Large golden candelabra, atop poles fifty amot high, were erected in the Temple courtyard. Each candelabrum had four lamps, and four young kohanim were charged with lighting each candelabrum by climbing ladders to fill the lamps with enough oil to last all night and to kindle them. The wicks for the lamps were made from worn-out pants of kohanim. These lamps produced enough light to illuminate all the courtyards in Jerusalem (m. Sukka 5:3).
The celebration itself took place in the women’s courtyard, which was the outer courtyard of the Temple. Musicians stood on the fifteen steps that descended from the men’s courtyard to the women’s and played a variety of instruments: flutes, harps, trumpets, and cymbals (m. Sukka 5:4). Most of the musicians were Levites, but Israelites who knew how to play would join the orchestra.
The pious and virtuous would dance while juggling torches. Some could juggle four torches, and some could manage eight. They did not worry about their dignity. Rather, they danced, skipped, and jumped at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva, like King David, who danced and whirled with all his might before the Ark of God (2 Samuel 6:16). The Sages recount that when R. Shimon ben Gamliel (the Nasi) rejoiced at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva, he took eight torches in golden holders. He threw one and grabbed another, and they never collided with each other. He also bowed down, planting his thumbs in the earth and kissing the floor of the courtyard, then immediately straightening up. Those present sang songs and praises to God. The pious and virtuous would say, “Fortunate is our youth, which does not embarrass our old age,” while penitents would say, “Fortunate is our old age, which atones for our youth.” Both would say, “Fortunate is one who did not sin, and one who sinned can repent and be forgiven.” The joy of the sages led them to experience divine inspiration. It is said of the prophet Yona that he was inspired by the divine spirit and achieved prophecy as a result of his rejoicing at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva (Sukka 53a; y. Sukka 5:1, 4).
Not everyone who wanted was allowed to dance in the presence of the people. Rather, the greatest sages, yeshiva heads, the members of the Sanhedrin, the pious, the elders, and the virtuous danced and rejoiced in front of the people. Everyone else, men and women, came to watch them dance and hear the marvelous singing (MT, Laws of Shofar, Sukka, and Lulav 8:14). Presumably they could sing and dance in place a little bit.
Originally, the women would stand in the women’s courtyard, and the men stood further away, on the open area of the Temple Mount. When the Sages saw that this led to frivolity and mixing, they instructed that a balcony be built for the women to stand on, with the men standing below them. The dancing then took place in the middle of the courtyard (Sukka 51b).
Yehoshua ben Ḥananya was a Levite who was among those who sang while the sacrifices were being offered. He testified that during all of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, the Levites did not sleep in their beds. They sang in the morning, while the morning tamid was offered, then they prayed Shaḥarit, then sang again during the musaf offering, and then prayed the Musaf prayer. From there they went to the beit midrash to study Torah until after noon, whereupon they ate a festive meal, prayed Minḥa, and sang in accompaniment of the afternoon tamid. Right after that, the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva began and continued until dawn. When they grew tired, they would nod off a bit while resting their heads on their colleagues’ shoulders (Sukka 53a).