Lessons of the Lulav: Zaide Reuven and the Lulav Shortage of 5766

Every year, towards the end of Succot, I begin to clean up my garage. Despite my attempts to keep some semblance of order, my garage somehow manages to accumulate boxes. Box bottoms without tops. Box tops without bottoms. Also foam packing. Lots of it. And those strips that peel away from the sticky parts of FEDEX boxes. They get everywhere. And leaves. Palm leaves. They also get everywhere.

Last year (5765) as I reunite the seasonal center of operations for Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm with its more regular tenant, my motor vehicle, I have in my hand the last box. A long beaten up and perforated cardboard box about four feet long, ten inches wide and six inches tall. And as I contemplate the disposition of this box, I think about its origin. It is an Egyptian box. It came from Egypt. And in it were lulavs. Lulavim. Unopened fronds from the center of the palm tree. And I wonder.

Fast forward eight months and we hear that the Egyptians have decided to ban the export of lulavim. After thousands of years of growing date palms, (and probably thousands of years of cutting lulavim) someone has just realised that cutting the lulav damages the tree.

So what now? My partner reminds me to trust in the Almighty who will see to it that His people will not be without the materials to perform the mitzvah of the Four Species. I opine that perhaps this is a wakeup call to Am Yisroel on the subject of unity. After all, the mitzvah of the Four Species is about unity – recall the Midrash that relates each of the Four Species to a particular segment of the Jewish People. Those with taste and smell (they know and perform mitvot – esrog), taste but no smell (they know but don’t perform – lulav), smell but no taste (they perform but do not know – hadas), and neither taste nor smell (no knowledge or performance – aravos). In taking all Four Species together we unite the Jewish People in the service of God.

In jeopardy this year are the lulav Jews. Those who know their responsibilities, but fail to keep them. But they stood to jeopardize all of us. Our unity. Was this a wake up call that had something to do with the some focus of infighting? Perhaps the Disengagement/Expulsion from Gush Katif? Am Yisrael was certainly disunited over that one. Were we being given a message that went something like this: “So you want to perform a mitzvah that has to do with unity?, You must show Me some unity first.”?

So with these thoughts circling around in my head, like the circuits of Hoshana Rabbah, I set off for Israel, among other things determined once and for all to find a good source of Israel lulavim. This would alleviate the expected shortage and would also develop a way to support the Israeli economy. In Israel of late August the talk was of the Disengagement and the devastating effect it was having on Israeli (Jewish) unity. Driving from Jerusalem up the Jordan Valley to Bet Shean I marveled at the spectacular scenery of date plantations verdantly punctuating the desert landscape. As I encircled and then approached Jericho, climbing up the incline from the Jordan before turning north, I could not help but imagine my ancestors marching up this same slope preparing for the encirclement that would bring Jericho’s walls crashing to the ground. They were unified. They were together. Look what they could accomplish when they were unified. More thoughts of Hoshana Rabbah and wonderment about whether we (and our Four Species) would be unified this Hoshana Rabbah.

Outside of Bet Shean I visited one date farm. The ride to the top of a palm 50 feet in the air to cut a lulav was spectacular. I can see why the Talmud says (Eruvin 19a) that if the entrance to the Garden of Eden is in Israel, it is in Bet Shean, because of the quality of its fruit.

A short drive further north and I met another date farmer who really knew lulavim. Here was a good source. Mission accomplished (at least I thought).

Driving back to Tel Aviv I called my partner, Yacov Shlomo Rothberg, who told me that our lulav supplier (Rabbi Wilman) had manage to secure one of only two shipments of 100,000 Egyptian lulavim that were just released to the United States. No need to worry. No need for the Israeli lulavim.

Back home and still with a knawing feeling inside, I made arrangements to obtain some of the fine Israel lulavim that I had seen on my trip. Rabbi Braunstein had no Californian lulavim this year because his trees were being relocated, but he was extremely helpful in verifying that my Israeli lulavim were good. Confident about our Egyptian lulav supply and with all of my arrangements in place I was ready for the 5766 season…

Until Erev Rosh Hashana. About 3pm my partner called to tell me we have no lulavim. Zero. Not one. The expected shipment had vanished into thin air. So I called my travel agent. Get me on the first plane to NY on Tzom Gedalia. I will come back with lulavim. Called the chap in NY who was bringing in the Israeli lulavim to confirm that I would be picking some up from him.

And then Rosh Hashana. Boy did I daven well!! Motzei Yom Tov Bed at 12.30am, up at 4.30 and on the plane at 6.30am. The stewardess was not crazy about me secluding myself in the back of the plane to wind some strange leather straps and boxes around myself, but I managed to say Selichos, daven Shacheris, finish a daf and get some sleep.

In NY the phonecalls started. The disappearing lulavs had, it seemed, somehow shown up with another big lulav dealer. The price was through the roof. $8 a piece unchecked. Where to go first? I decided to secure my Israeli lulavim at least. A long ride to Monroe, NY, Kiryas Joel and the Satmar community. Still Tzom Gedalia and tired and hungry, and my contact was running several hours late. Mincha in the big Satmar shul and almost another daf grabbed before Maariv. Maariv over and I headed for the grocery store where a Satmar gentleman opened a juice box for me from his shopping cart and offered me a drink. Still a couple of hours to go before I could meet up with my contact. Finally about 10pm I entered the refrigerated basement of an ordinary house in Kiryas Joel and began sorting through Deri lulavim. Beautiful lulavim. Almost all of them completely closed. To speed things up the son of my contact handed me each lulav so that I could quickly inspect and sort the pile. A number of them looked a little strange and so I called Rabbi Pinchas Braunstein to ask him his opinion. He put my mind at ease and I continued with the sort. Boxing up the lulavim and loading them carefully into my car, I returned to the house to settle the bill. 12.30pm. My contact and her daughter had warmed some soup for me and had prepared a tasty dinner. What Chesed. Turns out we had a lot of people in common and a friendship was struck.

Now driving home I took a wrong turn. Managed to find my way back in the darkness of rural NY and a deer jumped out at me. I broke and the lulavim (that I had placed at an incline) slid forward. Would the tops get damaged?

Finally back in my bed at 3am, 22 hours after waking up in Dallas. Turned the AC down to 60 degrees to keep the lulavim fresh and reduce the chance of mould. But we still need another 300 or so lulavim.

Friday morning (late) my Spanish lulav guy who had previously told me that he would begin selling that day, started (and finished) selling all of his lulavim the night before. Now what? We received word from our Rabbi Wilman that we should go buy the lulavim from the other chap, to whom “our” shipment apparently went. Was this a case of lulav hagazul? No I was told.

So after arranging a loan from an Israeli Esrog dealer friend in Boro Park, I set off reluctantly to buy Egyptian lulavim from Mr. L (not his real name). Even though this was not exactly a case of stolen lulavim I was buying, and even though we received unsolicited “permission” from the intended importer of the lulavim, I still felt uneasy about the whole thing. (I certainly would not have purchased these had we not received the “permission” that we had). But perhaps I was there to return the lost property to its rightful owner. A lot of complicated Halacha there.

So turning my attention to Shabbos I set out for the Verrazano Bridge and Lakewood. Curious that I should receive a call just then about lulavim from Rabbi Sholey Klein of Dallas, in whose Succah on Hoshana Rabba (there we go again) of 5756 (1996) my esrog career began. The story I related to Rabbi Klein was remarkable enough at that point and as I approached the 2/3 mark down the Garden State Parkway an hour before Shabbos and thankful that I had accomplished my mission (I never once doubted that I would not succeed), my partner and Shabbos host, Yacov Shlomo Rothberg called me to tell me about the Ikul.

So it turned out that Rabbi Wilman had a partner, Halberstam, to whom he had signed over his share of the partnership the day before. Rabbi Halberstam had spent 12 hours in the Bet Din establishing his claim to the lulavim in question. Wire transfers, bills of lading, papers, papers, papers. The Bet Din were convinced that there was enough of a case that an Ikul was issued. A sort of restraining order preventing anyone from selling, buying or using (for the mitzvah) not just the 100,000 “misplaced” lulavim, but all other Egyptian lulavim too. So now I have 200 very expensive and useless lulavim.

Twenty minutes before Shabbos the neighborhood kids helped me unload the car. I jumped in the shower. On the way to shul I told Yacov Shlomo that we must not be tempted to talk about this for the whole of Shabbos. I instructed his 10 year old son that he must make sure that if our conversation gets anywhere near lulavim, he must stop us at once. So we managed to speak about everything except lulavim, except once when I was introduced to a Spanish lulav dealer (Mr. Flohrs) who just happened to be sitting behind us in shul. But we limited the conversation to the fact that this was his business and left it at that. But a very restful Shabbos in which I managed to grab another daf or two and finish off Mishnayos Maaser Sheni.

But now Havdalah and Yacov Shlomo showed me the Ikul and the summons to attend the Bet Din. Since I needed to get on a plane Monday morning, no alternative but to get my money back and get some Spanish lulavim from the guy in shul, if there were any left. Managed to contact Mr. L who agreed to refund my money. Either come back to Boro Park tonight or tomorrow at 10am. Well despite getting up very early the next morning I just could not get out of Lakewood. Picked up my supply of Moroccan esrogim from my Moroccan esrog contact and made my way back to Boro Park.

Noon and my Egyptian lulav refund looks very remote. Mr. L was now in the Bet Din and his colleagues in the store knew nothing about a refund. All they could tell me that the Ikul would soon be lifted and we could all get on with things. Just 15 more minutes. Another 15 minutes. Another 20, another hour and I need to make a decision. Someone suggested going to the Bet Din. One of the store guys said they would call over to Mr. L in the Bet Din, and let him know I was coming to get my refund.

Climbing the stairs of the old house on 49th St., it was clear from the commotion that no one was about to come to an amicable settlement. In and out of side rooms. Side negotiations and mediations. Could they even agree to reconvene in a different Bet Din tomorrow? Mr. L saw me and assured me that it would all be over in 20 minutes. A short discussion with one of the onlookers suggested otherwise and I stepped outside to call Yacov Shlomo. Let’s wait another 30 minutes and then we would have to go to plan B, or C, or D (if we could think of one). So back up the stairs to at least get a first hand view of the mechanics of a Bet Din.

As I reached the top of the stairs I could see Mr. L standing in the doorway to the room where the Dayanim were sitting. For no obvious reason he turned towards me and beckoned me to come into the court room. I have no explanation as to why. I had nothing to contribute to anyone’s case. But here I was in the middle of, let us say, a highly emotional proceedings and everyone is looking at me. I was asked to verify that I had purchased two boxes on lulavim the previous Friday. Why this was relevant I do not know. But in the next 30 seconds I turned to Rabbi Halberstam, shook his hand gently, conveyed through him my thanks to his partner Wilman who had provided excellent service to us in the past, and asked him if there was someway, that should the Bet Din rule that the luylavim that I had procured turn did in fact belong to him, that he could permit me to keep my lulavim without any reservations. He agreed, and a corresponding agreement was made with the other party.

I copied my receipts for Rabbi Halberstam so that if appropriate he could recover the money that I had paid, from the other party and the leading Dayan dictated to me a document memorializing the transaction that had taken place. I typed this up on the computer in the court room and one of the rabbinic students (a distant cousin of the litigant Halberstam) helped to ensure that all the appropriate signatures were collected.

This surreal experience could not have lasted longer than 15 minutes and I floated out of the Bet Din with the knowledge that I was in possession of what were probably the only kosher Egyptian lulavim in the entire United States. A nes. Here is a copy of the ruling of the Bet Din.
Zaide Reuven’s Bet Din Ruling

Mr. David Cohen, an Esrog seller from Flatbush, who had kindly driven me to the Bet Din could not believe it. Neither could the people in the store when I returned to pick up my lulavim. So now reciprocating the favor to Mr. and Mrs. Cohen I set out to procure for them some Spanish lulavim from Mr. Flohrs (from Lakewood) at his store in Boro Park. Seeing the quality of these lulavim I decided to buy another box which I would share with someone in Dallas and then finally set off back to my Newark hotel. But not before a stop at Boro Park lumbar where I obtained twine, tape and a knife for what would be a very long night packing my precious cargo.

A very long night it was to 3am, tying the lulavim in bundles so that they would not get damaged in shipping. Again the AC turned down to 60 degrees. Returned my rental car and then shlepped the boxes to the hotel gym to weigh them and then figure out which boxes to tape together.

So another two hours sleep and I finally checked in my excess and overweight baggage. When I finally arrived home I found that only one lulav had been damaged. And that was only because the security folks had cut open a box to see what was inside.

Rabbi Schick came over to check the lulavim (I did’nt want to be the one to determine their kashrut). Remarkably out of 300 Egyptian and Spanish lulavim only about 25 or so were posul. We normally expect about 50. Another nes.

So they next several days were the same unremarkable hustle bustle of distribution, shipping, last minute orders, very last minute orders and so on. Rabbi Feigenbaum had very kindly made reference to our efforts in shul at Ohr Hatorah and many people kindly volunteered to contribute to my additional costs.

But I was still left the prospect of having a number of very expensive lulavim left over. Then I received a call from Houston. The community there had received a shipment of lulavim, but they had all been damaged. It was the last minute and Rabbi Gelman remembered that he had spoken to a fellow in Dallas a month or so earlier in connection with helping members of the community in regards to Hurricane Rita. Somehow in that conversation it had come out that I was in the lulav/esrog business, but this was a side remark and not related to the issue then at hand. (We had managed to help house some people from Houton who were leaving in anticipation of the hurricane). Anyway, as “luck” would have it, there was a group of kids in Dallas about to return to Houston after a Shabbaton and could they pick up some lulavim?

I tried to calculate exactly how many lulavim I could spare, but somehow I arrived at the number 15. Off they went and Houston had some lulavim.

Motzei Yom Tov and the first day of Chol Hamoed. Four lulavim left. Someone calls to replace a lulav that had gone mouldy. Three left. Three phonecalls for complete sets – can they be shipped overnight?

Every lulav gone. Not one left over and no more last minute requests either. I had the exact number of lulavim for my customers. Not one more and not one less. Another nes.

We may never know exactly what happened in this saga. One version has it that a particular Israeli lulav dealer had persuaded the Egyptians to cut production on the grounds that it damaged the trees, and to give him the small remainder that he could sell at a high profit. He then, allegedly double sold the same shipment to the two US dealers.

So as Hoshana Rabba approached I marveled at the events that had unfolded for me. Not once did I doubt that there would not be lulavim for us. Not once did I panic. I just moved from one scene in this whole drama to the next.

As I recall my feelings of gratitude to Hashem as we circled the bima seven times on Hoshana Rabbah, I recall how focused I was on my prayers for unity of Am Yisrael as I benched lulav and esrog every day this last Succos. I recall my thoughts when driving though the Jordan valley about how unified our People must have been to merit destroying Jericho by circling it seven times.

And so for me the biggest miracle in this story was one of unity. To pull all of this off I had to get the collaboration of people from almost every (and often diametrically opposed) segment of Jewish life. Satmar Chassidim. Chabad Chassidim. Litvish, yeshivish Mitnagdim, Yerushalmi, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, non-religious kibbutzniks, religious kibbutzniks, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and me, just a poshute Yid.

In the merit of our efforts to observe the mitzvah of the Arba Minim, may the Jewish People be granted unity and peace and the privilege to rebuild the Temple. Bimhera Byamenu.

PS My plans are, IYH, in future years to develop my Israeli supplier of lulavim. The Deri lulavim are spectacular (some could retail for $100 each) and the Sudani (another variety) and superior to the Egyptian lulavim. Let’s work to mehudar the mitzvah by supporting our fellow Jews, even if it is a little more expensive. If you are an esrog/lulav delaer and would like to collaborate on receiving a large Israeli shipment of lulavim next year, please contact me at esrog@esrogfarm.com or 972 931 5596.

For more information on the Deri Lulav see this excellent article:

One thought on “Lessons of the Lulav: Zaide Reuven and the Lulav Shortage of 5766”

Comments are closed.