Yshai Amichai
Yshai AmichaiCourtesy

The Mishnah (Tractate Sukkot 4:9 and 4:10) speaks of a water libation performed during Sukkot, whereby water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam in the City of David and carried up to the Temple to be poured into a silver basin near the Altar.

Much fanfare accompanied this ceremony, as attested to by the Mishnah (Tractate Sukkot 5:1-4). This included flute playing, trumpet blasting, powerful nighttime illumination, fire dancing and fire juggling. As claimed by the Mishnah (Sukkot 5:1): “They said: he who has not seen the Simchat Bet Hashoevah has never seen rejoicing in his life.”

But the Mishnah also mentions a darker side to the story (Sukkot 4:9): “To [the priest] who performed the libation they used to say, ‘Raise your hand,’ for one time, a certain man poured out the water over his feet, and all the people pelted him with their etrogim.”

That man was likely the Hasmonaean priest-king Alexander Yanai. His refusal to perform the water libation sparked a bloody civil war. According to Josephus (Antiquities 13:13.5), after the people pelted him with citrons and claimed he was unworthy of the priesthood, Alexander Yanai had six thousand of them killed and built a fence around the Altar to prevent them from entering.

Responsible to God

While Simchat Beit HaShoeva may have been an overwhelmingly joyous occasion for the people, I can imagine that it might have been more of a headache and a liability to the Cohanim, to have the people demand of them that they perform a Temple service which is not written in the Torah. The people might claim that they know better than the Cohen, but it is his life on the line and his responsibility to be true to God.

Ever since Aharon the Cohen listened to the people and gave them a golden calf to bring it offerings and to revel before it (Exodus 32), the Cohanim have been made to be acutely aware of their responsibilities. Where it not for Moses’s supplications, God would probably have killed Aaron for that sin (Deuteronomy 9:20), but God did kill Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, for performing a service that was not commanded by Him (Leviticus 10).

Korach’s uprising against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16) teaches a similar lesson. Korach was a Levite, and did not consider Aaron holier than him, but God Chose Aharon to serve Him in the Tabernacle. Therefore, when Korach and his congregation of rebels attempted to offer incense to God, God Consumed them in a fire. Their uncalled-for service was a rebellion against God.

The next day (Numbers 17) the people complained to Moses and Aaron that they had killed God’s people, so God struck Israel with a plague. The people were not through with their innovations, but it was Aharon the Cohen who stood between the dead and the living to atone for them, until the plague ended.

We have no right to democratize the priestly responsibilities or to make demands of the Cohanim in the name of the people. The Cohanim must answer to God, as they were Chosen by Him, and we must learn to accept that. Only after God Performed a feat of proof to Israel that He Chose Aharon, did the people realize why they were dying, because they were trespassing in God’s House and transgressing against Him.

Then God repeated His Charge to the Cohanim and the Levites (Numbers 18), placing the responsibility firmly upon the Cohanim. “The LORD said to Aharon, ‘You, your sons and your family are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the Sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.’”

Fire Dancing and Juggling

The Mishnah says (Sukkot 5:2-4) that in those days they would go down to the women’s courtyard and make a great improvement there, raising menorahs high up on poles and filling their pitchers with ample oil to light up the sky. The joyous procession was also accompanied by the pious and men of accomplishment who would dance before them with flaming torches.

This sounds to me like an overenthusiastic effort to entertain the people and to elicit their excitement, like bringing the circus to the Temple. Is that something we need to be doing in God’s Sanctuary? Yes, David danced before God with all his might when bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, and he was girded in a linen tunic (II Samuel 6:14), but that wasn’t in the Temple, and he wasn’t trying to entertain anyone.

We don’t have the Temple anymore, so we don’t need to worry yet about what should or should not be done there. But God Willing we should live to see the Temple rebuilt hastily in our days, so there is something to look forward to. Should that include water libations?

These days Jews commemorate the reported joys of the water libation ceremony with Sukkot festivals and concerts. Such festivity is certainly befitting of the Sukkot holiday, and we should surely enjoy the holiday as God Commanded us (Deuteronomy 16:14), but should we connect that joy with the water libation and yearn for its resurrection?

We don’t even have the Temple to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah that are clearly Required of us, yet we are dreaming about a water libation that is not mentioned in the Written Torah and training our children to anticipate and desire it.

As if for two thousand years we haven’t had a place to pour water on the ground. If you really want to pour water on the ground for God, the Torah doesn’t ban you from doing that anywhere in the world. In fact, it doesn’t mention it at all.

If you are afraid to pour a water libation in your house or in your synagogue, for fear of offending God, or that it would be considered an unsanctioned service, how can you be so certain that doing so in God’s House would be permissible or wanted?

I think we should all wait until we have a Temple and Cohanim who serve God there, to ask them if the water libation is really what we need to be dreaming about and fantasizing as the most joyous service imaginable.