The Ritual of Waters

| Sukkot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Sep 16, 2013 / 5774 | Holidays

The festival of Sukkot is known as Z’man Simhateinu, the time of our rejoicing. One of the reasons that happiness is connected to this pilgrimage festival is the ritual of nisuch ha-mayim, the Water Libation Ceremony. Although this is an unfamiliar ritual to us today, it was one of the highlights of the Sukkot holiday. When the temples stood in Jerusalem, water libations were performed each morning of the holiday. And later, in the evening, people would gather at the point from which the waters were drawn and join in festive singing and dancing. This ritual was known as simhat beit hashoeva, the celebration at the place of water-drawing. Mishnah Sukkah even states, “One who has not seen the rejoicing at the ‘Place of the Water-Drawing’ has never seen rejoicing in his life.” The ostensible reason for this ritual is the belief that on Sukkot, God judges the world for rainfall in the coming year. And, in fact, it is at the close of the holiday of Sukkot that we begin our prayers in earnest for rainfall in the Land of Israel.

A beautiful prayer is associated with this ritual of waters. The Babylonian Talmud reports that when “Hillel the Elder celebrated during the ‘rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing,’ he used to recite, ‘When I am here, everyone is here; but when I am not here, who is here? To the place that I love, there my feet lead me.’” Then God responded to Hillel the Elder, “If you come into my house, I will come into your house; if you come not into my house, I will not come into your house: ‘In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you’ (Exod. 20:21)” (BT Sukkot 53a).

Sukkot, at its heart, is about the intimate relationship between God and the Jewish people. Sitting in our booths, we recall a time of remarkable closeness as Israel wandered through the desert toward the Promised Land. Hillel the Elder reflects the quality of this relationship in his teaching. For it was in the midst of such happiness that Hillel acknowledged his closeness to God and to the entire community. His personal presence became symbolic of the participation of the entire group. Only when we take such a proactive approach in our own personal observance does it become a true simhah for the entire community. Our personal participation in the holiday of Sukkot ultimately leads to the joy and participation of the entire community and nation—all of which brings us to experiencing the presence of God.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.