For 7/17 - 7/20

Good morning Chevra,

The fifth Perek of Sukkah deals with a ceremony and celebration that that were marked by an over-the-top enthusiastic spirit and and by a deeply enigmatic historical origin. The celebration called "Simchat Bet HaSho'evah" was ultimately about the ceremonious pouring of water upon the mizbe'ach (altar) on each of the mornings of Sukkot. The text of the Mishnayot (2-4) describe the over-the-top spirit of revelry that carried on the entire night until the time came in the morning to draw and ultimately pour the water. The Gemara struggles and ultimately does not succeed in finding a source in the Torah for the water libation practice, and as the Gemara details, the non-rabbinic Sadducee Jews steadfastly refused to recognize its legitimacy. It is logical to assume that the extreme celebration of the water libation in rabbinic (i.e. Mishnaic) circles was something that was davka intended to reinforce the practice's legitimacy.

While the connection between water and Sukkot is easy enough to surmise (the critical rainy season begins just after Sukkot, bringing with it the desire for God's blessing), one can still wonder as to specific significance of pouring water over the altar. Though I cannot prove it, I have a hunch that the inspiration might be the story of Eliyahu at Har HaCarmel (Kings I, Perek 18). In that story Eliyahu famously challenges the Israelite prophets of Ba'al to a duel of sorts, one which would reveal whether Ba'al or God possessed the power to bring desperately-needed rain. When it comes Eliyahu's turn to entreat his God, his entreaty includes his pouring (shockingly) large quantities of scarce water on the altar that he has built. And while the purpose of Eliyahu's "libation" is in some ways specific to that story, Eliyahu establishes a model for using a water libation as both a means of beseeching God for rain, and also a means of dissuading Israel from beseeching false gods to do the same.

Now, take a peek at the peculiar and unusual end of Mishna 4. Doesn't it sound like there had been, at some previous time, some sort of (obviously improper) sun-worshipping practice that had been connected to the beginning of the rainy season that our religious leaders are here trying to emphatically extinguish once and for all? And who better than Eliyahu to turn to for inspiration? I think this is an intriguing piece of the puzzle.

(Just thinking about Rambam's insistence in the Moreh Nevuchim that numerous Mitzvot were intended to extinguish heathen practices that were threatening to enter our worship of God, and the possible connection between this and the use here of the term "Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai....)

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