The Water Drawing Ceremony
One of the most joyful celebrations in Israel was the Drawing of the Water during Sukkot. The Sages noted that "Whoever never witnessed the Simchat Beit Hashoeva has never in his life seen true joy." They have left us wonderful descriptions of the scenes that inspire us with longing to witness it once again.
How was the ceremony conducted? A golden container was filled with water drawn from the pools at Siloam in Jerusalem. When the water carriers reached the Water Gate, they blew three notes on the shofar.
On the right side of the ramp leading to the altar, there were two silver bowls, each with a hole shaped like a narrow spout, one wider than the other. One bowl stood to the east and the other to the west. The shapes of the bowls allowed them to be emptied simultaneously. (The wider spouted bowl held wine, which flows more slowly than water.)
As the evenings of the festival approached, the people made their way down to the Court of the Women. There were golden candlesticks, fifty cubits high, with four gold bowls atop them. Four ladders led to the top of each candlestick, and four young kohanim mounted the ladders, holding in their hands large jars of oil which they poured into the golden bowls. Wicks to light the oil were made from worn-out clothing of the kohanim, and when the candlesticks were lit, the light glowed through out the entire city of Jerusalem.
The greatest Sages and tzadikim would participate joyfully in the celebration, performing the most extraordinary feats. Some of them would bear burning torches in their hands while singing Psalms and other praises of G-d. The Levites would play many various musical instruments, including harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets as they stood on the fifteen steps which led down from the Court of Women in the Holy Temple.
Two kohanim were stationed at the Upper Gate of the Temple, holding trumpets in their hands. As the roosters crowed the first light of dawn, they blasted their trumpets, and as they ascended the steps, they blew two additional rounds of tekiah's. They continued walking until they reached the gate which led to the east, whereupon they turned to face the west and uttered the words: "We belong to G-d and our eyes are turned to G-d."
The Sages relate that when the great Sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel rejoiced at the water festival, he would juggle with eight lighted torches, tossing them into the air, catching one and then throwing another, so that they never touched each other. He would also prostrate himself on the ground, bend down, doing a head-stand, kiss the ground and draw himself up again, a feat which no one else could do.
The Talmud relates many of these displays of prowess which the Sages performed at the Simchat Beit Hashoeva. They record that Reb Levi used to juggle in the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi with eight knives. Shmuel would do the same with eight glasses of wine, without spilling any of their contents. Rabbi Abaye would juggle before Rabbi Rabba with eight (or some say, four) eggs.
It is written in the name of Rabbi ben Chanania, "When we used to rejoice at the place of the water-drawing, our eyes saw no sleep." It is explained that the entire day was occupied with holy activities, so that the participants in the simcha were busy from day to night.
In the morning the sacrifice was brought, followed by prayers, and then an additional sacrifice. Then they would study Torah and eat breakfast. Afternoon prayer was following by the evening sacrifice and then the water-drawing festivities commenced.
The celebration of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva continued throughout the entire night, lighting up the city so brilliantly that there was no courtyard in Jerusalem which didn't reflect the light of the great candlesticks which illumined the Festival of the Water-Drawing.