An Obscure Religion

September 26, 2010

An anthropologist friend of mine was telling me about an intriguing religious group that has been quietly performing its strange rituals for thousands of years, the most peculiar of which takes place during the autumn.  It is a harvest related worship ceremony and my friend witnessed it here in London just a few days ago.

The first part of the ritual is a kind of journey where the people of the sect leave their homes and set up a temporary camp.  This is not a long journey, in fact the camp is positioned no more than a few feet of their permanent home.

The shelter is notable for the fact that it is designed to let the rain in, the roofing material being a flimsily concocted collection of foliage and hanging fruit.  The beauty of this arrangement is that if it does rain, the members of this sect are allowed to return to their permanent dwelling place.

Little else is know about the purpose of this practice.  Even sect members have only a vague idea of why they do it.  One interpretation is that it recalls a time when this ancient people was a traveling tribe.

Apart from the requirement to spend a week in the roofless tent the people of this sect undertake a quest whereby they must obtain various items: a strange inedible fruit and a collection of three different species of plant.  This search is not physically challenging but can bring about shock and even heart palpitations when the cost of the items is discovered.  Nevertheless, this is a people of deep and sincere faith and they go along with it all, carefully examining the items and even paying a premium for those considered to be the most perfect, because their Lord likes a nice piece of fruit.

The items are then arranged and handled in a specific way as prescribed by their ancestors.  If any of the items are blemished or damaged they will be deemed unacceptable for the ceremony for which they are required.

As my friend related all this mumbo-jumbo I felt myself beginning to wonder if he was trying to wind me up, but he assured me that the crazy sect really did exist and went on to tell me about the ceremony that takes place with the four items.  Starting out by facing east, the people, gathered together within their community groups, shake the foliage and fruit in the four directions of the compass as well as to the sky and the ground while marching in a procession and chanting a repetitive incantation for rain.

This probably also accounts for the requirement for the leaky roof.  It seems that the prayer has been answered if the tent dweller finds that his bowl of chicken soup is still full after ten minutes of slurping.

There’s nowt so strange as folk, eh?

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Sukkot

December 14, 2009

I’m sitting at my laptop wrapped in a warm glow of smug satisfaction, which is just as well because it’s cold and miserable out in the sukkah I have just put up.  It’s taken the best part of a frustrating day to complete but after several false starts (and one injury where an upright fell and hit me in the tabernacles) I finally succeeded and am jolly pleased with myself.  How good are my tents, oh Jacob?  Huh?

One of the many mysteries of Sukkot is how sections I’ve used in previous years miraculously don’t fit properly without having to chop, shave, saw and jam them into place.  During the year, while it’s sitting in the shed, I suspect it grows extra bits.   That aside, I must say these pre-fabricated steel and MDF sukkahs are marvelous.  I’d hate to have to design and build one from scratch using random pieces of wood, that’s for sure.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised at my success.  While we Jews are not thought of as particularly handy when it comes to construction, the temporary booth is our speciality.   During the war, my great uncle, a cabinet maker, was sent to build a barracks.  Clearly the army was not fully aware of difference between a sideboard and a hostel.  Nevertheless, Uncle Joe did his best and was commended for his work.  The only negative feedback he received was for the leaky roof and his reluctance to use more than two and a half walls. On the plus side, they loved his inlay work.

This year I am the proud owner of a deluxe etrog. While in every other area of Jewish law something is either kosher or not kosher, when it comes to etrogs some are evidently more kosher than others.  I wish you could see mine.  It is so beautiful you would be struck dumb and your eyes would pop out on their stalks as you jealously salivate over it.  You can be forgiven for assuming that I’m talking about a supermodel rather than a piece of inedible fruit, but agreeing to pay several pounds more for this item than for another because someone had graded it as “exquisite” has adulterated my mind.  Only yesterday I voluntarily offered an additional £8 for some particularly shapely apples at the supermarket.

So, as I gaze at the walls decorated with the deteriorating artworks of lulavs, etrogs and horses created by my daughter (she must have been into horses at the time), of one thing I am confident:  by the time you read this Sukkot will be over, the etrog will be sitting forlornly while someone decides what to do with it (you can’t just sling a £25 piece of fruit in the recycling bin, after all) and I will have probably spent no more than 45 minutes in the sukkah all week.