This week we are in the midst of the festival of Sukkot and no matter what time of the year Sukkot falls, whether it is early or late, it always seems to rain. It coincides with the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and reminds us that water played an important part in the ancient Temple ceremonies. Simchat Beit Ha-Shoeivah, ‘Rejoicing at the House of the Water Drawing’, was one of the most lively Sukkot celebrations in the Second Temple. On festival mornings, a procession would make its way to the spring of Shiloach outside Jerusalem. There, a golden flagon was filled with water. As the people returned to the city, the shofar was blown at the Water Gate. At the Temple, a priest would transfer the water into a silver bowl, from which it could be poured onto the altar as a libation.
From the second night of Sukkot, great celebrations took place in the Womens’ Court outside the Temple. Priests lit three golden menorot, ‘and there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light of the Beit Ha-Shoeivah’ (Mishnah Sukkah 5:2-3). Throughout the night, the people would dance, sing, perform acrobatics and feats of torch-throwing, and scholars would juggle. The celebration ended when loud blasts of the shofar announced a new day.
The name of the ceremony, Simchat Beit Ha’Shoeivah, probably came from a verse in the book of Isaiah (12:3): ‘Joyfully shall you draw water from the wells of salvation’.
According to Jewish tradition, at Sukkot, God determines how much rain will fall in the year ahead, and the festival is, therefore, an auspicious occasion on which to ask for the blessing of water. In our Liberal tradition, we now include the blessing for rain in our daily prayers all year round, but, traditionally, it is first recited on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, and continues till Pesach.
The four species that we wave on Sukkot, have also been associated with water. The palm trees from which the lulav comes, it is said, grow in valleys where there is plenty of water. Willows and myrtles both thrive near the water, and the etrog needs more water than any other plant to grow. When you hear the lulav being waved, it may help to close your eyes and listen to the sound. See if you can hear the drops of rain falling on the trees.
One of the names by which Sukkot was known in biblical times, indicating its importance in the calendar, was he-chag, literally ‘the festival’. Sukkot is also known asz’man simchateinu, ‘the time of our happiness’. The celebrations and water ceremonies that took place in ancient times were centered around the Temple. After the Temple was destroyed, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud wistfully remarked, ‘Anyone who has not seen the Rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life’ (Sukkah 51a).
Joy is a gift from God, as we are reminded several times in the book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, which is read at Sukkot.
‘There is no greater good for humankind than eating and drinking and giving oneself joy in one’s labour. Indeed, I have seen that this is from the hand of God…’ (2:24).
Kohelet also writes,
‘I know that there is no other good in life but to be happy while one lives. Indeed, every person who eats, drinks and enjoys happiness… that is the gift of God’ (3:12).
Sukkot is another way of imprinting on our hearts the things we resolved so seriously at Yom Kippur, a way of reinforcing them with joy. May we be blessed with joy and happiness on this festival and in the coming year, and may God spread over all of us סוכת שלום a shelter of peace.