The question arises every year whether a green Etrog is Kosher for use on Sukkot. We will outline the issues involved and present some conclusions about this disputed area of Halacha.
Mishnah and Gemara
The Mishnah (Sukkah 34b) records a dispute between Rabi Meir and Rabi Yehuda as to whether a green Etrog is Kosher. Rabi Meir believes that it is Kosher and Rabi Yehuda believes that it is not. The Halacha follows the opinion of Rabi Yehuda (Rambam Hilchot Lulav 8:8 and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 648:21). At first, the Gemara (Sukkah 31b) suggests that Rabi Yehuda disqualifies a green Etrog because it is not Hadar (beautiful). The Torah describes the Etrog as a Pri Eitz Hadar (the fruit of a beautiful tree) and thus it appears that the Torah requires the Etrog to be Hadar. The Gemara concludes, though, that Rabi Yehuda disqualifies a green Etrog because it is immature.
The Lenient Approach of Tosafot, Rosh, and the Shulchan Aruch
Tosafot (Sukkah 31b s.v. Hayarok) and the Rosh (Sukkah 3:21) write, “…And those Etrogim that come to us green are Kosher even according to Rabi Yehuda if they will eventually turn yellow even after a very long time, because if they will eventually turn yellow, they have definitely matured.” The consensus view among the Acharonim (see Mishnah Berurah 648:65) is that Tosafot and the Rosh are lenient even if the Etrogim have not begun to turn yellow. Tosafot and the Rosh might have been motivated to find a leniency as it was quite difficult for them to procure Kosher Etrogim as is evident from Tosafot Sukkah 27b s.v. Kol. (Asserting that Tosafot was motivated by such concerns and not merely abstractly seeking the truth is not heretical, see Rav Hershel Schachter’s citation of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in Nefesh Harav pp.12-14.) Nevertheless, there must be a basis and not merely a motivation for their lenient ruling. How can Tosafot and the Rosh rely on the assumption that the Etrog will eventually turn yellow after Sukkot? Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 648:21) appears to rule completely in accordance with the opinion of Tosafot and the Rosh.
The Mishnah Berurah (648:64) explains that the Tosafot, Rosh, and the Shulchan Aruch are speaking of a situation where one knows that the nature of the Etrogim from the region where they grew is to turn yellow after a considerable amount of time. The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 648:42) and the Chazon Ish (O.C. 148:3) appear to explain Tosafot in a similar manner. The Shulchan Aruch Harav (648:30) explains that Tosafot, Rosh, and the Shulchan Aruch are speaking of an Etrog that is quite large and it is quite evident that it has matured and eventually will turn yellow. The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 648:42) seems to explain Tosafot as relying upon a Rov, that one may be lenient if experience indicates that at least most of the green Etrogim available in the area eventually turn yellow.
The Stringent Opinions of the Bach and Teshuvot Mishkenot Yaakov
The Bach (commentary to the Tur 648 s.v. Hayarok), however, adopts a stringent approach to this issue. He argues that Tosafot is lenient only if the Etrog has already turned completely yellow before Sukkot. This is a particularly difficult argument as it assumes that Tosafot seek to teach that although the Etrog was green at some point before Sukkot, it does not disqualify the Etrog. The difficulty is that all Etrogim are green when they are removed from the tree (as noted by the Taz O.C. 648:18).
The Bach marshals another argument to disqualify a green Etrog. He asserts that the Gemara concludes that a green Etrog is disqualified because it is immature, only according to the view of Rabi Yehuda. The Bach notes that this reflects the unique view of Rabi Yehuda that the Etrog is not required to be Hadar. Thus, he argues that since the Halacha follows the majority opinion that the Four Minim must be Hadar, the Halacha is that a green Etrog is Pasul also because it is not Hadar and not only because it is immature. Recall that the Gemara (Sukkah 31b) initially suggests that a green Etrog is Pasul because it is not Hadar. According to this approach the fact that the Etrog will eventually turn green is irrelevant and thus only a completely yellow Etrog is acceptable since only a yellow Etrog is Hadar. The Taz (ad. loc.) and the Chazon Ish (O.C. 148:3) note that the weakness of the Bach’s argument is the lack of a source in the Gemara for this assertion.
Teshuvot Mishkenot Yaakov (O.C. 156) buttresses the opinion of the Bach. He notes that the Rashba (Sukkah 35b s.v Dihava Leh) and the Ran (Sukkah 17b in the pages of the Rif s.v. Aval) group the Pesul of a green Etrog with other Pesulim that are unacceptable because they are not Hadar. The Chazon Ish (ad. loc.) suggests that the Rashba and Ran speak only of Etrogim that will not eventually turn yellow. The Mishkenot Yaakov also notes that the Zohar writes that it is best to use a yellow Etrog for Sukkot. The Chazon Ish counters that the Zohar only believes that it is preferable to use a yellow Etrog, but does not reject the opinion of Tosafot. The Mishkenot Yaakov, though, concludes that the Halacha is in accordance with the Bach that the Etrog should be completely yellow.
We should note, however, that the Bach records that common practice is to be lenient about this matter. In addition, we should note that the Mishkenot Yaakov issued many rulings that run contrary to the commonly accepted opinions and practices in many areas of Halacha including Kashrut (Yoreh Deah 34), Eiruvin (O.C. 119-122), Gittin (Even HaEzer 27), and Mikvaot (Y.D. 45 and 46).
Finally, we should note that the Rambam (ibid) might agree with the approach of the Bach and the Mishkenot Yaakov, as he simply writes that a green Etrog is Pasul without qualifying this rule. See Rav Yechiel Michel Stern’s Halachot of the Four Species (p.21 of the Hebrew section) for further discussion of the Rambam’s opinion regarding this matter.
The Compromise View of the Maharil
The Maharil (cited by the Magen Avraham 648:23 and the Taz 648:18) rules that a green Etrog is Kosher if it is starting to turn yellow. The fact that the Etrog is starting to turn yellow is sufficient proof that it will eventually turn completely yellow. The Magen Avraham explains that the Maharil (a late Rishon that Ashkenazic Jews follow many of his rulings and practices and who typically does not argue with the earlier Rishonim of great stature such as Tosafot and the Rosh) fundamentally agrees with the Tosafot. However, he is concerned that we might err in our assessment that the Etrog will eventually turn yellow.
The Magen Avraham even argues that the Shulchan Aruch seems to agree with the Maharil. The Taz, however, might not agree with this assessment as he merely cites the Maharil separate from his discussion of the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch Harav (ad. loc.) notes that common practice is to follow the approach of the Maharil and the Magen Avraham appears to agree with this assessment.
The Shulchan Aruch HaRav in presenting the opinion of the Maharil uses the language that “Ein Anu Bekiin”, that we are no longer proficient in judging whether an Etrog will eventually turn yellow. We should note that it is a typical approach among later Poskim to avoid making certain “judgment calls” that the Gemara or Rishonim allow Poskim to make. Examples of this phenomenon include the Rosh (Niddah 2:4) and the Rama (Yoreh Deah 23:6, 105:9, 187:1, and 196:13).
This might be a manifestation of the general attitude of “Yeridat Hadorot”, that the later generations are not as worthy as previous ones (based on Shabbat 112b). It also might be an expression of the assertion of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Shiurim Lizecher Abba Mari z”l 1:228) that much of Halacha is established by traditions that are transmitted orally and visually from one generation to another rather than in writing. The Maharil might be noting that the oral and visual tradition how to determine that a completely green Etrog will eventually turn yellow had been lost by his time.
Rulings of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Poskim
The Chayei Adam (151:15) and the Mishnah Berurah (ibid) rule in accordance with the compromise view of the Maharil. This seems to be the conclusion of the Chazon Ish (ad. loc.) as well (though the Chazon Ish appears to require that the majority of the Etrog should turn yellow). The rulings of the Chayei Adam and the Mishnah Berurah are not surprising in light of the fact that the Magen Avraham accepts the ruling of the Maharil, the Taz cites the Maharil without expressing dissent, and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav notes that the commonly accepted practice is to follow the Maharil. In addition, the Biur HaGra (O.C. 648:21) clearly rejects the opinion of the Bach. Rav Yaakov Ettlinger in Bikkurei Yaakov 648:49 (this work is one of the authoritative works on the Halachot of the Arba Minim) rules that a Baal Nefesh (a person on a very high spiritual level) should be careful to take only a completely yellow Etrog. The Aruch HaShulchan (ad. loc.) writes that one should “definitely” seek to accommodate the compromise of the Maharil but that when there is no other choice one might take a completely green Etrog, “since it is known that most [of the green Etrogim] eventually turn yellow.”
We should note that it is not so simple to apply this leniency of the Aruch Hashulchan to today’s situation. We cannot issue a ruling based on an assessment made by the Aruch Hashulchan based on his experience with the Etrogim that he encountered in Lithuania in the late nineteenth century. The Chazon Ish notes that it seems from his experience (he does not state whether he refers to his experience in his native Lithuania or in Eretz Yisrael where he moved later in life or to both) that it is unusual for an Etrog that is mostly green to eventually turn yellow. Moreover, we should note that it would appear to be more difficult to make such an assessment in our times as today Etrogim come from many different countries and it is necessary to assess each group of Etrogim. Indeed, the Chazon Ish writes that this is a matter that varies in different locations and time periods. A possible means to justify those who purchase a completely green Etrog today is that perhaps one may assume that an immature Etrog would not be sold commercially.
Turning to the Sephardic Poskim, the Kaf HaChaim (648:124) notes that the venerated custom in Jerusalem is to take a green Etrog that if either it has begun to turn yellow or if one is “certain” that the Etrog will eventually turn yellow. Rav Ovadia
Yosef (see Yalkut Yosef p.725 in the 5760 edition) rules that one should make an effort to use a yellow Etrog. However, he writes that the accepted practice is to use a green Etrog if it is known that the Etrog will turn yellow when yellow apples are placed near the Etrog.
The “Yellow Apple Remedy”
Indeed, it is a well-known practice to place a green Etrog in a box and to surround it by very fragrant yellow apples in order to induce it to turn yellow. Rav Y.M. Stern (Halachot of the Four Species p. 17) writes that the box should be closed for twenty-four hours but not more than that, as this can cause the stem to fall off. Yalkut Yosef advises that the apples should be kept at a slight distance from the stem to avoid this problem.
Although there is a Halachic justification for those who take a completely green Etrog today, one should only use a green Etrog if it has begun to turn yellow.