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A conversation with Shimon Vaknin, four species vendorby simone • October 12 2008
Interview, Holidays, Shopping
Shimon Vaknin, a four species vendor from Har Nof got into the business some 25 years ago after a fellow yeshiva student lured him in, and he's been selling every holiday season since. The four species are three branches and one fruit β date palm, myrtle, willow and citron (etrog) β vital to religious Jews' observance of the Sukkot holiday. Throughout the holiday, the four species are gathered together and shaken in all directions. There are many traditional and mystical explanations for this commandment (there better be, because it's an odd one), including one which compares each species to a different type of Jew. Holding all four species together symbolizes unity, with each Jew playing his or her own unique role.
Just a generation ago, few people owned their own sets of the four species, and now it seems to be the standard β almost every observant Jew buys his or her own set. Throughout the week of Sukkot, people can be seen carrying their lulavs (date palms) all around Jerusalem. What changed? Is it just that we're richer now? Were the farming processes or the import channels perfected? In Europe, people lived in cities far from the fields, so there weren't that many of them available. People had to travel far to get them. The etrogim especially were very hard to get. You had to travel very far and even then they weren't so easy to acquire. Rabbis used to sell their whole houses to get one etrog. The commandment of the four species is a very important commandment and the rabbis would go all out to get one.
In places like Morocco, Tunis and Tangier, the Jews lived near fields, but the etrogim were still fairly expensive, so there, instead of one per city, there was on per family. In Europe, often whole towns had to share. But in both places, people used to share their etrogim to some extent. Today, with improved transportation, farming techniques etc., more people have their own. Today, etrogim cost anywhere from 10 NIS to $500 depending on their quality. People want the nicer ones because a pure, unblemished etrog symbolizes a pure heart.
We know that in the days leading up to Sukkot, you're busy selling the four species, and over Sukkot, you're probably recovering from that rush. What four species-related work must be done during the rest of the year to maintain your business? What work outside the four species field do you do? I learn Torah all year. I'm not really involved in this work during the year. Farmers grow all the species and we got out there once in a while to see the fields and before Sukkot to pick up our harvest, but they're the ones doing the work during the year.
Most of the year, the Machane Yehuda market is a bustling, vibrant place. But for the autumn holidays, it bursts outward, and themed satellite markets like the shuk arba minim and shuk hakaparot (a pre-Yom Kippur ritual) open on the edges of the existing shuk. For people who are less familiar with Jerusalem culture, how would you describe the scene? This time of year, people come to Machane Yehuda because they want to feel the holiday. They don't just come to go shopping - they come for the atmosphere. There are kids who come every year looking for nice things for the holidays, at shuk arba minim and shuk hakaparot, things they can get cheaper here than anywhere else. Sometimes they buy, sometimes they donβt - they just like to look around. But by the last day before the holiday, they always end up buying something.
This year, Sukkot follows the end of a shmita year [Israel's agricultural sabbatical when planting and harvesting are forbidden], when kosher agriculture gets tricky. How has shmita affected your business, and how does that, in turn, affect the consumer? The lulav and hadasim (myrtle) are not a problem because according to the Sephardi rabbis, shmita does not affect these species. For our etrogim we use Otzar Beit Din where a rabbinical court takes over the field for the year and pay the workers 20% up front and then the court sells us the produce. So we still get the etrogim but the consumers need to be very careful to buy etrogim from closed boxes this year. If an etrog is loose it means it was not grown according to the rules of shmita. It needs to be in a sealed and certified box in order to guarantee that it was grown in accordance with the rules of shmita.
Much has been written in the holy books on the subject of what specifications make the various minim mehudarim, or exceedingly beautiful, thereby heightening the ritual experience for the consumer. To what extent is a mehudar etrog or lulav in the eye of the beholder, and to what extent is it an objective standard? A mehudar etrog needs to be certified. There are four of five levels of quality that an etrog is judged by in order to get this rating or certification. In general though, money talks, and the more expensive an etrog, the better it is. Regarding lulavim, Ashkenazi lulavs range in price from 10 NIS to 200 NIS and the customers examine them before making a purchase. The customer subjectively decides what's good and what's not. The Sefardim don't want to see their lulavim before they buy them. They buy them in a box and make their decision according to what the box says.
What do you do with all of your leftover etrogim? We make jam out of them and it's very tasty.Photos of etrogs (top), people checkin' out the species (middle left and right) and lulavim (bottom) by Adina Polen for Jerusalemite.
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