At Sukkot-time, one often sees an image of a bearded man examining an etrog with a jeweller’s loupe; those who have seen the popular Israeli film ‘Ushpizin’ will recall that selecting a beautiful etrog is a serious business.
The observance of Sukkot involves the use of four species: lulav - palm branch, etrog - citron, three myrtle sticks and two willow twigs; they are waved in devotion during the Hallel psalms. The Torah stipulates (VaYikra 23:40) that the etrog must be ‘beautiful’, but the rabbis understand beauty to be a prerequisite for all four species. Here, however, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for the criteria of ‘beauty’ are very carefully specified in what has become a vast body of halachic literature.
So how does one select a beautiful set? Here is a very brief guide:
The lulav should be fresh and green, especially at its end. The leaves grow in pairs, all of which should be intact and together, particularly at the top. The leaves above the ‘spine’ of the lulav should be completely whole. Special attention must be paid to the central leaves.
The etrog must be undamaged, with its top (pitom) and bottom (uketz) protrusions intact. It should be as free of marks as possible, especially on the part that tapers; any black marks are particularly problematic. The etrog should be yellow, bumpy (not smooth like a lemon), with a wide lower portion narrowing symmetrically towards its pitom. Some varieties grow without a pitom; these are great for clumsy people!
The myrtles should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaves intact. Myrtle leaves appear in threes from its stalk (meshulash – tripled); each group of three leaves should emerge at the same level from the stalk, ideally along its entire length, but at least for the majority of it. The leaves should be upright and interlocking, covering the branch.
The willows too should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaf intact and the leaves in good condition. One should select a variety with long, smooth-edged leaves and red stems.
Daunted by all this? Fortunately, pre-checked items are available for the uninitiated, although one of the great pleasures of the season is selecting them oneself. As for the loupe, it isn’t necessary, as the naked eye at a normal distance will do; it is only used for resolving uncertainty.