"And you shall take of yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot] the fruit of a goodly tree, a palm branch, the myrtle branch, and the willow of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days."
Jews have had complaints about the Egyptian government since they were enslaved by pharaohs. But now Congress and the State Department are getting involved.
A shortage of palm fronds, or "lulavs," has threatened to interfere with the celebration of Sukkot, a week-long Jewish festival that starts at sundown today and is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
Egypt has been the chief provider of lulavs. But several weeks ago Agriculture Ministry officials there announced that they were limiting the cutting of palm fronds this year because the practice hurts the trees' ability to produce dates, a culturally and economically important crop in Egypt. The news upset many Jewish groups in Israel and the United States, and in turn set off a diplomatic scramble to persuade the Egyptians to relent, with the promise that more environmentally friendly ways would be sought to obtain the lulavs next year.
Several members of Congress contacted the State Department and the Egyptian Embassy seeking relief on behalf of their constituents, saying the lulav restrictions had not come with enough notice.
"I said, 'Let my palm fronds go,' " Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) recounted lightheartedly. "We've been using reason and logic and cajoling and friendly persuasion to get them to agree to this. . . . We're trying to avoid the Egyptians from looking like the grinch that stole Sukkot."
The holiday is a harvest celebration and also commemorates the biblical 40-year period during which the Israelites -- who escaped from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago -- were wandering in the desert, dwelling in temporary huts.
According to the Bible, Jews are called upon to bind together a lulav and branches from myrtle and willow trees. Together with an "etrog," a bumpy, yellow-skinned citrus fruit similar to a lemon, the items make up the "four species" used in blessings during the holiday ritual.
Christians also use palm fronds in religious rituals on Palm Sunday. But the fronds do not have to be cut in a kosher way and most come from Mexico, so no shortage is expected.
Israeli officials recently announced an agreement under which about 600,000 palm fronds had been obtained or promised, including about 450,000 from Egypt and 150,000 from Jordan.
"We very much respect the religious practices about this," said Hussein Mansour, head of the agricultural office of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. "For this year, we made an exception, just to cut two leaves from each tree in order to satisfy the need for the religious people in Europe and the United States and Israel. But next year we're going to have a full plan, and we're going to plant special trees."
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, said as many as 1 million lulavs are needed in the U.S. market alone, and the official efforts, however welcome, may be too little, too late.
"It's a big deal for us if this stuff can't get shipped around," Shemtov said. He added, "It was nice to see that people in positions of power were willing to help." Next year, Shemtov said, they would look for multiple sources "so if any one of them bails and that makes the price soar, we'll have alternative sources."
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said the problem is that the Egyptians did not announce the restrictions until shortly before the holiday. "I'd like them to start protecting their trees in November," he said, "and then we can have a whole year to talk about it for next year."
Shemtov said some American Jews observing the holiday probably will have to make a blessing on a lulav that belongs to someone else.
Mansour said his country was "very much keen" to ensure adequate supplies of palm fronds in the future. "At the same time, we are very much keen not to damage the tree," he said, "because we think that religion also is made to keep the environment good."