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The Festival of the Water Libation

The Festival of the Water Libation


One of the main aspects of the holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles) is the Biblical commandment, "And you shall be glad on your holiday, and you shall be only joyful" (Deut. 16:14). Indeed, the pilgrims who arrived in Jerusalem at the Temple's courtyard came to rejoice. The focus of this rejoicing was the ceremony surrounding the commandment to pour water on the altar - the water libation. During this event, which mainly took place in the Women's Court, the levites and played on many musical instruments.

The sages of Israel testify to the celebrations of the water libation from the days of the Second Temple, describing the great joy of the ceremony:


"Whoever has not seen the celebration of the water libation has never experienced the feeling of true joy - great lamps of gold were hoisted, with four golden bowls at the top of each lamp. Four young priests-in-training would climb to the top, carrying immense oil jugs with which they would fill the bowls. Once lighted, there was not a courtyard in all of Jerusalem that did not glow with the light that emanated from the celebration in the Temple courtyard.

As the people sang, the righteous and pious men would dance before them while juggling flaming torches. The levites, standing on the fifteen steps that descend from the Court of Israel to the Women's Court, played on lyres, harps, trumpets and many other instruments. Two priests who blew silver trumpets stood at the top of the stairs on either side of the entrance to the great gate of the Court.

All this was done to honor the commandment of the water libation."

(based on Mishna, Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 5)


There were so many precious commandments to be fulfilled in the Holy Temple during the holiday of Sukkot, and they were so time-consuming, the Talmud notes that there was practically no time left for sleeping!

"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanina said: During the days of the water libation ceremony, we barely got to sleep at all. The first hour of the day saw us attending to the daily offering; following this we were engaged in prayer - afterwards, the additional offering. Then we ate, and it already became time to attend to the afternoon service. And this was followed by the celebration of the festival of the water libation, which lasted the entire night, and we would begin again" (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5).

Men, women and children participated in the immense joy of the water libation - some directly, while others stood and watched. Special elevated balconies were constructed to enable the righteous women of Israel to watch the wise men of the Sanhedrin as they danced.

At dawn, the assembly proceeded with melody and song to the spring of Shiloach, at the foot of the walls of Jerusalem. One priest carried with him a special golden decanter and filled it with the sparkling spring water. Then the congregation ascended again to the Temple, led by the priest who bore the golden vessel. Arriving at the Temple, he brought the decanter up to the altar, and poured the water into the silver cup at its corner.

This ceremony is connected to the rainfall of the coming year, and it was accompanied by yearning and prayers for blessing on the earth and its produce. On a deeper level, it was also directly connected to the reception of prophetic inspiration.




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