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The Secret of the Fifteen Steps

The Secret of the Fifteen Steps

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Secret #1: The Water-Drawing Celebration

“He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing ceremony, has never seen rejoicing in his life!” declares the Talmud.1 That same Talmudic passage goes on to describe the entire scene which took place every Sukkot at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem: gleaming golden candlesticks, burly oil bearers, dancing rabbis, juggling sages, and a vast rejoicing mass of Jews.

The all-night dancing and rejoicing took place in the large women’s courtyard of the Temple (the men in the courtyard below, the women on an elaborate balcony that was especially erected for the ceremony), while upon the broad circular stairs that led up to the men’s courtyard, the Levites stood with “harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets” and many other musical instruments. The Levites provided the musical fanfare and spiritual song that kept Jerusalem wide-eyed till dawn, as they stood upon those “fifteen steps that led down from the Israelites’ courtyard to the women’s courtyard, that correspond to the fifteen ‘Songs of Ascents’ (shir hamaalot) found in Psalms.”2

At the call of the dawn, two priests sounded their trumpets and began to descend these fifteen steps. They paused on the tenth step to sound their trumpets once more, and then again upon reaching the women’s courtyard. The priests then continued until reaching the eastern gate that led out of the Temple, whereupon they spun around to face the Temple’s main structure and announced, “Our fathers who were here [prior to the destruction of the First Temple, as recorded in Ezekiel ch. 8] turned their backs to the Temple of G‑d, and faced eastwards to worship the sun. But as for us, our eyes are to G‑d!” According to Rabbi Judah, the priests would repeat their words, announcing, “We are to G‑d, and to G‑d are our eyes!”

The multitudes then followed the priests to the Shiloach spring, from which they would draw water for the Sukkot water libations.3


Secret #2: The Fifteen Steps

One thing that seems out of place in the above description is the by-the-way mention of the fifteen steps “that correspond to the fifteen Songs of Ascents in the Book of Psalms.” Such a comment seemingly belongs in those tractates that deal with the Temple design, instead of being causally slipped in by the description of the water-drawing ceremony. Besides, here the priests descended those Steps of Ascents!

If we unearth the promising trail to which this little clue leads, we will be enabled to discover an entire interrelated theme of historic, mystical, and applicable dimension.

Let us begin with the Talmud:

Rav Chisda asked “a certain rabbi” why King David composed these fifteen Songs of Ascents to begin with. The rabbi replied that when King David had begun the excavations for the place of the Temple’s altar, the waters of the subterranean deep rushed upwards and threatened to engulf the planet. David thereupon composed fifteen Songs of Ascents, and the depths safely subsided.

If so, Rav Chisda immediately protested, why not call them the Songs of Descents, to reflect on the subsiding waters, instead of Songs of Ascents!

You have reminded me, replied the anonymous rabbi, that this is what occurred: When the deep surged upwards, King David thought to inscribe the name of G‑d on a piece of earthenware and cast it into the waters. His teacher, Achitofel, ruled that it would be permissible to do so based on the following reasoning: if, for the sake of harmony between a husband and his wife whom he suspects of infidelity, G‑d commands us to erase His name by placing the parchment into a container of water and giving it to the woman to drink,4 then it is certainly permissible for King David to cast the divine name into the surging waters to bring peace to the entire world!

King David immediately cast the name into the waters, which then subsided sixteen levels. King David realized that the earth’s irrigational needs would henceforth be lacking, and therefore voiced fifteen Songs of Ascents that brought the waters back up to a safe and useful level.

In his commentary on the Talmud, Maharsha5 adds that the particular divine name that King David wrote was Yud-Hei, which bears the numerical value of fifteen. The Temple steps and the Songs of Ascents likewise correspond to this name of G‑d. The two priests who descended these steps on the way to draw the water on Sukkot specifically paused on the tenth step, to indicate that the fifteen steps are divided into two parts, ten and five, to correspond to the yud (ten) and hei (five) respectively.

Maharal6 goes one step further and quotes the verse from Isaiah 26:4, “For in G‑d (Yud-Hei) is the strength of the worlds.” Our sages stated regarding this verse that all creation comes into being via these two divine “letters,” yud and hei. Therefore, says Maharal, the limit of attainable self-perfection within the realm of creation cannot exceed fifteen “levels,” for that is the parameter within which every created being exists. (Beyond that is beyond reach, and can only be bestowed by G‑d.)

On a more specific level, the letter yud corresponds to the attribute (sefirah) of chochmah (wisdom), while the letter hei corresponds to the attribute of binah (Understanding). The first is the “masculine” aspect within creation, that which bestows, and the second is the “feminine” aspect, that which accepts. In other words: spiritual and physical, form and matter, or body and soul. It is explained at length in Tanya that all physical existence is constantly dependent upon its receiving a spiritual input. Moreover, the very divine letters with which all creation came into being are likewise comprised of a “form” that comes from the letter yud, and “matter” that comes from the hei. That makes all material substance a recipient, and all spiritual existence a source of bestowal.

This, then, is the secret behind the fifteen Songs of Ascents. There cannot be a sixteenth song, for that would reach beyond creation. And likewise, there were fifteen corresponding steps in the Temple that led a person upwards from the more material, and therefore “feminine,” aspect within creation (which is the recipient of spiritual vitality), the women’s courtyard, to the more spiritual and therefore “masculine” aspect within creation, the Israelites’ courtyard.

And that is also the secret behind the priests’ declaration, “We are to G‑d.” The particular name of G‑d that they used on this occasion, as recorded in the above passage from the Talmud, is Yud-Hei, which equals fifteen.


Secret #3: Unveiling Rosh Hashanah

On a less Kabbalistic dimension, the number of the steps and their connection with the water-drawing ceremony on Sukkot is due to the fact that our planet’s irrigational needs are judged on Rosh Hashanah. Our sages have stated that all of our prayers, devotion and efforts during the Ten Days of Repentance, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and reaching their climax on Yom Kippur, are revealed during the festival of Sukkot.

Thus the psalmist sings: “Blow the Shofar at the new moon, at the appointed time (or ‘concealment’), for the day of our festival.”7

Meaning: Whatever is accomplished spiritually during the “new moon,” i.e., on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the month when the moon is yet in “concealment,” will be revealed as bright as “day” during “our festival,” Sukkot. All of our needs, along with the vital life-giving water supplies, are judged on Rosh Hashanah. The joy of vindication and the blissful fallout of the divine favor of Yom Kippur occur openly during Sukkot.


Secret #4: Steps of Joyful Descent

Our lunar pattern too, came about as a reflection of the divine name that bears a numerical value of fifteen, with which it was created. And just as the moon begins each monthly cycle by gradually waxing daily for fifteen days, so too do the spiritual efforts of the Jewish people, “who are compared to the moon and calculate their months by the moon,” grow steadily for fifteen days, from Rosh Hashanah until Sukkot, whereupon all is revealed and shines forth in fullness.

During the first fifteen days of Tishrei, the Temple’s steps are truly Steps of Ascents; then the Jewish people individually and collectively climb higher and yet higher in self-refinement, away from their material concerns and the courtyard of the physical, and towards the Creator via the courtyard of the spiritual.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, we reaccept our Father and King, and turn to Him in joyful penitence. During the subsequent seven Days of Repentance we advance yet higher in self-refinement, until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, the only day in the calendar with five prayers that correspond to the five levels of the soul, we rise to yet loftier heights, until contacting the very essence of our souls, during the fifth and concluding Ne’ilah prayer. The essence of our soul is rooted in the Essence of G‑d, far beyond any steps or levels, and for a brief time we touch infinity. We then have four more days to absorb these heights while preparing our spiritual gains for delivery into the regular world, on Sukkot.

Subsequently, those Steps of Ascents become Steps of Descents, whereby our acceptance of G‑d on Rosh Hashanah and His forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the fruits of fifteen intense days, rapidly “descend” and are revealed during Sukkot, causing unparalleled rejoicing.

And therefore, the priests specifically sounded a series of shofar-like blasts at the top of the stairway, again at the tenth step, and once more at base of the stairway, to correspond to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (ten days later), and Sukkot (fifteen days later).

Parenthetically, that is also why it was the Levites who stayed on the steps, playing music and singing songs, whereas the priests descended and led the procession. Kabbalah explains that the Levites, who were tasked with raising their voices and elevating the people with their music, reflect a strict “ascending” mode of rapture. So, they sat on the Steps of Ascents. The priests, conversely, who were tasked with drawing down the heavenly fire onto the altar and to elicit divine blessing upon the people, reflect a “descending” and benevolent bestowal. So, they descended and led the people. Likewise, the initial “ascending” Days of Awe are days of strictness, whereas the subsequent “descending” days of rejoicing are marked by benevolence and exultation.


Secret #5: The Mission of the Lower Waters

“And G‑d made the heavens, and separated between the waters under the heavens and the waters above the heavens” (Genesis 1:7). That was on the second day of creation. From then on, there were “upper waters” and “lower waters.”

The lower waters complained to G‑d, “We, too, want to be close to You! Why are we so far away?”8 G‑d consoled them, saying, “There will come a time when you, too, will be close, when your waters will be poured upon the altar during the holiday of Sukkot, to celebrate the drawing of the water.”9

Our sages state that the water libation on the festival of Sukkot caused the materialization of the blessing that our subterranean water sources will irrigate the earth in a productive manner throughout the entire coming year.

But it was not only the waters of our planet that were separated from birth, and long to be reconciled in some manner. The soul of man, too, was divided by creation, part of it being lowered into a physical body far below the heavens and part of it remaining above. They likewise wish to be reconciled, and the lower water of the soul cries out bitterly to G‑d, “Why can we not likewise remain before Your Presence? Why must we be trapped in a foreign, finite, material body?”

And G‑d consoles the soul, saying, “When your waters will be poured upon My altar, when you utilize your energy to keep My commandments and live a life that is joyfully inspired by My Torah, then you too will be close to Me—even closer to My essence, in fact, then anything in the heavens could ever reach.”

During the first fifteen days of Tishrei, we cry out to G‑d and longingly strive to draw closer to Him. We climb the steps within the parameters of our existence, and are temporarily united with the heavens beyond, with the original Source and Spring of our soul. And then comes G‑d’s loving reply, and we joyfully bound down the fifteen steps to reenter our courtyard of physicality, now infused with a sense of purpose, a mission, and a bursting resolve to reveal that essence within the realm of the finite—something that only we, the “lower waters” trapped in bodies, can accomplish.

And we dance our joyful way into the physical commandments of Sukkot: the sukkah that entirely surrounds us with corporeal walls that radiate G‑d’s will, the Four Kinds of material vegetation that gladly unite before the influence of G‑d’s wisdom. Leaping with the guarantee of spiritual success, emboldened and empowered to transform the night to day, until the call of the dawn and the light of divinity will fill the skies of creation . . . That is Sukkot, and the delight of the lower waters.


Secret #6: To Bestow and Receive

“From the straits I called to G‑d; G‑d answered me with expansiveness” (Psalms 118:5).

Bright joys that blossom on long stalks of somberness are all the more delightful. Warm rays of relief that burst forth from cumbersome clouds of anxiety are all the more brilliant and comforting.

The above verse from Psalms serves as an opening bugle for the solemn invocation that is intoned by the congregation at the blowing of the Rosh Hashanah shofar. Like the shape of the shofar itself, the month of Tishrei begins with “straits,” the severity and somberness of the days of judgment, repentance and atonement, when we band together to call out to G‑d. His answer and “expansiveness” arrives on Sukkot, on the Festival of Our Rejoicing.

Pointedly, this verse uses the name Yud-Hei for both the straits and the expansiveness. Fifteen days of cautious ascent, and fifteen steps that bring the holiness down to earth.

So, we first surge actively upwards towards the men’s courtyard, dispensing charity, supplying supplication, presenting our case and amending our ways; we bestow. From us, to G‑d. Then we return to the women’s courtyard to bask in the delight of our renewal, the relief of our atonement, and the joy of oneness with our Creator; we receive. The participants of the rejoicing at the water-drawing ceremony who danced in the women’s courtyard, says the Talmud, would be the recipients of divine inspiration. From G‑d, to us.


Secret #7: Marital Harmony

As portrayed throughout the Song of Songs, the Jewish nation is compared to a wife; G‑d is our Husband. A Jew who strays from the path of G‑d’s Torah and clings to other attractions is like a woman who is untruthful to her commitment and commits infidelity with other men. As the Days of Awe approach, every Jew is therefore aroused to take stock of his ways and return to G‑d, to beg His forgiveness, reconciliation and protection.

Just as a suspected woman would undergo a test to determine her status, using the name of G‑d, the Jewish people likewise undergo a process of judgment and evaluation during the fifteen days that correspond to the name of G‑d. And just as there was abundant blessing and rejoicing when a woman was found innocent and was lovingly reunited with her husband, likewise the Jewish people hold a festival of rejoicing and reunion with their Husband, following the annual Day of Atonement.


Secret #8: The Rising Deep

Throughout the year, a person becomes sidetracked by the pressures of life, and can be misled by the attractions of vanity. The soul housed within our bodies, the “lower waters,” is reluctantly dragged through soil and sand, over pebbles and rocks. Weeping like a prisoner, it must follow its captor through the crooked paths of materiality and the coarse trails of triviality, mixed with sediments of transgression and dregs of guilt.

With the awaking call of the shofar, the soul’s waters come rushing to the fore. As a person begins his excavations within his own life, to remove the dirt and grime, and lay the foundations for a personal Temple to G‑d by following His precepts and acting with truth and care, the suppressed currents of his soul begin to swell.

With every further stirring of repentance, each rush of remorse or throbbing desire to cleave to G‑d that a person experiences during the Days of Awe, his soul’s pure wellsprings are further released from their captivity. Unfettered at last, the soul shines forth. The person now realizes that material substance is grossly unimportant compared to the purpose of life itself. He may even be somewhat disgusted by his wasted pursuit of the world’s fleeting glories. Oh, to experience a true closeness to G‑d! Who could ever again desire a return to the mundane cycles of everyday life . . . ?

Why, on Yom Kippur, the climax of the Days of Repentance, we abstain from food, dress in white, and spend the entire day cleaving to G‑d through prayer. We are more angel than man. Our true G‑dly self has been revealed; home at last!

That, however, is the very juncture at which the deep threatens to overwhelm the earth. The drive towards divinity and self-perfection threatens to seduce a person to disengage from a physical lifestyle and involvement with society. On that enlightened level, the surrounding world seems superfluous and distracting, a false trap that must be shunned.


Secret #9: The Tent of Peace

Once a person has reached such a desire for G‑dliness, accompanied by disgust for seemingly obstructive physicality, he has reached the point where he must cease contemplating himself and his own soul’s desire. Now he must consider the will of the Creator. True, he seeks G‑d’s closeness, but what does the very G‑d he seeks desire from him? Where is the love of his soul to be found: in the heavens, which are merely spiritual creations full of G‑d’s radiance? Or perhaps in this darkened world of struggle, where by vanquishing darkness, G‑d’s essence is revealed?

This material world was designed with intent; G‑d makes no mistakes. If this world existed simply to be avoided, it would not be here to begin with! Why do souls wait thousands of years simply to enter this world? Was the soul not enclothed in a fleshly body in order to fulfill a mission? True, raw physicality is obstructive to spirituality, but was that not the purpose of the separation of his soul’s lower waters—to filter through the coarse strata and irrigate the planet with divinity and purpose?

Through utilizing one’s physical surroundings according to the Torah’s path, and through harnessing corporeality to fulfill the purpose of mankind, his waters must flow along the sands and soils of circumstance and forge a careful path between boulders of deceit. Yet by doing so, the waters become pure, clear, drinkable. Instead of turning murky, they can refine and grow refined. Far from becoming stagnant, they can soften and cause growth.

It may be easier to avoid one’s mission and to pursue G‑d. But G‑d’s essence is to be found specifically by engaging His corporeal creation in joyful accord with His will.

And so, following those Days of Ascents that freed us from sin, it is now time to cast the name of G‑d upon the surging waters of our soul. The intention is not to flood the planet with divinity by ignoring its materiality. Rather, the ultimate purpose is to inscribe the name of G‑d on the very earthenware of existence itself: to suffuse the corporeal with heaven. (Note that in Jewish tradition, the day following Yom Kippur is known as “The Day of G‑d’s Name.”)

This course, Achitofel advised King David, will—just like the domestic harmony between the soul and its Source, the Jewish nation and her Husband, which is attained on Yom Kippur—bring peace and harmony between the entire physical creation and its Creator.

Let the deep, the newly inspired person, reengage the roads of everyday life, and allow his freshly gained heights be a source of growth and harmony to himself and the universe. The realization that “we are to G‑d” now allows for an inspired “to G‑d are our eyes” throughout our daily affairs. Let the depths of inspiration suffuse our reality without negating it; rather, let it safely nourish and support our world with the meaning of life.

That is the joy of the water-drawing ceremony, and the secret behind the “tent of peace” represented by the sukkah, wherein heaven and earth dwell in harmony.

“He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen rejoicing in his life!”

Footnotes
1.
Talmud, Sukkah 51a.
2.
Psalms 120–134, each of which begins with the words shir hamaalot, “A song of ascents . . .”—or, literally, “a song on, or for, the steps.”
3.
Talmud, ibid.
4.
As stipulated in the law of the sotah, the wayward wife, in Numbers 5:11ff.
5.
Rabbi Shmuel Edels, 1555–1631.
6.
Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague, 1512–1609.
8.
Midrash Rabbah.
9.
Tikunei Zohar.
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Pinny Chgo, IL October 12, 2006

WOWWW! very informative. Reply

Alexandra New York, NY October 4, 2006

This is in the news today! The earthquake in Maine that happened 8:07 p.m. local time Monday after closing of Yom Kippur caused a dramatic fall in well water level. Will the waters return? Reply

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