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Question: Every year at this time we are bombarded with a proliferation of esrogim merchants lauding their wares. Some also point to the superiority of their specific Moroccan, Greek or Italian esrogim. I usually do not succumb to their pitch as my heart is always set on supporting the State of Israel, and I end up buying an Israeli etrog. This year some have made mention of a problem regarding the shemittah. What do you suggest?

Paul Gold
Via email

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Answer: I advise you to do as you have done all the other years and as I and my entire family do: buy an Israeli etrog and lulav (if they are available). Our great Gaonim of generations past always sought to fulfill the mitzvah of Arba Minim – the Four Species – with an etrog and a lulav from the Land of Israel.

In order to better understand this matter, we turn to our good friend, HaRav Shlomo Wahrman, zt”l, late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Nassau County, on whose impressive work, Orot Chag HaSukkot (siman 35), we base our answer in part:

The Mishna (Sukkah 39a) states: “If one purchases a lulav from his fellow during the seventh year (i.e., the shemittah, the sabbatical year), the latter should give him the etrog (along with the lulav) as a gift since he is not permitted to purchase it in the sabbatical year.”

The Gemara explains that the “fellow” referred to in the Mishnah is, in actuality, an am ha’aretz – an unknowledgeable person who is suspected of engaging in the sale of fruit of shevi’it.

The Gemara (ibid. 39b) questions whether, if such is the case, we should not refrain as well from purchasing a lulav from this person. The answer is that we are discussing a lulav that blossomed in the sixth year of the shemittah cycle and was harvested in the seventh year. [Regarding a lulav we go according to the time of its blossoming while regarding an etrog we go according to the time of its harvesting.]

Rambam (in his Perush HaMishnayot on the third chapter of Sukkah) posits that our rule is as follows: Regarding an etrog we reckon its time of harvest. If it is harvested in the seventh year, it is considered the fruit of shevi’it in spite of having been fully ripe during the sixth year. Regarding a lulav, however, one may sell it just as one sells wood, for there is no sanctity of shevi’it applicable to it. Rabbeinu Ovadiah MiBartenura notes in his commentary that a lulav is just like any other piece of wood, with no shevi’it sanctity. Thus, according to both Rambam and Bartenura, even if a lulav blossomed during the shemittah year, it is just a piece of wood and not a fruit [and thus not restricted].

Yet it is obvious that Rambam and Bartenura are at odds with the Gemara, which offers the reason that the lulav is permitted is the fact that it had already blossomed in the sixth year [but was harvested in the seventh year]. The Ran (ad loc.), however, in addition to both the Gemara’s reasoning and the reason as given by Rambam and Bartenura, also refers to the fact that the sale is based on the lulav.

In fact, there is a halachic difference between a lulav that blossomed in the sixth year and was harvested in the seventh year and a lulav that blossomed during the seventh year and was harvested in the eighth year, following the shemittah. In the latter case, according to our Gemara, the lulav must be given as a present [and the sale would be based on the etrog – because the etrog that was harvested in the eighth year is not endowed with the sanctity of shevi’it, whereas the lulav blossomed during the seventh year and is therefore sanctified. However, according to Rambam and Bartenura, once we are in the eighth year (sheminit), the lulav as well will not possess any sanctity since it is “just wood.” Thus, in this situation we may purchase both the lulav and the etrog from the am ha’aretz.

We must explain the Gemara’s reasoning in accordance with what the Gemara further derives (40a) from the verse in Parashat Behar (Vayikra 25:6), “The Sabbath (shemittah) produce of the land shall be yours to eat, for you, for your manservant, your bondmaid, your laborer and the resident who dwells with you.”

“For you” in this verse parallels eating, as is the case for any item where the pleasure [of eating] comes at the same time as its consumption. In the case of [most] wood, the pleasure (or benefit) comes only after its consumption [for example, when it is used as firewood]. Rashi explains that we understand that the lulav is used basically as a broom to sweep the floor and that its benefit, sweeping, and its consumption are compared to eating in that they go together. Thus, a lulav is different from “all other wood.”

On the other hand, we might explain Rambam’s reasoning to be that we are not really concerned with whether “the pleasure and consumption” come together. Rather, our main concern, according to Rambam, is whether the lulav is considered a fruit.

In explaining Rambam’s reasoning, Rav Wahrman cites the Gemara (Niddah 8a), which states as follows: “The rose, the henna, the lotus and the balsam [trees] as well as their [monetary] proceeds are subject to the laws of shevi’it.” Rashi ad loc. s.v Yesh lahen shevi’it – they are considered for shevi’it – explains that these trees must be declared mufkar, i.e., rendered ownerless by declaration, and one is forbidden from doing any business with them. We do not say that they are ‘just wood’ and that shevi’it is not applicable to wood.

But the Gemara continues: And R. Pedath asks, “Who is the Tanna who considers balsam a fruit [and thus liable to shevi’it]? Surely it is R. Eliezer, who rules (Orlah 1:7) that if one curdles [milk] with the resinous substance of [a tree liable to] orlah, he is in violation of a prohibition. [Thus, we consider the resin as a fruit of that tree.] However, this is only his view. The Rabbis obviously do not consider the resin to be fruit.

Tosefot HaRosh ask: If balsam wood is such that its benefit and consumption come together, what is the reasoning of the Rabbis? On the other hand, if we assume that their benefit and consumption do not occur together, how do we explain R. Eliezer’s reasoning?

Rav Wahrman points out that this can be derived from the Gemara. Rambam concludes that the matter is not dependent on whether the wood’s benefit and consumption come together, but rather whether it is referred to as a fruit. Indeed, Rambam (Hilchot Shemittah VeYovel 7:19) rules as the Mishnah does in Shevi’it 7:6 – namely, that the rose, the henna and the lotus trees are liable to shevi’it because they are fruits, whereas balsam is not [considered fruit and thus is not] liable to shevi’it. We see from here, as the Gemara in Niddah does, that “benefit and consumption coming together” does not serve as a factor. Thus, Rambam rules that these trees are only considered on the basis of whether they are fruits.

Rambam surely does not consider the lulav a fruit, even though its benefit and consumption occur together and it blossomed in the seventh year.

Thus, Rav Wahrman leaves us with a clear approach to the lulav, but we are still faced with numerous problems regarding the etrog.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.