What An Etrog!

How not to care for an etrog.

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Tales of the Jews of Helm (or Chelm) are a folk tradition. The people in this town are well-meaning but their logic is inevitably faulty and they inevitably end up doing things incorrectly--and humorously. Excerpted from The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The wise men of Helm were elated with the etrog the president of their congregation had purchased for Sukkot. This was not an ordinary etrog. It came from the Land of Israel. It was yellow as the color of an etrog. It was fragrant as the odor of an etrog. It was without a blemish as an etrog. It had a firm and dainty pitma [stem]. In short, this was an etrog!

Shaking a lulav and etrog

The president reluctantly entrusted the sexton to take the etrog to all the Helm householders so that they could recite the traditional blessing over it. Apprehensive of the sexton's carelessness, the president warned him. "Remember! This etrog is an etrog! Handle it with tenderness. Be especially careful that the pitma should not be spoiled by handling and thereby render the etrog unsuitable for use. Remember! This etrog is an etrog.

The wise sexton joyfully embarked on his holy mission. Clutching the etrog in both hands, he started out through the streets of Helm, when a sudden inspiration stopped him in his tracks. He looked at the etrog, held it level with his eyes, and scrutinized it from all sides. Shutting his eyes in devout meditation, the sexton recalled the president's instructions to take extreme precautions that the pitma should not be spoiled. Ah, he was shrewd! But what was the inspiration that brought him to a sudden halt? Had he forgotten his clever device? No! No! He knew what he had to do. No sooner said than done!

The sexton took a sharp knife from his pocket and carefully cut out the pitma from the etrog. The president had ordered him to take  good care of it, and he would never dare disobey the president. He placed the pitma in a clean handkerchief and gently placed it in his pockets.  He then proceeded to the homes of the wise Helmites to allow them to recite the blessing over the etrog.

As the sexton entered each home, he reiterated the president's adnonition.

“Remember! This etrog is an etrog!”

Philip Goodman is the author of The Rosh Hashanah Anthology (Jewish Publication Society, 1970, 1992).