Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Sukkot 5763/ September 21, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Sukkot 5763/ September 21, 2002

Etrog Under the Microscope

Prof. Daniel Sperber
Naftal-Yaffe Dept. of Talmud

How should one examine the Arba Minim (Four Species, specifically the Etrog and Lulav)?

Anyone who has milled around in the marketplaces of Israel where Arba Minim are sold for Sukkot is well acquainted with the sight of people examining the tips of lulavs with magnifying glasses, or looking for the "pintele" (black dots) on the etrog with the same magnification. The question arises as to how meticulous one should be in examining and searching for possible blemishes when purchasing one's lulav set.

With regard to aravah (willow branches) the Halakhah (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 647.2) states: "A willow whose top has been lopped off is not permissible." The Mishnah Berurah comments on this as follows (par. 10): That is, if the tree has been lopped off, but if its leaves have been lopped off, even if they were at its top, it does not necessarily follow [that it is not permissible]." With regard to the myrtle having groups of three leaves it says: "If most of its measure is triple, it is kosher after the fact, even if it is not triple at the top" (Rema 646.5). As for the lulav, it says, (Bayit Hadash, 645; Vilna Gaon's commentary loc. sit. note 1; Mishnah Berurah, loc. sit.): "The center one [renders the lulav ] invalid when most of it is split." It appears from these sources that there is no need for super-meticulous examination under a magnifying glass.

However, all the posekim agree that from the outset "we are commanded to take the most select for the lulav, one whose leaves are not at all separated" (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 645.1, in Rema's commentary), or, "The commandment holds for the entire regulation length of the myrtle, that is be avot ("leafy trees" i.e. that its leaves cover the entire branch) (loc. sit. 646.5), etc.

What is meant by "not at all" or "entire" in these halakhot: is it what we see with the unassisted eye, or what is revealed under the magnifying glass?

Do the words, "may he who is very strict be blessed," apply to those who are meticulous in their examination of the species? Or are such persons in the category of "not being rewarded for this, being nothing but commoners" (hedyot, to use the words of Hizkiya borrowed from another context, Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berakhot end of the second chapter, and J.T. Shabbat chapter 1. See Hagahot Maimaniot on Sukkah 10.2; Rema, Orah Hayyim 639.7; also cf. Beit Yosef on the Tur, Orah Hayyim 32).

Rabbi Jehiel Michal Epstein (Byelorussia, 1829-1908), in Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De'ah (published between 1898 and 1904), chapter 84.36, wrote:

It has been written in the name of learned scientists that a person who looks at vinegar through a magnifying glass, called a spectiva, will see vast numbers of crawling things. But in vinegar there is nothing to fear, since, as has been explained, the crawling things that come about afterwards (betalush) were permitted by the Torah. Indeed, I have heard that in all sorts of water, especially rainwater, there are loads of tiny organisms not visible to the naked eye. In my childhood I heard from someone from afar who had looked through a lens that magnified tens of thousands of times and seen all sorts of creatures in the water. According to this, how could we possibly drink water when these creatures are indigenous to it? But the truth is that the Torah did not forbid that which the naked eye does not see, for the Torah was not given to angels; for if it were not so, [how would we deal with the fact that] several scientists have written that the air, too, is full of tiny creatures, and when a person opens his mouth he swallows some of them, but probably it is "only air that fills their mouths" [a play on Job 35:16], but even if it be so, since the eye does not command them, they are of no consequence. But anything which the eye can see, even if in bright sunlight only and very tiny, is considered to be a sheretz (forbidden crawly things).

Perhaps he had heard of the discoveries made by Dr. Robert Koch (1843-1910), who with the aid of a microscope in 1876 first discovered anthrax germs, and regarding such things R. Epstein ruled that "if not visible to the naked eye, they are of no consequence."

This question was also addressed by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in his Responsa Yehaveh Da'at, par. 47. A query was sent him whether "worms ... that are visible only in a microscope, are forbidden?" His responsum, in which he typically reviews with great expertise all the literature on the subject by latter posekim, is based on remarks by the author of Hokhmat Adam ( in Binat Adam, rule 38, par. 49), who rejected the view expressed in Sefer Ha-Brit (by R. Pinehas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna, Bruna 1793), that wine cannot become vinegar until it has bugs in it, for if one looks at vinegar with a microscope one would see that it is full of swarming bugs, and therefore it is forbidden to eat vinegar, even if it has been strained.

Hokhmat Adam says that the injunction, "he shall not drink vinegar of wine" (Num. 6:3) applies only to the Nazirite, "but that means that others may ... for surely the Torah spoke only of what was visible to the eye".
Likewise, Meorei Or (Ken Tahor, Hullin 58b; 88a) says that the creepy things that are seen through the microscope in wine and flour were not of concern to the Sages at all, but only those things that could be seen by the [naked] eye, even if very small.

Tiferet Yisrael (on Avodah Zarah 2.6, Boaz sect. 3), tells of a great scholar who wished to permit eating fish with scales that could only be seen through a microscope, "and the whole world rose up against him,... and the issue subsided and was mentioned no more". The same goes for blemishes and nicks in the slaughtering knife- that those marks visible only through a microscope does not render the slaughtered animal impermissible (Ha-Me'asef, Booklet 2, par. 42, cited in Yehaveh Da'at, loc. sit.).

As for making a distinction between a magnifying glass and a microscope, it is generally accepted by many posekim that anything which is not visible to the normal eye, but can only be seen by means that significantly enhance vision, i.e., beyond average normal sight, halakhically is not considered of account, and as said there in Tiferet Yisrael: "For it is the view of the Torah that one should rely only on what can be seen by a normal human eye, without a magnifying lens."

Similarly, R. Shlomo Kluger, in Responsa Tuv Ta'am ve-Da'at (Tenina, Kuntres Aharon, par. 53), maintains that examining with a magnifying glass is irrelevant in terms of the halakhah.

In the same spirit Rabbi Joseph Mashash ruled in Responsa Mayyim Hayyim par. 259 that an etrog which has been examined and found without blemish, but that under a magnifying glass is shown to have several punctures, is strictly kosher.

According to this approach, it is doubtful that those who are so meticulous as to examine their lulavs and etrogs under a magnifying glass merit any reward for these efforts. They might even be considered unlearned, as Hizkiyah said in the Jerusalem Talmud. Therefore, some other source must be found if one wishes to substantiate the practice of examining arba minim under a magnifying glass.