The highlight of the Temple service during the Succoth holiday was Nisuch HaMayim, the Water Libation ceremony. While it was usually wine that was poured at the base of the altar, there is an oral tradition to offer a special libation of water on Succoth.
The Sages (Shabbat 103b) found an allusion to this tradition in the verses describing the Succoth offerings (Num. 29:12-34). Three verses conclude with the letters mem, yud, and mem — spelling out the word mayim, water.
What is the special significance of water to the holiday of Succoth? And why does the Torah only hint about the water libation and not mention it explicitly?
We find two basic themes associated with the Succoth holiday. On the one hand, Succoth is called Chag Ha'Asif, the Harvest Festival. Harvesting is the culmination of the entire farming process — starting with plowing, planting, irrigating, and so on, until the crops are ready to be harvested.
Furthermore, harvesting thoroughly involves the natural world. All of the processes of nature must be functioning properly in order that the fruits and grains will be ripe for harvest. Succoth as the Harvest Festival symbolizes the natural world at its most cultivated and completed state.
On the other hand, Succoth is also called the Festival of Booths. Our sukkah-huts during the holiday commemorate the miraculous forty-year journey of the Israelites through the desert. During those forty years, the Jewish people were sustained by continuous supernatural phenomena: manna from heaven, Miriam’s miraculous well of water, the protective Clouds of God’s Presence, and so on.
Why is Succoth associated with two opposing themes: the natural order and the harvest on the one hand, and the supernatural realm of Divine providence and the miraculous trek in the wilderness on the other?
In fact, bridging these two themes is the very essence of the Succoth holiday. Succoth is a link between the physical and the metaphysical. It connects the natural world, as epitomized by the autumn harvest, with the realm of Divine intervention, unveiled with the appearance of Israel on the stage of history.
The passage of the Jewish people, from the miraculous Exodus from Egypt to the settlement and everyday life in the land of Israel, bound together the realms of the natural and the supernatural. This bridge revealed the inner connection between a Divinely- created world, designed for the elevated goal of providential justice, and a finished world bound by the fixed laws of science and nature.
How does this explain the special connection between water and Succoth? Water recalls the very beginning of creation. The Torah describes the initial stage of creation as “God’s spirit hovering over the water” (Gen. 1:2). Even at that primordial state, before the appearance of dry land, God’s infinite wisdom set in place all that was needed in order to bring creation to its ultimate form. Thus water reminds us of the Divine wisdom that resides in the very foundations of the world.
In summary, the two themes of Succoth bind together the world’s physical nature with its metaphysical essence. This Divine essence was revealed in the emergence of the people of Israel — in the miracles of the Exodus and the journey through the desert - but, in fact, it goes back to the very foundations of the universe. Since the secrets of creation are beyond our grasp, the Torah only alludes to these waters of creation in the final letters of the verses describing the Succoth offerings.
(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV on Shabbat 103b (12:1).)