“Sukkot – The Festival of Joy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The festival of Sukkot is regarded as the most joyous of all the Jewish holidays. In fact, there is not a single reference in the Torah to “joy” with regard to Passover or Shavuot, while there are three references to joy in the verses pertaining to Sukkot (Leviticus 23:40 and Deuteronomy 15:14 & 15).

The most joyous part of Sukkot was the ritual known as “Nisuch Ha’Mayim,”–the water libation. While all Peace and Burnt offerings in the Temple were accompanied by a Mincha (fine flour mixed with oil and wine), during the seven days of Sukkot each daily Burnt offering included a libation of water that was poured on the altar together with the wine.

The Mishnah in Sukkah, chapter 4, describes this joyous ritual in detail. A Cohen filled a golden pitcher containing three logim of water that were drawn from the Shilo’ach pool and brought to the Temple through the Watergate while the shofar was sounded. Large multitudes of men, women and children, as well as distinguished dignitaries of Israel, participated in the festivities that accompanied the water libations. Known as Simchat Beit Hashoeva, “the festival of the house of water drawing,” the ceremony lasted for 15 ½ consecutive hours, and was conducted on each festival day with the exception of Shabbat and the first day of Sukkot.

Men of piety and good deeds would dance before the people with lighted torches in their hands, singing songs and offering praises to the Al-mighty. The Levites set the tone for the celebration, playing an array of musical instruments. The festivities were so extraordinary, that the Talmud (Sukkah 51a) actually states that one who has not seen the festival of Simchat Beit Hashoeva has never experienced true joy in his life.

And yet, despite the prominence of these festivities, neither the celebration of Simchat Beit Hashoeva, nor the ritual of Nisuch Ha’Mayim, is mentioned in the Torah. Instead, it is regarded as “Halacha l’Moshe mee’Sinai,” a law that was orally communicated to Moses at Sinai, that has the assumed the force of a scriptural law. While there are no specific scriptural references, the rabbis have found allusions in the Torah to the specialness of the water celebration on Sukkot in three extra letters that are included in the Torah portions describing the sacrifices of Sukkot. Those three letters, “Mem, Yod, Mem,” make up the Hebrew word “mayim” for water, and provide the basis for the celebration.

During the period of unrest that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple, the Simchat Beit Hashoeva ceremony actually became a source of great contention, specifically because there was no direct scriptural link to its observance. It was during this time that a great theological dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees reached its height amongst the people of Israel. The Sadducees, the literalists, rejected the Oral Code and subscribed only to laws and practices that were explicitly stated in scripture, whereas the Pharisees, the traditionalists, abided by the Oral Code and the rabbinic interpretations.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 48b, tells of a Sadducee who, during the celebration of the water libation, poured the water on his feet, and the people pelted him with their etrogs. The incident referred to in the Talmud, is presumed to be a case that was related by the famed Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius in Antiquities 13:13,5.

Josephus writes of the Hasmonean King, Alexander Yannai, who not only served as King but assumed the office of High Priest as well and had sympathetic leanings to the Sadducees. Once, apparently around the year 95 B.C.E., as the nation was celebrating the water drawing ritual in the Temple, Alexander Yannai took the pitcher of water, raised his hands high, and poured the water slowly over his feet to show his disdain for the Pharisees and their the traditional customs and rituals. The people standing in the Temple courtyard who were mostly Pharisees, regarded the ritual of the pouring of the water as crucial for achieving the blessings of rain necessary for their agricultural efforts. Overcome with anger, they began to pelt the king with their etrogs. Some extremists began to cry, “It’s enough that you [Alexander Yannai] have taken for yourself the royal crown. The priesthood belongs to the seed of Aaron, and you are not fit to be a priest because your mother is unfit.” The king immediately ordered his troops to step in and, according to some accounts, as many as six thousand people among the celebrants were killed. Nevertheless, the kings and princes of Israel learned a stern lesson from this tragic confrontation, not to take the people’s ritual practices lightly.

Fast forward 2,000 years.

It is very likely that after all these centuries only a small percentage of the 13 million Jews who populate the world today have ever heard of the celebration of Simchat Beit Hashoeva or of Nisuch Ha’Mayim, the festival of the libation of the water. And even those who do know are probably not familiar with the confrontation between Alexander Yannai and the people of Israel. The sad likelihood is that the vast majority of Jews today never even take a lulav or etrog into their hands, or ever enter a Sukkah during the festival of Sukkot. Whereas the Jews of antiquity were prepared to confront the king when he changed only a minor detail of the water libation ritual, contemporary Jews are either ignorant or indifferent to the entire Sukkot festival.

In a fascinating sidebar to Jewish history, it was during the reign of Alexander Yannai, that Alexander’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Shimon the son of Shetach, and Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Gamla, established universal Jewish education for the people, the first universal educational system ever instituted by any nation in the world.

Let us hope that through our efforts at educating and reaching out to the non-affiliated and marginally-affiliated Jewish masses, we will once again be able to celebrate this most joyous of festivals among the multitudes of our fellow Jews on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, soon, in our days.

Happy Sukkot.

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the Sukkot festival are observed on Friday evening, October 6th and on Saturday and Sunday, October 7 and 8, 2006.