Under ideal circumstances, purchasing the arba minim should be easily available and cheap. The Rambam writes (Moreh Nevuchim 3:43) that taking the arba minim on Sukkos expresses our joy at the bounty of Eretz Yisroel. They signify our “joy at leaving the desert, that was not a place of seed, fig, vine, and pomegranate, and there no water to drink (Devorim 23:14), to a place of fruit trees and rivers.” The arba minim are not only the best species of Eretz Yisroel, he adds, but were “very plentiful in Eretz Yisroel at that time, and everybody could find them.”
This was all very well when Jews lived in or near Eretz Yisroel. But as they moved north into France, Germany, Poland, and Russia, freezing winters made it all but impossible for them to be able to grow the sensitive esrog. Since the days of the Rishonim, seforim began discussing what to do when there is only one esrog available for one or more towns.
Sliced and Diced
Among the first poskim to discuss the one esrog per town quandary was the Maharam of Rothenberg. He pointed out that due to the necessity of owning the esrog on the first day, each person using the esrog had to be careful to gift it to the person who was using it after him.
“The minhag is to buy an esrog in partnership from the money of the kehillah,” he wrote. “Each person who wants to make a brachoh it is given it as a gift when he takes it to fulfill the mitzvah. When he has fulfilled the mitzvah, he then give it to his fellow Jew as a gift, and his fellow Jew to his fellow Jew, for the halachah is that ‘a gift [given] on condition that it must be returned (to the original person) is considered a gift.'”
Another Rishon, the Kol Bo, wrote in the name of Rabeinu Peretz that it was not necessary for each person to go through the conscious procedure of giving the esrog to the next person in line as a gift. According to the Kol Bo the process is automatic, for everyone has in mind that whoever takes the esrog owns it completely.
“In Germany the minhag is to buy one set of arba minim in the name of the whole kehillah with the money of the kehillah, and on Yom Tov each person fulfills the mitzvah with that set without making any formal act of giving it over,” he writes. “They are doing the right thing because everyone has in mind to give over his portion to the person taking it so that he should fulfill the mitzvah.“
As a specific example of the one esrog per town problem, the Kol Bo mentions the the Ra’avad. Because of the high price of esrogim, the wealthy Ra’avad “would buy an esrog at his own expense for the whole kehillah of Montpelier [in southern France] and the whole kehillah fulfilled the mitzvah with it, for he gave it to each one of them.”
In Terumas Hadeshen (Pesakim 52),Rav Yisroel Isserlein (1390-1460) discusses how a group of kehillos came up with an original strategy to compensate for their scarcity of esrogim.
“You asked me about a surprising incident that happened near to you, when several settlements only had one esrog for the mitzvah of the chag,” he writes. “It was an emergency situation as they could not spend any more money, but all the settlements wanted to fulfill their obligation. They cut one esrog into several pieces and sent each settlement one piece. Before the pieces reached the settlements, they had already shriveled to less than a kebeitzah. Even so, they blessed over them on the first day. You ask me whether it was halachically valid to do this.”
After offering a number of reasons why this was a mistake, the Terumas Hadeshen concludes that even if you want to argue with his reasoning, there is a rule that one should never present the public with a halachic ruling that seems astounding and unreasonable.
The lone esrog sometimes ran into trouble as it made its rounds from person to person. Rav Meir Katzanellenbogen of Padua (1482-1565) writes how an esrog in his town was kidnapped en route.
“On one occasion when there was only one esrog in Padua, the Ashkenazi kehillah sent it to the Lo’azim kehillah [that kept the minhag of Italy],” he reported. “On the way, students attacked the messenger and stole it from him, and they had to redeem it from them at a high price.”
In Sefer Hazichronos (Tel Aviv, 1926), Eliezer Eliyahu Friedman discusses how two Lithuanian towns, Rassein and Kelm, failed to share their esrog due to the tardiness of a messenger. After the people of Rassein hurriedly davened vassikin and performed the mitzvah, they quickly sent the esrog to Kelm with an irresponsible messenger, but oblivious of the importance of his errand, the messenger took his time and arrived in Kelm at midnight when the whole town was asleep. He absolved himself from his inadequate delivery service with the excuse that the people of Kelm are always asleep, “In Kelm shloft men.“
Unwilling to eat before fulfilling the mitzvah of arba minim, many Jews living in the second or third towns on line for an esrog often fasted until the afternoon.
The Financial Side
Jews often went to extreme lengths to procure their wares from distant places and were reluctant for anything to bite into their profits. This was relevant in towns where communal leaders customarily received their esrogim free at public expense. Concerned that they might damage commerce by selling or giving or giving away their free esrogim, the Pinkas Hamedinah of Lithuania, which records communal decrees enacted between 1623 and 1761, includes a rule that any leader, dayan, or other appointee who received a free esrog, was forbidden to sell or give away his esrog to anyone in his town.
The lucrative esrog trade was not lost on non-Jews. After the Guelph League of Tuscany (led by Florence) defeated the Republic of Pisa in 1329, the peace terms included a clause prohibiting Pisa to continue dealing in esrogim. Presumably, the victors wanted to take over the lucrative trade with Europe for themselves.
Esrogim were also taxable. In 1693, King John Sobieski of Poland took a vast sum from the Jews in exchange for the right to import esrogim, and in the mid-18th century, Queen Maria Theresa of Austria, probably the most anti-Semitic monarch of her time, demanded that Jews pay 40,000 florins a year for permission to import esrogim. It took a lot of lobbying to persuade her to lower the sum to 12,000 florins.
The Siege of Teveriah
Esrog shortages were triggered not only by bad growing conditions in cold climates, but also by bad weather and war.
At the beginning of the 17th century, an Italian doctor, Yosef Hakohen, reported how freezing weather raised the price of esrogim sky high in Italy.
“In 1600 there was a great cold within the borders of Genoa [the state of Genoa] and all the esrog and citrus trees died,” he wrote. “There were almost no esrogim in the whole of Italy, raising the price of an esrog to ten gold coins. Nothing like this was ever heard of. Nonetheless, wealthy Jews paid money for the mitzvah; may Hashem remember this to their benefit.” (Emek Habochoh)
During the 18th century, Dahir al-Umar, the most prominent local governor in Eretz Yisroel, invited Rav Chaim Abulafia to Teveriah to help him develop the city. Together with newly arrived Jews, Rav Chaim built a shul, homes, a bathhouse, shops, and an oil press, and planted fields and vineyards.
In his sefer Zimras Ha’aretz, Rav Chaim’s son-in-law describes how the young Jewish community almost failed to fulfill the mitzvah of arba minim when Teveriah was besieged in 1742.
“Shofars and s’chach were available and all the mitzvos were done in accordance with halachah,” he writes. “The Jews observed the Yomim Tovim joyfully, even organizing a simchas beis hasho’evah with music, dance, and song, while the noise of battering rams and cannon balls rose to the heavens. Nothing was lacking except the arba minim. Although lulavim were available from palm trees in the town, the other three minim were missing for Teveriah was under siege since the 5th of Ellul.”
“The Jews were very upset that they could not observe this mitzvah. Each day of the seven days of Sukkos they said, ‘Tomorrow Hashem will help us.’ By Hoshanah Rabbah they were very concerned for the deadline was about to pass. But that very day there was a miracle. The ministers of the governor [besieging the town] attempted to make peace. A Jew entered [Teveriah] with the governor’s delegation, for… the gevir, Rav Y. Luchat had given him an esrog, hadas, and aravah. Then the people cut down a lulav from a palm tree and everyone blessed al netilas lulav and shehecheyanu. There was such great joy at the mitzvah that people wept with excitement. Ashreichem Yisroel.“
Esrogim were not the only item of the arba minim susceptible to shortages. In his autobiography, Chaim Weizman unconsciously admits that he had less sensitivity to mitzvos than the British Army personnel when he heard that hadassim were unavailable in Eretz Yisroel just after World War I.
The story begins in September 1918 when he was about to leave Eretz Yisroel for England. At the train station, two elderly Jews turned to him and said, “You can’t go yet. There are still some matters of importance to be settled here.”
“Do you not know that Sukkos is almost upon us and we have no haddasim,” the elder of the two explained.
Sneeringly, Weizman remarks, “It had not occurred to me to include this particular job among the many chores of the Zionist commission, operating in the midst of a bloody war.”
Due to a quarantine imposed on all plants imported from Egypt, the two men wanted the British Army to authorize the importation of hadassim from Trieste in Italy. In a rush to leave, Weizman handed the two men over to his colleagues, assuring them that every effort would be made to ensure the supply of hadassim for Sukkos, admitting in parentheses, “By what means, I would have been hard put to explain.”
Down in Egypt, he was taking leave of General Allenby before his boat sailed when the general suddenly said, “By the way, about those myrtles [hadassim]!”
Pulling a letter out his pocket he glanced at it and added, “You know it is an important business. It’s all in the Bible; I read it up in the Book of Nechemiah last night. Well you’ll be glad to hear we have lifted the quarantine and a consignment of myrtles will get to Palestine in good time for the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Trial and Error pg. 288)
(Partial source: Shlomo Ashkenazi, Avnei Chen, Sinai Tel Aviv 5750)