The Lulav Crisis of 5766

Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm interviewed in Florida press on the lulav crisis of 5766.

ST. PETERSBURG – It has always been Louisa Benjamin’s favorite holiday, the eight days that follow soon after Yom Kippur, when Jews gather in temporary outdoor shelters to celebrate the fall harvest and commemorate the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness to the Holy Land.

Sukkot, the festival of thanksgiving, began Monday at sundown. For the second year in a row, the Largo artist, her husband and two young children put up a three-sided shelter in their back yard and festooned it with paper chains, fake fruit, gourds, shells, pictures, and palm and banana leaves. Throughout the holiday, the Benjamins, friends and family will gather under the sukkah for festive meals.

Benjamin said she wants to carry on the traditions with which she grew up. The family built a bigger sukkah this year, 8 by 16 feet.

“I wanted to be able to seat more people,” Benjamin said. “I grew up in Atlanta and growing up, I would always go to my teacher’s home and other friends’ and families’ homes to celebrate.”

It’s a religious obligation to “dwell” in the three-sided outdoor shelter during Sukkot. Another requires the recitation of blessings with four species of plants, which together make up the lulav and etrog. A lulav is made up of palm, willow and myrtle branches. The etrog is a citrus fruit native to Israel.

The second religious obligation appeared in jeopardy this year. Jewish newspapers carried stories about a shortage of the date palm frond from Egypt that is mostly used for the lulav.

Reports said the Egyptian government had decided to limit exportation because of concerns that harvesting the thousands of green fronds for the holiday would be detrimental to that country’s date trees. It was also said that an Israeli supplier of the important date palm fronds had persuaded the Egyptian government to ship only to him.

Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg, which has used the same New York vendor for years, was short only a few lulav and etrog sets, Rabbi Jacob Luski said.

David Wiseman, a lulav supplier from Dallas, spent Monday frantically preparing the last of his lulav and etrog sets for overnight shipment. He told a complicated story of how he managed to cobble together his supply from Israel, Spain and Egypt.

Wiseman, who sells the items from his Web site, said he didn’t know if reports of shortages were true. But he said he understood that a container containing 100,000 palm branches might have been sold twice, meaning dealers had 25 percent fewer of the fronds than needed to fill the typical nationwide demand of 400,000.

“All the people, including me, who were supposed to get the lulav from that container found out that we were in trouble,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman eventually got a supply of Egyptian palm branches, which he put together with others from Israel and Spain to meet this year’s demand. Next year, he’ll import them from Israel.

“It just makes sense,” he said.

Explaining the significance of the lulav and etrog, Luski of Congregation B’nai Israel said a biblical commandment states that Jews should say special prayers with the lulav and etrog each weekday morning during Sukkot. Like the temporary shelters built during the festival, the four species of plants help believers connect to nature, he said.

Using the lulav and etrog is a favorite part of the holiday for her two young children, Benjamin said.

“My husband stands with each child in front of him and shows them how to shake the lulav correctly and say the prayers,” she said.

Luski described Sukkot as “a predecessor of the American Thanksgiving.” The festival also “commemorates the travel in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt, where we lived in temporary booths until the children of Israel arrived in the promised land,” he said.

“Another take on this is we leave our comfortable, safe habitats and structures and for a week dwell in temporary, fragile shelters. What a lesson. … Today we know of many who are in fragile, temporary shelters because of all the natural disasters around the world, and we are challenged to think, to feel and to act with deeds of loving kindness to our needy brothers and sisters, in our country and around the world.”

Luski said it is customary for people to build their own sukkahs, or visit those of family and friends or the one at their synagogue, he said.

Benjamin, her husband, Mark, and children, Samuel, 6, and Peninah, 7, built and decorated their first family sukkah last year.

In coming days, the Benjamins will sit with family and friends under their three-sided shelter for meals of chicken lasagna, black beans and rice, fish, hot dogs and hamburgers. On Friday the kindergarten and second-grade classes from the Pinellas County Jewish Day School, where the Benjamin children attend, will have snacks and lunch under the shelter and make edible sukkahs from graham crackers, pretzels and peanut butter.