Draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation

Isaiah 12:3

The Pouring of the Water was performed on all seven days [of Sukkot] . . .

The one who was doing the pouring was told, “Raise your hands” (so that all could see him pouring the water on the altar). This was because there was once a Sadducee who spilled the water on his feet, and the entire people pelted him with their etrogim . . .

Talmud, Sukkah 42b and 48b

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the “Pouring of the Water” (nisuch hamayim) was an important feature of the festival of Sukkot.

Throughout the year, the daily offerings in the Temple were accompanied by the pouring of wine on the altar. On Sukkot, water was poured in addition to the wine. The drawing of water for this purpose was preceded by all-night celebrations in the Temple courtyard, with music-playing Levites, torch-juggling sages and huge oil-burning lamps that illuminated the entire city. The singing and dancing went on until daybreak, when a procession would make its way to the Shiloach spring which flowed in a valley below the Temple.

A golden pitcher, holding three lugim, was filled from the Shiloach spring. When they arrived at the Water Gate, the shofar was sounded . . . [The priest] ascended the ramp [of the altar] and turned to his left . . . where there were two bowls of silver . . . with small holes [in their bottom], one wider and the other narrower so that both should empty at the same time—the western one was for the water and the eastern one for wine . . .

“For all the days of the water-drawing,” recalled Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, “our eyes saw no sleep,” for the nights of Sukkot were devoted to the singing, dancing and merrymaking in preparation to “draw water with joy.” And the Talmud declares: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.”

The Sadducees

There was, however, a segment of the Jewish community that was not party to the joy of the water-drawing celebrations.

The Sadducees were a breakaway Jewish sect who denied the oral tradition received by Moses at Sinai and handed down through the generations, arguing that they had the right to interpret the Torah according to their own understanding. Unlike the pouring of the wine, which is explicitly commanded by the Torah, the pouring of the water on Sukkot is derived by interpretation. In the verses (Numbers 29:19, 29 and 33) where the Torah speaks of the libations to accompany the Sukkot offerings, there are three extra letters; according to the Sinaitic tradition, these letters are combined to form the word mayim (water). The Sadducees, who rejected the “Oral Torah,” maintained that only wine was to be poured on the altar on Sukkot, as on every day of the year.

During the Second Temple era, there were times when the Sadducees amassed political power, and even gained the high priesthood—the highest spiritual office in Israel. Thus it came to pass that one Sukkot, the honor of pouring the water on the altar was given to a Sadducee priest; but instead of pouring the water into its prescribed bowl on the southwest corner of the altar, this priest spilled it on his feet to demonstrate his opposition to the practice. The assembled crowd expressed its outrage by pelting him with the etrogim which, this being Sukkot, they held in their hands.

Water and Wine

There are two basic components to man’s endeavor to serve his Creator.

First, there is what the Talmud calls kabbalat ol malchut shamayim, “the acceptance of the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven.” Kabbalat ol is the basis and foundation of Torah: without a recognition of G‑d as our master and a commitment to obey His will, the very concept of a mitzvah (divine commandment) has no meaning.

But G‑d gave us more than a body and a nervous system, which is all we would have required if our purpose in life were only the carrying out of commands with robotic obedience. He created us with a searching mind and a feeling heart because He desired that these, too, should form an integral part of our relationship with Him.

Thus the Torah states: “See, I have taught you statutes and laws . . . for this is your wisdom and understanding before the nations”; “You shall know today, and take into your heart, that the L‑rd is G‑d”; “Know the G‑d of your fathers and serve Him with a whole heart and desirous soul”; “You shall love G‑d . . . with all your heart”; “Serve G‑d with joy.” G‑d wants us to know, understand, appreciate, love, desire and enjoy our mission in life.

In the language of Kabbalah and Chassidism, these two elements in our service of G‑d are referred to as “water” and “wine.” Water—tasteless, scentless and colorless, yet a most basic requisite of life—is the intellectually and emotionally vacuous, yet fundamentally crucial, “acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.” Wine—pleasing to the eye, nose and palate, intoxicating to the brain and exhilarating to the heart—is the sensually gratifying aspect of our divine service: our understanding of the inner significance of the mitzvot, and the fulfillment and joy we experience in our relationship with G‑d.

In light of this, “the joy of the water-drawing” seems a contradiction in terms. If water represents the “flavorless,” emotionally devoid aspect of our service of G‑d, why did the pouring of water upon the altar on Sukkot yield a joy not only greater than that produced by the pouring of wine, but a joy such as was not equaled by any other joy in the world?

The Full Moon of Tishrei

A clue to unraveling the paradox of the “tasty water” of Sukkot might be found in what halachah (Torah law) has to say about the taste or non-taste of water.

The law is that “it is forbidden to derive pleasure from this world without a berachah”—a blessing of praise and thanks to G‑d. Thus, even the smallest amount of food or drink requires a berachah, since, even if the amount consumed is of little nutritional value, the person derives pleasure from its taste. Water, however, has no taste, so it does not require a berachah unless “one drinks water out of thirst,” in which case, explains the Talmud, a person derives pleasure from this otherwise tasteless liquid.

To a thirsty man, a cup of water is tastier than the most delectable wine. In the spiritual sense, this means that when a soul experiences a “thirst” for G‑d—when it recognizes how vital its connection to G‑d is for its very existence—the prosaic “water” of commitment is a feast for its senses. To the soul who thirsts for G‑d, a self-negating act of kabbalat ol is more exhilarating than the most profound page of Talmud, the most sublime Kabbalistic secret, the most ecstatic flight of prayer or the most intense spiritual experience. To such a soul, the “water” it draws from its deepest self to pour onto its altar of service to G‑d is a greater source of joy than the flesh and wine offered upon its altar or the incense wafting through its Temple.

And Sukkot is the time when we are most open to experiencing pleasure and joy in the ordinarily prosaic act of “accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven.”

Rosh Hashanah, which occurs fifteen days before Sukkot, on the first of Tishrei, is our fountainhead of kabbalat ol for the entire year: this is the day on which we crown G‑d as our king, and reiterate our acceptance of His sovereignty. But on Rosh Hashanah, the joy of the thirsting soul in its elemental “water” is subdued by the awe that pervades the occasion, as the entirety of creation trembles in anticipation of the annual renewal of the divine kingship. Sukkot is the celebration of this joy, the revelation of what was implicit fifteen days earlier on Rosh Hashanah.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot derives from their respective positions in the month of Tishrei. The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, in which each month begins on the night of the new moon, progresses as the moon grows in the night sky, and reaches its apex on the fifteenth of the month, the night of the full moon. This is why so many of the festivals and special days of the Jewish year fall on the fifteenth of the month, this being the day on which the particular month’s special quality is most expressed and manifest. In the month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah coincides with the birth of the new moon on the first of the month, while Sukkot coincides with the full moon on the fifteenth. Thus, Sukkot is the revelation and manifestation of what was hidden and concealed on Rosh Hashanah.

(Thus does chassidic teaching interpret the verse, “Blow the shofar on the new moon, in concealment to the day of our festival.” “Blow the shofar,” proclaiming our acceptance of the sovereignty of Heaven, “on the new moon,” Rosh Hashanah; this, however, remains “in concealment to [i.e., until] the day of our festival,” Sukkot, when it erupts in a seven-day feast of joy.)

Throughout the year, only wine was poured on the altar, for ordinarily, only the “savory” and “aromatic” elements of our service of G‑d are a source of joy to us. But on Sukkot, when the full import of our kabbalat ol is revealed to us, the joy we experience in the “water” of life is the greatest joy in the world, surpassing even the joy of its “wine.”

Anatomical Statement

The Sadducees, however, opposed the Pouring of the Water on Sukkot.

The Sadducees refused to accept the divinely ordained interpretation of Torah transmitted to Moses at Sinai and handed down through the generations. While recognizing the divine origin of Torah, they regarded it as a series of laws open to personal interpretation—an interpretation dictated solely by the interpreter’s understanding and feelings.

In other words, for the Sadducee, there is no true submission to the divine authority. To the Jew who accepts both the Written and Oral Torahs, the basis and end of everything he does is to serve the divine will. The “wine” of his divine service—the intellectual and emotional fulfillment that he experiences in the process—is also part and parcel of this end: this, too, is something that G‑d desires from him. The Sadducee, on the other hand, sees the “wine” as the end and objective of his observance of the mitzvot: everything he does is subject to his personal understanding and appreciation.

The Sadducee might accept the need for “water” in one’s life, but only as an accessory to the wine. He might acknowledge the need for unquestioning obedience to Torah on the part of the masses, for not every man is capable of interpreting these laws himself. He might acknowledge the need for such obedience on the part of even the wisest of men, for no man can expect to understand everything. But the Sadducee will always see such “mindless” and “unfeeling” obedience as a necessity rather than the ideal—the ideal being a fulfillment of Torah based on the observer’s understanding and appreciation.

So for the Sadducee, there is no joy in submission to the divine will, no taste to the water of commitment. The Sadducee does not thirst for this water; if he obeys G‑d’s laws, it is only as a means to an end—to enable him to savor their intellectual flavor and emotional aroma.

This is why the Sadducee priest poured the water on his feet. He was not condemning the phenomenon of “water” in serving G‑d; he was relegating it to the feet—to the “foot soldiers” of the nation, or to the lower extremities of the human form. Water might be necessary in certain individuals and in certain circumstances, but it is hardly the fluid to grace the altar in the year’s most joyous celebration of man’s relationship with G‑d.

A Hail of Fruit

The people responded by pelting him with their etrogim.

The Midrash tells us that the “Four Kinds” taken on Sukkot—the etrog (citron), lulav (palm frond), hadas (myrtle branch) and aravah (willow branch)—represent four types of individuals. The etrog, which has both a taste and a fragrant smell, represents the perfect individual who is both knowledgeable in Torah and proficient in the observance of mitzvot. The lulav is the branch of the date palm, whose fruit has a taste but no smell, representing those accomplished in Torah though less so in regard to the mitzvot. The hadas—tasteless but aromatic—represents the type who, though lacking in Torah knowledge, has many mitzvot to his credit. Finally, the tasteless, scentless aravah represents the individual who lacks both Torah and mitzvot.

On a deeper level, the “Four Kinds” represent four personas within every individual, each with its own domain in his psyche and its appropriate place in his life. In this sense, “Torah” is the intellectual appreciation of the divine wisdom, and “mitzvot” are the love and awe of G‑d experienced in the observance of the commandments. Thus, the lulav is the “intellectual” in man who does not allow feeling to cloud the purity of knowledge and comprehension; the hadas is the emotional self, who sets experience as the highest ideal, even at the expense of the intellect; the etrog is the force that strives for a synthesis of mind and heart; and the aravah is the capacity for acceptance and commitment, for setting aside intellect and feeling to commit oneself absolutely to a higher ideal.

When the Sadducee priest spilled the water on his feet, the “entire people pelted him with their etrogim.” We reject what you represent, the people were saying, not only with the self-negating aravah in us, not only with our intellectual or emotional personas, but also with the synthesis of wisdom and feeling that defines what is highest and most perfect in man. For also—and especially—the etrog within us recognizes the water of life as our ultimate source of joy.