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Jews Celebrate Harvest Festival

September 20, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ At an open-air fruit stand in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, seminary student Samuel Bloch poked at a lemon-like citron, inspecting it with the exacting eye of a master chef.

``It needs to be clean, smooth and there can be no black spots at the edge. It can’t be too heavy, and it especially can’t be bruised,″ said the 21-year-old Paris native. The fruit vendor urged him to wait, a new delivery had just arrived.

Across Israel, shoppers wrapped up such painstaking tasks in preparation for Sukkot _ the Jewish harvest festival that began at sundown Friday and lasts for a week.

The celebration, as with most Jewish holidays over the past two years of conflict with the Palestinians, was overshadowed by concerns of violence _ a recent surge of suicide bombings and warnings by Islamic militant groups of more to come.

A central feature of the holiday involves reciting blessings over four species of plants native to the Holy Land _ palm, myrtle, willow branches and a rare citrus fruit known as citron. Each day they are carried in processions in synagogue.

Many Jews moved into temporary housing for the festival, the observance of which includes building a hut outside the permanent house and eating meals there all week. Some Orthodox Jews move their families into the temporary structures and live there throughout the festival. The huts are covered with tree branches, and many are brightly decorated with streamers and pictures.

The nonobservant often use the week for day trips and vacations, and most government offices and schools are closed.

The festival commemorates the 40-year desert trek of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt, as well as the ancient farming practice of building temporary shelters in fields during harvest.

As the holiday approached, crowds of Orthodox Jews swarmed markets, where sidewalk salesmen hawked the four species of native plants. The strictest of the Orthodox Jews inspected branches and fruit for imperfections, some using magnifying glasses.

On Kikar Shabbat square in Mea Shearim, security concerns came second to holiday preparations.

``As you can see, there are a lot of people here,″ said Brooklyn native Moshe Abrams, 21, a seminary student in a black suit, white shirt and wide-brimmed hat. He said he wasn’t deterred from shopping. He spent three hours looking for a palm branch.

``You’re forbidden by God to put yourself in a place of danger, but if something happens, there’s not much you can do about it,″ he said.

The first day of the holiday this year falls on the Jewish Sabbath, limiting some of the observances. Jews will not say the blessings or hold processions on the Sabbath, since its prohibitions override the festival practices.

The holiday ends Thursday, followed immediately by another celebration _ Simhat Torah, that marks the end of the annual cycle of reading parts of the Torah, the five books of Moses.

The first day of Sukkot and the one-day Simhat Torah observance are full religious holidays in Israel, when Orthodox Jews refrain from driving cars or working. The intermediate days are half-holidays, when most activities are permitted. Most stores usually open only in the mornings.

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