In Tirat Zvi, Buddhists are the experts on kosher lulavs. The Thai agricultural workers who labor in the kibbutz’s date plantation are the first to separate the kosher palm fronds from the rest. The lulav forms the basis for the Four Species, a group of ritual plants used over the Sukkot holiday.
“They’re Buddhist, but they know and understand what makes it kosher,” Avner Rotem, the manager of the date plantation on the kibbutz, said as Somjit, a Thai worker who declined to give his last name, deftly maneuvered a yellow cherry picker to the top of one of the 13,000 palm trees used for growing lulavs.
It takes a bit of training to grasp the correct length, tightness, and unbent tips that the closed palm fronds need in order to meet kashrut standards. “They know if we get there too late and the fronds are too open, then they’ll leave it and choose another,” Rotem explained.
The lulavs come from the baby palm fronds on the tops of trees, where the newest branches poke out. They must be harvested when they are about a meter in length, but before the fronds begin to split and open, rendering them unkosher.
For seven months a year, Somjit brings the cherry picker to the top of the trees and reaches beyond the tough outer leaves, which have already split open into the traditional palm shape, to pick out the newest branches. With two quick snips, he cuts off two meter-long lulavs, checks them for size, ensures the tips are not damaged, and places them carefully in a cardboard box, before moving to the next tree.
Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, and lasts for a week, celebrates the fall harvest and recalls the temporary structures that housed ancient Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. Jews around the world observe the holiday by building temporary huts, where they eat and sometimes sleep. Once a day, there is a tradition of shaking the Four Species, comprising the palm frond, myrtle, willow, and a “citron” or citrus fruit called an etrog in Hebrew. The origin of the four species is Leviticus 23:40.
Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz that bakes in one of the hottest parts of Israel in the Beit She’an valley, is the largest producer of lulavs in Israel, shipping out 150,000 each year. Rotem estimates that Jews shake about 700,000 lulavs in Israel and 500,000 abroad during the festival.
At Tirat Zvi, lulavs are harvested from a type of palm tree called the Dery Palm. As the story goes, in 1985, Shabtai Kovin, a young rabbi from Safed, came to the Beit She’an area in search of the “perfect lulav.” (Date trees love heat, so the Beit She’an Valley is one of the most popular places for date trees.)
He met with growers from Tirat Zvi, examining all types of palm fronds that come from the kibbutz’s nine species of date trees. After careful scrutiny, he proclaimed that the Dery species produces the best lulav.
The Four Species are priced based on to how well they satisfy certain criteria that make them “more kosher.” The myrtle branch, for instance, must have leaves that grow from the same point in groups of threes. The prices can vary wildly, with families shelling out serious cash for etrogs and lulavs deemed “superior” or “most kosher.”
For the lulav, it’s the tight tiomet, or its two longest fronds. In the Dery species, the tiomet generally grows tightly together, and the closer the tiomet, the more prized the lulav — and the more expensive.
Chabad Jews favor etrogs from the Calabria region of Italy, which this year is experiencing a massive shortage due to frost. The most beautiful or “kosher” etrogs this year can go for upwards of $500.
Back in 1985, Kovin bought 100 lulavs from the Dery trees and went to Bnei Brak, where he sold them all within the hour. The kibbutz, sensing an economic opportunity, began planting more Dery trees.
Dery trees also produce dates, but they are not as high quality as the more popular medjool species, which is why the kibbutz had not previously planted many Dery trees.
Today, approximately half of the kibbutz’s 25,000 date trees, spread out over 1,500 dunams (370 acres), are Dery. While dates are the kibbutz’s biggest agricultural product, lulavs account for about a third of its profits.
Tirat Zvi sells its lulavs wholesale, in boxes of 40, for approximately NIS 25 per lulav. They are considered high-end lulavs, and can sell on the market for NIS 100 for just the palm fronds (without the willow, myrtle and etrog). Rotem has seen Tirat Zvi lulavs for sale in New York for as much as NIS 350 ($100).
The high prices mean the kibbutz’s date trees are also a target for theft. Over the past few years, hundreds of lulavs have been stolen from shorter trees during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, when the fields are empty.
Tirat Zvi also exports lulavs to Australia, Panama and Argentina. Each lulav is individually packed in a plastic bag, stamped with the Tirat Zvi logo.
Originally, the kibbutz would begin harvesting lulavs in the summer, after Tisha B’Av. But in the 2000s, it began experimenting with an antifungal wash that allows the lulavs to be stored for up to six months.
These days, Rotem and his 25 workers begin harvesting lulavs for Sukkot when the kibbutz children pull out their Purim costumes in early spring. The lulav packaging house has seven refrigerators that can each store 20,000 lulavs throughout the blistering summer.
Seven months of harvesting means a mature date tree can produce around 14 lulavs per year. The palm frond shoots grow at a rate of about three centimeters per day and are trimmed when they are around a meter in length, meaning each tree is harvested about once a month. The advent of cold storage also means that Israelis, unlike Diaspora Jews, no longer need to import lulavs from Morocco and Egypt to meet their needs.
Among the lulav workers is Chaim Engelen, 22, who was a lone soldier on Tirat Zvi, part of a cohort of Garin Tzabar soldiers from around the world who live on the kibbutz and draft into the army together. “I got out of the army on a Thursday, and on that Sunday I already started working with the dates,” said Engelen, who has worked on the date plantation for 13 months. Now, he’s an expert on date pollination – each species requires a different ratio of date pollen to talcum powder, which is dusted on the female flowers – and how to tie the 25-kilogram (53-pound) bunches of medjool dates to the palm fronds so they don’t break under their own weight.
“It’s interesting to think that someone in California or New York could be shaking this lulav,” said Engelen, who hails from Minnesota. “But it’s more interesting for me to see the lulav — you go out and cut it and six months later it’s still green. It’s amazing to see how it stays green.”
Engelen said working on the date plantation has increased his appreciation of the lulav. “Usually you only see it for a week and then you throw it out,” he said. “Here, we’re thinking of lulavs almost all year round. We spend a good portion of the year working on things that people shake seven times and then throw in the trash.”
On the Wednesday before Sukkot, Somjit and his coworkers were rushing to get the last lulavs down before the festival. They worked methodically, two snips per tree, before moving to the next one in the row.
“We have several religions that work here,” said Rotem. “We have Muslim and Druze workers, Buddhist Thai workers; we also have a student from Nepal studying agriculture — all of them are working on our farm.”
He said one of the reason he likes working with the date trees is that every part of the tree has a use. “It’s written in the Talmud that there’s no trash from the date tree. You eat its fruit, you use its leaves; even the trunk we use to make benches.”
There’s even a second use for palm fronds over Sukkot, as schach, or covering, for the sukkahs (temporary huts) that families build. But with the medjool harvest, a big money-maker for the kibbutz, starting just before Sukkot, the kibbutz simply doesn’t have the resources to participate in the less-lucrative schach industry.
As 10 workers frantically bagged the last thousand lulavs, another group laughed over the conveyor belt sorting large juicy dates into cardboard boxes.
“We just don’t have time to cut down palm branches for schach,” said Rotem. “But it still feels good to provide for the Jewish people, to make the best lulavs we can.”