Was the Queen Really Green?

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The common practice today is to use esrogim that have begun to turn yellow even if they are still mostly green. This is not universally accepted; some such as the Brisker rabbanim insist on fully yellow esrogim. In this essay we will explore some of the elements of a centuries-old dispute that continues to this very day.

The Problem with Green Esrogim In the third chapter of Maseches Succah the Mishnah discusses the status of a green-colored esrog with characteristic brevity: “If it is green like a leek [hayarok kikarsi] — Rabi Meir says it is kosher and Rabi Yehuda says it is pasul.” The halachah follows Rabi Yehuda and at first glance things look pretty bleak for the green esrogim.

But the Gemara teases out a nuance regarding the problem with green esrogim. The esrog is described in the Torah as pri eitz hadar and we derive from the word hadar that it must be free of certain aesthetic blemishes. Thus an esrog that is totally dried out or that has certain discolorations is pasul. The initial assumption of the Gemara is that greenness too is an absence of hadar.

The Gemara concludes however that this cannot be Rabi Yehuda’s reasoning. Elsewhere we find that Rabi Yehuda unlike his colleagues permits using a dried-out esrog for he interprets the word hadar differently and does not require that the esrog be beautiful. (The halachah does not follow Rabi Yehuda on this point and we require hadar for our arba minim.) Rather Rabi Yehuda’s reason is that a green esrog is assumed be immature (lo gamar peira).

Tosafos’s Leniency

Tosafos introduce a considerable leniency based on this explanation namely that if one has an esrog that is currently green but will turn yellow over time it would be kosher even according to Rabi Yehuda since it clearly was not picked too early to ripen. This leniency is adopted by the Rosh the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch.

As understood by the Taz and Magen Avraham this allows the use of such an esrog even before it turns yellow so long as one knows that it will do so. We only need to know that it stayed on the tree long enough to be able to turn yellow later.

The Vilna Gaon Chayei Adam Shulchan Aruch Harav and Elya Rabbah agree with this interpretation and Mishnah Berurah incorporates it into his commentary albeit with one caveat: Based on a ruling of Maharil mentioned in Magen Avraham Mishnah Berurah rules that one should only use a green esrog if it has already begun to turn yellow for otherwise one can’t be certain that it will in fact change color in the future.

The Bach’s Objection

The Bach raises an objection to this leniency. The Gemara clearly assumed from the outset that a green esrog lacked hadar and only invoked the gamar peira reason to explain why Rabi Yehuda who does not require hadar nevertheless considers green invalid. Since we unlike Rabi Yehuda rule that an esrog must be hadar we have no reason to disregard the initial assumption that a green esrog lacks this qualification.

Hence argues the Bach a green esrog is pasul for two reasons: it is not hadar and it may be immature. Even if we know it will turn yellow later Tosafos’s leniency as understood by the aforementioned authorities would only cover the second reason but the first problem — hadar — would still apply until it finishes turning yellow. This stringency is endorsed by Bikkurei Yaakov Beis Meir Shiyarei Knesses Hagedolah Olas Shabbos and Mishkenos Yaakov.

A Further Stringency

What about the Tosafos we mentioned above which allows the use of an esrog that will change color after picking? Several of the aforementioned authorities adopt a different interpretation of the Tosafos and argue that Tosafos only mean to allow the use of a green esrog after it turns yellow not before.

Obviously once an esrog turns yellow there will be no hadar issue as hadar is dependent solely on its status at the time of use. Tosafos according to this view wish to clarify further that the problem of gamar peira also resolves itself once the esrog changes color even though that at the time of picking it was unfinished. In other words one might have argued that an esrog picked before ripening on the tree is permanently disqualified and Tosafos are dispelling such an assertion.

By reading Tosafos this way these Acharonim are arguing with the Taz and Magen Avraham on two counts: 1) They hold that green lacks hadar and that 2) a yellow coloration is per se required for the esrog to be considered gamar peira.

The Story So Far

To sum up we have learned thus far that:

(1) Although the Mishnah flatly disqualifies green esrogim many poskim understand the sole problem to be the assumption of immaturity. They accept any esrog that is known to be mature enough to turn yellow in the future.

(2) The Bach objected because he argues that a green esrog lacks hadar and thus remains pasul until it turns yellow.

(3) A stringent reading of Tosafos alleges that the maturity problem too applies until final ripening.

Enter the Zohar

Several Acharonim point out that the Zohar gives seems to consider green not only kosher but optimal: “If it is yarok it is preferable just as Esther was yerakrokes.”

The idea that Esther had a tinge of yarok is mentioned in the Gemara: “Esther was yerakrokes yet a thread of grace was strung upon her.” But only the Zohar draws a connection between her color and the esrog. What is the connection between Esther and the esrog? Bikkurei Yaakov hints that they share some secret connection (“meramzim l’sod echad”) but declines to reveal said secret. At any rate this Zohar tells us that green is not only acceptable but preferable. How are we to reconcile this with the established halachah?

Rav Yaakov Emden[1] understands the Zohar as referring to an esrog that is now green, but will later turn yellow. Such an esrog is kosher according to the first interpretation of Tosafos we mentioned above. Even according to this explanation, the Zohar still seems at odds with the Tosafos and Shulchan Aruch, who only consider green acceptable, not preferable, and certainly with the Bach et al, who consider green absolutely pasul.


There is another possible reading of this Zohar that may be in line with the accepted halachah, which hinges on the translation of the word yarok. Modern Hebrew uses the term yarok for green, kachol for blue, and tzahov for yellow. In Talmudic terminology, however, the single word yarok covers the span from yellow, through green, and into blue.[2]

Therefore, when the term yarok appears in halachah, it is necessary to specify which yarok we mean. In Yoreh Deiah 188:1, for example, where we learn that secretions of yarok do not render one a niddah, the Shulchan Aruch elaborates: “yarok like wax or gold [i.e., yellow] and certainly yarok like grass or leeks [i.e., green]; and similarly the color called ‘blau’ in German is included in yarok.” In the laws of treifos, regarding the examination of lungs in animals, Sifsei Kohein[3] comments that “the yarok called blau and grün are kosher but the yarok called gel[4] is treif.”

Tosafos tell us[5] that Chazal use the word yarok without modification when they wish to describe the color yellow. If they wish to identify something green, they use the phrase yarok kikarsi. So even though yarok kikarsi ultra-literally means “yarok as a leek,” an accurate paraphrase translation would be simply “green,” no more and no less.

In the case of the mishnah we cited in the outset, although it literally reads “green as a leek,” it isn’t necessarily referring to a specific shade of green. It just means to say an esrog that is green, rather than yellow.

Was Esther Green or Yellow?

In light of Tosafos’s statement that yarok on its own means yellow, let us reread that Zohar: “If it is yarok it is preferable, just as Esther was yerakrokes.” Could it be that the Zohar is telling us that yellow, not green, is preferable, and that Esther’s yerakrokes hue was not a green tinge, but a yellow one?

This reading — that the Zohar’s yarok means yellow — is adopted by the Bikkurei Yaakov, Vilna Gaon,[6] and Mishkenos Yaakov. The latter two point out that while it is normal for people to appear yellowish due to various medical conditions, a green tinge is totally unnatural. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the description of Esther as yerakrokes refers to a yellowish tinge.

If the Zohar is telling us to prefer yellow esrogim, it is consistent with our halachah. After all, everyone agrees that yellow is the best color for an esrog, and the Zohar is simply adding a mystical dimension to the same law, viz. that kabbalistically we wish the esrog to resemble Esther’s yellowness.

We pointed out earlier that if the Zohar meant that green esrogim are preferable, it would be irreconcilable with the Bach’s view that they must be yellow. Yet, Rav Shlomo Kluger[7] writes, even if the Zohar means to say that yellow is merely better, that clearly implies that green is at least kosher, which still contradicts the Bach.

Still, this is not a refutation of the Bach’s stance, since in general we do not base halachah on Kabbalistic sources where they are in conflict with the revealed Torah. Furthermore, since the kashrus of a green esrog is a dispute among the Tannaim, it is possible that Rabi Shimon bar Yochai held like Rabi Meir, and the halachah would still follow Rabi Yehuda.

Esther and Hadassim

As we noted above, Esther is more commonly associated with hadassim. After all, Hadassah was her other name, as is clearly stated in Megillas Esther.[8]

Hadassim are green, of course. Should this indicate that the term yerakrokes used to describe Esther connotes a greenish tinge?

Let’s see. The Gemara[9] reads as follows: “She is called Hadassah and then she is called Esther… Rabi Meir says: Her name was Esther, and she was called Hadassah because righteous people are called hadassim… Rabi Yehuda says: Her name was Hadassah, and she was called Esther because she concealed matters… Rabi Nechemia says: Her name was Hadassah, and she was called Esther because the nations of the world referred to her thus, like the word ‘Estaher’ (which means ‘moon’ — a reference to her beauty). Ben Azzai said she neither unusually tall nor short, but average, like a hadassah. Rabi Yehoshua ben Karcha said: Esther was yerakrokes, yet a thread of grace was strung upon her.”

The Gemara never explicitly compares her coloration to the green color of a myrtle branch, yet the context does imply that the yerakrokes described here is an explanation of her nickname Hadassah. It is entirely possible to understand this Gemara as meaning that Esther was yellow and not green.

Rashi, however, does clearly make the connection. He comments here on Rabi Yehoshua’s statement that Esther was yerakrokes: “Like a hadassah.” This places Rashi firmly on the side of those who understand Esther’s yerakrokes to mean a greenish color.[10]

Which Is the Real Tzaddik?

The question of whether to compare Queen Esther to the esrog or the hadas may be related to another conundrum. We’ve quoted the Gemara above that states that “righteous people are called hadassim.” This seems contrary to a famous midrash,[11] which characterizes the arba minim:

“ ‘Pri eitz hadar’ — this is Israel. Just as an esrog has taste and aroma, so does Israel have among them those who have Torah and good deeds. ‘Kapos temarim’ — this is Israel. Just as a date palm has taste but no aroma, so does Israel have among them those who have Torah but not good deeds. ‘V’anaf eitz avos’ — this is Israel. Just as a hadas has aroma but no taste, so does Israel have among them those who have good deeds but no Torah. ‘V’arvei nachal’ — this is Israel. Just as the aravah has neither taste nor aroma so does Israel have among them those who have neither Torah nor good deeds. And what does Hashem do with them? …Let them be tied together and atone for one another.”

In this Midrash the hadas is described as representing a lower spiritual level than the esrog. I do not know how to reconcile this with the Gemara, which tells us that tzaddikim are compared to hadassim.

One is tempted to speculate that this may be the root of the dispute between Rabi Meir and Rabi Yehoshua ben Karcha in the gemara we cited above. Perhaps Rabi Meir held that the hadas is the tzaddik, and therefore associated Esther with it rather than the esrog, whereas Rabi Yehoshua ben Karcha (and the Zohar[12]) held like the midrash that the esrog represents righteousness, and therefore drew attention to her yellow tinge, which resembles the esrog. It does seem that this may hold the key to the question of whether to compare Queen Esther to an esrog or a hadas, and by extension to the mystery of whether the queen was really green.

Rabbi Eli Reisman is an alumnus of Mir Yerushalayim and a musmach of Rabbi Yisroel Belsky. He lives in Edison, New Jersey.

[1] Mor U’Ketziah to 648:21.

[2] Tosafos discuss this in several places. See Succah 31b s.v. hayarok, Chullin 47b s.v. ela, Niddah 19b s.v hayarok.

[3] Yoreh Deiah 38:6. It should be noted that the Shulchan Aruch here (38:4) does use the term kachol for some shade of blau (as the Rema comments there). The context implies that the it was inky dark, very close to black, and therefore am not certain whether the color described by the Shulchan Aruch as kachol is identical to the color the Sifsei Kohein calls “the yarok called blau.”

[4] Yellow (gelb in contemporary German).

[5] Niddah ibid.

[6] Commentary to Tikkunei Zohar ad loc.

[7] Glosses to Shulchan Aruch 648:21.

[8] 2:7

[9] Megillah 13a.

My friend E.L. pointed out that both protagonists of our original mishnah in Succah, Rabi Meir and Rabi Yehuda, appear in this baraisa, and Rabi Meir compares Esther to a hadas while according to Rabi Yehuda that was simply her given name. One can’t help but wonder if there is some connection between this and their dispute about the kashrus of a green esrog.

[10] This is consistent with Rashi in Chullin 47b, where the Gemara describes a baby not ready for his bris as yarok. While the Vilna Gaon (and likely Tosafos as well) would read this as a reference to a yellowish tinge, Rashi explains yarok to mean “like grass” — i.e., green. The Vilna Gaon categorically states in his commentary to the Tikkunei Zohar that “green is not a color that occurs in people,” and therefore interprets Esther’s color to be yellowish. Rashi, in both places we’ve cited, appears to disagree.

[11] Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 30:12.

[12] This explanation only works according to those who read the Gemara and the Zohar’s term yerakrokes as yellow rather than green.


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