The price of lulavs may triple this year after Egypt, in an attempt to prevent damage to its date trees, prohibited the export of palm branches, causing a severe shortage.
Consumers will end up paying approximately NIS 75 instead of NIS 25 per branch, said one lulav trader. However, consumers who bought lulavs as part of a closed set at a prearranged price would probably not be affected much. Instead, the rise in lulav prices would be absorbed by the traders, he said.
Lulavs are used during Succot to perform the biblical commandment to "take... branches of palm trees" together with willow branches, a citron and myrtle branches and "rejoice before the Lord your God."
Since 1967, after Israel conquered the Sinai peninsula, Israelis have been importing palm branches from El-Arish, on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast just south of Rafah.
However, after last Succot the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry decided to prohibit export of the branches.
According to Israeli traders, harvesting of the branches caused damage to date trees.
"Over the past few years the lulav market, both in Israel and in the United States, has exploded to the point where El-Arish was exporting a million lulavs a year," one trader said.
"About 90 percent of the lulavs sold in Israel come from El-Arish," he added. "The kibbutzim with large quantities of date trees could cash in on the dearth. Harvesting spread from trees planted especially to grow lulavs to trees designated for growing dates. Egyptian traders caused damage to the trees when they removed the branches."
Attempts were made to import branches clandestinely from other parts of Egypt. However, the Plant Protection and Inspection Services and Plant Quarantine Service of Israel's Agriculture Ministry prevented the imports.
"We are concerned that pests, diseases and fungi not found in Israel will cause irreparable damage", Meir Mizrahi, head of the Plant Quarantine Service said. "In Morocco, 10 million trees were infected by the Dayud, a fungus that turns the entire tree-trunk white," he added.
Mizrahi said attempts by the Foreign Ministry over the past 10 days to initiate negotiations with the Egyptians had failed.
"We are looking for other solutions," he said, adding that one option was importing from Alicanta, Spain, or Jordan.
"A group of Agriculture Ministry representatives are checking to make sure there are no pests, fungi or diseases in Spain and Jordan," Mizrahi said. However, Israeli lulav traders said these options were much more expensive.
"You can't compare the salary earned by an Egyptian to one demanded by a Spaniard," said trader Yehuda Asayag. He and others who spoke to The Jerusalem Post estimated that the wholesale price for a lulav would triple from $1 to $3.
"Another problem is training the Spaniards and Jordanians to tell the difference between kosher and non-kosher lulavs," Asayag said. "For instance, if the tip of a lulav is cut or damaged it is not kosher... On average about a half of El-Arish lulavs cannot be used because they do not meet halachic criteria."
"If the Spanish ones are nicer, perhaps the price won't triple. But the workers must be taught how to choose the best ones," according to one trader.
In many cases lulavs, which are cut from the tree before the leaves on the branch begin separating, are sold in closed sets along with myrtle branches and a citron at a prearranged price.
"I know traders who signed big contracts to supply sets to a large group at a prearranged price," said Asayag. "They will be forced to supply the merchandise at that price despite the situation."
One trader told the Post he and his colleagues would not take advantage of the lulav shortage.
"You are doing God's will when you take a lulav on Succot. So we want to help people do His will," he said.
However, another trader said he would pass on the full price rise to consumers.
"The harder a Jew endeavors to fulfill a commandment, the greater the reward," he said.