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Zev Farber





ניסוך המים a Sukkot Rain Making Ritual





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Zev Farber





ניסוך המים a Sukkot Rain Making Ritual








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ניסוך המים a Sukkot Rain Making Ritual

The Rabbis describe how the ritual of ניסוך המים (water libation), which they believed was to have occurred every Sukkot in the Temple, was a point of contention between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but why was it so contentious and what was at stake in its performance?


ניסוך המים a Sukkot Rain Making Ritual

Jerusalem bird’s eye view from west to north-east. Wikimedia

Part 1

Water Libation: A Contentious Ritual

Introduction: ניסוך המים כיצד

The Mishna (Sukkah, ch. 4) describes the Temple ritual of ניסוך המים, the water libation,[1] that was supposed to have occurred at the Temple from the second day of Sukkot through the seventh day. According to the Mishna’s description, water would be collected from the Siloam Spring, and brought by procession through the Water Gate and into the Temple, where the priest would pour the water into a vessel with two compartments, one for the water and the other holding wine. Then both liquids would be libated upon the altar at the same time. (See the Appendix for full text and translation.)

The Priest who Poured out the Libated Water

The Mishna ends with a strange tale.

ולמנסך אומרין לו: הגבה את ידך שפעם אחת ניסך על רגליו ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהם:
And to the one who pours out the water libation they would say, “Lift up your hand [so that we can see the water pouring out]!” For once [a priest] poured the water on his feet,[2] and the entire populace pelted him with their citrons.[3]

Why would the priest have poured the water out on his feet?

Other versions of this story in rabbinic literature fill in details.

Tosefta Sukkah 3:16 Bavli Sukkah 48b
שכבר היה מעשה בביתסי אחד שניסך על רגליו ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהן.
מעשה בצדוקי אחד שניסך [או: שהיה מנסך][4] על גבי רגליו, ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהן.
For it once happened that a Boethesian [priest] poured [the water] on his feet, and the entire populace pelted him with their citrons. It happened that a Sadducee [priest] poured [or: was pouring] [the water] on his feet, and the entire populace pelted him with their citrons.

Although the two sources do not agree on the identity of the culprit (Boethesian or Sadducee), they both describe the “rogue priest” as being a sectarian,[5] who, according to rabbinic interpretation, did not believe that the water libation ritual was legitimate, seemingly because it is never mentioned in the Torah, but is only part of the oral Torah (more on this in section 3).[6]

Using an Infamous Etrog Pelting Story

In telling the story of the sabotaged water libation, the rabbis likely made use of an older story about King Alexander Yannai as their template. This story appears twice in Josephus, once in The Jewish War and again in the Antiquities of the Jews. The similarity between the telling in Antiquities (13:372) and the rabbinic tale is striking.[7]

As to Alexander, his own people were seditious against him; for at a festival which was then celebrated, when he stood upon the altar, and was going to sacrifice, the nation rose upon him, and pelted him with citrons [which they then had in their hands, because] the law of the Jews required that at the feast of Tabernacles every one should have branches of the palm tree and citron tree; which thing we have elsewhere related. They also reviled him, as derived from a captive, and so unworthy of his dignity and of sacrificing. At this he was in a rage, and slew of them about six thousand. He also built a partition-wall of wood round the altar and the temple, as far as that partition within which it was only lawful for the priests to enter, and by this means he obstructed the multitude from coming at him.

The text concerns normal sacrifice, not water libation. According to Josephus, the Jews are being seditious because they do not approve of Yannai’s governance. Moreover, they believe he is unfit to be a priest since he was once a captive. The similarities between Josephus’ account and the rabbinic tale, nevertheless, suggest that the rabbis recast the story found in Josephus about Yannai being pelted by citrons on Sukkot.

Part 2

Water Libation in the Torah

That the rabbis felt threatened by the clear lack of scriptural support for this practice motivated them to counter that “water libation is in the Torah.”[8] This is first attested in Sifrei Numbers 150 (ca. 3rd cent. C.E.):

Three proofs that the Torah requires a water libation.
מנ[ין] לניסוך המים בחג?
How do we know to libate water on the holiday (Sukkot).[9]
1. A comparison with rituals from the other two agricultural holidays.
היה ר’ עקיבה א[ומר]: “הביאו עומר בפסח שתתברך לכם תבואה, ונאמ[ר] הביאו ביכורים בעצרת שיתברך עליכם פירות אילן, אף לניסוך המים בחג שיתברכו עליכם גשמים.”
Rabbi Akiva would say: “Bring the sheave offering on Pesach so that you be blessed with grain. And scripture says to bring the first fruits on Shavuot so that you be blessed with fruit. So too [should you] perform the water libation on the holiday so that you be blessed with rain.”
2. Anomalies in certain words describing the daily offerings.
ר' יהודה בן בתירה או[מר]: “נא[מר] בשיני ‘ונסכיהם,’ בששי ‘ונסכיה,’ בשביעי ‘כמשפטם.’ – מם[10] יוד מם: מים. נמצינו למידין לניסוך המים מן התורה.”
Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira says: “Scripture uses the term ונסכיהם in describing the second day [of Sukkot], on the sixth day it uses ונסכיה, and on the seventh day כמשפטם. [Each of these words has an extra letter:]mem, yod, mem [which spells out מים, water]. Thus we learn that water libation is from the Torah.”
3. Double language appearing in a verse on libations.
ר' נתן א[ומר]: “‘בקדש הסך נסך’ למה נא[מר]? להביא את המים.”
Rabbi Natan says: “‘In the sacred precinct, libate a libation’ (Num 28:7) – why is this said [with double language]? To include the water [libation].”

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteirah’s Derasha

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteirah’s position—the original answer to the question[11]—is based on the existence of three small deviations from the otherwise repetitive language of the Sukkot sacrifices in Numbers 29.[12] To the average reader, these small differences should not matter too much. Moreover, the only appear in the Masoretic text.[13] Perhaps they are just scribal errors. For the rabbis, however, there is only one legitimate text of the Torah, and every letter in it contains meaning.

Thus, when Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira combines the three extra letters in order to form the word מים (water), he makes the connection to the contentious practice of water libation on Sukkot and sees these minor deviations as a clue that the rabbinic halacha was indeed divinely ordained. But even for the rabbis, this is a relatively far-fetched derasha; this illustrates how hard they needed to work to find a Torah basis for the water libation.

Libation is Known through Tradition: An Alternative Position

An alternative to this midrash appears both in the Yerushalmi (Sukkah 4:1, Sheviit 1:5) and the Bavli (Ta’anit 2:2):[14]

j. Sukkah 4:1 b. Sukkah 44a
רבי בא ר’ חייה בשם ר’ יוחנן ערבה וניסוך המים הלכה למשה מסיני… ר’ בא בר זבדא בשם ר’ חונייא דברת חוורן ערבה וניסוך המים ועשר נטיעות מיסוד הנביאים הם.
אמר רבי אסי אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי נחוניא איש בקעת (בית)[15] חורתן: עשר נטיעות, ערבה, וניסוך המים – הלכה למשה מסיני.
Rabbi Ba, Rabbi Chiya in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “The [laws about the] willow branch and the libation of water are laws Moses received [orally] at Sinai.” …Rabbi Ba bar Zavda in the name of Rabbi Chonya from Barat Chavran: “The [laws about the] willow branch, the libation of water, and the ten saplings have their foundation in the prophets.” Rabbi Assi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Nechunya a man from the Valley of (Beit) Chortan: “The [laws about the] ten saplings, the willow branch, and the libation of water are all laws Moses received [orally] at Sinai.”

The exact claim differs between the texts, and the texts differ about who exactly said what,[16]but both agree that the Torah does not necessarily offer any indication of such a ritual.[17]Rather, the practice of libating water has a different source, either God told it to Moses orally on Mount Sinai or it was established by the prophets.

These rabbinic texts concerning debates between Pharisees and other groups reflect the rabbi’s concern[18] to show the correctness of their belief that their traditions derived from a separate corpus of laws and interpretations received by Moses at Mount Sinai; the separate Sinaitic laws explain the “proper” interpretation of biblical laws and supersede the simple reading. The water libation was one such laws. The Sadducees and Boethesians however, accept the Torah at face value—or at least had a different set of traditions—so they would have denied the legitimacy of this ritual.

Part 3

The Meaning of the Ritual and the Significance of the Debate

Why did the rabbis go to such length to establish the legitimacy of the water libation ritual? What was its meaning to them?

In my “The Mystical Ritual of Hoshana Rabbah,” (TheTorah.com, 2013) I argued that the Hoshana Rabbah liturgy as well as the ritual of the willow is a summoning ritual, to bring God into the synagogue to hear our prayers for rain. The ritual of the water libation appears to have had a similar purpose, though it was not a summoning ritual, but a rain creation ritual.

The world’s foundation stone (אבן שתיה)

In rabbinic thinking, the Temple was built upon the world’s foundation stone (אבן שתיה). This stone plugs up the waters of the deep, which control rainfall. Thus, one idea behind the water libation appears to have been that by pouring water at the foot of the altar, the water would go down the pipes, seep into the earth, and reach the depths, stimulating their rain making potential.[19]

אמר רבי אלעזר: כשמנסכין [20](את ה)מים בחג, תהום אומר לחבירו: אבע מימיך, קול שני ריעים אני שומע, שנאמר תהום אל תהום קורא לקול צנוריך וגו’.
Rabbi Elazar said: When they pour the water[21] as a libation on the holiday (=Sukkot), the Depths says to its fellow: ‘Let your waters spring forth; I hear the voice of two friends.’ As scripture states (Pss 42:8): ‘Deep calls to deep in the voice of your pipes, etc.’” (b. Taanit 25b)

Sukkot and Praying for Rain

In rabbinic thinking, Sukkot is a rain holiday. Rabbi Akiva states this most clearly (t. Sukkah3:18):[22]

אמ’ ר’ עקיבא… “הביא ניסוך המים בחג כדי שיתברכו עליך מי גשמים…”
Rabbi Akiva said… “Bring the water libation on the holiday so that you be blessed with rain…”

The Tosefta quotes a prooftext to Rabbi Akiva’s statement from the post-exilic book of Zechariah, in which the prophet describes what will happen with the nations of the world after their defeat by Israel in the end of days:

יד:טז וְהָיָ֗ה כָּל־הַנּוֹתָר֙ מִכָּל הַגּוֹיִ֔ם הַבָּאִ֖ים עַל יְרֽוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְעָל֞וּ מִדֵּ֧י שָׁנָ֣ה בְשָׁנָ֗ה לְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֹת֙ לְמֶ֙לֶךְ֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת וְלָחֹ֖ג אֶת חַ֥ג הַסֻּכּֽוֹת: יד:יז וְ֠הָיָה אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא יַעֲלֶ֜ה מֵאֵ֨ת מִשְׁפְּח֤וֹת הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶל יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם לְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֹ֔ת לְמֶ֖לֶךְ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת וְלֹ֥א עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם יִהְיֶ֥ה הַגָּֽשֶׁם:
14:16 All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Yhwh of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths. 14:17 Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King Yhwh of Hosts shall receive no rain(NJPS).

Zechariah implies that God decides on the world’s rainfall on Sukkot, and the Tosefta uses it as a textual support for the water libation ritual.[23] Thus, the association between Sukkot and rain has roots in the Second Temple period.

Another text that might possibly point to Sukkot being understood as a water festival in the Second Temple Period comes from the Gospel of John (ch. 7):

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day (Hoshana Rabbah or Shemini Atzeret?), while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (NRSV)

Early rabbinic halacha expresses great anxiety when it comes to rain. The tractate of Ta’anitis devoted almost entirely to describing a series of fasts aimed at convincing God to make the rain fall. Sukkot marks the time of Israel’s rainy season and the official daily request for rain found in the second blessing of the Amidah, משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם (“who makes the wind blow and the rain fall”) is said for the first time on Shemini Atzeret—the day after Sukkot—accompanied by an elaborate rain prayer recited in Mussaf of that day.

Thus, the popularity of the water libation ritual—as expressed by the Etrog pelting described by the rabbis—would stem from its being of great practical importance. If doing this ritual had the power to bring rain, how dare someone not do it just because it isn’t mentioned the Torah!

Practical vs. Pristine Rituals

In The Divine Symphony, Israel Knohl traces the ideology behind the debate about water libation to a core debate in the Torah between the Priestly Torah (P) and the Holiness School (H).[24] In P, Knohl argues, Temple ritual is pristine; it is done for its own sake, in honor of the ineffable Yhwh, and there is no expectation that Yhwh will do anything for the worshipers in return. P, in Knohl’s understanding, is an elitist text, written by priests and for priests.

H, on the other hand, represents a more populist theology. In Holiness legislation, together with pristine rituals we can find practical rules, ethical laws, and a theory of God who wishes his people to act holy in imitation of His holiness. Moreover, H believes that Israel’s behavior, good or bad, will be accompanied by reward and punishment respectively. In other words, Israel’s behavior effects God’s behavior.

Tracing back Pharisees and Sadducee Theology

As a populist tradition, the Holiness legislation allowed for rituals that were less than pristine services to God, and it is not surprising that some cases of magical thinking would enter this group’s practice. Knohl believes that the Sadducees’ theology can be traced to that of the more elitist Priestly school, and, as such, they would have been totally against a rain making ritual. Such a ritual does not honor God but rather tries to manipulate God. The Pharisees, he believes, are a continuation of the Holiness school, and as such, they would have been in favor of a populist ritual designed to stimulate the rain so necessary for the people.

It is unclear whether Knohl is correct about connecting these ancient First Temple period schools of thought with late Second Temple phenomenon. Nevertheless, his insights about different groups preferring different kinds of rituals sheds important light, clarifying why this seemingly esoteric water libation dispute became so acrimonious.

The power of this and other rain-making rituals is illustrated in the fraught poetry of the Hoshana Rabbah and Shemini Atzeret prayer services, in which the Jewish supplicants begin their requests for season of rain:

לברכה ולא לקללה.
לחיים ולא למות.
לשובע ולא לרזון.
For a blessing and not a curse,
For life and not for death,
For satiety and not starvation.

Mishna about Water Libation

ד:ז ניסוך המים שבעה כיצד? צלוחית שלזהב מחזקת שלושת לוגים. היה ממלא מן השילוח היגיעו לשער המים תקעו והריעו <ותקעו>.[25] עלה בכבש ופנה לשמאלו.
4:7 The seven days of water libation – how so? A golden flask holding three logs in volume did one fill [with water] from the Siloam. [When] they reached the water gate, they would blow a sustained blast, a quavering blast <and a sustained blast>. [The priest] went up the ramp and turned to his left.
ושני ספלים שלכסף היו שם.
There were two silver bowls there.
רבי יהודה אומ[ר]: שלסיד היו אלא שהיו מושחרים מפני היין.
Rabbi Judah says: “They were of plaster,
only they had darkened
because of the wine.”
ומנוקבין כמין שני חטמים דקים, אחד מעובה ואחד מידק כדי שיהו שניהם כלים בבת אחת.
They were perforated with holes like narrow nostrils, one wide and one narrow, so that they would both be emptied at one time.[26]
ד:ח מערבי שלמים ומזרחי שליין עירה שלמים בתוך שליין או שליין בתוך שלמים יצא.
4:8 The one on the west was for water and the one on the east was for wine. If he emptied the flask of water in the bowl for wine, or the flask of wine into the bowl for water, he has nonetheless carried out the rite.
רבי יהודה או[מר]: מלוג היה מנסך כל שמונה.
Rabbi Judah says: “A log [of water] would one pour out all eight days [as a water libation].”
ולמנסך אומרין לו: הגבה את ידך שפעם אחת ניסך על רגליו ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהם:
And to the one who pours out the water libation they would say, “Lift up your hand [so that we can see the water pouring out]!” For it once happened that [a priest] poured the water out on his feet, and all the people stoned him with their citrons.[27]


October 1, 2015


Last Updated

March 20, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).