Shmita Year Complicates Etrog Sourcing

Rachal Gabay is sitting at a table surrounded by boxes of etrogim. She is holding one out in front of her.
Jerusalem Gift Shop owner Rachel Gabay checks the quality of the etrogim she ordered from Israel. | Photo by Sasha Rogelberg

Etrogim have the reputation of being a finicky fruit: They’re expensive and challenging to grow, with the trees prone to infection and bugs.

This year, as Sukkot approaches, the etrog is only becoming more notorious — now more expensive to buy and harder to get from Israel, where many prefer to source the citrus. 

But local purveyors are saying not to panic. While they navigate inflation and the agricultural implications of the shmita year, they are trying to make sure these challenges are not impacting Jews looking to participate in the Sukkot mitzvah.

Last year marked the shmita year, the seventh year in a seven-year agriculture cycle, where the Torah instructs the Jewish people to let the earth lie fallow, to not tend to their fields or harvest their crops. While few American Jews abide by these laws, Israel closely follows them. In 2014, the last shmita year, etrog production was cut by 50%, according to Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Depending on where you’re buying your etrog in Philadelphia this year, it may be harder to come across one from Israel and a little more expensive. Bala Cynwyd-based Meir Badush is selling etrogim this year from Morocco, where his brother operates a farm.

Due to inflation, Badush has increased the price of his etrogim and lulavim sets from $60 to $75. 

“There’s still a slight increase in price, like everything else,” he said. “Shipping costs, all the materials, everything costs more money.”

Rabbi Yochonon Goldman of B’nai Abraham Chabad in Center City is experiencing a similar issue. This year, all of his etrogim are coming from Calabria, Italy; it’s more expensive to buy Italian etrogim, and because of the Chabad’s budget, Goldman has put a cap on the price he’s willing to pay.

“There’s always a range of prices … there are people that spend hundreds of dollars to be able to do this mitzvah in a beautiful way with a beautiful fruit,” Goldman said. “But we basically tell our suppliers, ‘This is the price range that we need to stick to.’”

This allows the Chabad to keep the cost of its etrogim and lulavim sets close to what it’s been in previous years, but there’s still a risk that the quality of the fruit may not be the same as in past years.

Some Jews prefer Calabrian etrogim even when it’s not a shmita year, Goldman said. Many believe that Moses instructed the Jewish people to go to Italy to source their etrogim.

But for Jews who still want to support Israel over the holiday, they need not look too far. Jerusalem Gift Shop in Rhawnhurst will still source etrogim from Israel this year. 

According to owner Rachel Gabay, it’s permissible to harvest etrogim during the shmita year if there is specific supervision and rabbinical blessings. Just like other sellers, Gabay paid a bit more this year for her etrogim.

“They brought them all the way from Eretz Yisrael by airplane, and they pay taxes and pay everything, so we try to compromise with them,” Gabay said.

While local retailers have tried their best to keep prices low for buyers, wholesale sellers must also navigate cost increases and shipping delays. It’s part of the job and always has been.

Aaron Weider, the owner of Famous Etrogim in Rockland Country, New York, who sources etrogim for Germantown Jewish Centre, said that following 9/11, finding and distributing etrogim in the Northeast U.S. was more challenging than it was today. He’s used to a difficult Sukkot season.

“It has its challenges; there’s no question about it,” he said.

In 2001, Sukkot began on Oct. 1. In addition to limited flights and transportation in the United States following 9/11, it was difficult getting products from the Middle East, including Israel, to the U.S. 

This year, shipping costs for etrogim have increased significantly, but Weider plans to only modestly increase his prices. He hopes that growing interest in people completing the mitzvah of shaking the lulav and etrog will increase demand for his product. 

At the end of the day, local etrogim sellers are keeping with this philosophy, too.

Marcy Bacine, co-manager of the Little Shop in Germantown Jewish Centre, doesn’t expect a large profit from the 75-plus etrogim and lulavim sets she plans to sell this year.

Most businesses aren’t relying on etrogim exclusively to keep them in the black, and behind these businesses are Jews who just want to make sure people have access to the materials they need for the holiday.

“I view this as a mitzvah that people are doing, so I don’t look to make a lot of money from it,” Bacine said.


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