10. Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva

When the Temple stood, a huge celebration, complete with music and dancing, was held in the Temple courtyard every night of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed Sukkot. This celebration was known as Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva. The Sages report: “Anyone who never witnessed the Simḥat Beit ha-sho’eva has never in his life witnessed simḥa” (m. Sukka 5:1). The celebration began after the afternoon tamid offering and continued all night long. As dawn approached, an official would make a declaration, and two kohanim standing at the upper gate would blow teki’a-teru’a-teki’a blasts on trumpets. They would lead everyone in a procession descending from the upper gate of the Temple. When the kohanim reached the tenth step, they blew teki’a-teru’a-teki’a blasts again. When they reached the women’s courtyard, they blew yet again. They continued blowing the trumpets until they arrived at the gate which exited the courtyard to the east. From there, the procession continued down to the Shilo’aḥ spring. There they drew water to be used for the libation that would accompany the morning tamid offering (Sukka 51b). When they ascended back to the Temple, they entered via the Water Gate, and the kohanim blew the trumpets once again. All of these blasts were celebratory, as we read (Yeshayahu 12:3), “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of salvation” (Sukka 48a-b). The entire event was called the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva (lit. “the Celebration of the Water-Drawing Place”) on account of this water-drawing procession. The Sages further report that the joy of this mitzva imbued Israel’s leaders with divine inspiration. This was an additional reason for the name – “for they ‘drew’ divine inspiration from there” (y. Sukka 5:1).

This joy rested on two foundations: the joy that typifies Sukkot, and the special mitzva of the water libation that took place only on Sukkot. During the year, all offerings, both individual and communal, were accompanied by a wine libation, which was poured on the altar. Only on Sukkot, at the morning tamid, was there a special mitzva of pouring water, in addition to wine, on the altar. They would fill two receptacles – one with wine and the other with the water brought from the Shilo’aḥ – and pour them out simultaneously into the Shitin, a natural hollow space under the Temple floor, through two adjacent holes in the surface of the altar. During the construction of the Temple, they built the altar above the Shitin and left a narrow opening between the altar and its ramp, so that the water libations could be poured into the Shitin (Sukka 49a). The Shitin was in place from the moment of creation, designated for use in this mitzva, to ensure that the water libations reach the very foundations of the earth; all other wine libations could simply be poured onto the altar (Maharsha, Sukka 3b).

The water libations express the uniqueness of Sukkot, in which the sanctity of natural life and existence is revealed – just as the mitzva of sukka transforms natural activities like sleeping and eating into mitzvot. All year long, only wine libations accompanied the offerings, because normally, only the special elevation to which wine alludes can reveal sanctity. But on Sukkot, after the observance of all the festivals and days of repentance, and after the gathering in all the year’s produce, sanctity is manifest in routine life as well, which is sustained by water. This is the greatest, most complete joy, as it incorporates all facets of life.

The Sages tell us that on Sukkot we are judged concerning water and that through the water libations, the incoming year’s rainfall is blessed (RH 16a). We must note that water alludes to God’s great kindness, which sustains everything, without exception: grass and trees, fruits and vegetables, fish and fowl, wild and domesticated animals, Israel and the nations of the world. Usually we are not worthy of ascending to the level of this great kindness, but on Sukkot, after we have completed the entire cycle of festivals and repentance, we become worthy of pouring water on the altar, thus connecting with the very foundations of the world’s existence and thereby opening the gates of blessing to all creatures. The joy that accompanies the drawing of the water is therefore very great indeed.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman