Sukkot-A Festival of Water

| Sukkot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 2, 2001 / 5762 | Torah Commentary | Holidays Prayer

The joy of Sukkot is offset by a pervasive concern about water. As we give thanks for the harvest just completed, we begin to worry about the bounty of the next one. But be mindful: it is the rainfall in Israel of which we speak. Despite two millennia of exile, the Jewish calendar is still inextricably linked to the seasons of the year in the ancient homeland. If the historical justifications of the three pilgrimage festivals all relate to the exodus and wilderness experience, their agricultural basis continues to reflect the climatic conditions of Israel itself. The calendar served, in other words, as a highly effective matrix for the cultivation of national sentiments. Zionism at the end of the 19th century would have been inconceivable without the unbroken loyalty of Judaism to the centrality of Israel.

That Sukkot should manifest angst about rainfall is not surprising: in Israel it is only the winter months that bring rain. The margin of safety is precarious. Hence Sukkot as far back as the early days of the Second Temple (6th century B.C.E.) was deemed to be a time when God decided who would be blessed with rain in the year to come. In his final messianic prophecy, Zechariah articulates the linkage as a given, suggesting that the idea was much older. He envisions an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem by the nations of the world on Sukkot. Those that fail to appear “shall receive no rain” (Zach 14:17). The theme commended the prophet’s words as the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot.

The Mishnah made the messianic normative. It imagines Sukkot as one of four times during the course of the year that God takes stock of humankind, three times collectively and once on Rosh Hashanah individually. On Sukkot God will apportion rainfall for the coming year, making nature’s beneficence contingent on human behaviour. Again, the changing of the seasons in Israel informs the timing (Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

The Mishnah also depicts during the seven days of Sukkot a daily libation of water and wine on the Temple altar. Rabbi Akiva alluded to the underlying dynamic of sympathetic magic of the Temple ritual on all three pilgrimage festivals. The reason the Torah requires of us to bring sheaves of barley on Passover, the first fruits of our wheat harvest on Shavuot and water libations on Sukkot is because the fate of humanity in reference to these staples of life will be set on those three holy convocations (Mishnah Sukkah 4:9, Tosefta Sukkah 3:18). Life has the power to influence life. But the Talmud soon transforms magic into memory. God’s compliance is always a matter of volition. Why is it that the shofar we blow on Rosh Hashanah is a ram’s horn? To remind God of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, the horn a symbol of the ram offered in his stead, and to induce God to count that act in our favor (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16a). The piety of an earlier age constitutes the religious capital of later generations.

Finally, the Talmud proposes to regard the four species of the Lulov as a graphic reminder of human dependence on water. Just as the palm tree, myrtle, willow of the brook or etrog cannot do without water neither can the world (B.T. Taanit 2b). The symbol highlights the fatefulness of the festival.

However, we most assuredly do not want the rain to start during Sukkot. In the days of the Temple, Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims from the Diaspora. Moreover, for seven days our principal abode is to be the Sukkah. Rain out of season was held to be a sign of God’s displeasure, akin, as the Mishnah says, to a servant who comes to mix the cup for his master only to have the latter empty the ladle in his face (Sukkah 2:9). It is for this reason that in the synagogue the prayer for rain is not introduced until Sh’mini Atzeret, that is the festival that follows immediately after Sukkot. The solemnity of the moment reverts back to the High Holy Days. The hazzan dons a kittel and intones the musical mode of the Days of Awe. Poetry has replaced the libation ritual.

But what an exquisite example of the vast poetic literature composed in the Middle Ages to enrich and variegate the synagogue service! Art was never missing from the synagogue; it simply assumed a verbal rather than visual form. The prayer for rain in the Ashkenasic rite was authored by Eleazar Kallir, an extraordinarily prolific and often difficult master of piyyut (Hebrew liturgical poetry) whose literary handiwork abounds in the annual cycle of holiday services. Like Shakespeare, Kallir the man has eluded historical research. Beyond dispute is the power and artistry of his work.

His poem, which we insert at the beginning of the repetition of the musaf amidah, is an ingenious and artful answer to the question of how might we move God to grace our lives with sufficient rain? It turns on human merit and divine memory, the accumulated merits of Israel’s ancestors and God’s willingness to let that record of past virtue dictate its future fate. In six compressed, allusive and finely chiseled stanzas, Kallir unfolds the history of the patriarchs, Moses, the high priest and the Jewish people strictly in terms of turning points in their lives connected to water. The ease of execution belies the complexity of his conception. In the final two lines the poem becomes bitterly contemporaneous. With water a symbol of blood and persecution, Kallir closes with a plea for redemption and not just rain.

The intricate beauty of the poem’s form deepens the brilliance of its conception. Each stanza consists of four lines with an alternating refrain of a single line after each one, a total of 30 lines. To drive home the theme, every line ends with the word mayim, water. Kallir never deviates from his focus neither in form nor content. The opening letter of every stanza line follows the order of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with the last stanza consisting of a doubling of the final two letters of the alphabet. Again the attention to detail is a frail tribute to the grandeur of the addressee.

Kallir, speaking for the congregation assembled, addresses God directly. Each stanza opens with the extra introductory word zakhor, remember. Since Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi’s much heralded book by the same name, we tend to think of remembering as a purely human function. But faithfulness as an act of loyalty to a few peak moments is a divine obligation as well as a human one. The biblical notion of covenant comprises a mutual commitment. Both God and Israel cement their relationship in a repertoire of shared memories that soften recurring disappointment. Memory helps each partner span the highs and transcend the lows, attaining thereby a degree of satisfying constancy.

I offer my own inadequate translation in the hope that I might imbue you with just a bit of my love for Kallir’s minor masterpiece and for the genre in general.

Remember Abraham drawn to You like water.
You blessed him like a tree by streams of water.
You sheltered and saved him from fire and water.
You loved him for his children who would drink of righteousness like water.
      For his sake do not deny us water.

Remember Isaac whose birth was announced over a bit of water.
You instructed his father to spill his blood like water.
He too instructed him to pour out his heart like water.
Later he dug for and found wells of water.
      For his righteousness, grace us with ample water.

Remember Jacob with staff in hand crossing Jordan’s water.
Alone he rolled the stone from the well of water.
When he wrestled with an angel of fire and water, 
You promised to be with him in fire and water.
      For his sake, do not deny us water.

Remember Moses in his caulked wicker basket drawn from the water.
The daughters of Jethro reported: he provided our sheep with water.
When your treasured people thirsted for water, 
He struck the rock to produce water.
      For his righteousness, grace us with ample water.

Remember the High Priest who on Yom Kippur immersed five times in water.
Who purified his hands and feet with holy water,
Reading from Scripture cleansed by water,
At a remove from the masses unstable like water.
      For his sake, do not deny me water.

Remember the twelve tribes You brought through the split water.
You sweetened for them in the wilderness bitter water.
For You, the blood of their descendants has flowed like water.
Turn to us because we are about to go under in water.
      For their righteousness, grace us with ample water.

Hag sameah.

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Sukkot 5762 are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.