This year’s huge crop of etrogs is traveling to Israel more directly due to a historical fusion of geopolitics and religious practice.
Tradition holds that etrog trees were first planted in the Atlas mountains nearly 2,000 years ago by Jews who found refuge among the Berber tribes there after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Morocco once had the largest Jewish community in the Arab world and has a long history of producing the citrus fruit used by millions of Jews every Sukkot.
Every year, Jewish communities worldwide import tens of thousands of Moroccan etrogs because they are less expensive than the renowned Diamante Citron from Calabria, which may cost hundreds of dollars for an undamaged specimen and is prized by some Hasidic organizations.
However, the Israeli market, where most of the world’s Orthodox Jews reside, has a thriving etrog industry and stringent regulations on agricultural imports.
After the shmita year, the seventh year in the Jewish agricultural cycle, when tilling the soil in Israel is prohibited by Jewish law, Moroccan etrogs are only permitted to enter Israel.
While not all Israeli farmers adhere to the agricultural cycle outlined by Jewish law, those who produce ritual goods like etrogs must do so to avoid having their products rejected by a religious clientele.
Because the previous Jewish year, which ended with Rosh Hashanah, was a shmita year, no etrogs were grown in Israel for the Sukkot festival, which starts Sunday night.
As they had done seven years prior, a sizable number of etrogs made their way from Morocco to Israel instead.
According to Einat Levi, the former head of economic affairs at Israel’s diplomatic mission to Morocco, several agreements to facilitating trade between Morocco and Israel following their normalization agreement, part of the Abraham Accords mediated by the United States, have not yet been signed.
However, she claimed that commerce in etrogs, subject to stricter rules than other agribusinesses because they are holy objects, was proof of the potential of the nations’ relations.
This year, Hervey Levy used Royal Air Maroc, the flag carrier of Morocco, to fly his etrogs directly from Casablanca to Israel.
According to him, the normalization agreement also attracted competitors in the etrog trade as travelers in the opposite direction.
A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah are usually a pleasant time for Levy and the Jews of the Agadir.
A small group of Jewish traders would arrive in the Berber-speaking settlements in the foothills surrounding Agadir, usually energizing Shabbat services.
Levy claimed that this year there were enough dealers that they decided to spend Shabbat together at a hotel in the mountains so that they could easily access the etrog fields.