Growing up in Cleveland a quarter century ago (has it been that long?!) I accompanied my father to Jacob’s Judaica store to purchase the four species for Sukkot. The back of the store, down a few steps, was the designated Sukkot area. Men were crowded into the small space, examining specimens of Etrogim and holding up lulavim to examine the posture of their spines. The Hadassim were scrutinized carefully to determine that the three leaves on each segment of the branch stemmed from the same level. There were white boxes stacked up, each containing a citron fruit wrapped in flax to preserve its freshness and to prevent bruising from handling. Each box had a price written on it, reflecting the quality of the fruit inside. The price of the Etrog would cover the entire set, as the other species were thrown in after the purchase of the Etrog. $55 was the price I remember that we paid for a fair set back then, although I could be mistaken. There were nicer sets that sold for $65 and passable sets sold for $45.
We were told stories about the difficulty of procuring an Etrog in war ravaged Europe in the previous century. Poverty stricken families would save up their pennies to afford a nice Etrog for Sukkot, and sometimes entire communities had to put their resources together in order to obtain one kosher set for the entire community. Great sacrifices were made to fulfill this Mitzvah in parts of the world where it was not easily done. These stories were fables for me. In Shul on Sukkot there was a forest of Lulavim swaying during the recitation of Hallel. There were no shortages, and you needn’t break the bank to purchase a nice set of the Four Species.
In Israel those stories grew even more surreal as the markets buzzed with Sukkot business in the days and weeks leading up to the festival. Special markets crop up every year with a sea of Etrogim, covering the entire spectrum of shades from avocado green to lemon yellow, and every imaginable size and shape. Prices vary in the extreme, according to the quality and pedigree of each Etrog. Tens of thousands of Palm trees contribute to the array of Lulavim made available for the finicky connoisseurs, which Jews become during this season. Buckets full of myrtle branches sit in water, waiting to be chosen along with two others and then used for the Mitzvah. Kids quickly become seasoned salesmen as they seize the opportunity to sell willow branches that complete the set of four species. No one is left without an opportunity to purchase a set.
In small communities in the US the smorgasbord is more limited. Often you must place a blind order on a set that was pre-certified as kosher by inspecting rabbis and experts. The experience of feasting the eyes on hundreds of specimens in not possible without traveling to a larger city, but Mitzvah is fulfilled nonetheless.