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The Joyous Water-Drawing Ceremony

The Joyous Water-Drawing Ceremony

Simchat Beit Hashoeivah

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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 Holy 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.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.1 (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.2 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.3 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.4

Priests kindled fires on great candelabra, lighting up Jerusalem as if it were the middle of the day.

Celebrating Today

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.”5

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 G‑dliness, 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 G‑d so deep and so true that, like water, it has no describable taste. And like water, it sustains all life. Read more about that here.

Footnotes
1.

Mishnah, Sukkah 5:5.

2.

Ibid. 5:2, and Talmud ad loc.

3.

See Talmud, Taanit 2b and 3a.

4.

Mishnah, Sukkah 4:4.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
Illustration by Chassidic artist Baruch Nachshon.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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David Austin September 26, 2015

Anonymous from Kaduna
The water ceremony was part of G-d's oral instructions to Moses on Sinai. Moses spent a total of 120 days on the mountaintop talking with G-d. He received the detailed instructions which fill out the text from the Torah itself into a full manual for living a G-dly life.

The authority for rabbinical leadership is itself found in the Torah, in the sections name "Yithro" and "shoftim" where you will see express instructions to delegate decisionmaking and judgment Reply

Yochanah Durban October 8, 2014

Is there a video? Is there an animation video showing what this celebration looked like when it took place in the Beit Mishkadash?
Please!!
I'm a visual learner.
Send me the link! Reply

AVIVA New York September 24, 2013

You do not explain why water was poured on the altar in addition to wine Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 4, 2012

Mayim Tears from Heaven As beautifully described, water is the life force. Ceremonies that involve water remind us of this. We need water. It's an ongoing thirst and we cannot survive without this. Our souls too, are parched from lack of water, which is symbolic for what nourishes us all, and that is communion with each other, the eternal dance of give and take. In Jewish mysticism we are described as vessels, that receive, and pour. We replenish by being with each other, and deeply, as in this holiday, by being in Nature, by imbibing the beauty of our surrounds, by feeling the awe of all Creation, a night of stars, the ebb and flow of water, under a silver moon. What reflects in those waters, so many, many moons.
The tides are deeply about the cycles of our lives, as too, what happens is that life itself is the ebb, and the flow.

And so a ceremony that is about water, is redolent of this. Our lives are dominated by metaphoric truths, that are beautiful, and run deep. How deep is the ocean! How wide the sky! Reply

Anonymous Kaduna, Kaduna/Nigeria October 4, 2012

Libation Libation meaning a gift of wine to a god. How could this sacrifice be part of the oral law? When was it introduced and who was the first prophet to pracice it? Reply

TMA Palo Alto October 8, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Well, the book of Numbers in Parashat Pinchas mentions libations of wine as part of the sacrifices , see Numbers 28:7 and thereabouts. Reply

Michelle UK October 3, 2012

thanks for sharing G-d bless all Reply

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