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Was the Queen Really Green?

Rabbi Eli Reisman

What color is your esrog? On this simple question hinges a debate originating in the Mishnah. Surprisingly, one main point centers on Esther Hamalkah

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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The common practice today is to use esrogim that have begun to turn yellow, even if they are still mostly green. This is not universally accepted; some, such as the Brisker rabbanim, insist on fully yellow esrogim. In this essay we will explore some of the elements of a centuries-old dispute that continues to this very day.

The Problem with Green Esrogim In the third chapter of Maseches Succah, the Mishnah discusses the status of a green-colored esrog with characteristic brevity: “If it is green like a leek [hayarok kikarsi] — Rabi Meir says it is kosher, and Rabi Yehuda says it is pasul.” The halachah follows Rabi Yehuda, and at first glance, things look pretty bleak for the green esrogim.

But the Gemara teases out a nuance regarding the problem with green esrogim. The esrog is described in the Torah as pri eitz hadar, and we derive from the word hadar that it must be free of certain aesthetic blemishes. Thus an esrog that is totally dried out, or that has certain discolorations, is pasul. The initial assumption of the Gemara is that greenness, too, is an absence of hadar.

The Gemara concludes, however, that this cannot be Rabi Yehuda’s reasoning. Elsewhere we find that Rabi Yehuda, unlike his colleagues, permits using a dried-out esrog, for he interprets the word hadar differently and does not require that the esrog be beautiful. (The halachah does not follow Rabi Yehuda on this point, and we require hadar for our arba minim.) Rather, Rabi Yehuda’s reason is that a green esrog is assumed be immature (lo gamar peira).

Tosafos’s Leniency

Tosafos introduce a considerable leniency based on this explanation, namely that if one has an esrog that is currently green but will turn yellow over time, it would be kosher even according to Rabi Yehuda, since it clearly was not picked too early to ripen. This leniency is adopted by the Rosh , the Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch.

As understood by the Taz and Magen Avraham, this allows the use of such an esrog even before it turns yellow, so long as one knows that it will do so. We only need to know that it stayed on the tree long enough to be able to turn yellow later.

The Vilna Gaon, Chayei Adam, Shulchan Aruch Harav, and Elya Rabbah agree with this interpretation, and Mishnah Berurah incorporates it into his commentary, albeit with one caveat: Based on a ruling of Maharil mentioned in Magen Avraham, Mishnah Berurah rules that one should only use a green esrog if it has already begun to turn yellow, for otherwise one can’t be certain that it will in fact change color in the future.

The Bach’s Objection

The Bach raises an objection to this leniency. The Gemara clearly assumed from the outset that a green esrog lacked hadar, and only invoked the gamar peira reason to explain why Rabi Yehuda, who does not require hadar, nevertheless considers green invalid. Since we, unlike Rabi Yehuda, rule that an esrog must be hadar, we have no reason to disregard the initial assumption that a green esrog lacks this qualification. 

Hence, argues the Bach, a green esrog is pasul for two reasons: it is not hadar, and it may be immature. Even if we know it will turn yellow later, Tosafos’s leniency as understood by the aforementioned authorities would only cover the second reason, but the first problem — hadar — would still apply until it finishes turning yellow. This stringency is endorsed by Bikkurei Yaakov, Beis Meir, Shiyarei Knesses Hagedolah, Olas Shabbos, and Mishkenos Yaakov.

A Further Stringency

What about the Tosafos we mentioned above, which allows the use of an esrog that will change color after picking? Several of the aforementioned authorities adopt a different interpretation of the Tosafos, and argue that Tosafos only mean to allow the use of a green esrog after it turns yellow, not before.


Obviously, once an esrog turns yellow, there will be no hadar issue, as hadar is dependent solely on its status at the time of use. Tosafos, according to this view, wish to clarify further that the problem of gamar peira also resolves itself once the esrog changes color, even though that at the time of picking it was unfinished. In other words, one might have argued that an esrog picked before ripening on the tree is permanently disqualified, and Tosafos are dispelling such an assertion.

By reading Tosafos this way, these Acharonim are arguing with the Taz and Magen Avraham on two counts: 1) They hold that green lacks hadar, and that 2) a yellow coloration is per se required for the esrog to be considered gamar peira.

The Story So Far

To sum up, we have learned thus far that:

(1) Although the Mishnah flatly disqualifies green esrogim, many poskim understand the sole problem to be the assumption of immaturity. They accept any esrog that is known to be mature enough to turn yellow in the future.

(2) The Bach objected because he argues that a green esrog lacks hadar and thus remains pasul until it turns yellow. 

(3) A stringent reading of Tosafos alleges that the maturity problem, too, applies until final ripening.

Enter the Zohar

Several Acharonim point out that the Zohar gives seems to consider green not only kosher, but optimal: “If it is yarok it is preferable, just as Esther was yerakrokes.” 

The idea that Esther had a tinge of yarok is mentioned in the Gemara: “Esther was yerakrokes, yet a thread of grace was strung upon her.” But only the Zohar draws a connection between her color and the esrog. What is the connection between Esther and the esrog? Bikkurei Yaakov hints that they share some secret connection (“meramzim l’sod echad”) but declines to reveal said secret. At any rate, this Zohar tells us that green is not only acceptable, but preferable. How are we to reconcile this with the established halachah?

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