Simhat Beit HaSho’eva: The Celebration of the Temple and Its Annual Dedication
The flute was for five or six days. This refers to the flute at the Beit HaSho’eva [the place of the water-drawing], which does not override Shabbat or the festival day. They said: He who has not seen the Simhat Beit HaSho’eva has never seen rejoicing in his life (Sukka 5:1).
The nights of Sukkot were celebrated in the Temple with song and dance. The celebration known in Jewish sources as “Simhat Beit HaSho’eva” lasted all night, and the Sages said that “He who has not seen the Simhat Beit HaSho’eva has never seen rejoicing in his life.”
The rejoicing was, to my mind, the annual celebration of the Temple – an expression of the people’s joy over the existence of the House of God and the Divine Presence therein. Simhat Beit HaSho’eva ceremonies were a stage for the reenactment of events and foundational rituals from the time of the dedication of the First Temple by King David and his son Solomon. These reenactments were a rededication of sorts of the Temple. Simhat Beit HaSho’eva, which took place on every evening of Sukkot, came to define the character of the entire week as the festival of the Temple. To understand this idea, we will examine the similarities between the tannaitic literature on Simhat Beit HaSho’eva on the one hand, and the biblical stories of how David brought the Ark of Covenant to Jerusalem and the dedication of the Temple in the days of Solomon, on the other.
The Meaning of the Name
Simhat Beit HaSho’eva (literally the “Rejoicing of the Water-Drawing House”) is generally linked to the drawing of the water during the water-libation ritual. Rashi explains: “Beit HaSho’eva – all of this rejoicing is only over the water libation, as it is written, ‘Therefore with joy you shall draw water’ (Isaiah 12:3).”1 According to this explanation, Beit HaSho’eva is the place where the water was drawn for the libation ritual. But the claim is hard to accept, because rabbinic texts make no mention of the water libation in its descriptions of Simhat Beit HaSho’eva. Furthermore, it is hard to understand how the word “house” (beit) would be read in the context of this explanation, as the water for the libation ritual was drawn not from a house but from the Gihon spring.
Sources from the Land of Israel offer a different explanation of the expression:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why is it called Beit HaSho’eva? Because from there they would draw (sho’avin) the Holy Spirit, as it is said, “Therefore with joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation.”… Jonah son of Amittai, one of the holiday pilgrims, would enter Simhat Beit HaSho’eva, and the Holy Spirit would rest upon him (Yerushalmi Sukka 5:1).
The Yerushalmi, like the Bavli2 and Rashi, links Simhat Beit HaSho’eva to the verse in Isaiah. But unlike them, it reads the verse as an allegory for God’s salvation and revelation, which jibes with the Bible’s metaphorical treatment of the water:
Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for God the Lord is my strength and song; and He has become my salvation. Therefore with joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:2–3).
What is the place called Beit HaSho’eva, from which the Holy Spirit was drawn? According to the Yerushalmi, it seems that it was the Temple. That was the place where Simhat Beit HaSho’eva was celebrated with joy that, according to the Yerushalmi, was imbued with the Holy Spirit.
This interpretation works because it explains both the use of the word “house” and the fact that the Mishna makes no reference to the water libation in its description of Simhat Beit HaSho’eva. Still, we cannot overlook the fact that the verse in Isaiah refers to drawing actual water, which invokes the libation ritual. Further along, I will propose that here is indeed a connection between the water libation and Simhat Beit HaSho’eva, but from the other direction: that Simhat Beit HaSho’eva is not an expression of joy over the water libation but rather over the Temple. The drawing of the water in Isaiah, which the Sages imbued with allegorical significance, fits into this celebration. The Yerushalmi’s interpretation, attributed to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a first-generation Amora from the Land of Israel, can give us perspective on the significance of the ritual in tannaitic literature.
We can thus conclude that the name “Simhat Beit HaSho’eva” is not only a description of the place of celebration but also of its content – the people’s rejoicing in the Temple, where the Holy Spirit indwells.
The Biblical Background
The descriptions of the celebration in the Mishna and Tosefta appear to draw on the story of the procession that brought the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David and the story of the dedication of the Temple. These ancient narratives inspired the structure of the Simhat Beit HaSho’eva ritual and informed its spiritual content. Thus, if we are to understand Simhat Beit HaSho’eva, we must first review briefly its biblical background.
The Ark of the Covenant was brought to the City of David3 in the presence of a large crowd, with joyously offered sacrifices and music and song. During the procession, King David expressed his merriment with exhilarating, ecstatic dance in front of the Ark. David said that his willingness to be self-deprecating was the source of his advantage over the House of Saul.
But bringing the Ark to the City of David was only the first step in the process of building the Temple. Indeed, immediately after the arrival of the Ark, David intended to start building the Temple.4
The effort to retrace David’s jubilation can already be found in the Bible itself, in the story of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. The story of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple begins with conveying the Ark, with the king and all of the people on hand, to its “place.”5 This recalls the story of the procession of the Ark under King David. In both stories sacrifices are offered along the way.6 In addition, during the dedication of the Temple, some of the musical instruments that were used in David’s time are again brought out.7 Further along in the story, Solomon blesses the people, like David in his time,8 and the event concludes with joy,9 just as the procession of the Ark to Jerusalem in the time of David was a joyous occasion.10
The extensive evocation of elements from the story of the Ark’s relocation by David is a sign of the importance of the story of the Temple’s dedication by Solomon – told in II Chronicles – as a foundational event conveying the significance of the Temple.
The biblical scholar Sigmund Mowinckel contends that the procession of the Ark in the time of King David was reconstructed not only in the dedication of the Temple, but also annually, with a Temple rededication ritual on Sukkot.11 His claim is based on the biblical descriptions – not the Sages’ descriptions of the Temple celebrations. In fact, he does not connect his idea of the Temple rededication to Simhat Beit HaSho’eva. As we will see, Simhat Beit HaSho’eva, as it is described in rabbinic literature, resembles the rededication ritual that Mowinckel expected to find on Sukkot based on his readings of the Bible.
Parallels Between Biblical Events and Simhat Beit HaSho’eva
The Tosefta’s description of Rabbi Shimon’s behavior is surprising; where is the dignity and majesty of the leader of Israel, the president of the Sanhedrin? It seems that the editors of the Tosefta sought to emphasize his actions, for they recall the behavior of King David, who frolicked and twirled ecstatically before God while the Ark was being transported to Jerusalem.
The Bible plays up the public nature of David’s actions: The celebration took place in the presence of “all the house of Israel” (II Samuel 6:15), and David’s dance was witnessed by “the handmaids of his servants” (v. 20). This fact, which is underlined in the exchange between David and his wife Michal, the daughter of Saul, highlights David’s authentic humility. It shows why he was chosen to be king of Israel and how he was preferable to the offspring of Saul. The descriptions of Simhat Beit HaSho’eva also emphasize the public aspect. The Tosefta relates how the entire nation, men and women both, would watch the dances (Tosefta Sukka 4:1–2).
The identity of the dancers also underlines the connection between Simhat Beit HaSho’eva and the procession of the Ark to Jerusalem. Indeed, in both cases, it is the leaders who dance. But perhaps the link between the two leaders is even stronger, considering the fact that, according to sources from the Land of Israel, the line of the house of the president (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin was descended from the House of David.
The comparison between the actions of King David and those of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel is hinted at in the Yerushalmi, which juxtaposes the two stories (Yerushalmi Sukka 5:4).
It follows that the parallel between Rabbi Shimon and David stems from the idea that Simhat Beit HaSho’eva, which was a celebration of the Temple and God’s presence within it, is parallel to the celebration by David and the people of Israel of the Ark’s relocation. David’s celebration, which is ostensibly about the Ark, is in fact a rejoicing in the dwelling of the Divine Presence, as the Torah says: “And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him, from Baale-Judah, to bring up from there the Ark of God, upon which the Name is called, even the name of the Lord of hosts, who sits upon the cherubim” (II Samuel 6:2). After the Temple is built, it becomes a home for the Divine Presence, and the festival revelries there serve the same role as David’s celebration of the Ark.
As the procession of the Ark to Jerusalem was the first step on the way to building the Temple, the similarity in the content of the two events is no coincidence. It is only natural that the annual celebration of the Temple will mention and commemorate, in various ways, its foundational events and rituals.
David and the story of the procession of the Ark to Jerusalem also apparently inform the descriptions in the Mishna. It describes excited public dances “with lighted torches” – just like the procession of the Ark under David. It also notes that praises were said, similar to David’s prayer before the Ark after it was deposited in the City of David: “That we may give thanks to Your holy name, that we may triumph in Your praise” (I Chronicles 16:35). But the similarity is epitomized in the figure of the pious man, or “hasid.”
In the mishna, the hasidim are the ones who dance and sing praises, but the word “hasid” may also allude to King David. One psalm attributed to David states, “for I am pious (a hasid)” (Psalms 86:2); indeed, the identification of David with the figure of the hasid is a recurring theme in the book of Psalms. The hasidim mentioned in the Mishna, who lived in the end of the Second Temple period, are also reminiscent of the figure of King David, with his spontaneity and joy before God.
The descriptions of the Temple dedication also mention “hasidim,” who are said to sing and make merry. The psalm about the dedication of the Temple says, “Sing praise to the Lord, O pious ones (hasidim), and give thanks to His holy name” (Psalms 30:5), as does Solomon’s prayer during the dedication: “Now therefore arise, O Lord God, into Your resting place, You and the Ark of Your strength; let Your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let Your pious ones (hasidim) rejoice in good” (II Chronicles 6:41). The equivalent verse in Psalms states: “Arise, O Lord, into Your resting place; You and the Ark of Your strength. Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let Your pious ones (hasidim) shout for joy” (Psalms 132:8–9).
This section appears in the Tosefta before the story of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s revelry, which we discussed above. Hillel was Rabban Shimon’s great-grandfather, and his behavior serves a similar role as David’s – foreshadowing Rabban Shimon’s conduct.
The body takes its cues from the emotions. God’s invitation to participants of Simhat Beit HaSho’eva to enter his house, and his promise to visit their house in return, paints a picture of intimacy and closeness between God and the Jewish people in the Temple – and especially during Simhat Beit HaSho’eva.
Hillel’s words recall David’s yearning for a house of God, as it emerges from various sources in the book of Psalms. In one of these, David is described, like Hillel, as being led by his legs:
“I considered my ways and I turned my feet to your testimonies” (Psalms 119:59) – said David to the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the universe, on each and every day I would consider and say, ‘To this place I am walking, to the home of that one I am walking,’ but my feet would bring me to the synagogues and the houses of study. About this it is written, ‘…and I turned my feet to your testimonies’” (Leviticus Rabba 35).
Further points of similarity between the content of Hillel’s words and the story of the dedication of the Temple and the House of David can be found in II Samuel 6–7.
Hillel’s words express a close relationship with God, one of mutuality: “If you come to My house, I will go to yours” – if you, the believer, come worship Me in My Temple, “I will go to your [house],” meaning My blessing and Presence will dwell within you.
There is a similar reciprocal element in the story of God’s promise to David that his son will build the Temple.12 The word “house” appears more than twenty times in that chapter and serves as a keyword.13 David says, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God dwells within curtains” (II Samuel 7:2), and God promises, “the Lord will make you a house” (v. 11), meaning David will have a dynasty beginning with the ascension of his son to the throne, “and He shall build a house for My name (v. 13). Clearly, the mutual relationship between God and David revolves around the concept of a “house,” as in the case of Hillel.
The Tosefta cites as a source for Hillel’s statement the verse “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:20). In the context of Hillel’s words, we can understand the verse thus: God enters the homes of His believers and bestows upon them His blessing.
David, too, asks God to bless his house: “Now therefore let it please You to bless the house of Your servant, so that it may continue forever before You; for You, O Lord God, have spoken it; and through Your blessing let the house of Your servant be blessed forever” (II Samuel 7:29). Just as the blessing of Simhat Beit HaSho’eva is extended to all of the pilgrims who come to the Temple, so David blesses the crowd that joins him to celebrate the procession of the Ark.14 There, too, it is hinted that the blessing has to do with houses:
And when David had made an end of sacrificing the burnt offering and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts. And he dealt among all the people, even among the whole multitude of Israel, both to men and women, to each a cake of bread, and a cake made in a pan, and a sweet cake. So all the people departed each to his house. Then David returned to bless his house (II Samuel 6:18–20).
The Ark’s relocation to Jerusalem marks the beginning of a transformation in God’s presence in the world, a process that culminates in the construction of the Temple. As we saw, some elements of that event are reconstructed in the Simhat Beit HaSho’eva ritual, making it a celebration of sorts of the institution of the Temple. Indeed, the very name of the event, “Simhat Beit (house) HaSho’eva,” reinforces the idea that it is, at bottom, a celebration of the Temple as the house of the Lord. This reconstruction expresses a renewal of the relationship between the leaders of the people and God, which led to the construction of the Temple.
And they set the Ark of God upon a new cart.… And David and all Israel played before God with all their might; even with songs, and with harps, and with lyres, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets (I Chronicles 13:7–8).
The same instruments also appear in the description of Solomon’s dedication of the Temple (II Chronicles 5:12–14).
Solomon dedicated the Temple on Sukkot, as the Bible says: “And all the men of Israel assembled themselves around King Solomon at the feast, in the month Eitanim, which is the seventh month” (I Kings 8:2). It follows that Sukkot is an appropriate festival for the yearly celebration of the dedication of the Temple.
It is also no accident that Sukkot falls at the end of the biblical year: “And the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year” (Exodus 23:16); “and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year” (34:22). In the cycle of the year, the end is also the beginning, an ideal time to dedicate the Temple. The Talmud, in explaining the opinion that the world was created in Tishrei, says that Tishrei is the start of the rainy season.17 Sources in rabbinic literature see rainfall as a recapitulation of Creation.
Considering that sources from the biblical and Second Temple eras, as well as rabbinic literature, consider the Temple a microcosm of the entire world, it is clear why Sukkot, which falls in the month of Creation, is an appropriate time for the dedication of the Temple and the annual celebration and reenactment of this event.
Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a senior rabbi at the Otniel Yeshiva and the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. The essay is adapted from his forthcoming The Soul of the Mishna (Yeshivat Otniel & Maggid Books).