Trading conflicts over lulavs

palmI have long been an admirer of Chris Lee’s work in The Washington Post. As a reporter who deals primarily with the complex issues surrounding government agencies, Lee has a way of explaining intricate issues and spotting an unusual story that highlights key issues that others would overlook.

The story by Lee in today’s paper is no exception. As an extra bonus for GetReligion readers, he begins his story on trade negations with Egypt regarding the shortage of palm fonds, also known as “lulavs,” with a verse from the Old Testament: Leviticus 23:40. Here is the heart of the story:

Jews have had complaints about the Egyptian government since they were enslaved by pharaohs. But now Congress and the State Department are getting involved.

A shortage of palm fronds, or “lulavs,” has threatened to interfere with the celebration of Sukkot, a week-long Jewish festival that starts at sundown today and is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.

Egypt has been the chief provider of lulavs. But several weeks ago Agriculture Ministry officials there announced that they were limiting the cutting of palm fronds this year because the practice hurts the trees’ ability to produce dates, a culturally and economically important crop in Egypt. The news upset many Jewish groups in Israel and the United States, and in turn set off a diplomatic scramble to persuade the Egyptians to relent, with the promise that more environmentally friendly ways would be sought to obtain the lulavs next year.

As expected, members of Congress are getting involved and the U.S. government is attempting to avoid an international incident over what are to most people a bunch of plants. I think Lee played up the ancient Egypt vs. the Jewish slaves a bit too much, but the connection was probably too irresistible to avoid.

The holiday is a harvest celebration and also commemorates the biblical 40-year period during which the Israelites — who escaped from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago — were wandering in the desert, dwelling in temporary huts.

According to the Bible, Jews are called upon to bind together a lulav and branches from myrtle and willow trees. Together with an “etrog,” a bumpy, yellow-skinned citrus fruit similar to a lemon, the items make up the “four species” used in blessings during the holiday ritual.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Chanan Tigay has a much more thorough report that is undated on Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent website that could have been the impetus for Lee’s story.

Date palms typically have 15 to 20 healthy green leaves at any one time. The removal of leaves should be limited to the dead and dying brown leaves located at the trees’ base, he said.

The Encyclopedia Judaica translates the Hebrew word lulav as “a young branch of a tree” or “a shoot.” The lulav is one of the arba’ah minim — or four plant species — that are joined together and shaken on Sukkot. The others are willows and myrtle, which are bound to the lulav with strips of palm; and the etrog, or citron, which is held beside the lulav as it is waved.

As to be expected, niche publications will give an issue much more thorough coverage and lack the strict space limitations existing at larger more mainstream publications like the Post. No harm done — the Internet is a wonderful thing and resolves those problems for those who are interested.

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  • C. Wingate

    Note the following line in the Wash. Post story:

    “Christians also use palm fronds in religious rituals on Palm Sunday. But the fronds do not have to be cut in a kosher way and most come from Mexico, so no shortage is expected.”

    Kosher? Do the Mexicans not have to worry about keeping the pigs out of the trees? Actually, as you can sort of read out of the other story, what matters is that on Palm Sunday the fronds don’t have to be the particular young shoot that is required.

  • Bartholomew

    Th import side of this was recently covered in the Jerusalem Post:
    Lulav importers and distributors are known for using less than equitable methods to obtain the highest prices possible. Wholesalers tell how lulav shipments are delayed by police after being “tipped” that they contain drugs. After the thorough search is completed, Succot is over and the lulavs are worthless. Other wholesalers tell of “mysterious” delays at Egyptian customs after key officials have been paid off. Threats of violence are used to coerce dealers to buy or not to buy according to the whims of the big importers

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  • Maureen

    They don’t even have to be palm fronds for Palm Sunday. Back in the day in England, they used to use pussywillows.

  • Maureen

    Huh. Googling produced the info that they used to use pussywillows instead of palms all over Europe, and that they still use them in Poland and other Eastern European places if they can’t get palms, or because it’s been a tradition so long. Apparently the Russian Orthodox use pussywillows, too.

    I guess the palm branch-Sukkot connection explains the whole “first fruits of the dead” comment, too.

    You learn something every day.

  • http://none t. greeley

    recently I observed a vase containg pusseywillows that was placed before the altar in a catholic chapel and was wondering what this is supposed to signify…would appreciate an answer…thank you