During the time of the Beis HaMikdash, nisuch hamayim (pouring of the water) was an important part of Sukkos. During the year, the daily korbonos (offerings) on the altar were accompanied by a wine offering, but on Sukkos, water was offered in addition to wine. This water was drawn early in the morning from the Shiloach Spring, which flowed near the Beis HaMikdash. The entire previous night was devoted to celebrations in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash. The Levi’im (Levites) played music, people juggled lit torches and sang and danced throughout the night. The Gemara speaks of the great joy at Simchas Beis HaShoeva, saying: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.”
Why was water offered, in addition to wine, as part of the korbonos of Sukkos? According to the Kabbalah and Chassidus, water and wine represent two different aspects of our service of Hashem. Water, which is tasteless and colorless, but at the same time the essence of life, represents kabbalas ol malchus shamayim (the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven), which is the basis of Torah and mitzvos – recognizing Hashem as our Master and committing ourselves to observing His mitzvos. Wine, on the other hand, which is sensually gratifying, represents the emotional and spiritual aspect of our service of Hashem. It signifies the joy we experience while observing Torah and mitzvos.
So why is water, which is tasteless and colorless, used to symbolize our great joy – a joy unequaled by any other experience – on Sukkos? Water, has no taste and only requires a brocha when one drinks it out of thirst. Imagine for a moment that you have just come inside after a long walk on a hot summer day. You are parched and aching for a drink of water. When the cold water hits your mouth, at that moment, it is tastier than a glass of wine! The same is true in a spiritual sense. When one has a thirst for a connection to Hashem, a simple mitzvah done with kabbalas ol has more value to the person than the deepest secrets of Torah. Sukkos, which comes after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two holidays which focus on kabbalas ol, is a time when we are most open to experiencing the fulfillment that comes from the seemingly ordinary act of kabbalas ol.
Water and wine also represent two types of joy – unlimited spiritual joy and limited physical joy. Wine, by nature, leads to physical joy due to its intoxicating properties. Since the joy associated with wine has a physical basis, it is bound by the limitations of nature. Therefore, when wine is offered on the altar, the spiritual joy of the offering is mixed with, and limited by, a physical joy. In contrast, tasteless, colorless water does not, by its nature, bring one to a state of joy. Therefore, the joy associated with the water offering was completely spiritual, because it was offered based on Hashem’s command to “draw water with joy.” Since Hashem and His mitzvos are not limited by nature, the joy associated with the water offering has no limits. When one serves Hashem through study and contemplation, this represents the wine offering, since it is limited by the intellectual capacity of the person, while the water offering is compared to serving Hashem with self-sacrificing kabbalas ol, of which every person is capable.
The joy of Sukkos, Z’man Simchaseinu, comes from the great spiritual achievements of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the days we strove to bind ourselves with the Essence of Hashem, to serve Hashem like water with self-sacrifice and kabbalas ol. The connection is finally revealed during Simchas Beis HaShoeva and nisuch hamayim – the joy that comes from fulfilling Hashem’s mitzvos and binding ourselves to Him, which transcends all limitations.