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Who Pays for the Esrog?

We live in times of plenty, in a where the basic standard of living would have been considered a mere few decades ago to be a life of wealth and luxury. However, not too long ago, individuals often struggled to obtain an esrog (or all four species). When importation was difficult due to technology or governmental interference, sometimes members of a town would join together to purchase one esrog. Even today, there are Jews around the world outside of the main Jewish communities who may face enormous financial or other burdens in purchasing an esrog. If an entire town buys one esrog, who pays for it? Put differently, is an esrog a communal need or an individual need?

I. Spreading the Cost

The Maharil (Responsa, 107) quotes Rav Meir (Maharam) of Rotenburg as saying that when a town buys an esrog, people pay according to their wealth. Rich people pay a higher portion of the cost than poor people because there are gradations in an esrog’s quality. An esrog must be beautiful (hadar). However, people pay large amounts of money for those esrogim that are the most beautiful. Since a large part of the cost of an esrog is essentially optional, the rich bear a larger burden for the cost. Significantly, the Rema (Orach Chaim 658:9) rules like this Maharil.

However, others object to this plain reading of the above texts. Rav Yoel Sirkes, author of the Bach, argues in a responsum (Teshuvos Ha-Ge’onim Basrai, no. 37) that neither the Maharil nor the Rema meant quite that. After all, every adult male in the town needs a kosher esrog. The basic cost should be shared equally according to head count and only the extra cost for an above-standard esrog should be distributed based on wealth. Rather, says the Bach, half of the esrog’s cost is distributed equally and half based on wealth. (The Birkei Yosef (Orach Chaim 658:9) quotes this approvingly.)

II. Absentee Members

Since this is a communal necessity, should every community member have to pay for it? What if you are away for Yom Tov? This would seem to depend on whether we spread the cost equally or proportionally. If we spread it equally, then everyone must pay. And in fact, the Maharil (ibid., and quoted in Magen Avraham 658:11) explicitly says that someone who is away does not have to pay. But if we spread half the cost equally, then it would seem that even someone away should have to pay his share of that half — the community necessity. Indeed, the Eliyah Rabbah (658:14) agrees that someone who is away for Yom Tov has to pay the half that is spread equally to all community members.

The Sha’arei Teshuvah (658:11) points out that the Bach, in the above responsum, explicitly disagrees with the Eliyah Rabbah and says that someone who is away for Yom Tov does not have to pay the half that is spread equally. The Bach says that this is not a communal necessity. Rather, this is a group of individuals sharing the cost in the fairest way possible, given their different needs.

III. Women and Esrog

Do women need to contribute to this expense? The Maharil says that women only pay if they want to use the esrog. Since they are not obligated in the mitzvah, they pay only if the they choose to fulfill it. The Bach says that women are always exempt from the flat fee because they lack the need for an esrog. However, if they choose to use the esrog, they must pay proportionally according to their wealth.

The Bach’s son-in-law, the Taz (658:6), adds a further consideration. The Gemara (Sukkah 37b) says that the shaking of the four species back and forth, up and down, is an important part of our prayers to prevent bad winds and bad rain. If so, everyone who benefits should pay for the esrog. Therefore, the Taz says, a woman should contribute to the communal cost. However, he offers little detail on what that means. The Pri Megadim (ad loc.) agrees with the Taz regarding a widow or woman whose husband is away. Meaning, each household should contribute to the cost because every household benefits.

The language the Maharil and Bach use is that if a woman recites a blessing over the esrog, she must pay. Does this mean that, according to them, Sephardic women never pay? The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 578:6) says that women do not recite a blessing if they choose to fulfill commandments from which they are exempt. Rema (ad loc.) disagrees. In truth, many Sephardic women do not follow this ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. The Kaf Ha-Chaim (ad loc., 23) says that the Shulchan Aruch was unaware of the Responsa Min Ha-Shamayim, which says that women should recite a blessing when fulfilling a mitzvah from which they are exempt.

More recently, Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 1:68) insists that rabbis proclaim publicly that Sephardic women are forbidden to recite those blessings. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Yosef’s successor as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, follows the Kaf Ha-Chaim (Ma’amar Mordechai, Le-Mo’adim U-Le-Yamim 52:27) and says that Sephardic women recite a blessing over the four species. However, even according to Rav Yosef, the blessing should not matter regarding payment for an esrog. The Maharil seems to be using a blessing as shorthand for fulfilling the mitzvah so that even someone who uses the esrog but does not recite a blessing should share in the cost.