The days of Sukkot were days of a special joy in the Bet haMiqdash (Temple of Jerusalem). In addition to the biblical commandment to take the four species (ארבעת המינים), there were two other mitzvot that were fulfilled in the Temple. One of these was nisukh hamayim (= the water libation), the ceremony of pouring water on the altar. The second is the Mitsva of the ‘araba.
The rabbis describe the great joy of the ceremony of water libation:
“He who has not seen the celebration of the water libation has never experienced true joy. Big golden lamps were hoisted, with four cups of gold on top of each lamp. Four young, apprentice priests, rose to the top, carrying large jugs of oil with which the lamps were filled. Once lit, there was no courtyard in Jerusalem who did not shine with the light emanating from the Temple. Special balconies were constructed to allow the women of Israel see the Sages of the Sanhedrin as they danced. People sang, and the righteous and pious men danced before them, while juggled with lighted torches. The Levites stood on the fifteen steps leading down from the court of Israel to the court of women, playing music with lyres, harps, trumpets and many other instruments. Two priests stood on the top of the stairs, on each side of the entrance to the great door of the court and honked the silver trumpets [these were real trumpets, not shofarot]. All this was done to honor the commandment of the water libation. At dawn, people came with melodies and songs to the spring of Shiloach, at the foot of the walls of Jerusalem. A Cohen carried a special jug of gold and filled it with water from the spring. Then the congregation walked back to Temple, led by the priest bearing the water. On reaching the Temple, he brought the vessel to the altar and poured water into a basin of silver in a corner of the altar. (Mishna Sukka, Chapter 5)
This festive ceremony, known in Hebrew as Simhat Bet haShoeba, was connected obviously to the beginning of the prayers for rain, and was accompanied by Tefilot and pslams of praise, trusting that HaShem will bless the earth and its products with rain during the coming year.
The other special ceremony that was held at the Bet haMiqdash during Sukkot was Mitsvat ‘Araba. “The command of the willow branches” This was independent of the mitsva of the two willow branches in the four species (ארבעת המינים), which are tied together with the lulab and the myrtle.
The Mishna says that there was a place outside Jerusalem called Motza (which still exists today, and is located on the banks of “Soreq” river). Each day of Sukkot, people went to Motza and cut down large willow branches (about 20 feet high). These branches at the foot of the altar (mizbe’ah) were placed, with the top bent over the altar. Since the middle altar, 16 feet high , the branches jutted one meter above the top of the altar, on all four sides.
Each day of Sukkot, the Kohanim (and according to other opinions, the elders of the city as well) went around the altar once, marching with their lulabim in hand, and praying to the Almighty “Anna haShem hoshi’a na; Anna haShem hatzliha na. ” In the seventh and final day of Sukkot, Hosha’na Rabbah, people would go around the altar seven times.
Nowadays we go around the ‘bimah’ (the platform on which the Sefer Torah is placed) every day of Sukkot, with our lulabim and etrogim, in memory of the Mitsvat ‘Araba that was held at the Bet haMiqdash. In Hosh’ana Rabbah, this Sunday morning, we will go around the bima seven times.
There is an additional ritual that belongs to the mitsva of ‘arabah. A tradition established by the later prophets of Israel, Haggai, Malakhi and Zekhariah, after the destruction of our first Temple. At the end of the Tefillah of Hoshana Rabbah we take a few branches of ‘Araba (the tradition is to take five ‘arabot, which can not be those that we used for the lulab) and, without reciting any blessing, we hit these branches into the ground. This ancient tradition is called habatat (or hibut) ‘araba.
Why so much emphasis on the ‘araba?
Our rabbis explain that by the end of Sukkot, the Celestial Court issued the verdict on the rain will fall during the next year (bahag niddonim al hamayim). This is the main reason why, following a Kabbalistic custom, it is customary to stay awake all night during Hosh’ana Rabba, this Saturday night, studying Tora.
As we will explain in the next few days, rain is the most critical element for our sustenance. It is possible then that the ‘araba also reminds us of our vulnerability and our dependence on the rain HaShem sends us. Moreover, hitting the branches of ‘araba on the ground and seeing how the ‘araba loses its leaves with each stroke, helps us internalizing our fragility and our total dependence of HaShem, not only for our sustenance and prosperity, but also to our very survival.
שבת מועדים שלום