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The Feast of Tabernacles and the Water Libation Ceremony

During the time of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), “Nisuch Hamayim” (the pouring of the water) was an important part of Succoth (The feat of Tabernacles). During the year, the daily korbonot (offerings) on the altar were accompanied by a wine offering, but on Succoth, water was offered in addition to wine. This water was drawn early in the morning from the Shiloach Spring [1], which flowed near the Beit HaMikdash. The entire previous night was devoted to celebrations in the courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash. The Levi’im (Levites) played music, people juggled lit torches and sang and danced throughout the night. The Gemara [2] speaks of the great joy at Simchat Beit HaShoeva [3], saying: “One, who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.”

Why was water offered, in addition to wine, as part of the sacrifices of Succoth? According to the Kabbalah [4] and Chassidism [5], water and wine represent two different aspects of our service of God. Water, which is tasteless and colorless, but at the same time the essence of life, represents the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, which is the basis of the Bible and it’s commandments – recognizing God as our Master and committing ourselves to observing His commandments . Wine, on the other hand, which is sensually gratifying, represents the emotional and spiritual aspect of our service of God. It signifies the joy we experience while observing the Bible and it’s commandments.

So why is water, which is tasteless and colorless, used to symbolize our great joy – a joy unequaled by any other experience – on Succoth? Water, has no taste and only requires the reciting of a blessing when drunks out of thirst. Imagine for a moment that you have just come inside after a long walk on a hot summer day. You are parched and aching for a drink of water. When the cold water hits your mouth, at that moment, it is tastier than a glass of wine! The same is true in a spiritual sense. When one has a thirst for a connection to God, a simple commandment done with sincerity and the acceptance of the will of God, has more value to the person than the deepest secrets of the Bible. Succoth, which comes after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two holidays which focus on acceptance of the will of God, is a time when we are most open to experiencing the fulfillment that comes from the seemingly ordinary act of acceptance of the will of God.

Water and wine also represent two types of joy – unlimited spiritual joy and limited physical joy. Wine, by nature, leads to physical joy due to its intoxicating properties. Since the joy associated with wine has a physical basis, it is bound by the limitations of nature. Therefore, when wine is offered on the altar, the spiritual joy of the offering is mixed with, and limited by, a physical joy. In contrast, tasteless, colorless water does not, by its nature, bring one to a state of joy. Therefore, the joy associated with the water offering was completely spiritual, because it was offered based on God’s command to “draw water with joy.” Since God and His commandments are not limited by nature, the joy associated with the water offering has no limits. When one serves God through study and contemplation, this represents the wine offering, since it is limited by the intellectual capacity of the person, while the water offering is compared to serving God with self-sacrificing acceptance of the will of God of which every person is capable.
The joy of SuccothOur time of Joy, comes from the great spiritual achievements of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) – the days that we strove to bind ourselves with the Essence of God, to serve God like water with self-sacrifice and acceptance of the will of God. The connection is finally revealed during Simchat Beit HaShoeva and Nisuch Hamayim[3] – the joy that comes from fulfilling God’s commandments and binding ourselves to Him, which transcends all limitations.

[1] The Siloam (Shiloach) spring (in reference to Jerusalem neighborhood called Silwan) is a passage of inscribed text originally found in the Hezekiah tunnel (which feeds water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam in East Jerusalem).

[2] Talmud – usually refers to the Babylonian Talmud. However this term could also refer to the Jerusalem Talmud.

[3] When the Holy Temple in Jerusalem stood, a unique service was performed every morning throughout the Sukkoth holiday: the Nisuch ha-Mayim (lit. “Pouring of the water”) or Water Libation Ceremony.

[4] Kabbalah (Hebrew: קַבָּלָה‎, lit. “Receiving”) is a discipline and school of thought concerned with the mystical aspect of Rabbinic Judaism. It is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and the mysterious Creator and the mortal and finite universe, his creation.

[5] An interpretation in the practical practice of Judaism initiated by the Baal Shem Tov, and developed by his successors. It especially built upon the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, and presented it in a way that was accessible for the first time by all Jews.