The Greek citron variety of citrus medica was botanically classified by Adolf Engler as the "variety etrog", remarking on its major use for the Jewish ritual during Succoth, due to its extraordinary natural beauty. It was also called Pitima, or the Cedro - Citron with a Pigolo - a Pitom, because its usually persisting pitom (carpel). The last does not only enhance its character, but also adds Halachic promotion. Those specific promotional characteristics were considered a threat to other varieties, resulting in more conflicts and controversies than any other ritual species.
The variety was initially known to be cultivated at the Ionian Islands, of which Corfu is the most prominent one, and that's why the Hebrews are calling it Corfu Etrog. Nowadays not one citron tree is found in that island, but is still cultivated at some other Greek Islands for e.g. the Crete and Naxos. The citron is no longer exported from Greece for the ritual purpose; the Crete citron growers are selling it for the candied peel which is called succade, and in Naxos it is also distilled into a special aromatic liqueur called kitron.
According to the local Jewry of Corfu this variety of citron was in their hands since the times of the Second Temple or earlier, and was always used by them for the religious ritual. Afterwards it was appreciated by the Sephardim who settled in Italy, Greece and Turkey, after their exile from Spain in 1492.
Historically speaking, the citron is considered by numerous writers, to be introduced to Europe by the troops of Alexander. It was also described by Theophrastus who succeeded Aristotle as the curator of the Botanical garden in Athens, although it is not certainly clear if they had this specific variety. We don't find a clear illustration of it until the year 1708, when Johann Christoph Volckamer illustrated it with engraving and text in his Hesperides 1708, and applyed to it the name Juden-Citronat. He was probably the first to associate this variety wearing a Pitam to the religious rite, and this is indicating that the variety was already used by Jews in Italy at that time.
When the Corfu started to be imported into the rest of Europe in year 1785, the communities adherent through Ashkenazic tradition to the Genoese variety were very skeptical about it. The Ashkenazim assumed that since the Greek is so much different from the Genoese, it might have been grafted or hybridized. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the Yanova Esrog was ceased due to the battles of Napoleon, it really started to dominate the market.
Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolis in his responsa Bet Ephraim (volume 1;56) confirmed that time, that no grafted citron trees are found on the grounds of the Corfu Island. He argues that even we cannot verify if the plant were propagated by cuttings of grafted plants since the tradition lineage is missing, it should still be considered kosher. Therefore he is concluding that in case no nice, clean and kosher "Yanove Esrog" is to be found, the Corfu Etrog may be used instead. This certification as well as the lenient position of many other authorities, eventually opened doors for the permission of this Etrog.
While the Greek market expanded, citrons were also imported from the shores of Greece itself, especially from the regions of Parga, Rapiza and Agia. Now the conflict was if those plantations are in the same state of kashrus each to another, and to the ones of the Corfu Island.
This controversy started in 1846 when Alexander Ziskind Mintz an Ashkenazi merchant, started claiming that only those from Parga, the origin of his etrogs, are kosher. Those picked at different places which he claimed to be newly planted, one could not be sure whether are grafted or not, at least without careful tree checking upon picking. The local Sephardic rabbis in head of Judah Bibas the Chief Rabbi of Corfu, kept on arguing that all of them are kosher, and that not one grafted tree is to be found on the island of Corfu as well as at the other regions of cultivation. Their position was supported by the great Rabbi Chaim Palagi the chief rabbi (Chacham Bashi) of Izmir in the neighboring Turkey.
The dispute ended up with Rabbi Shlomo Kluger banning all of the sources including those of Mintz which were said to be from Parga, and Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson permitting all of them, if bearing a certification from the local rabbis.
This controversy did not significantly decrease the abundance of the Corfu since its natural beauty was still able to survive a lot, and the good lock of the Corfu influenced the cultivators that whatever will happen, their citron will proceed...
There was an underlying illusion, that it is a belief by the Jews that whoever doesn't reveal a Corfu Etrog for Succot will not succeed the year being alive.
However, this was not the case. The rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor was intended to stop this record breaking monopoly, and banned the Corfu Etrog until the prices will be lowered, and the status of kashrus clarified. Even the certifying rabbi of Corfu published in a letter, that there are already many grafted trees in the region, and the certification process is very complex. The ban was also supported with signatures of many leading rabbi's throughout Eastern Europe.
The preferred etrog was now the Balady of Palestine which just started to be imported, but they placed even the Corsican etrog above the Corfu, while the most respected Genoese citron was very hard to get.
The Jewish etrog merchants committed themselves each to his local rabbi that they will not buy any etrog from the Greek farmers, since this would result in a record breaking expense for the Jewish community, which was impossible for them to pay. This was a great sacrifice from the local Jewry in Corfu, which remained with no income for the year.
This act affected hardly the Greek planters and dealers, and caused them to remain with the high costs and no one dollar of salary, as to force them to stop to monopolize the prices.
In fifteen years later at the pre-Pesach season of 1891, an unidentified female body was found on a street neighboring the Jewish Ghetto. The Greek Etrog growers found a good opportunity for retaliate, and called the police with a claim that this was the work of the Jewish fellows in order to knead her blood into the Matzos. They brought up the dread-known blood libels from the medieval, not about leaving the investigation to the police, but conspirated to ignite the entire Christian population to take justice in their own hands.
They stacked weapons in the courtyard of church nearest the Jewish ghetto, and one night shortly before Pesach fired up with hatred shouting “Death to the Jews” they burst into the ghetto, break into Jewish housed and murdered whoever came under their bloody hands.
The local Church officials on Corfu (as well as on the other Ionian islands) maintained a deliberate neutrality during the anti-Semitic events and did not support the government’s efforts to reestablish order.
After several days of blood spilling, a short investigation found that the victim was Sarda, a member of a famous Jewish family on the Corfu Island, who was killed in sexual violence. The discovery was too late for the total of 139 dead, and this composed the Jewish saying "Rather should the etrog have a “blatt-flaw” (a flaw caused by a scratch from a leaf), but not in any case a “blood-flaw”, referring to the blood spill in Corfu.
As a result the Greek drastically declined in the eastern European communities that switched right away to the Israeli etrogs, but was still doing well in the western, especially with the Hungarian communities who were spoiled by the beauty of the Greek and couldn't imagine an etrog to be without a Pitam.
After World War II, when all who remained with their lives through the Nazi Concentration camps settled eventually in Israel or the United States of America, some still continued using the Greek for at least two decades.
From then on he realized that no Etrog could be picked off the tree without a careful inspection, which he was allowed and able to do.
By the Greek, in contrary, the planters didn't let any Jewish merchants to visit their orchards, neither to check their trees, and only sold etrogs in the Island of Corfu. This forced many Satmars to switch back to the traditional Yanova Citron, even not wearing a Pitam. The cultivation of the Greek citron is from now on concentrated in Halki, Naxos where there is a small production for distillery.
In those years, the Moroccan citron took place and appealed for both traditional purity without any history of grafting, and its bearing a persistent healthy Pitam.
The Greek citron would have been completely lost, if something would not happen, which established it in another country, namely Israel.
At about 1850, Sir Moses Montefiori was instrumental to establish etrog plantations in the then called Palestine, in order to help the Jewish settlers to survive. As the Balady of Palestine had minor chance for success being not so great in shape, color etc., with a persistent style ratio as low as 1;1000 – the Sephardic settlers who were always positive about the Corfu, planted it's seeds at coastal region of Israel, especially in region of Jaffa. The transplantation was witnessed as kosher by the local Sephardic Rabbi Yehuda Halevi.
During days, the Arabic farmers imported cuttings from Greece which were budded onto lemon rootstock for longer life. Besides, the Corfu variety which they called Kubbad abu Nunia (-the citron with persistent style) suffered difficulties to acclimatize in the Palestinian land, and grafting started to be practiced in a large scale.
The great scholar and kabballist Rabbi Aaron Ezrial of the Beit El Synagogue, still certified some ungrafted citron orchards in Jaffa by eliminating the plants he found to be grafted. The Greek-Jaffa citron was also promoted by most of the Sephardic and even some Ashkenazic rabbis who saw a great future in those beautiful and Pitamed citron. The permission was based upon inspection each and every tree prior to pick, just like it is practiced today in Calabria. The major Ashkenazic authorities in Jerusalem at that time were Rabbi Meir Aurbach and Rabbi Shmuel Salant, who permitted only the Balady plantations.
In the following time the Balady was no longer able to compete with the much nicer Greek Citron, and went off the market. In reaction, the Jaffa Rabbi Abraham Kook, who founded and headed the ''Atzei Hadar" union for kosher etrog cultivators and marketers, very much promoted intraspecific grafting upon Balady citron rootstock, which is permitted by Halacha.
The act lead to the establishment of a beautiful variety in Israel, yet kosher, and saved the economy of Israel for decades. As of today it is the leading variety in Israel, and is a very important article in international trade.
Although the graft of Greek citron upon Balady rootstock was a very great idea from practical and Halachic views, it induced suspicion by the costumers who were not able to imagine what happened to the Israeli citron which got suddenly got so nice and beautiful, wearing an erect Pitam.
Such disbelief arose in Israel as well as in Diaspora and many rumors spread in light of it.
We find the late Grand Rabbi of Munkatch, namely Chaim Elazar Shapira being aware about the change. He speculated that it was the same problem continuously claimed against the Greek in their homeland Greece, namely to be grafted or bred with Lemon, which renders it non-kosher.
This was not completely false, since those which were not supervised were of coarse grafted also with sour orange or lemon. Also, even with supervision it is very hard to detect the rootstock type, while not the same as the scion.
Such skeptical views about the beautiful Greek-Israeli were also expressed by the Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Al-Phandri, and by the former chief rabbi Ovadia Yoseph.
Later an ungrafted tree was found in the backyard of a Shochet in Hadera with the name Ordang. Today, most Hasidic communities in Israel as well as in Diaspora are using descendants of this strain when planted under Hashgacha.
The etrog controversy in the years of 1875-6, was mainly lead by the Hebrew Newspaper HaLevanon, between the letters from both sides we can obtain very much important information. Today, it is digitized and available online by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, following are some links to it.
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