The Torah Source for the Water Libation
“And Their Libations”
The mitzva of the water libation on the festival of Sukkot is a particularly cherished mitzva:
How was the water libation [performed]? A golden vessel holding three logs was filled from the Shiloach [spring]. When they arrived at the Water Gate, they sounded a teki'a [a long blast], a teru'a [a broken blast], and again a teki'a [a long blast]. He [the priest] then went up the ramp [of the altar] and turned to his left….
As was its performance on weekdays, so was its performance on Shabbat, except that on the eve of Shabbat an unhallowed golden barrel was filled from the Shiloach and placed in a chamber. (Mishna Sukka 4:9-10)
Ostensibly, the water libation is not a mitzva that is spelled out explicitly in the Torah, for all the libations that accompany the offerings in the Temple are libations of wine. Indeed, the water libation is mentioned in the gemara as a mitzva that is a halakha that was given to Moshe at Sinai with no explicit source in the Torah:
For R. Asi said in the name R. Yochanan who said in the name of R. Nechunya of the Plain of Beit Havartan: The laws of the ten plants, the willow-branch, and water libation were given to Moshe at Mount Sinai. (Sukka 44a)
Nevertheless, we find an allusion to the water libation in the Torah in the passage that lists the offerings brought on the festival of Sukkot:
R. Yehuda ben Betera said: It is stated on the second [day of Sukkot]: “Ve-niskeihem,| "and their libations" (Bemidbar 29:18); on the sixth [day]: “U-nesakheha,” "and its libations" (ibid. v. 31); [and] on the seventh [day]: “ke-mishpatam,” "after their ordinance" (ibid. v. 33) This is mem-yod-mem, mayim, "water." Thus we learn the water libation from the Torah.
R. Natan said: "In the holy place shall you pour out a libation of strong drink" (Bemidbar 28:7). Why is this stated? To include water. (Sifrei Bemidbar 150)
The seemingly obscure allusion of R. Yehuda ben Betera is to a great extent anchored in the plain meaning of the verses. On the second and the sixth days of Sukkot, we hear about multiple libations accompanying the daily offering: "Beside the continual burnt-offering, and the meal-offering thereof, and their drink-offerings" (Bemidbar 29:19) – that is to say, the wine libation that was brought every day and at least one additional libation, namely, the water libation.
Yet we might have expected a more explicit source for the water libation, a source that would also explain the content of the mitzva.
The Water at the Assembly on Mount Carmel
When the prophet Eliyahu stood on Mount Carmel against the prophets of Baal and proclaimed before the entire people that the Lord is God in Israel, Scripture describes the manner in which the altar was constructed:
And Eliyahu took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Yaakov, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying: Israel shall be your name. And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord; and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid it on the wood. And he said: “Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the burnt-offering, and on the wood.” And he said: “Do it the second time”; and they did it the second time. And he said: “Do it the third time”; and they did it the third time. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water. (I Melakhim 18:31-35)
Eliyahu builds an altar on Mount Carmel out of twelve stones, which express the unity of the tribes of Israel despite the division of the kingdom, and thus also the connection to Jerusalem. In addition to the twelve stones of the altar, he pours twelve jars of water into the trench that went around the altar, they too in accordance with the number of the tribes of Israel.
After the altar is built, and the bullock is offered on it, a fire descends from Heaven and consumes Eliyahu's offering:
And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening offering, that Eliyahu the prophet came near and said: “O Lord, the God of Avraham, of Yitzchak, and of Yisrael, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You, Lord, are God, for You did turn their heart backward.”
Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt-offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said: “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” (I Melakhim 18:36-39)
At first glance, the water that surrounded the altar was meant to magnify the miracle of the fire descending from Heaven, despite the fact that water ordinarily extinguishes a fire. It seems, however, that the water has an additional meaning.
Even though there is no hint to the festival of Sukkot at the assembly on Mount Carmel at the time that Eliyahu stood with the prophets of Baal in the sight of all the people, there are two points that connect the assembly to Sukkot. The first is the water that was poured at the foot of the altar, which parallels the libation water that went down into pits at the foot of the altar. Furthermore, the primary content of the assembly at Mount Carmel was the prayer for rain after years of severe drought:
And Eliyahu said to Achav: “Get up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain…” And it came to pass in a little while, that the heaven grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. (I Melakhim 18:41-45)
This is also the content of the festival of Sukkot in general and of the mitzva of the water libation in particular:
Bring first-fruits on Shavuot so that the fruit of the trees shall be blessed for you. So too the water libation on the festival [of Sukkot] so that the rains of the year shall be blessed for you. (Sifrei Bemidbar 150)
Eliyahu's action on Mount Carmel is not a halakhic source, but it may express a well-known tradition from the Temple service.
The Last Drops of Water
If what we have said is correct, we can now discuss the content of the mitzva and its rationale. To that end, let us imagine some individual who came with the rest of the people to Mount Carmel at Eliyahu's command, such as a woman holding her young child by the hand, with her older son tagging along after her.
This is the third year of the drought. The tongues of the two young children are stuck to their palates because of their thirst, and with a hoarse voice they call out to their mother: “Give us water!” The tired and thirsty mother looks with longing eyes at Eliyahu, who is pouring twelve jars of water into the trench instead of dividing the water up among the young children. She turns to the God of Eliyahu with an inaudible prayer: "O God of our fathers, we pour before You our most precious water, our very last drops, while our young children are thirsting for drink. This is the most precious thing that we can offer You. Bless us with this year's rains!" The woman's prayer is heard by her Father in Heaven, and it begins to rain.
Not every year is as difficult as the years of Eliyahu. But in the years before there was running water, the spring season began every year with full or nearly full water cisterns in the courtyards of every house. The water level gradually went down over the course of the summer, and with the arrival of fall the water level fell to the bottom of the cisterns, close to the last drops. The muddy water at the bottom of a cistern is the least clean and the least tasty, but nevertheless the most precious of all the water, as it is precisely on that water that life depends.
It seems that it is for this reason that the gemara states that "the end of the summer is more trying than the summer itself" (Yoma 29a). The heart of the summer is hotter than the end of the summer, but at that time there is still more water. The water is gradually used up, and the heat of the end of the summer is more trying when there is no water with which to cool the body down. At that time, at the end of the summer, on the festival of Sukkot, Israel take their last water and pour it on the altar in honor of God. This is the time to ask God to bless us with rains of the coming year. This was the heart of Eliyahu's action on Mount Carmel, and this is what we do every year on the festival of Sukkot.
The festival of Shavuot is the festival on which the mitzva of bringing the various types of first-fruits to the Temple begins. The experience of the mitzva of first-fruits is to bring the first fruit of the new crop to God. The first fruit is exceedingly dear to our hearts because of our longings for it, and we offer our most precious fruit to God by way of the mitzva of first-fruits. The festival of Sukkot is not the festival of the first-fruit, but of the last water. That water is as dear to us as the first fruit, not because of our longings for it, but because of its vital necessity. This too we offer to God, as did King David, who poured before God water that had been brought to him at great risk, and almost cost the lives of those who brought it:
And David longed, and said: “Oh that one would give me water to drink of the well of Beit-Lechem, which is by the gate!” And the three mighty men broke through the host of the Pelishtim and drew water out of the well of Beit-Lechem that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David; but he would not drink thereof, but poured it out to the Lord. And he said: “Be it far from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. (II Shemuel 23:15-17)
(Translated by David Strauss)