What is it about the water-offering ceremony during Sukkot that inspired the greatest celebration in Jewish history?
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
A special celebration was held during the Festival of Sukkot in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This celebration – known as Simchat Beit Hasho’eva, or “The Water Drawing Celebration” – was part of the special water offering that was poured on the altar on every day of Sukkot.
Every day during the Sukkot holiday the people would go down to the Shilo’ach spring (still accessible today!) and draw some water that would be poured onto the altar. The water was then brought to the Temple amid tremendous celebration and fanfare.
When the delegation of water-drawers finally reached the Temple, the water was given to the Kohen, the priest. At that moment massive celebrations erupted in which the entire population participated. There was singing, dancing, and food. The celebration lasted all night long. Every day. Imagine!
The Talmud says that there was no celebration, ever, like the celebration of Simchat Beit Hasho’eva. What is it about this water ceremony that aroused the greatest celebration in Jewish history?
It is explained that before God created the world, the world was filled with water. On the second day of creation, God separated the waters to an “upper waters” and a “lower waters” in order to allow for space and, by extension, for the earth to be created. The upper waters became the sky and the lower waters became the lakes, rivers and oceans.
According to rabbinic literature, the lower waters began to cry because they were separated and thus more distant from God. They cried because they wanted to be reunited with God. The sages teach that God “compensated” the lower waters by instituting the water-offering ceremony on Sukkot. In this way, the lower waters are used in God’s service, and offering it at the altar shows that they are still very much connected to God.
This is why the water-offering ceremony was cause for such excitement, and it is also why it was performed specifically on Sukkot. We are like the waters of the water offering! For an entire year we become distant from God, but with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we cleanse ourselves from our sins and become close with God once more. The water is reunited with God on Sukkot, and so are we, as we begin the new year with a clean slate.
It is this return to God that is the ultimate cause for our celebrations. Make sure to look for the traditional “Simchat Beit Hasho’eva” celebration this Sukkot in your community!