Oz Torah: Insights on Succot.


Succot is called in Hebrew “z’man simchatenu”, “Our Time of Joy”.

The Torah is the source of this description. Twice it uses the verb “samach”, to rejoice, in relation to Succot. It says “vesamachta b’chaggecha”, “You shall rejoice in your festival” (Deut. 16:14), and “vehayita ach same’ach”, “You shall be very joyful” (Deut. 16:15).

Image result for the Joy of the Water Drawing
A golden container was filled with water drawn from the pools at Siloam in Jerusalem.

The ancient rabbis explained that a major reason for linking Succot and simchah is the tradition of Simchat Bet HaSho’evah, the Joy of the Water Drawing.

On the second night of the festival, there were processions and parades, singing and dancing, exuberance and exhilaration. Everyone was on the way to the Temple gates for the water libation.

Understandable – but strange. So many other practices were part of Succot, yet only this one was regarded as the expression of genuine joy. The sages even say, “Whoever has not seen the rejoicing at the water-drawing has never seen real joy in his life” (Mishnah Sukkah 5:1).

There was a political dimension to this statement.

Pharisees and Sadducees were each pulling in different directions with their opposing philosophies. Each had their own support base. At times one group prevailed. At times the others seemed to win.

In the end it was the Pharisees that carried the day and the Sadducees vanished from history.

The conflict was symbolised in many ways by the water libation on Succot. The Pharisees took the ceremony seriously whilst the Sadducees disdained it.

When one particular high priest wanted to show his allegiance to the Sadducees he poured the water on the ground and not the altar – and the shocked populace pelted him with etrogim!

So when it was clear that the future was with the Pharisees, everyone emphasised the water-drawing.

The deeper meaning was that though the Torah does not explicitly command this ceremony, it was developed by the Oral Law which the Pharisees championed, and by means of which the future of Judaism was made possible.

It showed that the eternal principles of Judaism could be applied to the changing needs and kaleidoscope of each generation.

So philosophy and politics combined to give the Water Drawing a special feeling. It made Succot the people’s festival, and the people enjoyed every moment of it.

This still does not explain why a ceremony involving water should be emphasised so greatly.

One answer is that without water the earth derives no nourishment and life dries up. Those who carried out the water-drawing were not rainmakers, simulating or mimicking the production of water. They were believers, who knew that everything depends on the bounties of God. And no Divine boon or bounty can rival water. Not only in the physical sense, but also spiritually and metaphorically.

Isaiah says (55:1), “All who are thirsty, come for water” – and the rabbis say that water indicates Torah. As water nourishes the body, so Torah nourishes the soul.


“Esrogim nach Sukkos” is the way that the Jewish folk vocabulary sums up something that is now too late to be used for its basic purpose.

You can have the most wonderful etrog in the world, but if it arrives after the festival there is no way it can be used for the mitzvah.

How about an etrog which you acquired in good time, used on yom-tov and now wonder if it has lost its purpose?

Some people boil up their old etrogim with sugar or sweetener to make jam. Others put cloves into the skin of the fruit and use it as b’samim for Havdalah on Saturday night.

It was thought in some places that a pregnant woman who bit into the pitom of an etrog was sure to have an easy birth.

Image result for eating the etrog on Simchat TorahSome communities used to cut up the synagogal etrog and give out the pieces to the members of the congregation. This indicated that all were partners in owning the etrog, which in those days was so difficult and expensive to acquire that the whole town might have had only one etrog between them.

There is also a custom of eating the etrog on Simchat Torah, the final day of the festive cycle, but this idea may be based on a misunderstanding of a passage in Rabbi Elazar of Worms’ “Rok’each”.

The author was making the point that the etrog was not to be eaten until Simchat Torah – not because there was a requirement to eat it then or at all, but because of the time factor.

For so long as Sukkot had not concluded, the etrog could only be used for the fulfilment of the festival mitzvah. In the same way one should not use for any outside purpose an object which is needed for a mitzvah whilst the mitzvah was still applicable.

The arrival of Simchat Torah meant that the festival of Sukkot had ended, and so if one wanted to eat the etrog it could be done then, though not before.

Jewish nationalism made a great deal of the symbolism of the etrog. Where the modern age tends to use the Magen David as the Jewish symbol, in ancient days it was the menorah or the etrog that was found on coins, burial places and synagogues.

Called in the Torah “the fruit of a goodly tree”, the etrog reminded our people of their ethnic tradition and of the unique religious observances that brought beauty, splendour and dignity into Jewish life.

Actually, the world as a whole owes a debt to the Jewish etrog. Erich Isaac said in “Science” magazine in 1959 that it was due to Jewish cultivation that citrus was introduced to the Mediterranean area – “striking illustration of the part played by religion in transforming the landscape”.

The Greeks and Romans debated whether an etrog had medicinal properties. The early Christians used it on graves, not just because of the Jewish origins of the new faith but because the fruit was a characteristic mark of the region.

Another Jewish contribution to civilisation!


The Chassidic teacher Rabbi Mordechai of Neskhiz was such a poor man that he constantly wondered how he would ever be able to afford an etrog for Sukkot.

Eventually he succeeded in putting together the necessary amount. Off he went after Yom Kippur to the nearest town to buy his etrog. But on the way he met a man who was in a terrible state.

The man was crying and the rabbi had to stop and find out what had happened.

“I am a water-carrier,” the man told him, “and normally I take barrels of water in my wagon drawn by my horse from village to village. But a terrible thing has happened to me.

“On my way here, my horse collapsed and died, and now I have no way of carrying the water and scraping even a meagre living.”

What could the rabbi do but to give his purse of money to the water-carrier.

He never got to buy the etrog he dreamed of, but still he returned home with a grin on his face.

“Thank God,” he told his family, “I have an etrog that no-one will be able to beat. Some people will mark the yom-tov with a top-quality etrog. Me, I will celebrate with a horse. I will make the b’rachah over a horse!”

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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