Sukkot: Celebrating Jerusalem as the Center of the Earth


One of the most curious phenomena associated with the rituals of the Second Temple Judaism is the water libation offered at the Temple on Sukkot. The Torah prescribes a very strict and detailed regime of sacrifices: these include offerings of incense and livestock; grain in various forms, sometimes mixed with oil and frankincense; and libations of wine upon the altar. The exact composition of the offering appropriate for each occasion is strictly regulated; violation of these strictures, and the unauthorized offering of sacrifices on the Temple altar, are considered serious offenses.

Offerings of livestock, wine and meal for Sukkot are prescribed in Numbers 29:12-34. These prescriptions were followed to the letter in the Second Temple. However, in addition to the libation of wine upon the altar, which accompanied all offerings, Mishnah Sukkah 4:9 tells us that water was poured on the altar along with the wine each morning on Sukkot. Moreover, in discussing the design of the Temple altar, the Mishnah says that two basins were installed on the upper rim of the altar: one for the standard libation of wine and one for the Sukkot water libations. This is surprising, in light of the fact that water libations are nowhere mentioned in the Torah, with reference to Sukkot or any other day. Their subsequent introduction at any point in the history of the first or second Temples would seem to be violation of the severe prohibition against unauthorized offerings.

The Rabbis, aware of this problem, assert that the Sukkot water libation was a part of the ritual from Moses’s time, and was an oral supplement to the written Torah, which like the Torah, was given to Moses at Sinai. Rabbi Akiva, who flourished primarily after the destruction of the Temple, asserted that its purpose was to encourage God to provide rain on Sukkot, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel: “Offer the water libation on Sukkot, so you will be blessed with rain water” (Tosefta Sukkah 3:18).

However, we have no evidence of the ritual from earlier periods; it is the type of innovation that would have been controversial had it been instituted in Hasmonean times or earlier, a period in which many halakhic innovations, in the Temple ritual and in other areas of Jewish practice, were subject to vehement sectarian strife. No such polemic is attested with regard to the water libation, which indicates that it was introduced not long before the destruction of the Second Temple.

There are a number of indications that the water libation was introduced by King Herod, who renovated the Second Temple approximately 100 years before its destruction in the year 70 CE. Herod actually tore down the original building and erected a magnificent edifice in its stead. According to Tosefta Sukkah 3:14, the water libation was poured into a basin at the top of the altar and then passed through the foundation stone of the earth and joined the primal waters below ground. The water is said to pass through a special passageway or pipeline connecting the altar to the primal subterranean abyss, built by “the one who built the Temple”.

Who is “the one who built the Temple”? Various Talmudic passages interpret the phrase in different ways: According to one of two traditions alluded to in Bavli Sukkah 49a, the reference is to God himself, who commanded the Temple be built. During the six days of creation he built a mythical passageway into the earth’s foundations in order to connect the future Temple’s altar with the primal abyss below the ground, thus allowing the future water libation to join the primal waters that preceded creation. The other tradition sees the passageway as part of the Temple’s architecture; it does not lead to mythical waters below ground, but simply leads to the bottom of the altar, allowing it to be cleansed of the residue of the wine libations from the inside once a year. According to a third interpretation, found in Bavli Sukkah 53a-b, the reference is to King David, who laid the foundation of the first Temple completed by his son Solomon. David encountered the primal abyss upon digging the Temple foundations, subdued it, and established the foundations of the Temple over the abyss.

However, neither God nor King David are ever referred to in tannaitic literature as mi shebanah et haHekhal, “the one who built the Temple”, and indeed, the use of the term to refer to either is inaccurate: Solomon built the first Temple, and the leadership of the Jews who returned from Babylon built the Second Temple. InMishnah Eduyot 8:6, however, a nearly identical phrase, keshehayu bonim beHekhal, “when they were building the Temple”, refers to the rebuilding of the Second Temple by Herod. It thus would seem that the cosmopolitan King Herod is “the one who built the Temple”. Herod had a passageway built connecting the altar to the waters beneath “the foundation stone of the universe” on which the Temple is said to be situated, and he had a basin for water libation built into the rim of the altar. He also had a ritual instituted on the most widely celebrated Jewish pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, in which water was poured through this passageway, supposedly into the primal abyss upon which the earth was founded.

Originally, this ritual had nothing to do with rain. It was designed to establish the newly renovated altar and Temple in Jerusalem as the navel or center of the earth, connected to the subterranean foundation stone and the abyss beneath it, upon which the earth was created. Herod’s magnificent Jerusalem Temple had rivals for the title “navel of the earth” in the Greco-Roman world, most notably the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece and the Nymphaion outside Antioch. Each of these had water rituals designating the site as the meeting place of heaven and the primal abyss below ground. Water libations in the Greco-Roman world were a means of communicating with the deities associated with the primal abyss and the underworld, and were thus a particularly apt means of demonstrating the connection between heaven, earth, and the primal abyss at the foundation stone of the earth. (See references in M. Benovitz, Talmud Ha-Igud: Lulav VeAravah veHahalil, Jerusalem 2013, pp. 406-408, notes 47-64.) Herod, too, wished to evoke this sense with the water libation, in order to establish Jerusalem as the “foundation stone” of the universe.

It would seem that the ritual was initially opposed in Rabbinic circles, both because it involved violation of the strict prohibition against unauthorized offerings on the Temple and because of its pagan connotations. At some point after the death of Herod, the Rabbis instituted the Bet Hasho`evah celebration at the Temple each night of Sukkot before the morning water libation. This celebration, said to draw “the spirit” rather than actual water for libation, was an attempt to overshadow or replace the original ceremony. However, the two ceremonies were ultimately seen as a continuum. In post-Temple thought the now obsolete water libation was reinterpreted as a plea for rain, rather than a mythical representation of the centrality of Jerusalem, but the notion of Sukkot as a universal celebration of Jerusalem as the spiritualcenter of the earth is a central component of the festival to this day.

[This essay is based upon Moshe Benovitz’s comprehensive commentary on Bavli Sukkah chapters IV and V: Talmud Ha-Igud: Lulav VeAravah veHahalil, Jerusalem 2013, pp. 401-410, 449-461, 635-642, which should be consulted for further details and references.]


Moshe Benovitz is professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta, 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy and Jewish festivals.