You see them springing up on street corners from Eilat to Metulla in the weeks
preceding the Succot holiday: Arba Minim stands selling the four species –
namely lulavim (palm branches), etrogim (citrons), hadassim (myrtle sprigs) and
aravot (willow sprigs) – waved together during the holiday prayers by observant
Jews since biblical times.
Barkers yell “Mehudar, mehudar” – a word
indicating the high quality of their products – at potential customers as they
pass by. Small children run tables full of tinsel and decoration for the
succa itself and old graybeards in long coats and fur hats examine the species
under jewelers’ loupes for imperfections that would disqualify them for ritual
The phenomenon lasts for only several days and the market window for
growers and importers of the species is small. In the minutes before sunset and
the commencement of the festival, as the sellers fold up their tables and box
their wares, one can find a lulav that may have sold several hours before for
tens of dollars for as little as a shekel. While the etrog is primarily grown in
Israel, and is in fact exported internationally, the lulav has traditionally
been sourced from Sinai’s El-Arish area.
However, over the past several
years, the market share of locally grown lulavim has increased and this year,
the palm growers of the Beit She’an Valley have sensed an opportunity to step in
and bring local production to the forefront, especially in light of recent
developments in Egypt.
Since the fall of its longtime president Hosni
Mubarak last year, Egypt has been in a state of messy transition, nowhere more
so than in the Sinai Peninsula. While Egypt actively banned lulav exports last
year, this year the barrier is not the government but rather the residents of
The peninsula currently exists in a state of anarchy. Marauding
Beduin tribes, some with connections to various Salafi terrorist networks, are
openly defying Egyptian state power in the absence of authority engendered by
the Egyptian revolution. While Egypt has begun sending in troops to quell the
disturbances, which have also interrupted Israeli gas imports, the new crackdown
is too late for this year’s lulav trade.
A spokesman for the Agriculture
Ministry told The Jerusalem Post
last week that the negotiations between
Jerusalem and Cairo, currently experiencing a tense period diplomatically, were
not “particularly strenuous” because of the increasing production of palm
branches over the past few years and especially since the ministry encouraged
local growers to ramp up production in response to last year’s Egyptian export
The half-hearted efforts at negotiations were part of a
“communications breakdown,” the JTA reported, “between the various departments
across the border.” While the IDF allowed imports of palm fronds from Gaza last
year to ease the shortage, a spokesman for the Coordinator of Government
Activities in the Territories told the Post that there has not yet been a
decision on opening up the blockade on the coastal strip to allow for the lulav
trade this year.
Over the past several years, agricultural scientists at
the Volcani Institute, Israel’s agricultural research organization under the
aegis of the ministry, have been working on ways to make lulav production
cheaper in Israel where there are greater labor costs than in the
Dr. David Kenigsbuch is a researcher at the Volcani Institute and
an expert on the preservation of foodstuffs post-harvest. Three years
ago, initially at the behest of the ministry, Kenigsbuch and his colleague
Nehemia Aharoni developed a technique for preserving the short-lived lulav for
up to six months.
The challenge facing local growers is that lulavim must
be harvested close to the holiday, thus precluding a biannual
Kenigsbuch and Aharoni’s research was subsequently continued
under a further grant from a consortium of local growers. Despite the
financial support for their research however, their new technique, consisting of
coating the lulavim in a proprietary chemical bath and packing it in special
packaging, did not take off initially.
The problem, Kenigsbuch said, is
that “today the growers spent very little to grow the lulavim. Some grow deri,
which is a mehadrin [extra fine] type and they make enough per lulav that they
use the technology to save them, but the others only get a few shekels per
lulav, so right now I am not sure if it is worth it for them.”
he had noted previously, the technique could become viable for mass adoption and
enough lulavim could be grown in Israel to obviate the necessity of imports,
should Israel face another year without Egyptian lulavim.
precisely the situation as it stands this year and Avner Rotem, a grower from
Kibbutz Tirat Zvi near Beit She’an, says that this year there has been a mass adoption of Kenigsbuch and Aharoni’s technology.
last year there were media reports that some ultra-Orthodox rabbis considered
the chemical treatment to be “un-kosher,” there is “not such a controversy per
se; it is only a small minority that is against the technique who saw one of the
substances that we are using and showed it to rabbis in a way in which they
misrepresented how it was used, not in the way that we use it, and there is a
small faction in Mea She’arim that don’t want it,” Kenigsbuch noted.
technique, says Rotem, will allow the prices of lulavim to be competitive with
those brought in from Egypt. While he did say that there would be a price
increase on the wholesale side, it should not, he claimed, cause financial
hardship of a significant price rise of the retail market.
A Sinai palm
frond, he said, sells wholesale for around NIS 1, while an Israeli frond, which
is generally larger and of better quality, sells for NIS 9 or NIS
Since the Orthodox population generally prefers Israeli lulavim for
their higher quality, it is unlikely that the price increase affected them.
Likewise, according to Rotem, those who bought early managed to obtain decent
prices, as the gouging most likely only really came into effect between Yom
Kippur and Succot, when the demand was at its highest.
Those most likely
have paid more are secular or traditional Jews buying during the period of peak
demand. However, it is unlikely that lulavim will be priced out of reach of most
Israelis, as the increase in wholesale price per unit is less than
Both Rotem and local retailers in Jerusalem denied that there would
be any shortage this year either, citing a ramping up of production by local
growers to meet demand.
The new chemical processes, Rotem noted, allows
for the harvest to begin months prior to the holiday, which accounts for local
farmers’ ability to provide sufficient fronds in the time required. Were he not
able to utilize this technique and store fronds long-term, he said, there would
most likely be a significant shortfall in production.
In a statement, the
Agriculture Ministry quantified Rotem’s claims, stating that some 600,000 fronds
would be produced in Israel this year.
The intersection of global
geopolitics, commerce and technology in Israel can affect even the most mundane
aspects of religious observance, a fact never more readily apparent than during
the days leading up to Succot.
Nevertheless, though the methods may
change, some things stay the same – like the seasonal “Mehudar” criers and the
spontaneous outcroppings of street-corner Arba Minim stands.