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One of the most outstanding observances of the holiday of Succos in the time of the Holy Temple was the ceremony in which water was drawn from an underground spring to be poured on the altar in connection with the holiday sacrifices. This water-drawing was considered so auspicious an event that it was conducted with unbounded joy and celebration, known as the simchas beis hashoeva, the celebration of the water-drawing chamber. The Talmud relates that in addition to singing and dancing, the greatest saints and sages of Israel would juggle fire and perform other tricks in expression of their indescribable exultation. The Talmud sums it up with the statement, “Whoever has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing chamber has never witnessed joy in his life.”

Even today, although, alas, we no longer are able to pour water on the altar in the Holy Temple (may it be rebuilt with the immediate coming of the Messiah), we still joyously commemorate the water-drawing ceremony with exuberant singing and dancing on the holiday of Succos. In fact, the entire holiday is so thoroughly bound up with the theme of sheer, uncontainable joy that the Torah refers to it by the phrase, “the season of our rejoicing.”

Why is it that the water-drawing ceremony is considered such an incredibly joyous occasion? What, after all, is the reason for all that celebration?

Another interesting point that wants clarification: The pouring of water on the altar, a ritual performed only on the holiday of Succos, may be contrasted with the practice – observed throughout the year, including on Succos – of pouring wine on the altar. The commandment to pour wine on the altar is expressly mentioned in the Torah in several places, while the commandment of pouring water on Succos was orally transmitted from G-d to Moses at Mount Sinai (see Talmud, Succah 34a; Zevachim 110b), but is not expressly written in the Torah. Why should this be so?

To understand both of the above questions, we must examine the underlying spiritual significance of both the wine-pouring and the water-pouring.

(Before doing so, it is desirable to clarify a fundamental point of Jewish philosophy: G-d is, of course, one and indivisible. Yet we frequently find, especially in mystical sources, references to this “part” of G-d or that “part” of G-d, or statements to the effect that certain aspects of our worship reflect and connect us with particular “levels” of G-d. What is the meaning of this?

The answer is that G-d, although essentially unknowable, desired to reveal Himself to us to the extent we mortals can grasp, and to make this possible, He created us from the start in such a way as to mirror Himself. The idea is that, by Torah-guided contemplation of our own makeup, which is basically an analogy to G-d, we can come to appreciate, to some extent, something of G-d Himself. This is the inner meaning of the statement that G-d created Mankind “in His image,” and of the verse “From my flesh, I perceive G-d.”

In this case, the following analogy (though necessarily inexact) may help us to understand the idea of different “levels” of G-d:

A human being is one individual, to be sure, but a multifarious individual nonetheless. Each person has many different aspects to his or her personality, a whole range of likes and dislikes, emotions and attributes that, together, make up the whole. Yet clearly, they are all part of a single, undivided person. And on a deeper level, we can speak of a person as having a single core, an elusive point, which is the very essence of their personality – their very “self.” At this level, everything comes together, or more accurately, everything else proceeds from this point, but the indefinable point of the “self” cannot be divided into different parts. When considered from someone else’s perspective, an individual’s various personality traits are a part of that individual. However, from the internal perspective of the person’s own inner “self,” his or her very “soul,” each individual personality trait – generosity or stinginess, intelligence or dullness – is by no means the definition of the person, of the soul, but a mere manifestation or outward reflection thereof. That “point of self” remains indivisible.

What is more, a person’s various emotions and character traits are not all equal. Although they coexist within the person at the same time, some are relatively superficial aspects of the personality, while others – closer, as it were, to the core, to the “self” – are deeper. Any given act a person does may be said to have been motivated by a particular “level” of the personality. For example, a person may enjoy skiing, but this activity, and the appreciation of it, are relatively superficial aspects of a person’s total character. Or, a student may be worried about an upcoming test, and devote much time and energy to preparing for it. This activity is motivated by a concern which is deeper rooted within the person than their enjoyment of skiing, as evidenced by the fact that the student will, if necessary, forgo a skiing trip in order to study. And, if the person learns that a sick friend is calling for them from the sickbed, they will respond from deeper still within themselves, even neglecting their study in order to care for the friend.

G-d created us in this way to reflect the way He relates to us. G-d, although indeed one and indivisible, has chosen to manifest Himself to the universe (similar to the way in which a person’s personality traits manifest aspects of the person’s inner self) on a number of levels, and the above analogy helps us to comprehend something of how this works. It also helps illustrate how we can “tap into” various levels of G-dliness through performance of mitzvos.

Human nature is such that when one individual does another a favor or some other positive act, the recipient automatically feels closer, warmer, toward their friend. Not only that, but the extent of the “good vibrations” that the second person has toward the first is determined by the particular favor or positive act that was done to begin with. If the first person lent the second a pencil, the borrower might feel warm toward him or her; if A lent B money in time of need, certainly B’s natural feelings of warmth and appreciation would well up from a deeper level of B’s personality; and in both of these cases the good will evoked would be relatively superficial compared to the overwhelming feeling of closeness that would result if the first person had saved the other’s very life. Our relationship with G-d is similar, in that whenever a Jewish person performs a mitzvah, he or she brings G-d closer to him or her. Not only that, but each specific mitzvah evokes a response from G-d on a particular spiritual level. (Indeed, the very word “mitzvah” is etymologically related to the word tzavsa, connection, since doing mitzvos connects the worshipper and G-d.) Not only does performing a mitzvah evoke a positive response from G-d generally, but the “depth” – allegorically speaking – of G-d’s “warm feelings” depends upon the individual mitzvah that was done and the manner in which it was performed. It has been revealed to us in the Torah that certain mitzvos “reach” a deeper level, so to speak, of G-d’s “personality,” are closer to His Essence, than others, and evoke a response from those levels.

And now, armed with this insight into mitzvos in general, we can go on to examine the mitzvos of water- and wine-drawing in particular.)

Two characteristics of wine are that, in the words of Scripture (Judges 9: ), it “gladdens G-d and men; and that, as the Talmud says (Sanhedrin 38a), “When wine goes in, secrets come out.” These two qualities – inducing joy and revealing secrets – are related, because the spiritual source of wine (the qualities of which physical wine mirrors) is the Divine attribute of Bina, “Understanding.”

As explained above, this term does not mean that G-d has a mind and “understands” things; rather, it is a metaphor intended to convey a spiritual concept.

There is a certain lofty spiritual level of G-dly manifestation in which G-dly revelation is present and complete, but so rarified and exalted as to remain beyond our ability to fully perceive; this is analogous to that human intellectual stage wherein the germ of an idea has manifested itself within the person’s consciousness, but, though the idea is all there, it is still not quite within their grasp. This stage (both the spiritual and its human counterpart) is known as chochma, which is usually translated “wisdom” but technically refers to this capacity to conceive new ideas.

(Note that the source of the idea – the place, so to speak, from which it popped into the person’s mind – is utterly unknowable. This too is associated with a spiritual level, that of kesser, “crown,” so named because, like a crown, it sits above the person’s head or intellect.)

The next “lower” level of G-dly manifestation in the order that G-d, in His mysterious wisdom, has chosen to utilize is analogous to the human faculty of “understanding.” This intellectual faculty is that which contemplates chochma’s unformed germ of an idea, plumbing its ramifications until the idea, previously elusive and inarticulable, is fully developed. Likewise, there is a level of Divine manifestation whose place is just below chochma (the highest level) in the hierarchy, as it were, of progressive degrees by which G-dliness is transmitted to the world. (Although we said above that there exists a level, kesser, superior even to chochma, chochma is called the “highest” level in this hierarchy because kesser transcends the whole concept of progressive transmission into this world.) This next spiritual level, at which G-d manifests Himself in a manner more accessible to us (as if the concentrated “germ” or “point” of G-dliness of the chochma stage were opened up and “fleshed out” so that we can fully comprehend it) is called bina, “understanding.”

(There are, below bina, another eight progressively “lower” degrees of Divine manifestation, culminating with malchus, G-d’s attribute of “sovereignty.”)

Not only did G-d make Mankind in His image, but also everything in the universe is derived from some spiritual level which it mirrors and to which it hints in its physical manifestation. To return to wine, the reason it both makes people glad and brings out their innermost secrets is that it mirrors the spiritual characteristics of its heavenly source and “model,” the Divine attribute of bina, which reveals the previously hidden secrets concealed within chochma. And that is also why it brings joy: joy results from revelation of the previously concealed. Consider how a human being reacts upon finally attaining a true understanding of a subject which had eluded him or her. Intellectual satisfaction, indeed, actual exultation, does not come from knowing that “I’ve got the right idea somewhere in there,” but from finally mastering and thoroughly understanding it. Wine, which symbolizes the spiritual attribute of bina, thus reflects that attribute’s quality of bringing out the hidden, as well as the resulting joy, by causing the same effects in its material form.

This is one mystical interpretation of the verse (   ) “The mother of the children rejoices”: for reasons explained elsewhere, bina is also called “mother,” and the verse is thus a reference to the fact that rejoicing is associated with bina.

For all that bina is associated with revelation, however, it is, from another perspective, referred to (see Zohar I, 153b; 154; and elsewhere) as alma d’iskasya, the realm of concealment. This is because, concealed within bina is the expression of that transcendent and unknowable level, kesser. Kesser, although the source of the ideas which spring into chochma, cannot be said to be truly expressed in chochma because, as explained above, on the level of chochma the concept is not quite within the person’s grasp. It is only on the level of bina, understanding, that what originated in kesser is fully brought out.

(And in fact, that is another reason bina is associated with joy: it is the expression of kesser, which is compared to “pleasure” or “delight” because those qualities, like kesser itself, transcend reason. (There is no logical reason why one person likes chocolate and another vanilla, for example.))

While the wine was being poured on the altar in the Holy Temple, the leviyim (Levites) would sing songs of praise to G-d. This is appropriate, for, as discussed, wine represents revelation of the hidden, and the leviyim’s function included bringing that level of kesser implicit within bina to explicit revelation. This is hinted at in the verse (Numbers 18:23) “and the Levite, he shall do….” The Hebrew word for “he” (hu) may be understood as a mystical reference to atik yomin, a spiritual level within kesser so lofty it cannot be expressed by name, and is only known as “he.” (The phrase “atik yomin,” which means “Ancient of Days,” is merely a descriptive term, not a proper name.) In that sense, the verse should be read, “and the Levite should ‘do’ (i.e., accomplish or bring out) the level of ‘he’.” And this was done with song and sound, which is also a symbol for openness and revelation (noise is inconsistent with inconspicuous hiding), while pouring the wine.

The singing of the Levites also represents the difference between the degree of joy associated with the pouring of the wine that took place throughout the year, and the increased level of joy attendant upon the wine-pouring on the holidays – especially the holiday of Succos. A person can be joyous, but not to a degree obvious to those around him or her. Their joy can be contained. But there is a point beyond which the person can no longer contain their happiness, and they cannot keep from singing and dancing, clapping, etc. One may say they are “overjoyed.” Succos is “the season of our rejoicing,” and the degree of joy brought about by the wine-pouring was even greater at that time; it is this which is hinted at by the song and commotion of the Levites.

To summarize the rather technical points above: wine symbolizes the spiritual attribute of bina, a high level of Divine manifestation. Wine therefore has the qualities of gladdening and of bringing out secrets, since these are also qualities of bina. Generally speaking, the service of the pouring of the wine brought about a manifestation of the Divine attribute of bina. The wine-pouring was associated with the Levites and with song, since both of these also have aspects of revelation about them

On the other hand, on Succos they also poured water on the altar. This symbolizes the Divine attribute of chochma, which, as explained above, is much higher than the spiritual level of bina. That is why the water ceremony was associated with the kohanim (temple priests): whereas the Levite function was to arouse the people and elevate them to a higher spiritual level – a mode of worship that may be described as proceeding “from below upwards” – the priestly function was to serve as a conduit for G-d’s blessings as they were transmitted to the people, “from on high downwards.” Water represents this, as evidenced by its natural tendency to flow as far down as it can reach. (Perhaps the scientific expression, “water seeks its own level” is an expression of this.)

Additionally, the kohanim’s service was conducted in silence, representative of concealment – an attribute of chochma – as opposed to sound like the Levites’ service, which represented bina.

And just as the kohanim were superior to the leviyim (as the Torah says (Numbers 18:2), “and they [the Levites] will be joined to you [the kohanim] and minister to you”), so was the pouring of water on the altar superior – drawing down a far greater spiritual level, that of chochma – to the pouring of the wine, which drew down bina.

With the above in mind, we can also appreciate why the wine-pouring was expressly written in the Torah, whereas the water-pouring was not.

The “Written Torah,” or Tanach (comprised of the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographa) was composed by G-d in such a way that every single letter (and even the calligraphic flourishes on the letters) represents untold mysteries and lofty spiritual meaning. For this reason, Jewish law is very explicit that in a Torah scroll, each individual letter must be correct. In this context, the written Torah is associated with the Divine attribute of bina, which also is characterized by expression in letters. (For example, when an idea is still in the tenuous chochma stage, it cannot be articulated, even within one’s own mind – it is incapable of expression in words and letters, even in thought – but when it has been brought down to the level of bina, understanding, it can be put into words.)

In the Oral Torah (comprising the entire corpus of Torah knowledge, for example, the mishna and Talmud, which was originally intended to be transmitted orally and was only put into writing to avoid its loss due to Jewish persecution), by contrast, the specific letters or text that one uses in studying a given point is not so important; it’s the intellectual analysis and comprehension of the idea that counts. This focus on the intellect and the idea itself, as opposed to the letters, is indicative of the fact that in this respect, the Oral Torah is associated with chochma. The spiritual reason behind the Oral Torah’s unwritten form is that it is an expression of a spiritual level so lofty that it cannot be put into words, cannot be contained within letters.

This is the meaning of the expression (Shir Hashirim Rabba I), “The words of the Scribes [a name for the Sages of the Oral Torah] are sweeter to Me [G-d] than even the wine of Torah.” As noted above, the Written Torah is associated with bina, which, as has been explained, is symbolized by wine; the phrase “the wine of Torah” thus refers to the Written Torah generally. The above quote, implying therefore that the Oral Torah (“the words of the Scribes”) is dearer to G-d, in a manner of speaking, than the Written Torah, is explained by recalling that the Oral Torah descends from the level of G-d’s chochma, a far loftier spiritual level than that of bina, the source (in this context) of the Written Torah.

And this is why the pouring of the water on Succos engendered such unbounded, indescribable joy. The revelation of the level of bina is inherently joyous, to be sure, and, as noted above, was carried out with song. But on Succos we experience, through the water pouring on the altar, an otherwise impossible level of G-dly revelation: the spiritual level of chochma, essentially incapable of open revelation, is nevertheless miraculously bestowed upon us on Succos. This causes a degree of joy utterly beyond boundaries, to the point where, as our sages said, “Whoever has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing chamber has never witnessed joy in his life.”

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin