WATER-DRAWING, FEAST OF ( ):
At the morning service on each of the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) a libation of water was made together with the pouring out of wine (Suk. iv. 1; Yoma 26b), the water being drawn from the Pool of Siloam in a golden ewer of the capacity of three logs. It was borne in solemn procession to the water-gate of the Temple, where the train halted while on the Shofar was blown "teḳi'ah, teru'ah, teḳi'ah." The procession then ascended the "kebesh," or slanting bridge to the altar, toward the left, where stood on the east side of the altar a silver bowl for the water and on the west another for the wine, both having snout-like openings, that in the vessel for the wine being somewhat the larger. Both libations were poured out simultaneously (Suk. iv. 9).A Mosaic Tradition.
Although there was no direct Mosaic law for the libation of water, it was claimed by R. Neḥunya of Beth-horon that the ordinance was a Mosaic tradition (Zeb. 110a), while R. Akiba deduced a Mosaic intimation ("remez") of the tradition from the plural form "u-nesakeha" ("drink-offerings"; Num. xxix, 31). R. Judah b. Bathyra drew a similar inference from the spellings and as compared with the usual , and as compared with (Num. xxix. 30, 31, 33), the superfluous letters forming ("water"; Shab. 103b); and R. 'Ena confirmed the tradition by quoting Isa. xii. 3: "Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Suk. 48b). The treatise Sukkah also explains the offering as made in order that the rainy season, which begins at that time of the year, may be abundant (comp. R. H. i. 2, 16a; Ta'an. 2b).Becomes a Favorits Rite.
Why the Rabbis laid such stress on the water-libation is not clear, unless there were weighty reasons which have not been recorded. It may have been emphasized to counteract the Gentile practise of offering wine only; or it may even have been intended as a temperance lesson. At all events, the Sadducees were strongly opposed to this interpretation of the Law, so that on one occasion Alexander Jannæus poured the water on his feet instead of on the altar, thus affronting the Pharisaic sympathies of the people so bitterly that they threw at him the etrogim which they carried in celebration and nearly killed him, and the priest was accordingly required thenceforth to raise his hand when he poured out the water at the libation that his offering might be seen by all (Suk. 48b). To express their contempt of the Sadducees on the one hand and to strengthen their own position on the other, the Rabbis embellished the libation of water with so much ceremony that it became a favorite and distinctive rite on these occasions. On the night of the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles the outer court of the Temple was brilliantly illuminated with four golden lamps, each containing 120 logs of oil, in which were burning the old girdles and garments of the priests (Shab. 21a; Yoma 23a). These lamps were placed on high pedestals which were reached by ladders; and special galleries were erected in the court for the accommodation of women, while the men below held torches in their hands, sang hymns, and danced.On the fifteen steps of the Gate of Nicanor stood the Levites, chanting the fifteen "songs of degrees" (Ps. cxx.-cxxxiv.) to the accompaniment of their instruments, of which the most important was the "ḥalil," or flute, although it was used neither on the Sabbath nor on the first day of the feast (Suk. v. 1). The illumination, which was like a sea of fire, lit up every nook and corner of Jerusalem, and was so bright that in any part of the city a woman could pick wheat from the chaff. Whosoever did not see this celebration never saw a real one (Suk. 53a). Hillel the Elder encouraged general rejoicing and participated in the celebration that all might follow his example, while R. Simeon b. Gamaliel juggled with eight torches, throwing them in the air and catching them again, thus showing his joy at the feast. R. Joshua b. Hananiah states that the festival was celebrated throughout the night with songs, music, shouting, clapping of hands, jumping, and dancing.
After the destruction of the Temple the libation of water, being a portion of the sacrifice, was discontinued; but the custom of rejoicing was retained for some one day of the Feast of Sukkot other than the Sabbath or a full holy day. No "'am ha-areẓ" was permitted to join the celebration, although he was allowed to look on. Probably the ceremony originally included a symbolic form of prayer for rain in the winter season (see Zech. xiv. 16-19).
The feast of water-drawing is now celebrated in the bet ha-midrash on any night other than Friday in the middle of Sukkot. At Jerusalem each night of the semiholy days is observed in the bet ha-midrash or in the synagogue by chanting the fifteen "shire ha-ma'alot" and appropriate Bible verses, while the Sephardim have special piyyuṭim. After the service small parties are formed, and engage in feasting, singing, and dancing till midnight (Luncz, "Jerusalem," i. 40). In his "Die Eleusinischen Mysterien im Tempel von Jerusalem" (in Hungarian, in "Magyar-Zsidó Szemle," xii. 213; idem, in "Populär-Wissenschaftliche Monatsblätter," xvii. 121) L. Venetianer endeavors to prove that the feast of water-drawing bears traces of Greek influence.