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Sukkot: Ancient Rituals
By: Rivka C. Berman, Contributor
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Rain, Rain, Come this Way: Ancient
Rituals Shape Sukkot’s Meaning
Seventy Sacrifices for Seventy Nations
The plethora of sacrifices offered on Sukkot in Temple times was
astounding. Sukkot’s total of 70 sacrifices beat out the number of
offerings on any other holiday. On the surface the high number seems to
be an act of gratefulness for a successful harvest coupled with a prayer
for abundance in the upcoming year.
On a deeper level, examined by Talmudic scholars the 70 sacrifices are
offered to bring merit to the proverbial 70 nations of the world (Sukkah
55b). The notion that Sukkot has a universal meaning is alluded to by
the prophet Zechariah, who predicted a time at the End of Days when “all
the nations … shall go up from year to year to worship the Sovereign,
the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (Zechariah
Why would Jewish prophets and scholars expect the nations of the world
to be interested in a Jewish holiday? Because Sukkot falls out just
before the months when the all-important rains would fall. Rain is a
blessing that comes depending upon the world’s merit. The sacrifices
were supposed to help the 70 nations be God’s grace so that rain should
fall over the earth.
Water Pouring Ritual – Simchat Bait Ha’sho-ay-vah
An unusual rite, the Simchat Beit Ha’sho-ay-vah, celebrated the pouring
of water onto the Temple during Sukkot. Using water on the altar was
another way to put in a request on high for a good, wet year. The Talmud
pictures God saying, “Pour water before me so that your yearly rain be
blessed” (T.B. Taanit 2a)
The ceremony was reported to have been cause for great celebration.
Levites would lead the nation in song using harps, lyres, cymbals,
trumpets, and “other instruments without number” (T.B. Sukkah 51a).
Dancing and rejoicing would begin with the ritual and continue on
through the night. “When we rejoiced at the Simchat Bait Ha’sho-ay-vah
we did not sleep at all,” recalled Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Chanina in
T.B. Sukkah 53a.
A detail about the Simchat Beit Ha’sho-ay-vah party survives in the
Talmud that captures the all-night party atmosphere. A 120-lug container
of oil was poured into the great bowls of the golden candlesticks that
stood in the women’s courtyard of the Temple. If 1 lug would suffice for
all eight days of water pouring at the altar, imagine how many flames
were lit with 120 lugs of oil. (Worn out priestly garments were recycled
for the wicks.) “There was no courtyard in Jerusalem that was not lit
during the Simchat Beit Ha’sho-ay-vah” (T.B. Sukkah 51a).
Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk… Why Rejoice Over Spilt Water?
To explain away the happiness of the Simchat Beit Ha’sho-ay-vah as a
grand harvest party does not do the celebration justice nor is it
logical. A simple harvest party with song and food would take place near
the food, near the field, not at the Temple. Why all the happy fuss over
some water pouring?
Wine was the liquid of choice usually
chosen to accompany the sacrifices. In contrast to wine, which
requires grapes to be planted, harvested, pressed and aged, water
can be enjoyed immediately. The water offering brought home the idea
that God appreciates our everyday routine of goodness, not only the
mitzvot that are performed after much effort and struggle.
A glance at the rows of wine guides
available in bookstores captures the complexity involved in
understanding and appreciating wine’s rarefied qualities. But
everyone gets the goodness of water. The Torah is compared to water
-- usually in the sense that a Jew cannot live without Torah much
like a fish cannot live without water. The Torah’s likeness to water
has another meaning. Just as water appeals to all, everyone, from
boor to scholar, can appreciate Torah values.
A chassidic interpretation looks to
water’s lack of flavor for inspiration. Flavor and taste go by the
word ta’am in Hebrew. Ta’am also translates to mean “reason.”
Pouring water on the altar symbolized and celebrated the Jews
unconditional love for God and their pledge to serve God whether or
not they fully understood the logic behind the commandments.
The Ancient Service
A report on the ritual from the Talmud (T.B. Sukkah 48a):
The water libation: How was it done? A golden flagon holding three lug
of water was filled from the Pool of Shiloach. When they arrived at the
water gate, they sounded a prolonged blast [on the shofar], then a
quavering note, and another prolonged blast. The Cohen went up the ramp
and turned to his left where there were two silver bowls… and they each
had a hole, like a narrow spout, one wide and the other one narrow so
that they were both emptied at the same time.
The bowl to the west was for water, and that to the east was for wine.
With one lug [an ancient measurement] they could do the libations for
all eight days.
Mazor Guide for Sukkot brings you much more about the
holiday, its meaning and its traditions... See the links below.