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What Happened to Corfu Esrogim?

Dr. P. Preschel Herzog

Corfu’s esrog trade — which for centuries produced some of the world’s most sought-after esrogim — is nonexistent today. Interestingly, it is not the halachic issues that arose regarding the esrogim that caused them to disappear from the market, but a sad episode in the history of this beautiful Greek Island.

Monday, September 20, 2010

For several centuries, Corfu was one of the chief suppliers of esrogim to Jews all over the world. Corfu’s esrogim are mentioned as early as 1646 by Italian scholar and botanist Giovanni Battista Ferrari, in a book he published in Rome. Ferrari wrote that rich Jews in Corfu spent considerable amounts of money on very smooth esrogim with no flaws, which they packed into small boxes and sent abroad as gifts to their friends.

Probably the earliest reference in Torah literature to Corfu esrogim dates to the second half of the eighteenth century, in Michtam LeDavid by Rav David Pardo of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Another reference can be found in the writings of Rav Daniel Terni, rabbi of Florence, a younger contemporary of Rav Pardo.

The Corfu esrogim were very beautiful, and therefore very popular in Jewish communities. Ironically, the very beauty of Corfu esrogim caused Eastern European rabbis to doubt their kashrus early in the nineteenth century. They suspected that the growers in Corfu were grafting the esrogim with other citrus fruits to enhance their appearance, thus rendering them unfit for use in the mitzvah of arba’ah minim.

Rav Ephraim Zalman Margulies, one of the leading rabbis of Galicia, defended the kashrus of the Corfu esrogim. In a lengthy responsum discussing grafting in the growing of esrogim, he states that a trustworthy person who had visited the island and seen the groves had told him that these esrogim were not products of grafting.

Another staunch defender of the Corfu esrogim was the Radziner Rebbe, Rav Gershon Chanoch Leiner. The Radziner Rebbe visited Italy in search of the chilazon (the fish from which techeiles was extracted in order to dye tzitzis blue). He also visited Corfu to examine the esrog groves for himself. Upon his return to Poland, the Radziner Rebbe publicly stated: “I want to make known to all of Israel that I myself inspected the esrog groves ... There were no grafted trees there. The rabbi of the community has announced many times that whoever would bring him a Corfu esrog that came for a grafted tree would receive from him ten thalers. Yaakov Matitya, one of the wealthy Jews of the island, showed me letters from leading rabbis of the Holy Land, asking him and his late father to send them esrogim.”

The Radziner Rebbe also stated that leading chassidic leaders of the past used esrogim from Corfu, and that repudiating these esrogim was tantamount to declaring that these great leaders acted improperly. The Rebbe’s statements were displayed in shtieblach throughout Poland.

On the other hand, Yalkut Pri Etz Hadar, published in 1898 by Rav Yochanan Noach ben Rav Avraham Alexander, is a collection of rabbinic statements prohibiting Corfu esrogim. A list of rabbis who appealed to use only esrogim from the Land of Israel, rabbinic statements prohibiting Corfu esrogim, and reprints of Hebrew newspaper articles about the boycott on Corfu esrogim are included in Ephraim Deinard’s Milchamah L’Hashem Ba’Amalek.

The Disappearance

At some point, Corfu esrogim began to disappear from the market. But the halachic issues were only one factor in their disappearance. Economics likely played a role as well. The Greek growers hiked up the prices, taking advantage of the Jewish need for the fruit. When the Greek growers finally lowered their prices, Jews were already purchasing esrogim from the Holy Land. The “Chibas Tzion” (Lovers of Zion) movement, which by this time had gained momentum, was encouraging the planting of esrog trees in Palestine.

Nevertheless, Corfu esrogim continued to be sold on the market, albeit in dwindling numbers. The “straw that broke the camel’s back,” curtailing Corfu esrog sales forevermore, was the Corfu Blood Libel of 1891. 


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