A massive shortage of palm branches leads to panic among observant Jews who require the branches in time to recite a blessing during the Sukkot holiday as they wave the palm branch – known as a lulav – in various directions.
Politicians become involved in the hope that a bit of desperate, crafty political wielding will result in free-flowing palm fronds.
Palm fronds for all? Sounds like the kind of story that one would delete from their e-mail inbox as a bad joke, an unfounded rumor, a potential virus intent on destroying one’s hard drive.
A lulav embargo?
Actually, yes. And nobody’s laughing.
The story of the great lulav embargo of 2005 the ending is not yet written, and Sukkot begins next Monday night, Oct. 17 has an almost biblical ring to it. The tale comes complete with a dark Mafioso-like character (evil chortle here) who allegedly plotted to cut down the number of available imported lulavim and squeeze the maximum amount of dollars from the exclusive palm fronds that he alone holds.
Adding to the biblical element is the role of Egypt, without which no Sukkot story is complete. You see, it turns out that the very same country we gleefully “exodused” from way back in 1312 B.C.E. is the No. 1 exporter of palm fronds in 2005.
In order to properly celebrate that exodus from Egypt, the gut and soul of the Sukkot holiday, we totally need those palm fronds. Somebody somewhere is chuckling at this, appreciating the irony, smacking the biblical flavor between tongue and roof of mouth Ã³ but that person is most certainly not in Baltimore. Or New York. Or the many other American Jewish communities uncertain whether to be concerned.
At Shabsi’s Judaica store in Pikesville, the atmosphere was calm earlier this week. Rumors that entire synagogues will have to share a single lulav have proven untrue. There are enough lulavim for everyone, and the prices are reasonable, increased by no more than a few dollars from last year.
“While there is a shortage, I think there will be enough to go around,” said Rabbi Pinchas Rabinowitz, an employee at Shabsi’s for the past five years. Rabbi Rabinowitz explained that Egypt, concerned about its crops, decided against cutting down its lulavim, but by that point, 500,000 lulavim had already been cut. Every tree produces one single lulav. The lulav is typically sold in a set that includes willows, myrtles and a yellow citron known as an etrog. The set costs between $25 and $70, but this year is more likely to run between $30 and $80.
Still, only 360,000 lulavim reached the United States, which usually imports 600,000 lulavim due to the fact that for every kosher lulav, there’s one that turns out to be no good. Plus, people treat the mitzvah of lulav with a lot of respect; they take it seriously. This explains why you will find Orthodox Jews poring over boxes of lulavim in search of the perfect, kosher lulav.
“Instead of splurging and opening up another box and another, we just can’t do that now,” said Rabbi Rabinowitz. “There are 50 lulavim on the table, and we can’t open another box until tomorrow.”
He credited Baltimore’s “down-to-earth and practical” attitude for keeping the panic from becoming widespread. Instead of bidding wars, he said, retailers will pass along to consumers the slight cost increase, and that’s the end of it for now.
Rabbi Rabinowitz said he is more concerned about next year’s lulav availability. He points out that 500,000 lulavim were already cut by the time Egypt decided not to cut anymore, which may not be the case next year.
“The question is, what will happen next year?” asked Rabbi Rabinowitz. “Maybe Mexico or California will start producing.”