In Jerusalem, the pre-Sukkot buzz reaches a fever pitch at the Shuk Arba Minim, the Four Species Market, which, in the days and nights leading up to the holiday, transforms an area adjacent to the Machane Yehuda Market into a lively bazaar for ritually oriented produce shopping. Having caught his breath and now enjoying the holiday's intermediate days (chol hamoed), Vaknin spoke with GoJerusalem.com about the industry and the cultural phenomenon which surrounds it.
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 don’t - they just like to look around. But by the last day before the holiday, they always end up buying something.
Just a generation ago, few people owned their own sets of the four species, and now it seems to be the standard – 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.
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 Sephardim 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.