The superiority of taking an Israeli etrog
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Is it preferable to use an etrog that grew in Israel even though taking the arba minim isn't a land-dependent mitzvah?
Over the past few centuries, most etrogim grew outside the Land of Israel. Upon our return to our land, kosher, ungrafted etrog orchards were planted in Israel. Is it preferable to use an etrog that grew in Israel even though taking the arba minim isn't a land-dependent mitzvah?
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (Jaffa, Israel 5666: Eitz Hadar HaShalem, p. 7) ascribed major significance to the fact that these ungrafted etrogim grow in the Land of Israel:
Many illustrious giants, saintly men of the generation and truly righteous individuals would pine to perform the mitzvah of [taking an] etrog grown specifically in the Land of Israel, which should be speedily rebuilt. And thus add to this love, events unfolded from G-d, Who has chosen the desirable land, which reveal the disgrace of the etrogim of the lands of exile sold by gentiles—haters of Israel—: it has come to light that they are grafted (and are thus invalid for the mitzvah of taking arba minim).
Similar sentiments were written by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (Navahrudak, Belarus, around 5667: Aruch HaShulchan OC §648:29):
We have no heter on the etrogim other than those for which Jews can attest that they have knowledge of their planting from the outset, and can verify that they are not grafted in any way. This includes the etrogim of our Holy Land: on behalf of the giants and Torah scholars, G-d fearing Jews supervise the gardens to ensure that they are not be grafted in any way. … For this reason, any Jew whose heart has a touch of fear of G-d should take the etrogim of the Land of Israel. And how are we not ashamed and humiliated that we have the ability to perform the mitzvah from the fruit of our Holy Land, but we rather take from the Lands of the Nations? Woe to us for this shame, woe to us for this humiliation. It is about this that it is stated: "And they have rejected the desirable land" (Tehillim 106:24). For this reason, it is important to be exceedingly careful with this matter.
Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya's writes along the same lines (Jerusalem, 5719: Responsa Yaskil Avdi VI §21):
We do not see that etrogim [are one of the species] that the Land of Israel is praised with, so from where do we see a reason to prefer them? For other fruits that are not included in those that the Land of Israel is praised with, we have not seen that one should recite a blessing on them before blessing fruit grown outside the Land. However, it is my humble opinion that it is clear that the fruit of the Land of Israel are preferable in light of their sanctity, since they grew in holiness and purity; since the air of the Countries of the Nations and its dust, as we know, is impure. And if the fruit grew in the dust and air of the Countries of the Nations, then they grew in impurity; this is not so with the air and dust [of the Land of Israel], which is pure and sacred.
As we have found in the Gemara Ketubot 112a: Rabbi Abba would kiss the rocks of Akko and Rabbi Chiya bar Gamda would roll in the dust of the land, as it is stated: "For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust" (Tehillim 102:15) … and since its exaltedness and sanctity is so great, … and since its inanimate dust is so desirable—all the more so, what is more exalted than the inanimate, we certainly should prefer it to any other plants outside the Land of Israel that grow in the impurity of the Countries of the Nations. And this matter is simple and clear to all…
And regarding the matter of exporting them outside the Land of Israel: even though by taking them outside the Land of Israel they will become defiled by the impurity of the Countries of the Nations, they are nevertheless loftier than etrogim that grew outside the Land of Israel. The latter were conceived and born in impurity, while the etrogim of the Land of Israel were conceived and born in sanctity. Even if defiled by the impurity of the Countries of the Nations, after all, their initial sanctity does not depart from them, since they were conceived and born in sanctity.
Rabbi Binyamin Zilber concurs (Benei Beraq 5752; made Aliya from Europe at the age of 18: "Etrogei Eretz HaKodesh veEtrogei Morocco" in Mishnat Binyamin: Shevi'it §59): "On my part, this is a simple matter. If I were outside the Land of Israel (I hope that in the future I will not be abroad), I would say the blessing on [an etrog] from the Land of Israel—even not mehudar—rather than an etrog that did not grow in the Holy Land, even if especially mehudar. And I do not need any proofs for this, since it is already etched on my very heart."