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September 18, 2013 12:01 am

Ahead of Sukkot, Etrog Smugglers Attract Israel Tax Authority Attention

avatar by Joshua Levitt

Etrog. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Ahead of the start of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot on Wednesday night, smugglers of the lemon-like etrog fruit used for the celebration are attracting unwanted attention from Israel’s Tax Authority.

Over the past two weeks, customs officers at Ben Gurion Airport have seized 400 etrogs from three passengers who tried to smuggle them into the country without paying duty and without permits from the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Health, Israel’s Globes business daily reported on Tuesday. An etrog is valued at $30 for the customs duty and bears an import duty of NIS 2.72 per kilogram of etrogs.

According to the report, one of the apprehended smugglers was the head of a yeshiva in Betar Illit, who attempted to pass through the “nothing to declare” lane at the airport with 125 high-quality etrogs in his suitcases. Upon interrogation, it was revealed that he entered Israel with a second passenger, who had escaped customs scrutiny. The accomplice was caught in the airport’s reception hall carrying the yeshiva director’s hand luggage, which was also full of etrogs. The yeshiva director, who had no personal luggage, only etrogs, claimed, “I traveled to Djerba (in Tunisia) to bring these etrogs for which we prayed.”

Another etrog smuggler, a French Jew, arrived at the airport with 150 high-quality etrogs, claiming that he brought them from France as a mitzvah, “to distribute them among Jews in Israel.” A third etrog smuggler was an Israeli citizen, caught with 125 etrogs, also attempting to pass through the “nothing to declare” lane at the airport.

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High demand for etrogs prompted Israel’s Sephardic community to (legally) import, for the first time, 1,500 of the special fruits from Morocco, where they grow in the Atlas Mountains, a region that is said to be the birthplace of the original etrog that is mentioned in the bible.

Besides dealing with the etrogs, the Israel Tax Authority has also launched a campaign against open-air stalls selling the traditional four plants – willow, myrtle, etrog, and date palm frond – used in Sukkot ceremonies, raiding scores of stalls in Bnei Brak, Herzliya, Kfar Saba and Netanya, for failing to pay tax on their gains.

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