The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:2) says that on Sukkot we are “judged on the water,” in other words, Hashem decides how much rain we will receive in the coming year. For this reason, we bring a special offering in the Beit HaMikdash during Sukkot called “Nisuch HaMayim,” a libation of water. This is performed as part of the Korban Tamid ceremony in the morning where, in addition to the regular libation of wine, there is also a libation of water.
The ceremony was one of great celebration. Each morning during Sukkot the Kohanim, accompanied by throngs of Am Yisrael, would troop out to the Gichon Springs in Jerusalem to draw out the water. A Kohen would draw the water from the spring using a plate-like vessel made of pure gold with a capacity of 3 log (approximately one liter). While the water was being drawn, the Levi’im would sing and play numerous musical instruments. The procession then accompanied the drawn water back to Sha’ar Hamayim, the Water Gate, on the southern end of the Mikdash, where they blew a series of blasts on trumpets and shofarot.
The Kohen would then enter the azara, walk up the ramp of the Mizbeach, and turn left to the southwestern corner where the libations were performed. The water was then transferred from the gold vessel into a silver cup-like vessel perforated with a hole at the bottom (at the same time a second perforated, silver cup was being filled with wine). The water and the wine then drained through the holes at the bottom of the silver cups into special openings called shittin that drained the liquid to an underground reservoir under the floor of the azara.
Rashi (Vayikra 2:13) says that on the second day of Creation, Hashem separated the “upper” waters (in Heaven) from the “lower” waters (on earth). The “lower” waters complained that they no longer were close to Heaven. In compensation, Hashem promised the “lower” waters (the sea water and the fresh water) that they would merit special honor in the avodah in the Beit HaMikdash in the form of salting the Korbanot (from sea water) and Nisuch HaMayim on Sukkot (from fresh water).
In addition to the ceremony performed each morning of the festival, every evening there were additional festivities in the Mikdash, Simchat Beit haShoeva, the Rejoicing of the Water Drawing House. The Mishna (Sukkah, chap. 5) describes the scene.
On Motzei Chag Rishon, the night after the first day of Sukkot, they would begin the preparations in the ezrat nashim, the courtyard preceding the azara. In this courtyard there were numerous, towering golden candelabra, each with four “cups” at their pinnacle, with four ladders, one ladder ascending to each cup. Four young “Kohen trainees” would ascend the four ladders, each carrying a jar containing 120 log of oil and they would pour the oil into the cups of the candelabra. Into each cup they would insert an enormous wick, made from old bidgei kehuna, priestly garments that were no longer fit for service. These were then lit and the light that radiated from these candelabra was so bright that there was not a courtyard in the entire city of Jerusalem that was not illuminated by its brilliance.
Then the festivities began. Unlike a regular celebration where one hires professional performers, the entertainment in Simchat Beit haShoeva was provided by the Gedolei Hador – the tzaddikim and wise men of the generation. Each carrying numerous hand torches, they would dance, perform acrobatic and juggling feats, and sing praises to Hashem. The Nasi, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, was especially well known for his acrobatics (Tosefta Sukka 4:4) and juggling with eight torches. They were provided with musical accompaniment by the Levi’im orchestra, standing on the “stage” of 15 steps leading from the ezrat nashim to the azara, playing violins, harps, cymbals, and untold other musical instruments. At the top of the steps were two Kohanim, each with a trumpet. When the appointee called out, they blew a tekiah-teruah-tekiah series of blasts on the trumpets. They descended to the tenth step and repeated the blasts and then to the bottom of the steps and again repeated the blasts. The entire ezrat nashim was packed with male spectators and in the upper balconies surrounding the ezrat nashim, all the women were packed watching the festivities from above, and this continued throughout the night.
The Mishna (Sukkah 5:1) says that anyone who never witnessed Simchat Beit haShoeva never witnessed true rejoicing in his life!
Rav Kook (Orot Hatshuva 6:7) says that after the earth sinned during Creation, our world became divided into “means” and “ends” (trees and fruit). Since then, we humans have tended to sanctify the “ends” and less the “means.” For example, we enjoy more getting our salary at the end of the month than doing the work itself. This is relevant for most days of the year, but in the time of the Mikdash, for six days in the year (Chol HaMoed Sukkot) we got to celebrate the “means” and recognize the intrinsic importance of the “means,” to rejoice in the process and not only in the result.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Why do we use five aravot (willow branches) for striking on Hoshana Rabba?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: When Moshe rebukes Am Yisrael (in Ha’azinu), why does he call on heaven and earth as his witnesses? Rashi (Devarim 32:1) says that Moshe chose witnesses that have an unlimited lifespan, that even long after Moshe had passed, would hold Am Yisrael to their promise.