Lulav and etrog sets sold in the United States may be pricier than usual this Sukkot, due to an Egyptian ban on the sale of the date palm branches.
Citing danger to the trees, Egypt’s minister of agriculture said on Aug. 7 that Egypt would not export the branches for two years, according to an article in Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian Arabic-language daily newspaper. Most of the branches used worldwide during Sukkot, which begins on Oct. 12, are grown in the Sinai, with smaller quantities available from Israel, Spain, Morocco and parts of the United States like California and Arizona.
After weeks of delay, a reduced supply of palm fronds is making it out of Egypt to the U.S., but the uncertainty highlights the need for alternative palm branch sources, said those in the industry, especially because the problem is not a new one.
“It’s a disaster,” said Levi Zagelbaum, president of New York-based wholesaler The Esrog Headquarters, whose operation assembles lulav-and-etrog sets and sells them to synagogues, schools and retailers. “My phone is ringing off the hook.”
Rumors of such shortages crop up with seasonal regularity, but the last time a shortfall actually threatened the celebration of the holiday was in 2005, when the government of Egypt announced a similar ban and then agreed after diplomatic wrangling to harvest at least 400,000 branches. That episode inspired calls for investigations by both U.S. and Israeli organizations suspicious that Israeli suppliers had conspired with Egyptian growers to inflate prices by artificially slashing the supply. The next year, Egypt’s lulav trade with Israel even scored a mention in a confidential diplomatic cable dumped in August 2011 by Wikileaks, the website that publishes secret and sensitive documents.
Not surprisingly, this year’s political turmoil in Egypt — which has dramatically increased Israel-Egypt relations on everything from border security to gas pipelines to the safeguarding of Israel’s embassy — has also added a new wrinkle to the lulav trade. The entire process of bringing lulavs from producer to consumer — involving several stages, such as harvesting, spraying, shipping and going through border crossings and customs procedures — seems to have stopped functioning as well as it usually did under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, observed David Wiseman, whose Dallas-based “Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm” sells etrog-and-lulav sets in the United States.
Mubarak was overthrown in February, after the months of protests known as the “Arab Spring.”
Despite the announced ban and other issues, a ship bearing about 200,000 lulavs — less than half the typical U.S. demand — left Egypt on Sept. 18 about two weeks later than it should have, said Zagelbaum, citing information from his Israeli suppliers.
Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Development said on Sept. 18 that while it can’t control prices, it will help to ensure adequate Israeli supply in part by subsidizing harvests of domestic date palms.
A spokeswoman for the Embassy of Egypt in Washington, D.C., could not obtain government comment.
Harvesting date palm branches won’t harm the tree if the cutter stays clear of the bud from which the branches grow, said Ismael Rodriguez, manager of Texas Palms, a palm orchard in Kingwood, Texas, about 30 minutes southwest of Dallas.
The date palm branch, called a lulav, is bundled together with willow and myrtle branches into a ritual object, also called a lulav, which, together with an etrog, or citron, is held and shaken, while reciting certain prayers on Sukkot.
In a normal year, an average set costs in the mid-$30s. Prices on sets that contain an Egyptian lulav will probably increase by about $5, say Zagelbaum and Avi Fox, owner of Rosenblum’s World of Judaica in Skokie, Ill., both quoting tentative price information from suppliers. Neither would disclose the names of those suppliers, which they said are a trade secret.
The industry and the community that supports it must stop relying on Egypt for date palm branches, said Wiseman, whose business is named for his grandfather. “Does anyone with a brain rely on one single supplier for a key component?” he asked.
Wiseman said the low price that Israeli firms can pay on bulk orders of Egyptian branches is a strong economic incentive to maintain the current system of relying on Egypt despite periodic threats to the supply. He buys from a U.S. date branch source and his business is getting a nice pop from this season, he said.
“My customers understand that we should not be buying anything from Egypt,” he said. “They saw the attacks on the Israeli Embassy and ask, ‘Why are we doing business with these people?’”
But not everybody is worried.
“It’s happened before, someone will make a deal and cut them at the last minute,” said Rabbi Shimon Kraft, owner of The Mitzvah Store in Los Angeles.
“Part of it is to drive the price up. It’s business.” Kraft would not disclose suppliers’ names for the same reason as Zagelbaum and Fox.
Zagelbaum said wholesalers will scramble this year to make the reduced supply fit the demand. To make up the difference, those assembling the sets will probably not discard as many branches that are blemished but nonetheless “kosher,” or suitable for inclusion in the lulav.
“We can’t be as picky as we usually are,” he said.
Fox will enlist the Chicago rabbinate to validate the price increase, as he did in 2005, the last time a reduced and uncertain supply of Egyptian date branches raised prices, he said.
His profit margin on the product will remain the same or decrease slightly from last year. “Everyone is going to have to spend at least some money to share in the burden of this ‘lulav tax,’” he said.
Nobody has yet called for an official investigation into this year’s likely shortage. But a business whose product is a ritual object should be more transparent, said Moses Pava, director of Yeshiva University’s Syms School of Business and a professor of business ethics.
Rabbis even use the lulav and etrog to symbolize character, with the lulav standing in for strength and the etrog for heart, pointed out Pava.
“We should know where they’re coming from,” Pava said. “We should know where they’re grown. Customers should have access to all this information.”
Israel correspondent Michele Chabin contributed to this report.