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Why We Celebrate Water on Sukkot

September 4, 2013

“My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.”

-Wendell Berry

Water plays an important part in the story of the Jewish people symbolically, spiritually and historically. Water, rain and floods have a spiritual and historical meaning. Water symbolizes rebirth, starting anew and spiritual cleansing. In the story of our collective beginnings as a people, water wiped out an entire population so God could repopulate the earth with people who behaved in a more ethical way. The mikveh (ritual bath) is a means used for people who are converting to Judaism to symbolize the entry into a new state of being—Jewish. Our prophet Miriam, Moses’ sister, is associated with water: A legend surrounds her about a well that accompanied the Israelites through the desert which gave the people sustenance during their 40-year journey. Water also has significant meaning associated with our upcoming fall holiday of Sukkot.

The festival of Sukkot is closely linked with water and with rainfall. Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh regalim), along with Passover and Shavuot, which have their origins in the Bible and in the agricultural traditions of the Jewish people. The holiday commemorates the autumn harvest, and as with many of our Jewish holidays, additional pieces to the meaning of Sukkot have been sewn into the tapestry of what makes our holiday celebrations so rich with meaning and ritual. In order for the harvest to be successful, the right amount of rain had to fall. Water takes a “starring role” in the liturgy, the observance and the biblical origins of the festival of Sukkot.

Rain and the pleas for it to fall are a critical part of the observance of this holiday. The words “Mashiv HaRuah U'Morid Ha'Gashem" ([God] causes the wind to blow and makes the rain fall) is an extra line that is added to our central prayer in our worship services—the Amidah—after the final day of this eight-day holiday. It is then said as an extra line in this central prayer of our service for the next six months until the holiday of Passover.

This period of time is considered the rainy season. Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season. Our ancestors lived in an agrarian society and their livelihood was dependent on the rain falling. That rain was needed for the fall harvest and it needed to be just the right amount: sufficient for the flourishing of the crop, but not too excessive to cause flooding. According to traditional Judaism, Sukkot is the time of year in which God judges the world for rainfall; therefore, praying for rain was essential not only for the harvest but also for the sake of God’s judgment.

To mark the significance of rain and for the gratitude of receiving it, there is a little-known celebration during Sukkot called Simchat Beit Hashueva, (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing) which originated thousands of years ago when the Temple in Jerusalem stood. An offering of water was poured onto the altar of the Temple. The pouring was celebrated with much fanfare and it occurred every evening during the intermediate days of Sukkot. Great lights illuminated the area of the Temple, and there was a festival atmosphere with singing, dancing and performing. An entire week of celebration was devoted to water and the antics went on through the night.

It is written in the Talmud that the world is judged by its rainfall on Sukkot and an offering is brought so that the rains for the coming year will be blessed. Today, this same type of celebration continues in many traditional communities. There is dancing and music and joy as the members of the community celebrate not only the joyousness of the holiday of Sukkot (it is also referred to as Zman Simchateinu—The Season of Our Joy), but also the importance of recalling the rejoicing of the water offering ceremony.

Water: source of life, basis for ritual and prayer, cause for celebration. During Sukkot, we celebrate our abundant blessings, by praying and giving thanks for that which has grown from the land with the help of Mayim (water), providing Hayim (life) to all.
 

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Tefilat Amidah, Hebrew for "The Standing Prayer," is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. It is recited during every prayer service. Traditionally it's recited individually in silence, then repeated aloud as a congregation; some congregations omit the silent recitation and/or abbreviate the repetition. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher.
Nancy Seifert Gorod

Nancy Seifert Gorod is the Chief Provider of Life Long Learning at Your Jewish Life: customized learning to meet your needs. She provides direct instruction, connection and resources for families and individuals who are looking to expand, deepen or broaden their Jewish experience. She believes that much more can be discovered when families learn together and have meaningful conversations as they unpack and uncover their beliefs together. She resides in Marietta, GA with her husband Randy, her two children, Natan and Ilana, and her challah-loving dog, Cousy.

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