teeth marks remain on the fruit in the shape of this wrinkle.

On seeing that the shop was packed, and the storekeeper preoccupied, Shmuel decided to leave. He pulled him back and said, “Wait a moment and I’ll give you an etrog that blesses those who bless on it.” He abandoned all his other customers, jumped about while presenting me with two or three etrogs; about each he asked, “Were you looking for one like this? Is this the one you desire?” Shmuel hadn’t a chance to examine them before he presented a fourth, fifth, and sixth etrog, and then the etrog seller moved to another customer. And despite the differences among the etrogs—in size, quality, and beauty—the storekeeper’s mouth had the same word of praise for each. When Shmuel finally made up his mind – so many choices! – he heard the price and set that etrog aside, to find one, well, more within his budget. You know, in Sukkot we have many other mitzvot, and none of them are free. But then the storekeeper smiled and said, “Rabban Gamliel purchased an etrog for one thousand zuz, and the sages did not even specify whether it was beautiful or not, and you set aside the choicest of etrogs on account of a few dollars?”

In a corner of the shop, away from all the other customers, stood an old man inspecting the etrogs in one of the boxes. Sometimes a person can stand in the thick of a crowd, and only one other person draws attention. This is what happened to Shmuel with that old man at that time.

When he selected an etrog he asked the storekeeper what it cost. He told him the price. Setting the etrog aside, the old man said, “That much money I do not have. Give me one cheaper than this.” The storekeeper said, “Rabbi, if you want a kosher etrog you have to pay such-and-such a price, just as Rabbi Ploni and Gabbai Almoni paid for theirs. Do you know, rabbi, how much they paid?” At that point the storekeeper named an outrageous price, while looking at the etrog and declaring it to be the very embodiment of the Torah’s ideal of beauty, strictly kosher according to all opinions. The old man replied, “Even the money, with which one purchases the etrog, must also be kosher. There is nothing worse than a stolen etrog.” Without saying another word, the store-keeper sidled up to Shmuel and asked: “Have you found one yet?”

“That man you called ‘Rabbi’—who is he?”, asked Shmuel. The storekeeper whispered, “Why, that’s the Rabbi of Teplik. I’m surprised you don’t know him. All of Jerusalem says he’s a true genius.” I told the shopkeeper, “I’ve heard his name but have never seen him face-to-face until now.”

What had Shmuel heard of him? He was a genius, very pious, but above all the rabbi of Teplik was renowned for his charitable works with the poor. The rabbi struggles with those hard-hearted and uncharitable, making them give tzedakah even when they don’t really want. The rabbi also deals with those appointed to administer the funds that are supposed to go to the poor. On account of the mitzvah of tzedakah he thinks nothing of his own honor, nor of the trouble he exerts on behalf of the needy. There are rabbis who are praised for their Torah knowledge, for their piety, their cleverness, or worldly knowledge — the rabbi of Teplik also had all these things. He was worthy to be crowned with gold and reside in splendor, but he lived in a poor neighborhood, in a small apartment, in worn-out garments, like most of the folks in Jerusalem who do not possess enough money to purchase fancy clothes. Most of his salary earned from the rabbinate was distributed to orphans and widows.

The rabbi of Teplik finally found a kosher etrog that was within his budget. He took out his wallet and paid the storekeeper. From the way he opened the wallet and counted out the money, it was clear he didn’t have much to spare.

Shmuel, too, found an etrog. He ended up splurging on that etrog, its price having been driven up by the competition for a beautiful etrog. Weary and worn, Shmuel left the etrog shop. The day before had been Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that he had spent 26 hours or more fasting and praying barefoot he hadn’t felt tired — not in body neither in spirit, but he had felt a great joy. But in those three or four hours spent in the pursuit of a kosher etrog, there was no joy and all the haggling over prices, even when it involves a mitzvah, brings one to exhaustion.

Shmuel had always been troubled by this: Mitzvot that are given to the whole of the Jewish people should be affordable to all Jews, yet some mitzvot are within reach of the rich but not the poor. Yet Torah and mitzvot were given to all Jews.

While Shmuel was still thinking about this, a certain fellow approached him, “You should wish me Mazal Tov — my wife, she should live and be well, gave birth to a son.” After Shmuel had finished with all the possible blessings for the father and the mother and the son, he asked when the brit milah would take place. He told Shmuel, “On the first day of Sukkot, following the services at the small shul of my neighborhood.”

So on the first day of Sukkot Shmuel rose extra early, washed his hands and face, entered his sukkah, recited the blessing over the lulav and etrog, had some coffee, took his tallit, his siddur, and his lulav and etrog, and headed off for the little shul of that man making a brit for his son. He rose early because of the honking of the cars, truth be told. But he set on his way.

It was a nice day, neither too hot nor too chilly. The sukkot and the lulavs he saw in his way perfumed the air of his journey. After a bit more than an hour walk he arrived in the neighborhood where the brit would take place.

That neighborhood was quite impoverished, with neither nice homes nor maintained streets, gardens, or orchards to please the eye. Yet it was quiet. No cars at all, and from a few sukkot could be heard the sound of Torah study. Out of love for the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, some of the people sat learning Torah outside. The sukkot, with their leafy green roofs, made the neighborhood look like a beautiful garden, while etrogs and hadasim gave off a pleasant fragrance, and the decorated cloth sukkah walls added beauty to the scene.

Shmuel entered the little shul, set his lulav down on the windowsill, took a book from the shelf, and sat down to learn. The shul was empty but for one old man, who stood bent over at the bookcase looking at a book. After a moment old man returned the book to its place and began pacing about like one troubled by a difficult matter.

As he was pacing he passed the windowsill where Shmuel’s lulav and etrog rested. He looked and asked permission to see the etrog. Upon examining it he declared, “Kosher, kosher.”

Shmuel then remembered who the old man was. It was the rabbi of Teplik! Shmuel also remembered what he had said about the officials who waste communal funds to acquire beautiful etrogs for themselves. His exact words were: “Even the money used to buy the etrog needs to be kosher, that is, ‘kosher money’ is more important than adding to the beauty of the mitzvah. There is nothing worse than a stolen etrog.”

While Shmuel was thinking about the meaning of those words, the rabbi of Teplik said to him: “I would like to perform the mitzvah with your etrog.” Shmuel said to him, “It is given to you as a gift.” After he recited the blessing, the rabbi also gave the etrog back, as a gift.

Shmuel then asked: “Rabbi, where is your etrog? You bought a lovely etrog, and with kosher money too, I saw when purchased it.”

He gazed at Shmuel with large and lovely eyes, in which you could see wisdom and innocence, and he said, “You were there when I bought my etrog? Indeed, a kosher etrog it was, but something happened to it. But why are you standing?” Shmuel said to him, “If the rabbi doesn’t sit, I don’t sit either.” He said, “I am used to standing, but so that you need not stand, I will sit.”

The rabbi sat, Shmuel sat, and the rabbi told the story: “In my neighborhood there resides a certain baal-ha-bait, a certain houseowner. A tough, angry, irritable man, but careful about mitzvot. He bought an etrog for at least 80 dollars, maybe more. He bragged about it in front of his neighbors, that there was none finer. I’m not sure how beautiful it really was, but there’s no one in this neighborhood who can afford to buy an etrog for 80 dollars. This morning I heard a sound of crying coming from his house. I told my wife ‘I hear the neighbor’s child crying, go see why she is crying, please.’ My wife returned and said: ‘The girl was playing with the etrog her stepfather bought for eighty dollars, the etrog fell from her hand, broke its pitom and became invalid for the mitzvah. Her mother smacked her. That poor woman knows what’s in store for her from her husband on account of her daughter from her first marriage.’ I asked my wife: ‘Where is he now?’ She said: ‘He ran to the mikveh to immerse prior to taking the lulav. If he’s come out of the mikveh, he must be sitting in the sukkah of the Rebbe of Zvhil, to watch and learn as he waves the lulav, for his waving is like that of his father, who received the tradition from his father, and his father from his father back to the Maggid.’ I then ran and took my etrog to the girl and said to her: ‘Don’t cry. Here is my etrog, give it to your mother. If your father asks, have your mother tell him: The rabbi was here and saw that your etrog was not kosher. To enable you to perform the mitzvah properly, he gave you his etrog as an unconditional gift.’ It was because of that trouble that I didn’t have time to recite the blessing on my own etrog.”

The rabbi added, “You know, there’s nothing worse than a stolen etrog. The etrog must be kosher, but the money that purchases the etrog must be kosher also!”