Twist of Lemon

A Controversy That Rattled the World of Torah 100 Years Ago

Take a stroll through any major Jewish community in the days before Sukkos and you will find at least one arbaah minim market. Decades ago, youngsters selling esrogim from Eretz Yisrael would loudly hawk their wares as being “bilti murkavim — not grafted.” With time, that was eventually replaced with “vadai bilti murkavim — definitely not grafted.” This “definitely” was supposed fortify the claim of “non-grafted-ness.”

Now, the terminology has become even more sophisticated. It is beyond just “vadai.” Today, they throw around actual names: Chazon Ish, Pearlman, Braverman, Diskind, Halperin, etc. And you are supposed to know — or at least pretend to know — the difference.

But before that, it is important to understand what murkav is.

1 – Root stock (slanted lines). 2 – Interface of grafting between the root stock and the scion. 3 – Scion. 4 – Fruit-bearing branches of the scion. 5 – A fruit-bearing branch of the root stock.

What is harkavah — grafting?

A “scion” is a fruit-bearing branch cut from a tree whose fruits are significant to you. A “root stock” is the tree whose strength, stability, or nourishment you wish to empower your scion with. You are not interested in any fruits of your root stock, nor are you interested in the wood of your scion.

Cutting into the root stock, a branch from the scion tree is attached until, eventually, the two grow together, as illustrated.

This is called harkavah. The fruit benefits from this “surgery” and when done between two trees of the same species, it is entirely permissible.

Harkavah between different species of trees, however, is a direct violation of the Torah prohibition of kilayim. The majority of Rishonim (based on a Chazal) deem this kilayim to be prohibited even for a non-Jew. Some Mishnayos deal with defining precisely which trees are considered the same species and which are not — but none mention the esrog.

The problem of the esrog murkav

The esrog was and still is grown agriculturally in many orchards for food, as well as for medicinal and decorative purposes. Because the esrog tree is quite frail and the lemon tree is far more robust, it would be logical for a grower to routinely graft a scion of an esrog tree to a root stock of a lemon, increasing and improving yield. The resulting fruit — an esrog murkav — is very similar in form, if not outwardly identical, to the fruit of the original esrog tree from which the scion was taken.

Is such an esrog, grown from a grafted scion of an esrog tree and the root stock of a lemon tree, kosher for the mitzvah of arbaah minim?

Many Acharonim penned opinions on this, and entire books have been written on this fascinating and factual subject. Just naming the authors and discussing each of the topics and subtopics is a task beyond the scope of this article. Very briefly, I present a sampling of the most common arguments for prohibiting an esrog-lemon murkav:

  • One of the defining qualities of an esrog is described as (Sukkah 35a): “Taam eitzo u’piryo shaveh — the taste of its wood equals the taste of its fruit.” Whatever this may mean, the root stock’s wood is that of a lemon tree, not an esrog tree, so they cannot be called “shaveh.”
  • An esrog must be called “esrog” and nothing else. Also, it is called a “pri” in the Torah — which means one single fruit. If we might want to consider the esrog murkav as both a lemon and an esrog, a hybrid, we will have a problem.
  • The minimum volume of an esrog is that of an egg. But in the case of a murkav, perhaps the fruit’s “lemon volume” is large and less than an egg-size is left for its “esrog volume.”
  • An esrog must be held in one’s hands, as it says “v’lakachtem — and you shall take.” If this fruit is part lemon, how can we ever be sure we are holding the esrog part?
  • Since the act of grafting two species is prohibited, the fruit produced should be considered as “ne’evdah bah aveirah — used for a sin.” In the case of a sacrifice, this makes the offering unfit. If the esrog and lemon are considered two species, the esrog was “born in sin” and should also be unfit to be used for a mitzvah.
  • Even when grafting two fruits of the same species, which is permitted, new fruits emerging from the scion are exempt from the prohibition of orlah (young fruit) if the root stock is old (i.e., the new fruit takes on the age of the root stock). It follows then that if the root stock is a lemon, an emerging esrog should be halachically considered a lemon, not an esrog.

There are also questions of whether murkav persists into future generations of trees. Are the sprouting seeds of an esrog murkav still considered murkav? The Chasam Sofer ruled that the answer to that is yes, and an esrog must have a mesores — a tradition — like kosher bird species. Several Gedolim and Admorim over the years have pointed to various specific locations on the Mediterranean basin, claiming that only esrogim grown there have an unbroken mesores.

Much has been written on this topic. There have been opposing essays presented by Gedolei Torah over the centuries disagreeing with some or all the arguments used in the prohibition of the esrog murkav — which brings us to the most amazing idea ever presented on this subject.

The theory of the Saba Kaddisha

In 1921, Turkish-born Harav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari, zt”l (5572-5690, 1812-1930 CE), known as the Saba Kaddisha, quietly settled in Yerushalayim. This elderly Sage was known at the time throughout the Torah world as one of the greatest of his generation in halachah, Kabbalah and kedushah (see side article).

A short while after his arrival in the Holy City, at the age of 111, he published two essays on the topic of esrog murkav in his books of responsa. They were subsequently reprinted in his lifetime as a separate sefer titled Limud Zechus. The first responsum is 87 pages long. The second responsum is an 18-page rebuttal to a critique (one of many) of the first.

The bulk of the first responsum is a systematic refutation of all the arguments presented over the previous few centuries prohibiting the use of an esrog murkav for the mitzvah. The sheer number and variety of his Torah sources are staggering, as is his sharp analysis. Mind you, this was written by a man in the 12th decade of his life!

Then comes his bombshell.

Essentially, Harav Alfandari asks: “Where was everyone?” Historically, the first published inkling of murkav as a problem appears in a strongly worded responsum of the Rema citing Maharam Padua, as late as the 16th century. After the Rema, the floodgates opened, with many great Rabbanim joining the discussion, for and against, over the next four centuries.

But what was happening, he asks, before the Rema? An entire tractate of Kilayim existed with its own Talmud Yerushalmi discussing various trees, fruits and flora. Never, not once, is the grafting of an esrog — the most important mitzvah fruit — mentioned by Chazal. Pears and almonds, yes; esrogim, no. Did 1,500 years have to elapse until the Rema’s essay mentioned this topic? Where were the Amora’im, Geonim, the Rambam, Rif, Rosh and all the Rishonim? Something doesn’t add up.

Harav Alfandari continues by pointing out that “esrog” is an Aramaic word that is not mentioned in the Torah. The Torah calls this fruit “pri eitz hadar,” and our ancient tradition from Sinai is that this refers to an esrog. From these three words, the Talmud in Sukkah (Bavli 35a; Yerushalmi 14a) derives a number of unique characteristics that describe the esrog — yet all those characteristics are also present in a lemon.

In the words of the Saba Kaddisha

“And therefore, regarding the lemon, it is not wondrous or far out to say that it is also a species of esrog. There is no caution, by even a single one of the earlier poskim, against using a lemon for the mitzvah — as there certainly would be if it were prohibited.

“And do not ask why, since ancient times, the lemon was not used. Perhaps because the word hadar also means majesty. A common, everyday lemon lacks this majesty.

“Therefore, in our time, it is a great prohibition to change the custom of the Rishonim. One must even spend large sums of money whenever possible [to obtain an esrog]. However, what if there is no way [of obtaining an esrog]? Shall one sit by idly, bereft of this mitzvah? Hence, in such a case, one may use it [the lemon] — but without a brachah.

“Moreover, if one only has an esrog obtained from a branch grafted on a lemon tree, and there is nothing else available, one should feel free to use this esrog and make a brachah, without any hesitation.”

The world reacts

As you can imagine, these words ignited the Torah world. Much was written — and more said — politely (because of the Saba Kaddisha’s stature) denouncing this ruling, which could be misconstrued as sanctioning the use of lemons as esrogim. Harav Alfandari had anticipated this and his lengthy essay begins and ends decrying the fact that he has traveled far and wide and never found a single pure-bred esrog anywhere. Does this mean that, according to all those banning the murkav, the mitzvah of arbaah minim becomes null and void? How telling are his opening words:

“Although I know that I am not worthy, I pushed forward to insert my head between great mountains that may even crush it, just for the sake of Heaven, may Hashem help me. It is certainly important to perform mitzvos with all their chumros — stringencies, whenever possible. However, when they can cause the loss of the mitzvah completely, they cease to be chumros.”

The cover page of his sefer says it all: “Limud Zechus — A positive judgment of the holy nation of Yisrael who perform Hashem’s mitzvah with an esrog murkav where a non-murkav esrog is not obtainable.”

The Saba Kaddisha had few defenders. One counterargument that gained wide acceptance is that the lemon is never mentioned in Chazal because, unlike the esrog, the lemon was simply not around then. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of lemons in the Mediterranean area until just over a thousand years ago. In fact, the word “lemon” is actually derived from the Arabic “limun,” as it was the Arabs who first imported the lemon from the Far East.

This point, however, can only explain its lack of appearance in Talmudic and Geonic literature for 1,000 years. It does not explain the lemon not appearing in the subsequent 500 years of Torah literature before the Rema. In truth, we actually do know that the Rambam was aware of its existence. Harav Yitzchak Ratzabi, shlita, found the “limun” in a medical prescription dispensed by the Rambam in Arabic. Yet we know of no halachic ruling of the Rambam on the use of an esrog murkav.

The Chazon Ish

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, arriving in Eretz Yisrael three years after the passing of Harav Alfandari, is known to have identified certain trees as bearing pure primordial esrogim, without any lemons in their ancestry. He provided three of his students with esrog seeds taken at Kfar Chittin, Umm-al-Fahm and Shechem from those trees and sent them to plant esrog orchards. The esrogim they grew carry the names of their owners: Lefkowitz, Braverman, Pearlman and others — not unlike vintage wines.

What if the Saba Kaddisha had met the Chazon Ish?…

We can never know.

In conclusion

The Saba Kaddisha himself once remarked that in Heaven it was decreed that the Mishnah Berurah would be the last sefer accepted by the entire Jewish people (see side article). The Mishnah Berurah (648:65) states unequivocally: “An esrog murkav is not an esrog and is unfit for use… There is an opinion that when nothing else is available, an esrog murkav can be used without a brachah.”

• • •

Harav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari was niftar on 22 of Iyar 5630 (1930) at the age of 118, lucid and creative to his last minute. His long life spanned many eras and he witnessed many world-changing events.

After he was orphaned at a young age from his illustrious father, Harav Yaakov Alfandari, zt”l, his mother, Chana Tova, threw herself into raising her young son immersed in an atmosphere of Torah and kedushah. Chana Tova herself was an outstanding personality. She was thoroughly fluent in Tanach and well-versed in Shas. She was careful to daven b’tzibbur. Years later, when she moved to Eretz Yisrael in her old age, she took along a small sefer Torah and paid to have a minyan accompany her so she would not miss a single tefillah b’tzibbur.

A young prodigy

Young Shlomo Eliezer was blessed with a keen mind and powerful memory. He took upon himself at a young age to devote himself to Torah. The Jewish community leaders of his native Istanbul took notice of this young prodigy and established a special yeshivah for him to lead. By the time he was 30 years old, he had already taught scores of students, some of whom went on to become Dayanim and Rabbanim. One of his well-known students was Harav Chaim Chizkiyah Medini, zt”l, the Sedei Chemed.

Even as a young man, he was in touch with great Rabbanim all over the world. He corresponded with the Chasam Sofer and Rabi Akiva Eiger. Rav Shlomo Eliezer was a kanna’i — a zealot, and he identified with the Chasam Sofer’s uncompromising stance against the rising forces of change in the Jewish communities of Europe. When the Chasam Sofer was niftar, he delivered a hesped in the large beit knesset of Istanbul.

Communal leadership

Rav Shlomo Eliezer lived in Istanbul for many years, where all respected him for his wisdom and piety. On more than one occasion he was offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, but he turned it down. He just wanted to learn, teach and write. Although he had no use for positions of honor, he was active in Jewish communal affairs, battling the enemies of the Jewish people on the outside and the anti-Torah forces within.

In 1840, a notorious blood libel took place in Damascus, resulting in some Jews being executed. Sir Moses Montefiore traveled from England and used his influence to quell the violence. Rav Shlomo Eliezer could not sit still. He too traveled to Damascus to do what he could, getting the Sultanate in Istanbul involved to influence the unfolding events.

He was only 28 at the time, but the Jewish community there was so taken by his leadership and Torah knowledge that they offered him the coveted position of “Chacham Bashi,” which he turned down. He even refused to wear the special silk turban and vestments worn by talmidei chachamim, instead dressing like a common Jew. Nevertheless, the people of Istanbul held him in highest regard, not only for his wisdom but for his G-dliness. They would routinely ask him to daven for the sick.

When Alliance (AIU) opened a secular Jewish school in Istanbul, he fought against it with all his might. He implored the Jewish community not to send their children there and ran all over Istanbul giving fiery speeches about the dangers of this institution. His efforts bore fruit and AIU was emptied of its students.

Leaving Istanbul

One day, the Sultan decreed that all Jewish men must enlist in the Turkish army. For the young Jewish boys of Turkey, the spiritual dangers of this exceeded the physical risk. One of the wealthiest and most powerful Jews of Istanbul published a declaration that all Jews must demonstrate their patriotism and enlist.

When he heard this, Rav Shlomo Eliezer dashed over to this man’s home. Upon seeing who had come to his door, the man invited him in and served him sweets and drinks. Rav Shlomo Eliezer was not impressed. He told the man that he was headed to the Sultan to convince him to cancel the decree and demanded that he come along. The man refused and told Rav Shlomo Eliezer, “This decree will happen and those avoiding the draft will be punished.”

“You will not see this happen!” Rav Shlomo Eliezer declared and headed off to the Sultan himself. The man realized the Sultan could be swayed, so he made sure to get there first. But before he could utter a single word to the Sultan, the man collapsed and died.

An elaborate funeral was arranged by his family and, of course, the illustrious Rav Shlomo Eliezer was invited to deliver the hesped. Rav Shlomo Eliezer refused to come. The family came, begging him to eulogize, as all of Istanbul was waiting, including many non-Jewish dignitaries. Still he refused. The man’s children offered him a large bag of gold coins and begged him not to cause them embarrassment. He told them, “I was in your father’s house. I begged him not to enable the drafting of his Jewish brothers, which would cause scores of tribulations without end. It was a matter of life and death. I warned him that he would not see it happen. Yet he went forward with alacrity to make sure the decree would stand. He was immediately punished from Heaven. I don’t want your gold. Your father doesn’t deserve any honor. Take your money and go.”

Of course, in the end, the decree was annulled, but this incident caused much controversy. As a result, Rav Shlomo Eliezer decided to move to Damascus. He was still known there due to his efforts during the blood libel decades before. Friends tried to dissuade him from going because Harav Yitzchak Abulafia, zt”l, lived there and was world-famous for his sharp mind and keen insight. No one could surpass him in Torah knowledge. Rav Shlomo Eliezer was not intimidated. “Here, in Turkey, I have no one to learn from. If he surpasses me in Torah, I will be honored to be his student.”

Damascus, Tzfas and Yerushalayim

After Rav Shlomo Eliezer’s arrival in Damascus, he and Rav Yitzchak quickly got acquainted and spent several days “talking in learning.” Rav Yitzchak was overcome with admiration. He declared, “His level of Torah is like that of the Rishonim. His rulings are halachah in all places of the Torah.” The elders of Damascus offered to declare him Chacham Bashi once again. This time Rav Shlomo Eliezer accepted the title.

By 1910, he was nearing age 100. That year he moved to Tzfas and was accepted as the head of the Rabbanim of that city. He joined a group of mekubalim who gathered to study the secrets of the Torah every night at midnight. The inhabitants of the city were in awe of his holiness.

The Saba Kaddisha dreamed of living out his years in Chevron, but never made it there. Eleven years later, in 1921, he moved to Yerushalayim, and lived there for the remainder of his life (nine years), learning and writing responsa (including the one on the esrog discussed here).

Sadly, the Saba Kaddisha had an only son who passed away as a child, and thus he left no descendants. The narrow street he lived on in Mekor Baruch was later named Rechov Alfandari in his honor. He remained there until his passing at the age of 118.

An exceptional and holy Jew

Rav Shlomo Eliezer, the Saba Kaddisha, had many holy practices. He was of the opinion that a handshake is a non-Jewish custom and therefore avoided it. He was very frail and ate very little from Shabbos to Shabbos. He held that men must let their beards grow and would not allow a beardless man to enter his home. He was a private person who did not even have an extra chair in his room because he did not want to be distracted from his learning by visitors. Sukkos was the exception — his sukkah was open to all. He allowed multitudes of visitors to approach him and kiss his hand without looking up from his sefer.

He had a phenomenal memory and a large library. He was very organized. When he was weak and wanted to look something up, he would call to a bachur and say, for example, “Go to the third shelf on the right cabinet, remove the 15th sefer from the right. Open it anywhere and read… No, that’s too far, go back a few pages and read… Now, go forward a page or two and read… Ah! That is the correct page. Now read to me the exact words on the 11th line.”

Stories abounded of many who were helped by his brachos and of his accurate predictions. Once, while still in Istanbul, he was at a gathering where the discussion turned to earthquakes. Someone quoted an esteemed professor that such an event could not happen there for at least 10 years. Rav Shlomo Eliezer dismissed it. “In Tehillim it says: ‘Hamabit la’aretz vatirad — He gazed at the earth and it quaked,’” he said. Immediately, Istanbul experienced a powerful earthquake.

In 1914, at Kiddush Levanah of Nissan, he wept and groaned. He explained that he sensed a catastrophic war looming. The following Tishah B’Av, the first shots of World War I were fired.

Harav Yeshaya Asher Zelig Margulies, zt”l, once told the Saba Kaddisha that he had read in the newspapers that the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, had left Radin and was on his way to Eretz Yisrael. The Saba Kaddisha said: “Lo yaaleh v’lo yavo — it will never happen.” He explained that in Heaven it had been decreed that the sefer Chofetz Chaim and the Mishnah Beurah would be the last sefarim to be accepted by the entire Jewish people. Were the Chofetz Chaim to come to Yerushalayim, he would have to visit Harav Kook whose rivals would reject him, and when he would visit Harav Sonnenfeld, Harav Sonnenfeld’s rivals would reject him. That is why the Chofetz Chaim would never get there — and indeed he never did.

There are some old Yerushalmi Jews alive today who still remember the Saba Kaddisha. Think about it — there are several individuals alive today who remember someone who communicated with the Chasam Sofer and Rabi Akiva Eiger!

Encountering Abraham Lincoln

My friend Harav Shlomo Frankel, n”y, relates that his father, Rav Chaim Yissachar, z”l, lived in Yerushalayim next door to the Saba Kaddisha. He would occasionally see him dragging heavy pails of water to his small garden, but he refused to accept any offers of help. He would say, “Ani mekayem mitzvas yishuv Eretz Yisrael — I am fulfilling the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael.”

Before moving to America with his family when he was 16, Chaim Yissachar told the Saba Kaddisha that he was going there. “L’an — Where to?” he asked. “New York” was the reply. The Saba Kaddisha told him that he knew New York because In his younger years he had traveled there to raise money to support Torah. “Ani hayiti b’New York v’hanasi Avraham Lincoln — I was in New York with the President, Abraham Lincoln.” Indeed, Abraham Lincoln visited New York in February of 1861 right before his inauguration. The Saba Kaddisha was about 49 years old at the time.

With Chassidic leaders

Chassidic Rebbes of Europe had a special reverence for the Saba Kaddisha. The old Strikover Rebbe, zy”a, came to visit him in 1924 as well as the Bais Avraham of Slonim, zy”a, in 1929. The most famous visit was that of the Minchas Elazar of Munkacs, zy”a, in 1930. An entire 280-page book called Mas’os Yerushalayim was written by a member of his entourage describing his 12 eventful days in Eretz Yisrael. It was clear from the onset that visiting the Saba Kaddisha was the focus of his journey. The Munkatcher Rebbe spent months in preparation, perfecting a Sephardic Hebrew so that they could communicate. They had two meetings, including some hours spent behind closed doors.

On his last day there, the 22nd of Iyar, the Saba Kaddisha was niftar. The Munkatcher Rebbe, who had traveled all the way from Europe just to meet him, was present in the room at the time of his petirah. Upon concluding Krias Shema with “emes,” the Saba Kaddisha asked that his tefillin be undone and said, “Dai, dai. Ha’ikar hu ha’emes. Eini yachol yoser — Enough, enough. Truth is paramount. I cannot do more.” The Munkatcher Rebbe brought him a cup of milk. He made a Shehakol, took a taste and then his holy neshamah departed.

Zechuso yagen aleinu.