Balady citron (Arabic: أترج بلدي) or Palestinian citron (Hebrew: הָאֶתְרוֹג הַפַּלֶשְׂתִּינִי), is a variety of citron, or etrog, grown in Israel for Jewish ritual purposes. Balady (Arabic: بلدي) is Arabic for “native.” Local Arab farmers began using this name in the mid-19th century to distinguish this variety from the Greek citron, which was cultivated along the Jaffa seashore.
The Balady was grown on the outskirts of Nablus and the neighbouring Nazareth, on the outskirts of Safed and Alma al-Shaib, in Umm al-Fahm, in an orchard near Tiberias, and in Lifta village near Jerusalem.
The Balady etrog was already grown in the Holy Land at the time of the Second Temple; however, since the destruction, only small amounts were used as etrog and it was not exported. It is not a very attractive variety of citron, and new settlers continued using varieties they were accustomed to in Diaspora.
All of this changed in the 1870s when Rabbi Chaim Elozor Wax, president of Kupat Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes Kollel Polen, devoted himself to its cultivation, and managed to get it exported to Europe. Thanks to his high-esteemed authority and constant agitation, many individuals and even communities switched from the abundant Greek citron, which was also called Corfu, to the Israeli Balady citron. He believed that this variety of etrog has the strongest tradition-lineage of specie pureness, being found in the wilderness of Israel when Jewish Rabbis, including Nahmanides (1194–c. 1270), arrived there. While the variety is not domesticated, it shouldn’t have been grafted and during the following years, when the settlement expanded, it was always utilized by great scholars and pious persons, who were certainly clear about its purity and appropriateness.
Even more importantly, he viewed in this trade an economic rescue for the entire Yishuv haYashan in the holy land. He himself spent huge amounts of money to plant etrog orchards in the village of Haitin, which is close to the city of Tiberias. He placed all the profits in the hands of the Warsaw Kolel, which he was heading, which provided aid for the Jewish families of Polish extraction, who were struggling from hunger and pain. The situation of those families gradually improved as a result of his effort.
He wrote many letters to the rest of the rabbis in his time to influence the Judaism of Diaspora, that they should use only this strictly kosher citron. Those letters are published in his responsa Nefesh Haya as well in the responsas of those with whom he co-responded, and in special booklets dealing with the controversies of the Corfu and in promotion of an Israeli.
At the same time, the pro-Zionist newsletters haMelitz and haLevanon were instrumental in a vast agitation to build up an Etrog-economy in Palestine, paving the way for Jewish independence.
Decline and Intraspecific Graft
Despite all efforts, the Balady was still unable to compete with the Greek citron. At some years before, the Greek citron was already introduced for plantation by the Sephardic Jewish arrivals, and orchards were established thanks to the advocacy and financial support by Sir Moses Montefiore. This kind was also sold in diaspora as Israeli citron, and did quite a better job in competing with the Greek of Greece. Consequently, the Balady got to run a battle in two directions.
The supporters of the etrog idea were strained in a conflict of interest. The Greek citron of Jaffa showed a good economical future, whereas the Halachic intentions were against it.
As a partial solution, the Greek-Jaffa citron was occasionally grafted onto Balady rootstock. The progeny achieved the beautiful properties of the scion type, while the possible influence of lemon rootstock was assumed to be flushed, and replaced with that of the most kosher Balady rootstock.
At some point, even Rabbi Vacks himself was forced to commence topworking to part of his orchard, in order to replace part of the crop with the most beautiful Greek citron.
Rescue and Selections
The Old Yishuv rabbis Shmuel Salant and Meir Auerbach highly supported the progeny of Umm el-Fahm, but those declined very fast. Even later, there were still some Israeli rabbis who were not involved in the export, nor in agitation, and preferred doing the utmost for the rescue of Balady. Each of them collected propagation material from a different place, and brought them into cultivation under close supervision. This is how it developed a diversity of sub-varieties or selections called with different naming.
The list of those instrumental rabbis includes (arranged in order of date): Rabbi Zarach Reuven Braverman dean of the Yeshiva Meah Shearim and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld students and close disciples of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, which are said to have been inspired to this ambition by their great master.
When the Chazon Ish reached the Holy Land, he made his own selection according to his satisfaction. He gave to plant for Yakov Halperin the founder of Zichron Meir in Bnei Brak the variety called Halperin-Chazon Ish, and to the Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz the variety called Lefkowitz-Chazon Ish. Even Rabbi Abraham Kook who very much promoted the intraspecific graft with his Hechsher, still acknowledged the promotion of those etrogim cultivated around Schem and different Arabic villages, that were not grafted at all.
Balady citron varieties are still grown and sold today in diaspora as well as in Israel, and are favoured by the followers of the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish.