D’var Torah for Sukkot – Water and Wine Compared

Water and Wine

D’var Torah for Sukkot – Water and Wine Compared
by Simon M. Jackson

Wine libations (nisuch ha’yayin) accompanied most individual and public sacrifices, that were offered on a daily basis in the Beit HaMikdash (see Bamidbar 15:3-5). On Sukkot, water libations (nisuch ha’mayim) were also brought.

According to the Gemara (Sukkah 34a) and the Rambam (Hilchot Temidin u’Mussafin 10:6), the mitzvah of nisuch ha’mayim is a Halacha Le’Moshe Mi’Sinai, i.e. a law taught orally to Moshe on Har Sinai, which cannot be derived from the Written Torah. However, Rabbi Akiva (Zevachim 110b) disagrees, holding that the libation of water on Sukkot is of Biblical origin. He learns this out from the verse in our parsha, which teaches the obligation to accompany the tamid offering of the sixth day of Sukkot with libations. The verse (Bamidbar 29:31) speaks of two separate libations (u’nesacheha = and its libations – plural): wine and water.

Others hold that this mitzva is derived from three extra letters that appear in the chapter in our parsha, detailing the requirements for the musaf offerings of Sukkot (Ch. 29). Each day of Sukkot is the subject of a separate paragraph, with each paragraph concluding with the words: “Besides the tamid burnt-offering, its flour offering (u’minchatah) and its libation (ve’niskah).” The last word, ve’niskah, is identical in every paragraph, except in the paragraph for the second day, where it is changed to ve’niskeihem (with an additional mem – and their libations, in v. 19), in the tamid offering for the sixth day, which as we have seen states u’nesache(y)ha (with an additional yud), and in connection with the musaf offerings of the seventh day, where it is stated: ke’mishpatam (with an additional mem). “Thus, the extra letters are mem, yud and mem, which spell the word mayim (water), and this is a Scriptural allusion to the water libation services performed on Sukkot” (Ta’anit 2b).

The Maharsha adds an insightful comment that on the second and sixth days of Sukkot, the allusion is to be found in words connected to nisuch (the libations themselves) – ve’niskeihem and u’nesache(y)ha. By contrast, on the seventh day the allusion to water is found in the word: ke’mishpatam, “because on Sukkot, the world is judged for water, and the seventh day (= Hoshana Rabba) is the completion of the world’s judgment”!

The Mishna describes the water libation which was performed with the morning tamid during the seven days of Sukkot (Sukka 48a-b): “There were two silver bowls on the southwestern corner of the Altar… and the bowls had spouts that were perforated, resembling two thin nostrils. One of the holes was thicker and one was thinner, so that both would drain out at the same time.” According to Rashi, both libations – wine and water – were poured into their respective bowls simultaneously. The libations flowed through the spouts, landed on top of the Altar, and ran into a hole in the top of the Altar, leading into a very deep cavity beneath the Altar called the shittin. The wine was poured into the bowl with the wider hole, while, at the same time, the water was poured into the bowl with the narrower hole. Since water flows more quickly than wine, it was necessary to decrease the size of the water hole so that both bowls would empty simultaneously!

Why was it so important for the libations to be poured simultaneously? Rav Menachem Makover, in his eye-opening book, Otzar Torat HaKorbanot – Ma’aseh u’Machshava, points out the fact that, in Jewish mystical thought, wine symbolizes din, according to which attribute God judges us strictly on our merits, while water represents the attribute of chessed, with which God tempers His judgment with His boundless kindness. Through this synthesis of wine and water, he suggests, we hope and pray that the blessing of water will influence the world of vegetation throughout the winter period.

From the Torah to the Nevi’im

“Is the master not a Cohen?” Rabba bar Avuha asks (Bava Metzia 114b), questioning how Eliyahu HaNavi could be standing in a cemetery. Rashi explains that Rabba asked this, in accordance with the view that Eliyahu was Pinchas the Cohen. The Torah, at the beginning of our parsha, describes Pinchas as one who acted zealously for God (25:11). Since Eliyahu describes himself as acting zealously for God (I Kings 19:10), he is assumed to be Pinchas.

Rabbi Shaul Farber once described this phenomenon of how Eliyahu keeps popping up throughout Jewish history (the two spies sent out by Joshua are identified as Pinchas and Calev, Eliyahu appears at every Brit, at every Seder, and of course as heralding the Mashiach) as the “law of conservation of Biblical persons”!

Eliyahu’s life (and, indeed, death) is characterized by fire and fieriness. He decrees famine on the people, and ignores the difficulties created thereby until Hashem expressly commands him to do so; causes fire to come down from Heaven at Mount Carmel, when confronting the prophets of the Baal; later, after Ahaziah, king of Yehuda, sends a message to the priests of Ba’al Zevuv in Ekron, outside of the kingdom of Israel, to know if he will recover, Eliyahu interecepts his messengers and returns them back to Ahaziah with a message that begins with a blunt, impertinent question, in typical Eliyahu fashion: “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Ba’al Zevub, the god of Ekron?” (Melachim II, 1:6). Ahaziah sends out three groups of soldiers to arrest Eliyahu. The first two are destroyed by fire which Eliyahu calls down from heaven. Finally, Eliyahu is lifted up to Heaven in a whirlwind: “And it was, as they proceeded – walking and talking – that there appeared a chariot of fire, with horses of fire, and they parted them from one another, and Eliyahu went up in a whirlwind to heaven” (2:11-12).

By contrast, Elisha adopts a far more mellow and tolerant approach to people, symbolized by water. Many of the miracles that he performs are connected directly to the supply of food and water. He assists those whom he meets, even when they could manage without a miracle being performed. The people contact him over big and small things, whereas Eliyahu tended to seclude himself, requiring others to find him. At Mount Chorev, Hashem indicates his rejection of Eliyahu’s hard-line approach: “but God was not in the wind… nor in the earthquake… nor in the fire; [rather, in the] still small voice” (Melachim I, 19:11-12).

The world needs a mixture of strict justice and kindness to survive, wine and water, Eliyahu and Elisha. With this synthesis, we can stride towards the Messianic ideal of inter-generational harmony, of which Eliyahu the prophet is, interestingly, the harbinger: “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord, that he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers” (Malachi 3:23-24).

Chag sameach!
- Simon