Twenty years ago, as a graduate student in Jerusalem, I used to take my children to Meah Sha'arim each year during the week before Sukkot, to shop for the "four species," the etrog, palm, myrtle, and willow branches for the Sukkot mitzvah of waving the lulav. While I felt then and still feel out of place and uncomfortable in Meah Sha'arim, and alienated from its inhabitants, still, the pre-Sukkot shopping expedition was a treat. There was something natural and authentic and lovely about the long rows of tables of the competing peddlars of sacred vegetation, and the crowds of shoppers sniffing the etrogs and eyeballing the patterns of leaves of the palm and myrtle branches. There were the interesting ethnic/cultural differences -- like the grapefruit-sized green Yemenite etrogim that sold for a fraction of the price of the little yellow ones. Of course, it occurred to us that there was something ridiculous about paying so much money for a few ordinary branches and a lumpy lemon. We would laugh about it and feel a little self-conscious, but feel good about the experience and look forward to it every year. It was part of what made Sukkot festive and fun. One year a friend convinced me to wait, with him, until the afternoon of the eve of the holiday to do our shopping. I of course worried about not finding decent merchandise -- or any at all; but he reassured me, correctly, that there was nothing to worry about, and insisted, also correctly, that the prices would drop drastically at that time, since the merchandise's value would drop to zero in just a few hours. That was fun too.
When we arrived in the Galilee 12 years ago, I learned that the "market" in our area consisted of a sukkah set up in the Karmiel mall, manned by a couple of yeshiva students, who spread out on a table a selection of etrogim, palm and myrtle branches, which we could browse through, examine, sniff, and choose. Willow branches did not arrive until the afternoon of the eve of the holiday, so we had to go back to pick up a few, from a bucket of water under the display table. Most years, there were two or three different price levels of etrog. It wasn't Meah Sha'arim, but it got us in the mood for the holiday.
Last year, the etrogim were supplied in little cardboard boxes sealed with a sticker indicating a rabbi's approval. We weren't allowed to open before purchase; we could only choose among the different prices and trust the rabbi. This year, the etrogim came in fancy contour-shaped boxes with a little plastic window; the palm branches were sealed in rigid green plastic cases, and the myrtle and willow branches were sealed in slender plastic bags overprinted with a colorful label and the name of the approving rabbi in big letters. In other words, one had to buy one's set of four species without ever handling or sniffing or even seeing the merchandise. Does it really matter? I suppose not. The whole inspection process was a bit silly in the first place, as I never really saw much difference among the various myrtle twigs. And yet, for me, being denied that silly pleasure took some of the joy out of Sukkot. Somehow, the back-to-nature message of Sukkot loses something when the key symbols of the holiday are industrialized and encased in plastic. When I got them home and got rid of all the packaging and bound the branches together with the little woven holder made of palm fronds (somehow, no one has started producing them in polyethylene yet), their freshness and greenness and grace cheered me up again, and I certainly had no reason to think I would have chosen differently had I been given the chance. Still, something was missing.
Perhaps an aspect of what bothers me about all this is that it represents another step in the rabbinization of Israeli Judaism: I don't need to choose my own etrog and lulav; indeed, I can't be trusted to do so correctly, so I rely on the rabbi and his staff, who have inspected the items, found them fitting, sealed them in plastic, and stamped his approval (and received his fee). This takes me -- and my taste and my involvement and the possibility that I might make a technical halachic error -- out of the process. I can relax, for I am assured that the lulav and etrog will be fully "kosher." I guess that should make me rejoice. And yet, I find myself feeling not joy, but resentment, and saddened by the tendency in Israeli culture towards halachic nitpicking -- often based on ignorance - and its attendant alienation from the joy of the tradition.