April 18, 2024
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April 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Kochav Hashachar—A hadass is only a myrtle branch, but for Jews worldwide this simple branch takes on important significance before the holiday of Sukkot. For Araleh Antman and Efraim Tzipilevich, hadassim are a year-round occupation.  In the hills of Samaria, about 20 miles from Jerusalem, is the yishuv Kochav Hashachar, where Antman and Tzipilevich tend to their fields (50 dunam/12 acres) of hadassim.

During the year the fields are maintained with minimal staff, but during the summer months, when the harvest season commences, it becomes hectic. Hundreds of Jews, including married women with children, come in August to make a little extra money in the processing of these branches.

“Before the start of the school year,” says Antman, “there were from 150-200 kids working daily. Now that it is Elul and some of the yeshivot have started, there are 70-80 kids working daily.”

Leviticus 23:40 says, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”(‘Fruit of goodly trees’ refers to the etrog (citron); ‘branches of palm trees’ refers to the lulav; ‘boughs of leafy trees’ refers to the myrtle (hadass), and ‘willows of the brook’ refers to the aravot or hoshanot. ) Our tradition holds that we need to take three myrtle branches to fulfill the commandment. Like many of the commandments, the oral law found in Gemara Sukot 32B goes into details about the specifications for the hadasim.”

During our interview, Antman, a smiling, outgoing man is interrupted a few times by fresh-faced teens and young adults asking his professional and halakhic opinion on the branch they are holding. He obviously knows halakha, and is proud of his production line which produces over 500,000 sets of hadassim a year.

Antman has been in the business for over 30 years and has customers from all over the world. He claims there is no competition among sellers, and clients search him out. For Antman, the most important part of the whole process is honesty. Unlike other hadassim sellers, only religious Jews check, trim and package his hadassim.

A few years ago an entire shipment was stolen the day before it was supposed to go to market. That is why honesty is so important in this business. If you can trust your supplier, you know you have a premium product no matter whose certification is on the package.

The early harvest is for export and the later harvest is for the local markets. Tables and baskets laden with the harvested hadassim are brought to an open air tent where the pleasant smell of the fragrant hadassim permeates the atmosphere. Here the workers are divided into different jobs:

Sorting: Checking that the tips of the hadassim have three leaves according to halakhic specifications. Any branches that are disqualified are put in a separate pile, most are thrown out but some are sold to flower shops.

Pruning: Removing all the extra leaves and flowers from the main branch, as mentioned in the Gemara. Surrounded by piles of hadassim waste, it amazing to watch how fast these young men and women work. The trimmed hadassim are then carefully put in bucket, with each worker labeling his work.

Quality control: Sorting the branches into classes according to the number of inches that the leaves are “tripled”; the longer the tripled leaves the higher the quality. The branches are scrutinized and each “sorter” has a special ruler which tells him what level quality the branch. The AA and A branches get the highest prices on the market.

Packaging: The baskets of hadassim are packaged according to the quality level and client. Even with all the scrutiny and obvious honesty of the workers, there is still rabbinical supervision. The local rabbi, as well as the rabbis from the customers, often comes to check that the products meet their high standards. Rachel, age 21, a geology student at Hebrew University, feels that the scrutiny of the customer’s rabbi is extraneous.

“They come with magnifying glasses and check each package even though every hadass has already been looked at by three to six people. Even the “AA quality” they find fault with—it’s not good enough, they need it perfect. I think they take the whole mitzvah of lulav to the extreme, with people spending ridiculous amounts of money that they don’t have.”

There are many kids from Kochav Hashachar who work the hadassim. Yedidiyah Bergman, age 22, works 8-10 hours a day. He is planning on using the money earned to buy a motorcycle and maybe travel to America. Attert, also 22, is using her money to pay for higher education. The younger kids I spoke to (aged 15-17) are saving their money to pay for driving lessons and trips.

In addition to the Kochav Hashachar staff, there are kids from area yishuvim who heard from friends about the work. Some years, when Elul coincides with the school year, there are seniors from high school who come as a group for a few days to make money for their “senior project.” Everyone works, and the money in pooled. Since this year Elul is so early, most of the kids working are doing so before school begins.

Micha,17, from Jerusalem, saw an advertisement in a Shabbat Torah sheet and decided to come with his sister, age 20. He feels that the work is not difficult and finds it very pleasant to talk to other people while working. Since most of the kids work 8-12 hours, the ones from afar have the option of sleeping at the yishuv to save themselves traveling time. Antman takes care of his workers. Micha remarked that he “treated” all the workers the other day to a BBQ.

Even though the rush is on to get everything out before Sukkot, the atmosphere is pleasant, relaxed and friendly. They sit around listening to music or lectures on their MP players, while meeting new and interesting friends. The workers enjoy the work since it is not physically demanding, pleasant smelling, and they feel they are helping people do a mitzvah. Have them in mind when you shake your lulav this Sukkot! And Chag Sameach.

By Judy Yazersky

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