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Lulavs Lulavs, Everywhere

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

Today, buying a set of arba minim is easy, but there was a time when lulavim in particular were so rare that they were passed from generation to generation. What changed all that?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In our times, we take it for granted that lulavim are plentiful and widely available. But it wasn’t always so.

In northern and eastern Europe, where date palm trees don’t grow and importers were rare, it was common that congregants fulfilled their halachic obligations with the one set in town: that of the rav or the congregation. Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, born in Belarus in 1895, was known to have told people that he used the same lulav for three successive years before coming toAmerica in 1936.

Today, we are blessed with an abundance of lulavim, but most of us never stop to think where they come from. In fact, our lulavim have had different sources over time and there is a lively halachic debate about which are kosher. As we will see, a ban on lulav exports from Egypt a few years ago only served to strengthen the Israeli lulav industry and to introduce a new practice that has made many more kosher lulavim widely available.


From Whence the Lulav?

The Torah explicitly states that one aspect of the rejoicing that we are commanded to feel on Succos, zman simchaseinu, is achieved through the shaking of the arba minim. Along with esrog, aravos, and hadassim, the largest and most prominent member of the group (and the one after which the mitzvah is usually named and which the blessing mentions) is the lulav. It is referred to in the pasuk (Vayikra 23:40) as “kapos tmarim” — unopened palm fronds (see Rashi and Succah 32a).

The most common and acceptable source of lulavim is the standard date palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera). These trees can grow fairly tall, up to 25 meters, making harvesting the lulav a nontrivial matter. The date palm is dioecious, meaning that it produces separate male and female plants. Only the female produces fruit, although both produce lulavim. Each tree produces either pollen but no seeds (the male) or seeds (and then fruit) but no pollen (the female). In nature, when the trees are close to one another, the wind is sufficient to effect pollination. However, in commercial production, hand pollination is standard practice.

Ancient farmers, along with Chazal, were well aware of this and that once the female sheath splits open it was important to pollinate it within a few days. The Mishnah (Pesachim 4:8) relates that the people of Yericho pollinated palm trees all day on Erev Pesach. Note that the word used in the Mishnah, murkav, is often used to denote “grafting” and was probably used in this context because farmers at that time would tie the male flower sheath onto the female tree so that when the pollen matured it would be close to the female. Not fully appreciating the meaning of “murkav” in this context, numerous translations of the Mishnah translate it as “grafting” and some Mishnayos with illustrations show an unusual drawing of palm trees being grafted.

Date palms grow across the world, but they thrive in warmer climates. At 10 degrees Celsius the trees cease to grow, and at 5 degrees Celsius they are damaged. Date palms prefer warm summers and have therefore been grown inIsraeland theMiddle Eastfor thousands of years.


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