Simhat Beit HaShoevah: The “All Nighter” Water Drawing Festival

What was the most joyous holiday of the Jewish people during Temple times? It was Sukkot, referred to as HeHag, or “The Festival.” Sukkot was joyous because of the water drawing festival, or “Simhat Beit HaShoeva.” Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, my teacher in Jerusalem, wrote “Originally, this ritual had nothing to do with rain. It was designed to establish the newly renovated altar and Temple in Jerusalem as the navel or center of the earth, connected to the subterranean foundation stone[1] and the abyss beneath it, upon which the earth was created.”[2] However, over time Sukkot became connected to rainfall, as we know through the recitation of the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of the Sukkot assembly.

To learn about this festival we need to go no further than Mishnah Sukkah, which states “pious and distinguished men danced before the people with lit torches in their hands and sang hymns before them; the Levites accompanied them with harps, lyres, cymbals, and innumerable musical instruments. On the fifteen steps leading to Ezrat HaNashim, the women’s chamber, stood the Levites, who sang and played musical instruments. At the upper gate, leading down from Ezrat Yisrael, the court of the Israelites, to the court of the women, stood two priests with trumpets in their hands. At dawn they blew a blast, a long note and a blast. They repeated this when they reached the tenth step and again when they reached the court of the Israelites. They blew their trumpets as they marched.”[3]

The Gemara elaborates on this festive celebration: “Our Rabbis taught: He who has not witnessed the rejoicing at Simhat Beit HaShoeva has never seen rejoicing in his life. He who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor, has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.”[4]

The celebration continued throughout Sukkot-and boy was it a party! The Talmud continues: “It was taught: They said of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel that when he rejoiced at the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing, he used to take eight lighted torches (and throw them in the air) and catch one and throw one and they did not touch one another; and when he prostrated himself, he used to dig his two thumbs in the ground, bend down, kiss the ground, and draw himself up again, a feat which no other man could do.”[5] It continues, “Levi used to juggle in the presence of Rabbi Judah the Prince with eight knives, Samuel before King Shapur with eight glasses of wine, and Abaye before Rabbah with eight eggs or, as some say, with four eggs.”[6]

In what was structured as a firsthand account, we are told that this ceremony was like no other. The first hour [was occupied with] the daily morning sacrifice; from there [we proceeded] to prayers; from there [we proceeded] to the additional (מוסף) sacrifice, then the prayers to the additional sacrifice, then to the House of Study, then the eating and drinking, then the afternoon prayer, then the daily evening sacrifice, and after that the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing [all night]. But then we have a contradiction-It cannot be so! For did not Rabbi Yohanan rule, He who says, ‘I take an oath not to sleep for three days’ is to be flogged so he will sleep? — The resolution-what was meant was this: ‘We did not enjoy a proper sleep’, because they dozed on one another’s shoulders.[7] In other words, no one went to bed, just napped from time to time, because of all the fireworks and energy emanating from this festival.

There was so much celebration that the rabbis were afraid of debauchery. They therefore enacted what was the first mehitza: The Talmud teaches “Our Rabbis have taught: Originally the women used to sit within [the Court of the Women] while the men were outside, but as this caused levity, it was instituted that the women should sit outside and the men inside. As this, however, still led to levity, it was instituted that the women should sit above and the men below.[8]

What relevance does this festival have in our lives today? How do we return to a time when Sukkot is החג, THE FESTIVAL? The Gerer Rebbe, in his book Sefat Emet, wrote that Simhat Beit HaShoeva is when we draw G-d’s spirit, the רוח הקודש, into our lives. It can only be holy joy, joy for the purpose of connecting to something greater than ourselves, rather than any form of base joy. Therefore the purpose was not debauchery but rather elevation of G-d’s holiness.[9] Unfortunately, some people misunderstood the intent and let loose too much, requiring safeguards to have to be instituted. Our tradition teaches that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai stopped this ceremony because the number of adulterers increased.[10]

Sukkot must be a celebration for getting past the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We should have festive meals with l’chayims and celebrate with family and friends-by the way, please join us for our Sukkot Open House this coming Sunday. At the same time, we can do so without the level of levity (קלות ראש) of our ancestors at Simhat Beit HaShoeva. In Jerusalem today on Hol HaMoed, they have a party which they refer to as Simhat Beit HaShoeva but it is tempered down from that of Temple times.  This Sukkot let us take opportunities to celebrate together, to truly engage in making this  a special Festival.

 

[1] Called אבן השתיה, which we refer to in Hoshanot on this, the 2nd Day of Sukkot

[2] Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, commentary on Bavli Sukkah chapters IV and V: Talmud Ha-Igud: Lulav VeAravah veHahalil, Jerusalem 2013, pp. 401-410.

[3] Mishnah Sukkah 5:4

[4] Talmud Bavli Tractate Sukkah 51b

[5] Talmud Bavli Tractate Sukkah 53a

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sukkah 51b

[9] Sefat Emet, 536

[10] Mishnah Sotah Chapter 9 Mishnah 9

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