The Simchat Beit HaShoeivah
By Rabbi Yaacov Y Schwartz
When I was growing up, chol ha’moed (at least on Pesach) meant getting tickets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. We would crunch on our matzos while witnessing juggling, acrobatics, and death-defying acts. It just became part of our yom tov experience.
The celebration of Sukkot in the time of the Beit HaMikdash bore great resemblance to a three-ring circus. The Gemara in Sukkah (51a) tells us: “Chassidim v’anshei ma’aseh hayu merakdim lifneihem b’avukot shel ohr biydeihem.” Rashi explains that this meant juggling fiery torches and catching them. He further comments that there were those who were adept at juggling four, or as many as eight, torches simultaneously.
This was in addition to the songs and praises the great rabbis offered, accompanied by a massive Levitic orchestra. The Gemara goes on to tell us that there were many acrobatic stunts, including by rabbis who, at great risk, balanced their entire weight on their thumbs, in an extraordinary act of physical prowess and strength.
The question is why this unusual celebration needed to take place in the heart of the Beit HaMikdash, a place of august reverence, repentance, Divine forgiveness, and Torah study. Surely the Temple Mount would have been a more fitting setting for such a gathering. However, our rabbis insisted on conducting the festivities in the Women’s Courtyard (Ezrat Nashim).
The Gemara (51b) notes that there was an ongoing problem of frivolity (kalut rosh) between the male and female attendees, and they tried various solutions (women inside the courtyard, men outside, men inside, women outside) until they settled on a controversial change to the prophetic design of the Holy Temple by building a massive women’s gallery.
Surely the rabbis could have solved the problem by restricting the festivities to men or to a secluded area, which would not risk violating the solemn kedushah of our holiest site. Why were Chazal insistent that men, women, and children must be present at this all-night, every-night extravaganza, which began after Minchah and didn’t conclude until dawn, leaving no time for sleep for any of the participants?
In order to understand the deeper meaning of the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah gathering, we must first probe its origin. The Gemara tells us that there were two names given to the event. They are Beit HaShoeivah, the House of (Water) Drawing, or the Beit HaChashuvah, the Primary House, or, in contemporary terms, the House of Power and Significance. These names reflected the idea that the altar upon which the water and wine offerings of Sukkot were offered contained passageways down to the depths of the earth’s core, known as shittin, into which the fluids were poured. These miraculous openings were not manmade, but were prepared specifically for the occasion by Hashem at the time of creation.
So, it would seem that the reason for the festivities is to mark the special service of the Drawing of the Water from the Gichon Spring below the Temple Mount, based on the verse in Yeshayah 12, “u’she’avtem mayim b’sasson.” The Water Drawing was a musically accompanied procession, which included the blowing of shofarot at the gates of the Beit HaMikdash, and pausing on the tenth and fifteenth steps of the elaborate staircase leading downward from the Temple Mount towards the Gichon Spring.
The problem with this explanation is that the celebration itself does not include water at all, but rather seems to feature ohr, light, and fire. The Mishnah in the fifth perek of Sukkah tells us that they prepared for the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah a tikkun gadol, a great improvement, which was many golden candelabras with four golden bowls on top of each and four ladders for each menorah. Four youthful kohanim, each holding 30 lug (as much as 60 ounces) of oil, climbed these ladders to fill the cups with oil, a total of 120 lug per menorah. And from the worn-out trousers and belts of the kohanim, they made wicks for the menorot.
The Mishnah tells us that there was not a courtyard in Yerushalayim that was not illuminated by the light of the shoeivah, accompanied by the aforementioned juggling of fiery torches. There was no mention of water-pouring in any part of the celebration.
Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Lulav, does not refer to u’she’avtem mayim b’sasson as the source for the celebration at all, deleting the entire processional to the water spring when describing the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah, eliminating portions of the Mishnah that describe the shofar-blowing and procession, leaving only the dancing, the fire, and the song! Instead, he teaches us that the celebration is derived from the celebration of the lulav and etrog—“v’samachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem shiv’a yamim,” omitting any reference to water-drawing.
Rav Soloveitchik and other Acharonim, including the Emek Bracha, HaRav Aryeh Pomerantz, z’l, of Petach Tikvah, conclude that the nisuch ha’mayim and the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah are entirely difference aspects of the yom tov. Nisuch ha’mayim is part of the avodah, the Temple service, and its processional and accompanied shofar blasts are dictated Temple ritual, whereas the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah is merely the songs, festivities, and circuslike atmosphere, led by none other than the greatest rabbis of the generation accompanied by music and dance.
This is because what we are truly celebrating is the fact that the Jewish people and Hashem have reunited themselves after a period of teshuvah, culminating in Yom Kippur, which was the “remarriage” of Hashem and the Jewish people after the disastrous sin of the Golden Calf. It was only on Yom Kippur that they received their wedding gift, i.e., the new set of Luchot, that Moshe received as the result of their process of teshuvah.
So, Sukkot and its Beit HaShoeivah represent the return of the Shechinah, the Divine reunion of Klal Yisrael and Hashem’s presence within our midst, a celebration of a remarriage and a renewal of the light of Torah into our lives.
This answers several of our questions. At a marriage, we perform all sorts of stunts to bring joy to the bride and groom—in this case, Hashem and the Jewish people. And one would insist that men, women, and children all be present at marriage festivities, as has been our custom throughout the generations.
This also explains the great oil lamps, fueled by olive oil, the source of wisdom, and lit with wicks made from the belt and trousers of the kohanim, representing the conquest of our lower selves, i.e., the yetzer ha’ra, in favor of the holy light of Torah study and observance. This light was extended to each Jewish family, including each and every courtyard, who benefited from this light and were thereby included in the great moment of reconciliation that the sukkah represents.
This approach also explains why it was never called “The Celebration of the Water-Drawing” (sho’eivat v’nisuch ha’mayim), but rather “The House of Drawing” (Beit HaShoeivah). Tosafot (50b), quoting the Yerushalmi, says this refers to the drawing not of water, but of the Divine light of the Shechinah, ruach ha’kodesh, spirit of prophecy. This is reminiscent of the amud ha’eish that illuminated the way for Klal Yisrael on their journey through the desert, which is the source for the sukkah.
The elaborate musical and acrobatic stunts were meant to evoke joy with the light of Torah, for the Shechinah only dwells in a place of joy, as it says: “As he was playing his instrument, the spirit of G‑d came upon him.”
Now we can understand why the greatest rabbis of the generation, in wedding-like fashion, did stunts of great athleticism to add to the simchat chattan v’kallah.
But it goes even deeper. The Shechinah is what powers Jewish wisdom, Jewish prowess, and success in every area of endeavor. The Shechinah brings with it multiple blessings and empowers the Jewish people to overcome all obstacles and subdue all enemies. It is the source of our strength, it is the source of our power, and it is the fuel that burns brightly within each Jewish soul.
This last year saw a worldwide effort, led by our implacable foes, here in Eretz Yisrael, the so-called Palestinians, to claim both Har HaBayit as well as kivrei avot in Hebron, as their legacy and their unique connection to G‑d. As we all go about our chol ha’moed celebrations, I hope that we keep front and center where our very life-force energy and any hope for our future emerge from. They were juggling a lot more than torches; they were showing us that without the deep connection to the Torah and the desire for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, Klal Yisrael will continue to experience a type of collective darkness.
This Sukkot, it is especially important that we remember that the Beit HaMikdash and specifically Har HaBayit is the life-force energy of the Jewish people and that they cannot ever be separated from it.
Rabbi Yaacov Schwartz, formerly of Lawrence, is a popular Torah teacher, rabbi, and therapist in Israel based in Ramat Bet Shemesh. For links to his articles and Torah videos, contact him at rjyschwartz@Gmail.com.