Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fire, Water, and Oil: Lost Jewish Rituals

Over the course of 3500 years, certain rituals and holidays have come and gone, though in the spirit of the ever-dying,

[Igulim v'yashar - water in forms circular and linear]

ever-resurrected people, few holidays go away forever. Here are a couple I think of in light of Sukkot:

The Festival of Wood offering: A holiday mentioned in the Temple Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls, evidently inspired by the mundane task of gathering firewood for the altar sacrifices in the Temple, turning it into a sacred occasion. Observed on a solar calendar and evidently performed several times a year it is a holiday unattested to in surviving Jewish tradition and may have been simply part of an idealized, rather than actual, calendar featured in that secterian text. There is some Biblical basis for it once having existed, though (Neh, 10:34-40). The largely defunct annual Rabbinic observance of Tu B'av may be a cognate or competing version of the Qumran custom.

Simchat Beit Hashoeva, or Water Libation or Water Drawing Ceremony: When the Temple stood, one of the rituals of the holiday of Sukkot would be the Water Libation ritual. This theurgic ceremony entailed gathering a jug of water from the Pool of Siloam (an underground spring) and taking it up to the Temple, where it would be poured over the altar in a mimetic act of rainfall. As the drawn water was poured out, this incantation was recited: “Let your waters flow, I hear the voice of two friends [the drawn water calling to its source], as it is said, ‘Abyss calls to abyss in the roar of the channels’” (Tan. 25b). The purpose of the ritual was to draw the underground waters of the abyss toward the surface of the earth, to trigger the fructifying mingling of tellurian (subterranean/circular/feminine) and heavenly (rain/linear/masculine) waters that would allow growth in the coming season (T. Ta'anit 1:4; Ta’anit 10b; PdRE 23).

While the ritual in its ancient form is no longer viable without an altar, today some communities hang onto the party aspect of the ritual and it is an occasion for a concert, dancing, or a community program.

Festival of the First Oil: Another holiday unknown to the normative Jewish calendar but mentioned in the Temple Scroll. It may have its basis in the Biblical list of priestly privileges, however (Num. 18:12-13; Neh, 10:34-40). It is not known whether the holiday was actually ever observed outside the circle of the Dead Sea Scrolls community.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050