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Regulating the Lulav

When New Zealand’s Jews observe Sukkot, religious rules are only half the story

Nomi Kaltmann
September 24, 2021
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

After Sukkot ends, most Orthodox Jews keep their lulavs in storage until six months later; there is a custom to use the dried-out lulav as kindling on the eve of Passover, when Jews burn all their leftover leavened products. However, in one tiny Jewish community this has never been the custom. In New Zealand, as soon as Sukkot is finished, all lulavs and etrogs are surrendered to the Ministry for Primary Industries, where they are destroyed with liquid nitrogen.

New Zealand has some of the tightest biosecurity laws in the world. There are huge signs at the airport noting that upon arrival, one must declare the presence of any organic material that is brought into the country: seeds, food, animal byproducts—even an apple you packed for the flight. Bringing any organic material into the country without declaring its presence and obtaining permission can result in serious fines, or in severe cases, even jail.

Geographically isolated, New Zealand has distinct flora and fauna that are unique to its landmass, which has evolved separately from the rest of the world’s ecosystems. Common pests as well as plant and animal diseases are not found in the country; any introduced foreign organic material could have catastrophic effects on the country’s native plants and animals.

To avoid any problems, New Zealand introduced the Biosecurity Act 1993 to ensure that the unique ecosystem can be maintained without fear of invasive and potentially damaging foreign species or plants being introduced. Accordingly, New Zealand’s biosecurity laws are notoriously strict and tough—and the work of customs and border officials is therefore fascinating enough to serve as the focus for a hit reality series called Border Patrol (available on Netflix in the U.S.).

But these regulations pose a particular set of unique challenges for the Jewish community—an estimated 6,000 of the country’s 4.9 million residents—around Sukkot, when the import of lulavs and etrogs is tightly regulated. On average, about a dozen sets of lulavs and etrogs are brought in for the whole country; this year, the total is 11 sets for the whole Jewish community. But some years the lulav and etrog sets that arrive in New Zealand have blemishes and are unsuitable for ritual use, meaning that there are an even smaller number available.

Elsewhere around the world, many Orthodox Jews go to great lengths to pick out beautiful lulavs and etrogs and buy sets for each person in their family. In New Zealand, no individual owns a set of the Four Species.

Because of the strict regulations, the preparation for the festival starts well in advance of Sukkot. Each community sends one person from their congregation to undertake a quarantine officer training course, run by New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries. Each quarantine officer will oversee the use of the community’s lulav and etrog when they arrive after clearing New Zealand border control.

The Jewish community will also dedicate a designated quarantine zone within its synagogue buildings where the lulav and etrog must be housed for the duration of the festival.

Exact details are recorded: not only how many lulavs and etrogs are distributed, but exactly how many leaves are on each myrtle branch that is part of each lulav. At the end of Sukkot, everything—everything—must be returned to the department for destruction, including any myrtle leaves that may have fallen off during the festival, which must be saved and accounted for.

Sarah Bookman, a Kiwi originally from Auckland, is used to the country’s strict laws around Sukkot. “We have really tough biosecurity laws, aimed at protecting our flora and fauna,” she said. “My understanding is that things that have been brought over to New Zealand in the past … really affected our ecosystems, so as a country we are really careful about what organic material is let it in.”

Bookman celebrated Sukkot as a kid at Auckland’s only local Jewish elementary school, Kadimah College, and at the local synagogue, Auckland Hebrew Congregation. “Growing up in New Zealand I thought that the way we celebrated Sukkot was normal,” she said. “I remember when I was little, every time Sukkot rolled round, at school there would be these government posters put up around the building noting that for the duration of the festival it had become a dedicated biosecurity zone and the lulav and etrogs could not leave the quarantine areas.”

When Bookman’s family renovated their home in Auckland a few years ago, they included a pergola that could easily be turned into a sukkah. “For me, Sukkot is about the sukkah itself,” she said, “because a lulav and etrog are so unobtainable in New Zealand—I don’t even think of them much outside of the synagogue.”

Calean MacBeth, an Australian-New Zealander, celebrated Sukkot in Wellington for a few years before moving to Australia. “In New Zealand I thought it was normal to only have a few communal sets because that is how I had always celebrated the festival,” he said. He recalls watching the famous Sukkot movie Ushpizin and having some questions: In the film, he recalled, “everyone in Jerusalem is buying their own etrog at a shuk [market] and I thought, well, why does everyone need to be in shuk buying lulavs and etrogs—doesn’t there just need to be a few to go round?”

When he moved to Sydney the following year, the penny dropped. “I realized that outside of New Zealand, everyone has their own set.”

So why does New Zealand rely on imported lulavs and etrogs?

“Whilst it might be possible to source the lulavim and hadassim [myrtles] in New Zealand, there are technical reasons which make it infeasible,” MacBeth said. “The hadassim are a subspecies that doesn’t grow in New Zealand and the leaves must meet certain Halachic requirements.” While sourcing a lulav may be technically possible in New Zealand, “it would require a lot of volunteer and rabbis’ time to find, source, and check them,” he said.

But, with its mainly pristine ecosystem still intact, despite the hardship that can sometimes come with Sukkot, the New Zealand Jewish community is happy to oblige and adhere to the government requirements.

“We knew what quarantine was before it was cool,” said Bookman with a laugh. “Plus, New Zealand is this lovely oasis at the end of the world. We aim to be a predator- and pest-free country, with no invasive species, and we would like to keep it that way.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.