Etrogim from Poland?

A few days ago, a close friend and HaMapah fan sent a reference to Responsa Rema 126, an important source (along with Responsa Rema 117) for understanding the issue of etrog murkav, the etrog that was somehow not entirely an etrog, and therefore unfit for use (according to most authorities) on Sukkot. But the issue of etrog murkav, is, well, complicated (“murkav” in modern Hebrew), as there are two fundamentally different phenomena that come under the title “murkav”: grafting and crossbreeding. Grafting the branch of an etrog tree onto the rootstock of another (generally sturdier) citrus will produce fruits that are etrogim in every sense: the look, feel, and taste like etrogim, and they are genetically etrogim. Yet they are still unfit for the mitzvah because they did not grow from a tree that is entirely an etrog tree, and the command is to take “the fruit of the hadar tree”. That is, not only must the fruit be an etrog fruit, but it must grow from an etrog tree (see Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayim 207).

The other type of “harkavah” is the cross-pollination of an etrog with another citrus, yielding a fruit that is a hybrid of an etrog and something else. The etrog discussed in the responsum in question was clearly crossbred, as it mentions three ways of distinguishing pure etrogim from hybrids. The problem is that it was not until several centuries later that the distinction between these two types of “harkavah” was fully made. In practice, both grafted and hybrid etrogim are considered murkav and thus unfit for use.

Returning to the responsum, it has a few interesting features. Firstly, it was not written by Rema, but rather to Rema, by R. Shmuel Yehuda Katzenellenbogen, the great-grandson of Mahari Mintz, son of Maharam Padua, and relative of Rema. Secondly, it tells of how there were two congregations in Padua at the time of Maharam Padua: one Ashkenazic and one Italki. The two congregations shared an etrog. When a courier was bringing the etrog from one to the other, he was accosted by students (presumably from the venerable University of Padua), who held it ransom. Despite all of this, the community did not use any of the abundant hybrid etrogim in the area. R. Katzenellenbogen then goes on to list three differences between true and hybrid etrogim grown in the area of Padua, in northern Italy.

But before doing so, he emphasizes that these differences are not universal, and that other etrogim might have other features. This section includes a passage that tends to leap out:

And the hybrids (murkavim) that grow in these countries (medinot) are discernible and known to us, but from the region (mehoz) of Poland (Polin) come etrogim about which we are uncertain. And this year, most of our etrogim were from that region. I write to your honored Torah excellence three signs by which you can recognize the hybrids that grow in our land, because the ones from Poland (Polaniya) cannot reach you, for it is far away.

The geography here makes little sense, for several reasons:

  1. Etrogim grow in Poland? And are exported from there to Italy!? Granted, at the time that the responsum was written (late 1560s or early 1570s), Poland was experiencing its Golden Age and almost reached the Black Sea, but that is still not the climate for growing citrus, there is no record of etrogim growing there, and it seems extraordinary unlikely that etrogim would be exported from Poland to Italy. 
  2. Rema was in Krakow, so how could Polish etrogim, even if they existed, be too “far away” for Polish Jews to obtain? And yet still be accessible to Italians!?
  3. Poland, as noted, was huge at that time. It seems odd to call it a “mehoz”, which generally denotes a regional subdivision roughly equivalent to a county or district, not a large kingdom.

The image above is from the 1883 Warsaw edition of Responsa Rema, which has been the basis of numerous reprintings in the 20th century. It is also the edition digitized by Sefaria. However, if one goes back to earlier editions, things are a bit different. The Amsterdam 1711 edition, for example:

Poland (Polin) is mentioned in the first instance, but later we have ‘פוליי. In the three earlier editions (Krakow 1640, Hanau 1710, Hamburg 1710 – yes, it was printed 3x in 1710-1; seems significant, but I’ve got nothing), the place is called ‘פוליי in both instances:

Rabbi Dr. Asher Siev, in his 1971 critical edition of Responsa Rema (which the Bar-Ilan project uses), restores the original, notes that the emendation to “Poland” is erroneous, and comments that the reference is to “a region in Italy” (nn. 7-8):

Last year, a volume on the history of the etrog, aptly named Ha-Etrog, edited by Eliezer Goldschmidt and Moshe Bar-Yosef, was published by Mossad HaRav Kook. It has an appendix with several important responsa on etrogim, including Responsa Rema 126. It, too, restores the original print edition and identifies ‘פוליי with Apulia (Puglia in Italian), a region in southern Italy (the “high heel” of the boot). 

Suddenly it all makes sense. Apulia and nearby Calabria are some of the most venerable etrog-growing regions. The “Yanover” (= “Genoa”) etrogim originate in Calabria. And indeed, Apulia is quite far from Poland. 

4 thoughts on “Etrogim from Poland?”

  1. This great book by Goldschmidt and Bar Yosef does not only give an answer to ‘Poland’ in the Ramah. It has further valuable information on grafted etrogim. Goldschmidt reports his own genetic studies of modern varieties of etrogim and shows that the DNA of twelve different varieties commonly used in modern Israel ( including Moroccan and the large Yemenite etrogim) is very similar in all these cases (and different from lemons and bitter oranges). He concludes that growers through the ages must have been extremely careful not to use grafted etrogim. (HaEtrog, p290)
    I would add (and this is my own personal suggestion, not Goldschmidt’s) that perhaps the rabbinical fear of grafted etrogim stems partly from the fact that Arabic has different words for grafted and non-grafted etrogim. The etrog is called utrujj or turunj in mediaeval Arabic cookery books, but there are also varieties called kabbād and astabūn, produced by grafting the etrog onto a bitter orange or a lemon respectively (N. Nasrallah Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2018: 511).

    1. Grafted etrogim are genetically identical to non-grafted etrogim. Do you mean to say that the genetic similarity indicates that there has been very little cross-pollination throughout history?
      I think that would apply to the question of kabbād and astabūn as well, as grafting does not produce any change in the fruit.

      Interestingly, fear of grafted etrogim first shows up pretty late (16th c.) even though the technique was known in the ancient world. It seems to me that hybrid etrogim were seen as problematic much earlier, but grafted etrogim were only questioned later – and in Ashkenaz and Sepharad almost simultaneously.

  2. Poland is famous for its citrons, even more so before the world wars and destruction of the vast forests and groves that used to blanket the nation .

    Most of us have completely mistaken concepts of the agrarian economics of European Jewry, and how significant a role they played in halachic decisions. Litvaks drink wine because there was no grain to make whiskey that far north. Look how far south parts of Galicia, Romania and Hungary are from the Hanseatic cities. Boston to Miami in distance. Completely different climates.

    https://www.tasteatlas.com/poland/lemons

    1. We noted that Poland in the 16th century extended pretty far south.
      Nevertheless, though we have records that etrogim reached the communities of Ashkenaz from many different places – Corfu (and other Greek Isles), Genoa, Corsica, Apulia, Northern Italy, Morocco, Eretz Yisrael, the West Indies, and California – there is no record of etrogim grown in Poland. In the present case, “Apulia” is indeed the correct text.

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