On Sukkos, there is a special mitzvah called nisuch hamayim, pouring of the water. This is part of the temple service. Communal olos, burnt offerings, are brought daily. Additional olos are offered on Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and yomim tovim. Wine libations are poured on the altar with each olah, proportional to the animal type and the number of olos. On Sukkos, a water libation is poured together with the wine.
This mitzvah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. It is hinted in slight grammatical changes in the words used for libations in the various Sukkos offerings in Parhas Pinchas. Otherwise, it is purely Torah Sheb’al Peh, oral transmission. Why would this be the case? If it is indeed critical to the validity of the offerings, it should be stated explicitly!
Furthermore, while we have various ways to commemorate many aspects of temple service nowadays, we have nothing to commemorate nisuch hamayim. In temple times, there was much fanfare in the drawing of this water, the shoaivah. It was done with excessive joy and festivities, and some of that remains today in the form of simchas bais hashoaivah, celebratory gatherings during the nights of Sukkos.
However, the actual mitzvah of water libation has no distinct memorial. Other offerings are mentioned in the prayer services, in keeping with the term “uneshalma parim sefasainu (we shall make up for the bulls with our lips).” In musaf of Sukkos, we could mention in the excerpt “uminchasam veniskaihem … veyayin vemayim kenisko (with wine and with water according to its proportional libation),” but there is no such inclusion. Only wine is mentioned, as it is for every other yom tov. Why?
In Parshas Vayikra the Torah describes bris melach, the covenant with salt. Every offering must be accompanied with salt. On the second day of Creation, Hashem separated the upper waters from the lower waters. When the lower waters complained that they were being relegated, Hashem promised them that they would be used on the mizbaiach, the altar in the temple service. This refers to salt with every mincha, meal offering, and nisuch hamayim on Sukkos. If salt is considered water, due to its water of crystallization, why is there a need for a separate nisuch hamayim? Salt is used every day!
Moreover, every day wine is used. Wine has water content, just like salt. Indeed, there is more water in wine than in salt crystals. Blood is also thrown on the mizbaiach every day. Blood also has more water than does salt. (Blood even has some salt in it as well.)
In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), Hashem tells Israel: “On Sukkos there is judgment on the water. Therefore, pour out water before Me [so I will give the water a favorable judgment]!” There are separate judgments for grain on Pesach and for trees on Shavuos. The whole world is judged on Rosh Hashanah. All these also require water for their survival. Why is the judgment of water not incorporated into these other judgments?
There must be a dedicated judgment on pure water. Water as is, having its own life and its own identity. Many commentaries believe that water was the first item created. Earth was a ball of water. Water is a primary mineral from which everything else derived. But there is still water itself — lower waters and upper waters, rain, seas and rivers. There is a defined amount of water in Creation, that will never increase or decrease. This is recycled and redistributed all the time. Some goes into plant and animal life. Some is absorbed in minerals. Some is recycled in bodies of water. Some ice melts, and some water freezes. What happens and where it happens is planned by Hashem. The judgment on Sukkos is on this recycling and redistributing.
The Sefer HaChinuch mitzvah 173 (immersing in a mikveh or spring for ritual purification and cleansing) says the following: The simplest way to explain the immersion of the tamei, ritually defiled, is that one should think of himself or herself after the tevila as though he was created afresh at that moment. As we know, the world was completely water before mankind existed as the verse says: “The Spirit of G-d was hovering over the face of the water …” (Beraishis 1:2).
Water is released by mankind in urination. Washing hands with water is required after this. There is a brocha on this, asher yatzar. Water is used to wash the hands first thing in the morning. This is also based on the concept of renewal every morning. There is a brocha on this as well.
The mitzvah and avoda service of nisuch hamayim seems to be easier and less significant than any other mitzvah. It requires taking plain water. It is poured on the mizbaiach. The mizbaiach is traditionally built on the spot from where Hashem took the earth to create Adam. Indeed, according to one version, this is where the entire Creation began, and expanded from here. A stone was taken from this spot and pushed in place in the Holy of Holies, where the holy ark would rest. That was the foundation stone of the universe. The mizbaiach also represents going back to the beginning. Stones and earth are also very basic minerals. When there is judgment on the water, it, too, is renewed and refreshed.
Water is very common. There is no explicit mention of this mitzvah in the Torah. It is all Torah Sheb’al Peh. And there is nothing to commemorate the libation. It doesn’t even get a mention in musaf. It is as though Hashem is saying: “I’m asking something so minor and small of you, so that this judgment on something so critical should go well!” An offering that costs nothing, just drawing some pure water. Not like an animal, or even a flour offering. Certainly not as costly as an esrog! The point is to understand that something so ubiquitous is only this way based on Hashem’s judgment. It should remain so ubiquitous, with a favorable judgment. It is a lesson for all service to Hashem. Every seemingly minor thing that might go unmentioned has critical far-reaching force. A jug of plain pure water, when used in service of Hashem, can change the world.
Think about that next time you wash hands in the morning, after relieving, or for a meal. All acts of service — with a jug of plain water! PJC
Rabbi Shimon Silver is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.