The Talmud relates that there is a Heavenly judgment on the world four times during the year: On Pesach, the world is judged on how much grain it would produce. An indication to this is that the Torah mandates that we bring an offering of newly harvested barley on Pesach.
On the Holiday of Shavuos the world is judged on the yield of the fruits of trees. This is supported by the fact that the Torah commands a land owner in the Land of Israel to bring his first fruits to the Temple starting on the holiday of Shavuos.
On Rosh Hashana, as we all know, all of humanity is judged by the Almighty.
On the Holiday of Succos we are judged on water – the amount of rainfall for the year.
The question is raised, where does the Torah, within the context of the laws of the Holiday of Succos, say anything concerning water?
Although all of the four species that the Torah instructs us to take and wave on Succos require plenty of water for their growth, the Lulav – center palm branch, Esrog – citron, Hadasim – myrtle and Avravos – willows from a bush, the concept that we are judged on the amount of water is based on an Oral tradition that Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai and taught the Jewish people.
Still, our Sages extracted a hint to water from variations in the Torah’s wording in reference to the wine libations poured on the Altar that accompanied the sacrifices offered during the holiday of Succos.
While describing the offerings sacrificed on each of the seven days of Succos, the Torah changes the spelling of three words in the description of the wine libations from which our Sages noticed that the word Mayim – water was encoded.
Therefore, on each of the days of Succos, when the daily first morning sacrifice was offered, a water libation was poured on the Altar together with the standard wine libation.
There were two drains on the southwest corner of the Altar, one for the wine and one for water. The wine and water were poured simultaneously, but since wine is thicker than water and they were supposed to drain at the same moment, the drain for the wine was wider so that this could be accomplished.
From where was this special water drawn? From a stream of water called the Shiloach which was located outside of the Temple.
The Talmud teaches us that every night of Succos, except for Shabbos, starting with the night after the first day of the holiday, there was a huge celebration in the Temple. The Levites sang and played musical instruments and the Sages would dance, and men, and women on a balcony, would watch. Jerusalem was lit up with huge torches and it was the happiest and most joyful time. This event was called Simchas Bais Hashoaiva – the celebration of the drawing of the water.
Right at daybreak, a series of shofar blasts were blown to indicate that two Kohanim – priests – holding a golden vessel from the Temple that held about a liter and a half of water, began their trip. On their way, as they reached certain areas in the Temple, blasts were sounded and at one point short declarations were said. When the Kohanim returned with the water, again there were a series of Shofar blasts.
Then the Kohain holding the water went to the southwest corner of the Altar where the two spouts were located and poured the water and wine that accompanied the morning daily sacrifice at the same time.
On each day of Succos, Kohainim would go to an area called Motzah and cut a bundle of tall willows. Parenthetically, one can see a sign for Motzah on Highway One right before entering Jerusalem and exceptional willows still grow there. These willows were taken to the Temple and the Kohainim would circle around the altar once and stand the willows up so that they would hang over the altar. On the seventh day of Succos – Hashana Rabah, the altar was encircled seven times, for Hashana Rabah is the day when the verdict of the amount of rain is sealed.
How do these traditions impact on us when we don’t have a Temple? During the nights of the intermediate days of the holiday many synagogues host lively dancing in the spirit of the joyful holiday. Additionally, each weekday of the holiday during the morning service a person stands with a Torah at the bimah and the congregation encircles the Bimah holding the four species while reciting prayers called Hoshanos.
On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabah, we encircle the Bimah seven times. We then take a bundle of five willows and recite prayers and then hit them on the floor several times.
Our Sages tell us that there was so much pomp and ceremony in honor of the water libation because there was a segment of Jews called Tzedukim who denied our Oral tradition; since this Mitzvah is based on our Oral tradition our Sages wanted to emphasize it.
On Shemini Atzeres,in the spirit of the Holiday which determines rainfall, when the Mitzvah of dwelling in the Succah is over, in a stirring prayer within the Mussaf service, we begin mentioning G-d’s power of rain in our daily prayer.
The prayer concludes with a plea, that the rain should be for blessing and not for curse, to sustain life and not to cause death, to produce a plentiful crop and not a lean one – Amain!