Wednesday, Jun 19, 2024

Sukkah, Citrons and Early Settlers

Although the shores of America were generally considered a Jewish wasteland until well into the 1900s, there was a surprising number of small outposts where Yiddishkeit was not only practiced, but was adhered to with halachic exactitude and fervor. Still, the Jewish experience from America's earliest days seems to have withered away without leaving much of a trace. In truth, though, it was perhaps those roots, those hardy roots painstakingly supplanted with much mesirus nefesh, that eventually, generations later, sprouted forth and helped nourish the thriving Judaism that flourishes today.

Although the shores of America were generally considered a Jewish wasteland until well into the 1900s, there was a surprising number of small outposts where Yiddishkeit was not only practiced, but was adhered to with halachic exactitude and fervor. Still, the Jewish experience from America’s earliest days seems to have withered away without leaving much of a trace.


In truth, though, it was perhaps those roots, those hardy roots painstakingly supplanted with much mesirus nefesh, that eventually, generations later, sprouted forth and helped nourish the thriving Judaism that flourishes today.


One of the earliest records of Sukkos observance in America is a silver esrog holder which belonged to the Gomez family of New York. Originally from Spain, the family had been in New York after Luis Moses Gomez fled the Spanish Inquisition as early as 1696! In fact, just off the 9W, in Marlboro, NY (near Newburgh), is the Gomez Mill House, built on land Moses began purchasing in 1710. It is the oldest surviving Jewish residence in North America, having been continuously inhabited for more than 280 years.


To celebrate Sukkos in America, the Gomez family took one of their heirloom silver mustard pots and transformed it into an esrog holder. The holder is currently featured in the United States Library of Congress’ special exhibition, 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.


From the early 1800s, we have a November 10, 1813 letter sent from Gershom Mendes Seixas (pronounced Seishas) of New York to his daughter Sarah in Richmond, Virginia, in which he inquires as to whether Sarah’s husband, Yisroel Baer Kursheedt, had any difficulty obtaining an esrog and hadassim that year.


Gershom Mendes Seixas (1747-1816) was the first American-born Jewish minister. (Since he never had actual semichah,he was referred to as minister rather than rabbi.) He was a yorei Shomayim and quite knowledgeable in halacha and Jewish practices. After fleeing New York for Stratford and then Norwalk, Connecticut, during the Revolutionary War, he arrived in Philadelphia in 1780 and helped establish Congregation Mikveh Israel. In 1784, he returned to New York, becoming the minister and chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel, a position he held for close to fifty years. He is said to have been a guest at George Washington’s inauguration in New York in 1789.


In 1796, through a unique chain of occurrences, Yisroel Baer Kursheedt (1766-1852) arrived from Germany to Boston, Massachusetts. Yisroel Baer was a talmid of the renowned Rav Nosson Adler, rebbi of the Chasam Sofer. Yisroel Baer had learned under Rav Adler in Frankfurt together with Rav Avrohom Bing and Rav Wolf Heidenheim. Rav Bing was later to become chief rabbi of Wurzburg and rebbi to Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, the Aruch Laner, Chacham Isaac Bernays and Rav Seligman Baer Bamberger.


Rav Nosson Adler is quoted as having said of these three talmidim that Rav Avrohom was a “charif,” Rav Wolf, a “medakdek” and Rav Yisroel Baer, a “chochom.”


Finding only one religious Jew in Boston, Yisroel Baer made his way to New York and its (slightly larger) Jewish community. It did not take long for Gershom Seixas to discover the unprecedented prize: a real, yeshiva educated, European talmid chochom,who had suddenly arrived in their midst. The two became acquainted and, in 1804, Yisorel Baer married Sarah Abigail, Gershom’s daughter. That Yisroel Baer was Ashkenazi and the Seixas family Sefardi in no way diminished the warmth, appreciation and closeness between the two.


The Kursheedts moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 1812, and Yisroel Baer was instrumental in erecting the Richmond shul. It was to them that Gershom addressed his November 10, 1813 letter inquiring about their ease in obtaining the Daled Minim for the prior Sukkos.


Even more fascinating is a letter Gershom sent two weeks later, on November 24th of that year, in which he goes into some detail about the prices of esrogim and other minim which he sold through the shul to other religious Jews at the time (courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society).


It would seem that Arba Minim sochrim have quite a history in the United States!


From where did Jews acquire the Four Species in the New World?


Lulavim, hadassim and aravos were all available locally. Esrogim was another story.


Early on, the Jews imported their esrogim from the same places that the Jews of Europe imported theirs. Yanovah esrogim (from Calabria, Italy; called Yanovah because they were shipped out of the Italian port at Genoa) and those from the Greek island of Corfu were quite popular at the time. Importing these sensitive items over the vast Atlantic Ocean was not easy, though, and it was soon realized that another option was desperately needed.


It was then discovered that in the tropical islands of the West Indies – where Columbus had first come ashore thinking that he had arrived in India – esrogim were to be had! Before long, esrogim from the West Indies (today known as the Caribbean) began making serious inroads in the American esrog market. This went on for many years until a tumult arose, with some questioning the kashrus of the West Indian esrogim.


By the mid-1840s, though, American Jewry had grown to finally include a real rov. Rav Avrohom Rice (1800-1862) had arrived in America in 1840, eventually becoming rov of Congregation Nidchei Israel in Baltimore, Maryland, also known as the Shtodt Shul. Rav Rice was a musmach of Rav Avrohom Bing, and is the first known rov with semichah to have lived in the United States.


In May 1847, The Occident, an Orthodox publication published by Rav Isaac Leeser (a foremost proponent of Yiddishkeit in early America), printed a letter from Rav Rice upholding the kashrus of the West Indian esrogim:


Several of my friends urged me to come out publicly in your periodical,” wrote Rav Rice, “with my opinion about the esrogim, which are yearly brought from the West Indies to this country… The time is approaching when our yearly communications are made to the West Indies for the supply of citrons, and I think it therefore my duty, for the sake of our religion, to state that these esrogimare kosher, and there cannot be found any word against them in all poskim, Rishonim, v’Achronim.All rumors that were set afloat against the kashrusof these esrogimare founded in error and misinformation… our brethren of Israel shall not be willfully deprived of the observance of mitzvas lulavwithout just cause.”


This was not to be the end of the matter. In the next month’s June issue, one Menachem Goldschmidt wrote in, saying that he personally knew that the above letter could not possibly be a reflection of Rabbi Rice’s opinion. “Chas veshalom shepeh kodesh yomar hochi,” he wrote. (The entire letter is in Hebrew.) He insisted that “esrogim meihaVestindies” can only be considered kosherafter being inspected by one who is knowledgeable in their simanim and can guarantee that they are not murkavim, grafted.


He writes of a time when he was in London by “hagaon hagadol mar Shlomo zt”l, av bais din of kahal kadisha London,” who showed him many esrogim from the West Indies which were murkav. “He considered most [West Indian esrogim] to be not kosher.”


Rav Goldschmidt acknowledges of Rav Rice that “kol anshei medinah hazos yodim shehu talmid chochom vyirei Elokim,” and apologizes for his temerity in writing, which he did only for fear that the “hamon sheheimah yit’u bidvorov,” the masses will take Rav Rice’s words as blanket permission to use all West Indian esrogim no matter what.


In an “Editor’s note,” Rav Isaac Leeser clarifies that Rav Rice obviously never meant to permit actual murkavim from the West Indies “in the same way that murkavim from anywhere, even  Eretz Yisroel, are always disqualified.”


“According to what I heard from Rav Rice,” writes Rav Leeser, “his intention was to rebut those who claim that ‘American grown esrogim simply cannot be used.’” Such a claim, Rav Leeser points out, “yivatel haYehudim bechol olam hama’arovi mimitzvas esrog velulav. It would cause Jews in the entire Western Hemisphere to abandon the mitzvah of esrog and lulav altogether.”


Rav Leeser concludes that “kedai hu ha’ish hachochom haloz, we can rely upon the words of this great sage [Rav Rice], who served the gadol b’Yisroel Rav Avrohom Bing… as well as on hayashish hazakein, zeh konoh chochmoh Rav Yisroel Dov Kursheedt” (Gershom Mendes’ son-in-law). “Halacha lema’aseh levoreich birchas lulav al esrogim she’eino murkavim asher yavo’u eleinu mei’anoshim hagunim mei’iyei hayom b’Hodu ma’arovis. For practical halacha we can surely rely on these great men to make a bracha on non-grafted esrogim procured through trustworthy individuals from the islands of West India.”


The next month’s issue of The Occident, July 1847, features another letter from Rav Rice firmly defending his previous one. Rav Rice wonders at Rav Goldschmidt’s reliance on simanim, as “all the simanim mentioned in the Magein Avrohom are taken from She’ailos Uteshuvos Ri’ Padawa, and it is clear from Rav Padawa’s own words that none of the simanim are definitive.” He stresses that only where there is reason to suspect that an esrog has been grafted would one think about checking for simanim. Esrogim from the West Indies, though, are simply not inherently suspect, he insists, being that the vast majority are not murkav.


I spoke with many people who live there,” he writes, “and all of them as one make clear that these esrogimgrow wild in the forests where no man ever plowed or planted. Why would these people bother grafting them? [Their intention clearly isn’t to make money, for] they give them away to anyone who asks for free!


Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice to find such a place today where the natives simply give away the esrogim for free?


In the same issue, Menachem Goldschmidt reiterated his opinion that while it’s true that the halacha, as Rav Rice expressed it, is simple to any discerning individual, “ubar bei rav dechad yoma yode’ah zos,” still, “the masses in America, whom by and large are not bnei Torah,do not understand these things, and issuing a blanket hetter will lead to people buying esrogim from anyone who brings them from the West Indies…”


As far as Rav Leeser’s assertion that Rav Rice’s intention was to rebut the claim of those who disallow any American esrogim, “I never heard of anyone in this county who makes such a claim,” contends Rav Goldschmidt. “However, I have seen a teshuvah from Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, who is the av bais din of the kehillah kadishah of Altona (the Aruch Laner), who wishes to disqualify esrogim grown in America because our country is under the feet of the people of Europe and therefore the esrogim are not derech gedilosom, and we must hold the esrogim derech gedilosom – in the direction in which they grow.”


This is an amazing thought! Although Rav Goldschmidt seems to have misquoted theAruch Laner (and we could not find a teshuvah from him on the topic), theAruch Laner does, in fact, discuss this thought in his Bikkurei Yaakov (siman 651). The idea here is that according to halacha we must hold the Four Species in the upright direction that they naturally grow. An esrog buds from the tree with its pittom facing upwards. Although later on, when the esrog grows heavier, its pittom may turn down, we hold the esrog with the pittom upward, as that is derech gediloso, the way it grows from the tree.


Nistapakti,” writes the Aruch Laner, “I wonder whether we, who dwell in Europe, can fulfill the mitzvahwith Daled Minimthat grow on the islands of America or in Australia, [countries] which sit to our side and underneath us. The same question applies to whether they can use minimwhich grow on our side of the globe. For it is known what the study of nature tells us that their feet are opposite ours” (meaning the world is round) “and the reason we don’t fall off [the earth] is because Hashemput in place a power which pulls us down towards it” (gravity). “If so, if we take the species which grow there, they would be upside-down from our derech gedilosom.


On the other hand,” hecontinues, “perhaps since we are holding the part which grows towards the earth downwards, that would be considered derech gedilosono matter where, vehochi mistavra, and this seems to be the correct approach.”


So while the Aruch Laner ultimately leans towards the opinion that people anywhere in the world can use esrogim which grew anywhere else around the globe, the consideration otherwise is itself sensational!


(This is not a halachic column, but it is possible that those in America who wish to fulfill the mitzvah even according to the Aruch Laner’s initial point of view would be careful to buy only the esrogei California which grow in our part of the globe!)


In his letter, Rav Goldschmidt quotes the Aruch Laner as actually disqualifying American esrogim for use in Europe and wonders why, if that is the case, Americans are allowed to use European-grown esrogim. (The Aruch Laner, in fact, writes that the issue would go both ways, and in the end leans towards permitting their use in any case.)


Rav Leeser closes the discussion by noting that in addition to the two letters printed in that issue, he had received another one from “Mr. Isaac H. Levy, of Cincinnati, who contends that having examined during seven years more than five hundred, he had found on them all the signs of grafted fruit (citron on lemon stock), and consequently not the true citron.”


However, Rav Leeser himself takes issue with Levy’s allegation. “One of the signs which [Levy] professes to have discovered,” Rav Leeser argues, “that they contain a substance analogous to lemon juice, and that they have a thin rind, we can contradict from our own experience. We have opened a large quantity, and have uniformly found them to be thick-skinned and dry, and after preserving them they had all the appearance of the imported Italian article, the preserved citron of commerce.


We do not profess to be able to decide the question…but so far as our private judgment goes, and if we are correctly informed, we must say that the West India citrons are grown on the original stock, and have neither taste, smell, nor appearance of orange or lemon.”


With that, The Occident closed the discussion – at least for the public readership (thanks to The Jewish-American History Foundation).


European gedolim weighed in on the subject as well. In his Sefer Divrei Yosef (shailah 32), Rav Yehosef Schwartz (1804-1865) [originally from Bavaria, who learned in Wurtzburg and ultimately moved to the old Yishuv of Yerushalayim] writes, “I was asked when I was in America regarding the esrogim which differ in looks and in form from those that grow in Europe and Asia… Still, there is virtually no possible suspicion of their being grafted, as they are found in the forests of the islands of Vestindian and no human hand handled them so as to graft them.”


Rav Schwartz goes into a lengthy discussion concerning esrogim that look different than the norm (esrog hakushi), and whether they are disqualified (not due to any suspicion of them being grafted, but simply because they don’t look “normal”). Ultimately, he paskens that the West Indian esrogim are surely permissible for use in America itself (where the way they look can be considered the norm for that part of the world), and are almost surely permissible even in other places around the world (where the “look” of the Italian and Greek esrogim were considered more the norm at that time).


This is what I myself did, halacha lema’aseh,” he writes. “I made a brachaon them when I found myself in that land (America) in the years 5610 and 5611 (1849 and ’50).”


Rav Schwartz concludes with a novel idea (“in thought,” he writes, “but not halacha lema’aseh”) that “esrogei Vestindia heim ha’esrogim ha’amiti’im,” the West Indian esrogim are in fact the real esrogim, having never been grafted or even cultivated by human hand, but rather grown wild for centuries virtually untouched by man. It is the Europeanesrogim, he maintains, which have been cultivated over the years (even if never grafted with other species and still halachically acceptable) and which therefore look different, having been cultivated to have a nicer gidul.


Rav Eliyahu Posek (1859-1932), of Kiev, quotes the Divrei Yosef in his sefer Eitz Hasodeh (Orach Chaim 649:25) and similarly permits the use of the West Indian esrogim. He further maintains that not only is it true that those were the true original esrogim, but they are perhaps as pure as they were when Hashem created them before the sin of Adam Harishon. Developing a thought mentioned in a footnote by Rav Schwartz, Rav Posek explains how the earth was cursed after Adam’s sin, as it says (Bereishis 3:31), “Arur ha’adomoh ba’avurech,” and, as a result, the trees began producing an inferior fruit to that of original creation.


Ulefi aniyas da’ati borur depri ha’esrog…lo yordu mimadreigosom af achar hakelalah…ki b’esrog lo shinsa ha’aretz vehotziah oso ketzivui Hakadosh Boruch Hu sheyiheh ta’am ha’eitz keta’am hapri – Beyond any doubt, the esrog was not included in the curse, and the land continued producing it as Hashem originally commanded, with the tree itself being as tasty as its fruit.”


Rav Posek held that because the West Indian esrogim were uncultivated and completely natural, they were still in their pure state exactly as Hashem originally created them.


In 1853, Rav Yissochor Dov Illowy (1814-1875), a musmach of the Chasam Sofer in Pressburg, came to the United States. Rav Illowy, a personable man, remarkable orator and fiery defender of Orthodox Judaism, served as rov in many cities across the United States. During the Civil War years, he served as rov of New Orleans.


In an introduction to Sefer Milchamos Elokim, a compilation of many of Rav Illowy’s writings, his son writes how “in the year 1861, the first year of his ministry in New Orleans, it was impossible, owing to all communications with northern cities being cut off, to obtain esrogim.” (He is referring to the Northern blockade in effect during the Civil War.) “Lulavim, Hadassim, Arbe Nahal were to be had in abundance, being native to the soil, but not Ethrogim. The Ethrog that grew indigenously was found to be invalid. In the emergency, my father decided that they should be used, but without the usual Brachah, Al Netilas Lulav.”


This quote from Rav Illowy’s son is widely referred to as indicating that he had come down on the side of those who held that West Indian esrogim were not kosher for Daled Minim use, even though it speaks merely of “indigenously” grown esrogim without ever clearly spelling out that they were in fact West Indian.


Also on the topic of Sukkos is an October 27, 1864 letter written to The Jewish Messenger and appearing in its November 11, 1864 issue. The letter, signed H.I. Almony (signing letters to the editor anonymously seems to be nothing new after all!), strongly defends Rav Illowy in an unrelated controversy when the rov stood up in defense of Torah law. As a way to illustrate Rav Illowy’s phenomenal achievements in New Orleans, the writer notes that “there were this year over fifty sukkosin our city, of which over forty were built by the members of the congregation ‘Shaare Hesed,’ Rampart Street, whilst three years ago, when Dr. Illowy arrived in this city, there was but one sukkah, built by the sexton of the Portuguese congregation, in the yard of the synagogue.


Further west and about two decades later, in the 1880s, Rav Avrohom and Miriam Kubeski, originally from Poland, arrived in Central City, Colorado, a gold rush mining town not far from Denver. They relocated to Denver in 1888, where Rav Avrohom, a rov and sofer, helped establish the Agudas Achim shul. Miriam was a respected midwife who not only offered her services free to poor Jewish immigrants, but would bring along complete baby layettes and delicious homemade chicken soup for the new mothers.


The Kubeskis’ granddaughter recalls Shabbos visits to her grandparents, who were “dressed in their Sabbath clothes in the sitting room, both engrossed in reading from the Torah. Grandma would be reading what was called the Teitch Hummish, a Yiddish version of the Bible, and Grandpa the Siddur or the Hebrew Bible.” She especially recalls the excitement of Sukkos and the way “the family decorated their sukkah with colorful ripe fruits and vegetables” (The Tale of a Little Trunk, by Hannah Shwayder Berry, 1977).


Colorful fruits and vegetables in the sukkah? Great idea! Let’s add a bright yellow esrog from the West Indies too, while we’re at it!



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