None of the arba’ah minim, the four species of plants used on Sukkot, is specifically named in the Torah except for the aravah, the willow. The etrog is referred to as “fruit of a goodly tree”, the lulav (palm) is called “branches of palm trees” and the hadas (myrtle) is “boughs of thick trees”. It was left to the sages to work out what exact trees the Torah had in mind.
For Maimonides, the fact that they identified the etrog as a citron and this identification was accepted over so many centuries is evidence for the unbroken oral tradition in Jewish law.
In Israel in particular, immense care goes into choosing an etrog at this time of year. Etrogim are expensive, but nothing daunts those who are determined to do the mitzvah.
There is a verse in the Song of the Red Sea, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” (Ex. 15:2), which the rabbis translate, “I will beautify Him”. How, they ask, is it possible to beautify the Almighty? By beautifully performing His commandments, including a beautiful sukkah and a beautiful etrog.
The etrog was a major symbol of Judaism in ancient days, and in Second Temple times it was used on coins and burial places and in synagogues, as a symbol rivaling the menorah.
It even became a weapon of war in the course of serious internal conflict; one Sukkot, the priest-king Alexander Yannai scandalised the congregation by pouring the water libation not on the altar but on the floor, and the people pelted him with their etrogim!
In folklore, a person who dreamed of an etrog was highly regarded and thought to be especially close to God. A pregnant woman who bit into the pittom of an etrog was told she would have an easy birth.
All this brings a cynical smile to a later generation, but it shows how much store we place on symbols in Judaism. A world without symbols is a world without song. A way of life without cherished customs lacks colour, poetry and inspiration.
Whether the etrog will regain the high ground cannot be predicted, but there is certainly more symbolism and respect for customs today than for many years.