Money, Mitzvos, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Esrog

While Mrs. Shifra Sharfman cooked and cooked, her husband searched and searched. For the perfect esrog, that is. Shifra kept her questions to herself but didn’t get what the big hunt was all about. Her father, a noted Rav, bought his daled minim from a local supplier in about 15 minutes. What was her husband hoping to find? Furthermore, what were all the advertisements proclaiming mehudar plus plus plus about? Her father was certainly doing the mitzvah perfectly too, so what’s up with the esrogim buzz?

*As always, this article is presented for general interest and perspective. Please seek the specifics from your Mishnah Berurah, husband, or local Orthodox rabbi.

Seeking Kosher…

The daled minim hunt is mentioned in the Gemara. Due to the delicate nature of daled minim, specific halachic requirements, and the wide dispersion of Jews in galus, there were many periods when entire communities struggled to find just one kosher set to make a bracha on. Even in the 1950s, when there were many esrogim, the market was flooded with grafted non-kosher versions, and much effort had to be expended to avoid them. In those days, there were real concerns about simply being yotzei the mitzvah.

Versus Pursuing Hiddur

Thankfully, there is an abundance of kosher, beautiful, and affordable esrogim available today. I haven’t taken a poll, but most rabbanim don’t seem to have a difficult time finding satisfactory daled minim. Even so, many people spend much time, effort, and money to secure the most gorgeous and lechatchilah esrog, lulav, and hadassim possible. This practice is an expression of love for mitzvos and “Zeh Keili v’anveihu,” especially for a mitzvah that calls for “pri eitz hadar”—a beautiful fruit. Because this practice is largely voluntary, though, as it is lifnim mishuras hadin, it’s not surprising that there’s a very wide spectrum of perspectives on how far one should go with pursuing hiddur.

But How Much?

The Gemara’s guidelines for hiddur is “ad shelish” (Bava Kama 9). This is generally interpreted as meaning that up to a third of the item’s value should be added (or 50%, according to another shittah) to the minimum base mitzvah’s cost to get a nicer version. For example, if a kosher esrog can be had for $30, it’s proper to spend an extra $10 ($15 according to the other shittah) to purchase a more mehudar one.

As esrogim go, this baseline for additional hiddur is quite modest. Many people spend hundreds or even over a thousand dollars on esrogim! And again, what’s the hunting for? Clearly, there is more at play than the minimum requirements for hiddur.

Hiddur on Hashem’s Cheshbon

The gemara mentioned earlier extends hiddur recommendations by saying that above the “third” is “mishel Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” Rashi explains that there is a special reward for those who go above and beyond basic hiddur. The Mishnah Berurah (656:6) quotes an opinion that the wealthy are obligated to go beyond shelish.

There’s also no easy distinction for what constitutes hiddur. The differences between esrogim can sometimes only be found in minute details, hence the need for loupes, light boxes, picture samples, and squinty eyes.

Finally, by hunting for a relative “bargain,” people can get more hiddur than they otherwise could afford. This aspect can explain much of the searching in the case of those seeking to get the most hiddur bang for their budget buck.

Sweat—From Love

Another perspective is that just because you can find a nice esrog quickly and cheaply doesn’t mean you should. Mitzvah bo yoser mibishlucho” (Shabbos 119)—there’s an added reward for rolling up your sleeves and sweating for Hashem’s sake. When you’re excited about something, you want to be personally involved and go above and beyond the minimum if you’re able to. The mitzvah of daled minim, which is laden with many inyanim and segulos, is one that tzaddikim were extremely excited about. They went above and beyond their basic obligation to pursue every detail of the mitzvah, and much of Klal Yisrael does too.

Not Less Than a Suit

Let’s flip this for a minute. Today, even middle-class families are surrounded by abundance and conveniences that our great-grandparents couldn’t dream of. Is it appropriate that just when it comes to mitzvos, we suffice with the bare minimum? Are we satisfied with a minimum house? Do we grab the first car, suit, or vacation that comes our way? Even if you’re no great tzaddik or Rebbe, mitzvos shouldn’t be worse than gashmiyus! Indeed, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlit”a is quoted as saying that everyone should spend at least as much time choosing an esrog as they do selecting a suit!

A Balancing Act

It’s commendable to spend extra effort and money on hiddur mitzvah. But beyond the obligatory minimum, other factors join the equation. For example, multiple roshei yeshivos have said that they prefer spending more time learning Torah over spending it on pursuing added hiddur for their esrogim. I’ve heard that Rabbi Forchheimer shlit”a discouraged some yungeleit from spending excessively on esrogim. “Spend the extra on something nice for your wife’s simchas Yom Tov,” he said.

Since Mrs. Sharfman’s father is a Rav, he was probably prioritizing his time and money. Answering she’eilos and supporting needy shul members likely took precedence over a nicer set of daled minim—which is just as wonderful and l’shem Shamayim as her husband’s esrog hunt.

Hashem Wants the Heart

Interestingly, the pasuk does not specify the exact species of the beautiful fruit we take on Sukkos. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l said that the Torah specifically uses this ambiguous language because each person defines beauty in a unique way, based on their own techunos hanefesh. Once the “hadar” aspect is satisfied, each person is drawn to a specific type and form of esrog, and in their view, it is hadar, beautiful.

This vort captures the essence of the esrog hunt, especially since Chazal say that the esrog symbolizes the Jewish heart (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14). “Echad hamarbeh v’echad hamam’it”—one does more and one does less—“ubilvad sheyechaven libo laShamayim”—the main thing is that they are doing it for the sake of Heaven (Menachos 110).

Want to dig deeper?

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Teaching Kids Good Money Habits

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