The species master
Rabbi Yechiel Stern is considered the supreme authority in his Jerusalem neighborhood and beyond on everything related to the Four Species of Sukkot
By Yair Ettinger • Ha’aretz
When the cool autumn air descends on Jerusalem, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern goes down to the sukkah in his yard (built, as usual, at the beginning of the month of Tishri ), places his work instrument - a lamp - on the table, sits down and opens for business. Between the holidays of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the line stretches out to Ezrat Torah Street: every day dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people arrive armed with lulavim (palm fronds used on Sukkot ).
Stern, who will turn 61 this Sukkot, has served as the rabbi of Jerusalem's Ezrat Torah neighborhood for nearly 40 years. Considered both in and outside his neighborhood as the supreme authority on matters connected to the Four Species used on Sukkot, he has written over 80 books, one entitled "The Halachos of the Four Species." This guide, published 19 years ago, is supposed to help prepare the reader to go to the market and purchase the personal equipment that will accompany him throughout the holiday: a lulav, hadasim (myrtle twigs ), an etrog (fruit of the citron tree ), aravot (twigs from the willow tree ).
While his is not the only book on the topic out there, and certainly not the most modern and scientific of them, it does try to combine halakhic and botanical aspects of the mitzvah.
"This is a basic book that all the yeshiva students in the world use," says Stern, explaining that to write it he spent "days on end" on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, where he read books in the library and met with botany experts. He also adds, with pride, that he was the first one in the Haredi sector to use color photos in a book on halakha.
Anyone who has read the book is supposed to know when a tiny spot on the peel of the etrog makes it unkosher, and when the spine of a lulav is too open. But people don't make do with the tome and come to the expert with their merchandise - etrogim and lulavim only. Certain orchard owners and merchants in Jerusalem rely on Rabbi Stern (and on their own merchandise, too ) to such an extent that they are willing to accept his halakhic decision totally. A customer is allowed to buy merchandise and exchange it a few days later if he has a letter signed by Rabbi Stern stating that the merchandise is not kosher. Stern says he doesn't earn a thing from the deal.
"I will tell people that the mehudar [premium] lulav they bought for NIS 350 or the mehudar etrog they bought for $200 are not good," Stern explains. "Sometimes you can see their heart breaking, as though they've just received the most terrible news. On the other hand, people whose lulav or etrog I approve jump for joy. Last year a little boy came to me with an unkosher etrog. He returned a few hours later with another unkosher one, and then again another. The third time I asked him, 'Why are you the one going to buy them? Maybe you should call your father?' He told me his father had died three months earlier. I gave him my lulav and etrog."
Suffused with the Haredi-Jerusalemite atmosphere, Stern also possesses highly secret information such as the location of trees with yichus (good ancestry ). Because even in trees like a willow, and especially an etrog tree, yichus not only guarantees that the tree is not grafted with lemon or quince, but guarantees the quality of the fruit as well.
Certain trees are known for producing superior etrogim, and there are customers who request fruits from these trees from the orchard owners. Stern tells of two magnificent etrog trees in Nablus whose fruits were used by the rabbis of the old Haredi community back in the 19th century. After the Six-Day War, Stern and others just as obsessed as he went to meet the descendants of the Palestinian orchard owner who had planted the tree and saw that the trees were still standing; they received cuttings from it. Stern takes his personal etrog from a tree related to this Palestinian tree, planted in Moshav Beit Meir on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Today, as back then, these etrogim are called, in Yiddish, "Nablus etrog."
Born on Sukkot
"I was born on Sukkot, and my grandfather was an etrog dealer. Every year I would see how my father and grandfather treated this mitzvah - the love they implanted in us for the mitzvah was tremendous. There was nothing to eat at home, we used to walk in torn sandals, but they were willing to pay half a year's salary for an etrog. That endowed us with the feeling that there is something within an etrog that goes beyond how much it costs. At the time, the etrogim weren't beautiful the way they are today. My grandfather would send me to bring etrogim to respected rabbis, who would dance around the table with joy when they saw the etrog. Today, even my grandson would throw out etrogim like the ones I used to give the rabbis."
"My father would not agree to give me a lulav before my bar mitzvah," Stern continues. "Today, they are already buying the Four Species for children from the age of six or seven. And the adults have more options; today you can buy Four Species of higher quality. Of course, that's a good thing."