The Joyous Water-Drawing Ceremony
Simchat Beit Hashoeivah
He who has not seen the Water-Drawing Celebration has never seen joy in his life (Talmud)
Every Jewish festival is celebrated with joy. Often there are additional emotions added to the mix: awe on Rosh Hashanah, regret on Yom Kippur, freedom from oppression on Passover. But the holiday of Sukkot is pure joy. In our prayers, we call it simply “the season of our rejoicing.”
Sukkot in the Temple
One of Sukkot’s most joyous observances was known as Simchat Beit Hashoeivah, the Celebration of the Water-Drawing. When the Holy Temple stood, every sacrifice included wine libations poured over the altar. On Sukkot, water was also poured over the altar in a special ceremony. This ritual engendered such joy that it was celebrated with music, dancing and singing all night long.
Every morning of Sukkot at daybreak, a group of Levites and priests went down to the Shiloach stream, which ran south of the Temple Mount, and drew three log (a Talmudic liquid measurement) of fresh water to be poured on the altar after the daily morning sacrifice. Their arrival at the Temple with the water was accompanied by trumpet blasts.(For Shabbat, the water was collected before the onset of Shabbat and stored in a golden vessel in the Temple.)
There were two holes in the altar into which liquid was poured. One hole was for the wine that accompanied every sacrifice, and a second, smaller one was reserved for the Sukkot water. The holes were different sizes to allow the wine and water, which have different consistencies, to drain at the same speed.
The nights of Sukkot were spent celebrating this once-a-year offering. The Talmud describes the celebrations of Simchat Beit Hashoevah in detail: Priests kindled fires on great candelabra, lighting up Jerusalem as if it were the middle of the day. Throughout the night pious men danced holding torches, scholars juggled and Levites played music while the lay people watched with excitement. The Temple courtyard was specially furnished to accommodate this event, and a balcony was erected for women so they could observe the revelry.
Though not explicitly mandated in the Torah, the water libation is part of the oral tradition passed down from Moses. For this reason, the Sadducees, who rejected the Oral Law, bitterly disputed the practice. Once the priest honored to do the libation was sympathetic to the Sadducees and, instead of pouring the water into the hole in the altar, he spilled it on his own feet. The onlookers were horrified and pelted him with their etrogim. From that time on, whoever poured the water libation lifted the jug of water high in the air, so that all could see him perform the mitzvah properly.
Even today, when we no longer have a Temple, and the water libation ritual is discontinued, many communities still celebrate Simchat Beit Hashoeivah with music and dancing during the nights of Sukkot, in keeping with the Torah’s directive, “You shall rejoice on your holiday.
Why was this event accompanied by such fanfare and celebration? Part of the answer is that Jews of old were happy to demonstrate their fealty to tradition, even those traditions not specified in the Torah. In addition, the water-drawing was said to be accompanied by a great awareness of God, to the degree that it is said that, along with water, people would “draw” prophetic revelation.
The chassidic masters explain that the water celebration signifies a joy caused by a connection to God so deep and so true that, like water, it has no describable taste. And like water, it sustains all life.