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Importance of the Water Libation Ceremony on Succot

Importance of the Water Libation Ceremony 


Arthur L. Finkle


Water – an Ecological Imperative

Water a lifeline to all civilizations. Ancient cultures water paid obeisance t its water gods. Indeed, water has not only played an essential ecological role, but it has entered the culture’s religion, mythology, and art. Water in many religions cleanses the soul through holy water. (Vestal Virgins, Baptism and Cleansing of the Priests in the Holy Temple).

The water cycle is a major driving force on our planet. Water is in constant motion, evaporating into the atmosphere from oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. When the atmosphere can no longer support the moisture within the clouds, we experience rain, snow, hail, or sleet. Some water is locked in the form of ice at the polar caps and in glaciers. Water melts in the spring, producing runoff that percolates through the Earth as groundwater (subsurface) or makes its way back to the sea (surface). The oceans contain most of the water, but it is salt water which is unusable by most organisms.


Water provides the Earth with the capacity of supporting life supporting fish, amphibians, insects, birds and mammals. Although untreated water carries organisms and viruses cause deadly diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, malaria, botulism, polio, dysentery, giardia, and hepatitis A), the Clean Water Act mandates the United States to provide clean and abundant water.


Beyond meeting basic human needs, water supply and sanitation services, are critical to sustainable development. A major source of energy, water is also necessary for agriculture and for many industrial processes. And in more than a few countries, it makes up an integral part of transport systems. Ecology has taught us that water produces ecosystems, including flood control, water availability, storm protection and water purification.



Biblical Evidence


In the Bible, we find ample evidence of the importance of water.



Each day of Festival of the Harvest Festival in the autumn), the Priests of the Holy Temple performed the Water Libation ceremony. Its rationale teaches the Jewish people to bring water before Him on Succot, petitioning for adequate rains, paramount to the success of an agricultural society. (Bavli Succah 37; and Bavli RH 16a).  Another interpretation from ethical tales is that the lower waters were sad when God separated the waters to upper and lower. Their distress was noted by God that the lower waters would be elevated during this season. (Rabbaynu Bachya to Lev 1:13)


Isaiah describes the Water Libation ceremony as an elaborate ritual emitting great joy. (”You shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of salvation.”)


The Water Libation ceremony, however, during Succot took on a joyous celebration. We find a minute description of this water libation ceremony in Talmud Yerulshalmi 30a, wherein two priests stood by the Upper Gate that; led to the Israelites courtyard. When the crier called out, the Kohanim sounded a series of tekiah, teruah and tekiah. They sound the shofar series again – only longer - according to Rashi as they went to the East. The procession went to the gates, facing the Nicanor’s Gate, bowing toward the sanctuary OF God, faces to the East. They then turned to the West and said: our forefathers who were in this place but as for us out eyes are toward God (*and Yuh – close the ineffable name) was spoken to betoken God.


Thereafter, the trumpet sounders arrived at the tenth step (the Rabbi’s come to no conclusion as whether this was the tenth step from the bottom of the tenth step from the top – there are fifteen steps in all). (Succah Yerush. 31a)


The Jewish Encyclopedia cites the elegance of primacy of the elaborate Water Libation Ceremony:



To express their contempt of the Sadducees on the one hand and to strengthen their own position on the other, the Rabbis embellished the libation of water with so much ceremony that it became a favorite and distinctive rite on these occasions. On the night of the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles the outer court of the Temple was brilliantly illuminated with four golden lamps, each containing 120 logs of oil, in which were burning the old girdles and garments of the priests (Bavli. Shab. 21a; Bavli. Yoma 23a). These lamps were placed on high pedestals which were reached by ladders; and special galleries were erected in the court for the accommodation of women, while the men below held torches in their hands, sang hymns, and danced. On the fifteen steps of the Gate of Nicanor stood the Levites, chanting the fifteen "songs of degrees" (Ps. 120-124.) to the accompaniment of their instruments, of which the most important was the  flute, although it was used neither on the Sabbath nor on the first day of the feast (Suk. v. 1).

The illumination, which was like a sea of fire, lit up every nook and corner of Jerusalem, and was so bright that in any part of the city a woman could pick wheat from the chaff. Whosoever did not see this celebration never saw a real one (Suk. 53a). Hillel the Elder encouraged general rejoicing and participated in the celebration that all might follow his example, while R. Simeon b. Gamaliel juggled with eight torches, throwing them in the air and catching them again, thus showing his joy at the feast. R. Joshua b. Hananiah states that the festival was celebrated throughout the night with songs, music, shouting, clapping of hands, jumping, and dancing.


The priests drew the water from the pool of Siloam. Scholars believe King Hezekiah commissioned the tunnel for security reasons to supply his subjects with water during an imminent siege by the Assyrians (721 BCE). Archeologists reportedly have found this pool which was constructed as a the tunnel, 550 yards long, that brought water from the Gihon Springs, 330 yards outside the walls of old Jerusalem, to the Siloam Pool inside the ancient city. It was built to protect the city's water supply during an Assyrian siege. "The spring water comes out in the valley and not in the city," said archeologist Frumkin. "The ultimate solution was to bring the water into the city. The tunnel takes the water by gravitation down to a pool which is built inside the city."  


The construction of the tunnel is described in detail in Kings and Chronicles in the Bible. Scholars have long debated its historical importance.  "In the Bible, the city [of Jerusalem] was saved by a miracle," said Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. "However, the Bible does tell us that Hezekiah built this tunnel and apparently that is what enabled the Israelites to withstand the siege."


At one point, after the tunnel was built, the spring is believed to have been sealed to conceal it from the enemy. Most people only knew the Siloam Pool and lower end of the tunnel. It wasn't until the late Middle Ages when people walked into the tunnel that they found it was connected to the spring.

"It's quite rare to be able to go into structures that were constructed thousands of years ago to try to understand the people who lived during this time," said Frumkin. "But if we can date the structure, we will be able to know if what is written in the Bible is real."



At the morning service on each of the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) a libation of water was made together with the pouring out of wine (Suk. iv. 1; Yoma 26b), the water being drawn from the Pool of Siloam in a golden ewer of the capacity of three logs. It was borne in solemn procession to the water-gate of the Temple, where the train halted while on the Shofar was blown "teḳi'ah, teru'ah, teḳi'ah." The procession then ascended the slanting bridge to the altar, toward the left, where stood on the east side of the altar a silver bowl for the water and on the west another for the wine, both having snout-like openings, that in the vessel for the wine being somewhat the larger. Both libations were poured out simultaneously (Suk. iv. 9). There is also mention of the water libation ceremony throughout rabbinic literature: Menachot 44b; festival of Succot (Succah 50a, 50b-51a, Succah 53b, 54a); On Shabbos/Holidays during Water Libation: Succah 50a, 50b-51a, 54a


Bavli Zevahim 110a-b records the discussion whether this Water libations Succot ceremony was Biblical of dicrei soferim (Oral Law passed down by Moses) The Gemara concludes that this mitzvah is an oral tradition received by Moses on Mount Sinai. In his Commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides that the halakhah will be different depending on whether the source for this mitzvah is actually in the Torah or if it is an oral tradition from Moshe. While many of the commentaries object to this distinction, arguing that both are considered biblical, it appears that the Rambam follows the approach of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 11:4) that distinguishes between them, and understands that Oral Law from Sinai is similar, on some level, the teachings of the Rabbi’s.


Simchat Beit Hashoeva   


The Water Libation Ceremony was one of the most celebrated rituals of the Feast Tabernacles (Succot) . As the drawn water was poured out, this incantation was recited: “Let your waters flow, I hear the voice of two friends [the drawn water calling to its source], as it is said, ‘Abyss calls to abyss in the roar of the channels’ (Tan. 25b). The mystical purpose of the ritual was to cause   the underground waters to trigger the mingling of the earthly (subterranean/circular/feminine) and the heavenly (rain/linear/masculine) waters, allowing growth in the coming season (T. Ta'anit 1:4; Ta’anit 10b; PdRE 23). 


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