Business booming for Succot Four Species traders

Customers spend hours looking for the most perfect palm fronds, citrus, myrtle branches and willow branches.

People pray at Kotel with lulav and etrog 311 (photo credit:
People pray at Kotel with lulav and etrog 311
(photo credit:
In the autumn, religious people’s thoughts turn to palm fronds (lulavim), citrons (etrogim), myrtle branches (hadassim) and willow branches (aravot), in order to perform one of the key obligations of the upcoming Succot festival: the taking and shaking of the Four Species, or Arba Minim.”
But despite much alarm and fear, the great lulav shortage of 2011 has not transpired, and that’s the official word from the professionals on the street.
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Despite a ban imposed this year by Egyptian authorities on the export of lulavim, the streets of Geulah and Mea She’arim in Jerusalem are awash with palm branches and trade is brisk.
“There’s no shortage really,” says Arba Minim merchant Yehudah Cohen. “Maybe prices are a bit more expensive this year, by 10 or 20 shekels, but they’re not much more than the average year.”
And in fact, there are even some Egyptian varieties available, with a couple of merchants displaying El-Arish lulavim from Sinai.
Menachem, a canny, experienced and independent Arba Minim dealer selling his lulavim for between NIS 100 and 120, concurred with his competitor Yehudah, but added that what is in short supply is hadassim, the three fragrant myrtle branches used as part of the Four Species ritual.
Specifically, the availability of the highest quality myrtle branches is low this year and they are selling for as much as 120 shekels, far more than usual.
And, as ever, the citron or etrog, is by far the most expensive component of the Arba Minim. Menachem sold one particularly resplendent etrog this year for NIS 1,000, a steep price determined by the perfection of the specimen and a lack of spots, bruises and other blemishes that reduce the desirability of an etrog.
The wholesale price of an etrog, he said, can range from NIS 15 – NIS 30 so the mark up on the most perfect, or mehudar, etrogim is substantial to say the least.
“It may seem expensive but there are a lot of high outlays for an Arba Minim trader,” Menachem argues. “I may buy a crate of say 100 etrogim from the orchard, 80 percent of which may not even be kosher which I can’t sell, so you have to take those costs into account.”
One customer, having found a particularly fine etrog, took it off to a local rabbi for confirmation that it was acceptable for performing the mitzvah, promising to pay once he got approval.
“People are honest,” says Menachem. “He’s not going to steal it. Anyway, you can’t even perform the mitzvah if the Arba Minim aren’t your own so it’s no problem.”
Other merchants work on a partnership arrangement with the principle suppliers, such as Yisrael in the heart of Geulah, who sells etrogim from the Gross orchards, collecting 20% of the proceeds with the other 80% going to Gross.
Yisrael will take delivery of approximately 1,000 etrogim this year, but says he will sell only about 600 of them. Of those, he will sell between 100 and 150 for NIS 550 and the rest for, on average, NIS 360. The 400 that remain unsold, which Yisrael said he needs to provide customers with a good selection, will be turned into jam.
Particularly important are the super-customers, those who come in to buy not just for themselves but for their children as well. One particular rabbi came into Yisrael’s Arba Minim emporium this week and bought 11 etrogim at a price of NIS 300 each, a sizable outlay.
In total, Yisrael says, it’s only about two weeks’ work all told, including arranging the deliveries, but as a teacher at a local school, the money he earns from the Arba Minim trade is a welcome supplement to his income.
“It helps me make some refurbishments to my apartment, buy some gifts for the children; it’s an important part of my year,” he says.
The selection process of an Arba Minim set for the devout customers of Geulah is a time-consuming and intense process requiring a great deal of expertise in Jewish law, not to mention various implements and devices for gauging the acceptability of the different species. Men brandish magnifying glasses, tooth picks and cotton buds with which to inspect an etrog for blemishes and clean them of any superficial surface detritus.
Ya’akov, a hassid from the Toldot Aharon sect, said he had spent three hours simply selecting a lulav, with the tricky items of the etrog and hadassim still left to purchase.
“If you really value the importance of a mitzvah, then you invest your time in it,” he said.
Another hassidic customer at Yisrael’s Arba Minim outlet, who was in the process of interrogating an unsuspecting citron for the slightest flaw, said however that it is not a question of whether or not the Arba Minim are kosher.
“In truth, it’s hard to find an invalid etrog. But to fulfill the commandment in the most ideal way, one must find the most beautiful etrog you can. It’s not an obligation but a will and desire to do the mitzvah as perfectly as possible.”