Emor–Drawing Water with Joy

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of a stately tree, fronds of palm trees, and a branch of a leafy tree, and willows of the brook, and  you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.”  (Lev. 23:40)

The joy that is enjoined on Sukkoth was underscored in Temple times by a ritual water libation that was performed every day except the first day of the festival and Shabbat.   The ritual became elaborated into a colorful, joyous, even riotous celebration called simchat beit ha-sho’eivah, “the rejoicing at the place of the water drawing.”  The Talmud describes the ceremony in detail (Sukkah 51a-b), including a portrait of venerable sages juggling lighted torches and performing somersaults as part of the celebration. The Talmud states, “he who has not seen the rejoicing of the place of the water drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.”

The Temple Scroll (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) also establishes annual Festivals of New Wine, Fresh Oil, and Wood.  To be sure, we don’t know if the Temple Scroll had any authority when it came to actual Temple practice, or if any of these festivals were ever observed.  But these celebrations are consistent with the celebration of water described above, and suggest that Second Temple rituals cultivated a strong appreciation for the natural gifts that made life and worship possible.

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