The Israeli market demands some 500,000 kosher lulavim a year for the Sukkot holiday, and the vast majority of this number are imported from Egypt. This year, however, one importer - Avi Balali of Segulah, north of Kiryat Gat - has managed to convince Egypt to drastically reduce the amount of lulavim it exports, and to allow him exclusive rights on that limited amount.

A lulav - a branch growing out of the center of the palm tree - is one of the Four Species that Jews are bidden to take and hold for at least a few moments each day of the Sukkot holiday. The other three species are the etrog (citron fruit), three hadasim (foot-long myrtle branches), and two aravot (foot-long willow branches).

A report in the Hebrew weekly Yated Ne'eman alleges that Balali, a non-observant Jew, bribed Egyptian officials to this end.

Balali himself has managed to bring in 300,000 lulavim from Egypt, but it is estimated that 40% of them - even less than the customary 50% - are kosher (acceptable for use in accordance to Jewish legal requirements).

Some lulavim are entering Israel via channels other than Egypt, but at present it does not appear that the goal of 500,000 kosher palm branches will be reached. Another importer has apparently managed to buy 100,000 lulavim from Egypt - half of which are expected to be kosher - and hopes to bring them to Israel via the Haifa port today. An unknown number of high-quality palm branches are available from the Jordan Valley, but not as many as had been hoped - because the farmers changed their minds about increasing their supply. Agriculture Ministry officials said they could not explain why.

A third source is Gaza, from where some 70,000 lulavim were brought in this morning via the Karni Crossing. This, due to the intervention of Deputy Welfare Minister Avraham Ravits (United Torah Judaism), who spoke with Defense Minister Sha'ul Mofaz and requested that the crossing be opened for the purpose.

Many lulav-consumers are not anxious to support Gaza farmers, however. "I have no intention of buying a lulav from Gaza," one young buyer at one of the lulav markets said this morning. "How do I know if the payment won't reach the hands of one of those who burnt a synagogue a few weeks ago?"

His friend agreed, adding, "It seems obvious that the concept of 'beautifying the commandments' that is so prevalent on the Sukkot holiday applies to this as well, and that we should add a few shekels in order to buy Jewish produce - not Gazan or Egyptian."

Just yesterday (Sunday), an importer received permission from both Israel and Jordan to import a quantity of lulavim - but as he was in the midst of the actual harvest, he was suddenly informed by the Jordanian authorities that he must cease and desist. It is suspected, according to Yated Ne'eman, that Balali was behind this decision as well.

A small number of lulavim might arrive from Spain, while even Iraqi palm branches were briefly considered for a short while. The remaining options are to convince Egypt to reconsider its restrictions, and/or to convince Jordan to do the same.

Balali, who is facing charges on similar schemes in the past, is suspected of bringing down a large part of the American lulav market as well. Yated Ne'eman reports that a man from the Lakewood, New Jersey yeshiva community made an advance payment to Balali of $40,000 for 200,000 lulavim - which never arrived. The man said that Balali explained that the ship was "lost at sea." It is suspected, however, that Balali actually sold the same shipment to a second U.S. importer. A rabbinical court in the United States has issued the equivalent of a restraining order against using the lulavim in the shipment, based on the Rabbinic injunction against using stolen lulavim.

Balali is thus holding both the Israeli and American lulav markets "by the koisheklach," the Yated Ne'eman reporter told Arutz-7 today. Koisheklach are holders made out of palm leaves in which the willow and myrtle branches are placed and held close to the lulav.

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, ruled this week that in light of the lulav shortage, lulavim taken from canary palm trees are acceptable. Such trees are prevalent throughout Israel, including in private yards. Rabbi Ariel wrote that though regular palm tree lulavim are preferable, "canary lulavim are barely distinguishable from regular ones, and in times of shortage, they can be used."

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