(Painting: The Temple Institute) Depiction of Water Festival at Holy Temple. (Photo: The Temple Institute)
Water offering

On Sukkot we offer the water upon the altar, representing its return to God, right after we, too, have returned to God on Yom Kippur!

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

One of the highlights of the holiday of Sukkot in the Holy Temple was the celebration of the special Water Offering, known as Simchat Beit Hasho’eva. As part of this incredibly festive event, the people would gather every afternoon of Sukkot at the Shilo’ach spring in Jerusalem, where water was drawn for the Water Offering ceremony. The water was then paraded back to the Temple, where it was given to the Kohanim, the Priests. At that moment, festive pandemonium broke out. There was dancing, torch juggling, musical orchestras, food (of course! Every Jewish event has food!) and more.

These nightly celebrations lasted right up until it was time for morning services. Everyone participated: men, women and children, simple folk and the greatest scholars. To give you an idea of how great the celebrations were, the Talmud teaches: “Whoever did not see a Simchat Beit Hasho’eva celebration never saw a true celebration in his life.” After the night-long celebration, the water was poured alongside the altar and the ceremony was concluded.

What’s going on here? What is the meaning of this elaborate celebration? Why did even the great rabbis leave their studies to participate? Quite intriguing, is it not?

The answer can be found right at the beginning of Torah, in the story of creation.

The Torah explains in the story of Creation that at the very beginning, the world was entirely water. All water, and by extension, the entire world, was essentially in Heaven, close to the Divine presence. On the second day of creation, God separated these waters in two. We were then left with the waters “above” and the waters “below,” such as the oceans, rivers, springs and the like. Our sages teach us that the waters that were designated to descend to earth were extremely upset at having to be physically distant and removed from God’s presence.

We are told that God compensated the lower waters by…you guessed it! God decreed that the lower waters would be given the privilege of being the feature and focal point of the most festive offering of the year, on Sukkot, in the Holy Temple! By being offered on the altar, the “lower waters” were symbolically being returned to their exalted, Heavenly status. They were once again close to the creator and the center of His, and our, attention.

We can now understand why this event was so festive and celebratory, and why it was performed on Sukkot, the holiday that follows on the coattails of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, which represents our return to God after a year in which we most certainly have sinned. We are just like the water!

On Sukkot we offer the water upon the altar, representing its return to God, right after we, too, have returned to God on Yom Kippur! Men and women, young and old, laymen and scholars…We all want to get close to God. The water offering, the Simchat Beit Hasho’eva, reminds us that this is achievable. If water, mere H2O, can return to God, how much more so can we, who possess a Godly soul and are inherently a part of the Holy One blessed be He! So we take the Yom Kippur experience into Sukkot and celebrate with the water that symbolically achieves what we all so desire!