This painting depicts the simultaneous performance of three commandments, signaled by three trumpet blasts. The mitzvah of Arava was performed by placing long willow branches, known as murbiyyot, alongside the altar. These branches from the Motza Springs were some 11 cubits (over 5 meters) tall, rising just over the altar (Sukkah 45a). Two kohanim are seen here placing the branch in a rock base that was specially-designed for this purpose; it would thus not fall or lean on the altar. Maimonides writes that smaller branches from the murbiyyot would then be distributed to the people, and they would encircle the altar with them.
On top of the altar two kohanim are performing, the Sukkot commandment of pouring the water and the daily commandment of pouring the wine – at the same time as the placement of the willow branch. All three mitzvot were introduced with a triple trumpet blast: Tekia, Terua, Tekia. (This sequence is explained in Sukkah 5:5 and 4:9; Maimonides, Lulav 7:21; and Rashi to Sukkah 54a).
The trumpet-sounding is described in the Mishna (Tamid 7:3) as follows: “Two kohanim stood on the [marble] Table of the Fats with two trumpets in their hands, and blew Tekia, Terua, Tekia… One kohen bent down to pour [the wine, while another poured the water, and others placed the willow branch], and the deputy waved a flag, and Ben Arza sounded the cymbals, and the Levites sang the Song of the Day.”
The kohen pouring the water was told to “Raise your hands!” when doing so. Why? The mitzvah to pour the water on Sukkot is not Biblical, but is rather a binding holy tradition transmitted orally from Moses on Sinai. It happened once that a kohen of the Sadducee sect, which did not believe in the Oral Tradition and its laws, tried to deceive the public by pouring the water onto his feet instead of onto the altar. The people noticed, however, and threw their etrogim at him in protest. From then on, it was instituted that the kohen must raise his hands when performing this mitzvah, so that all could see that he was doing it properly. This rule does not apply to the kohen pouring the wine, who is seen bending down.
The Golden Vat
Seen here are two kohanim carrying a golden vat full of water to be used for the water-pouring mitzvah (nisukh hamayim) on the Sabbath. Carrying from one domain to another on the Sabbath is forbidden, which is why the water had to be drawn from the Siloam Pool and brought to the Temple before the Sabbath. The water was kept in the specially-prepared golden vat, in a chamber next to the Azara ready to be used for the water libation on the altar on the Sabbath.
The Underground Hollow
This picture shows the entry to a small pool, at the foot of the southwest corner of the altar, used to store wine. The Mishna (Middot 3:3) states that the hollow was a square cubit in size, and was covered by a marble slab to which a handle-ring was attached (on the left). The Gemara (Sota 49a) adds that the wine that drained there would become solid after a while, and young kohanim would periodically bring up these pieces (as seen) via a narrow path between the altar and its ramp, and then clean the hollow. The holes seen at top left were used for the every-day sprinkling of the blood.
The Great Improvement
The Mishna (Sukkah 5:2) describes the preparations for the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. At one point, a great improvement or repair was made: the construction of balconies for the women. This prevented intermingling of the sexes during the festivities and the resulting frivolity that negated the required awe and respect for the Temple. Thus, this “great improvement” enabled the women to fulfill the Torah command to “rejoice on your holiday” in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law.
The picture shows workers holding boards to be used for building the new balconies and seats.
Young Kohanim Filling the Golden Menorahs
The painting shows a youthful kohen climbing to the top of a tall pillar in the Azara and filling the gold candelabrum with oil thus increasing light for the Simchat Beit HaShoeva.
The Mishna (Sukkah 5:3) describes the process: “Each golden lamp had four golden bowls on top of it, with ladders leading up to them. Four young kohanim climbed up with jars of oil containing 30 log each [some 15 liters] that they poured into the bowls. They also brought up priestly garments that had become worn out, and these they used as wicks and kindling for the fires. There was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated by the light of the Simchat Beit HaShoeva.”
Simchat Beit HaShoeva
People from every sector of the nation participated in the Simchat Beit HaShoeva celebrations. The sages of the Sanhedrin, kohanim, Levites, women, youth, and the general population all participated. The illustration shows kohanim on the Azara steps; Levites and their musical instruments; Israelites and Torah scholars dancing in joy in the courtyard; and women on the balconies watching the Sukkot singing, dancing, music and all-encompassing joy.
The Mishna (Sukkah 5:4) describes the roles played by all: The sages and “men of piety and good deeds” would dance with lighted torches in their hands (at right) and sing songs and praises. The Levites played their harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets and countless other musical instruments standing on the 15 steps leading down from the Ezrat Yisrael (Courtyard of the Israelites) to the Women’s Court (at left) and singing the Song of the Day. Two kohanim stood by the Gate of Nicanor (left) with trumpets in their hands. When the call came to begin the daily service, these kohanim would blow Tekia, Terua, Tekia, and repeat it several times as they proceeded to the eastern gate. On the steps a kohen can be seen carrying the golden pitcher with water from the Siloam. The young kohanim took part by filling the golden candelabra (top right).
The rest of the nation took part, as Maimonides explains (Lulav 8:14) by “coming to watch and listen.”
Singing, Praising and Juggling
The illustration shows Sages dancing in utter joy before G-d in the Holy Temple. At the height of the happiness, the Sanhedrin members would juggle torches of fire, increasing the joy in the Divine service even more. Maimonides writes (Lulav 8:14): “The Heads of the Yeshivot, the judges of the Sanhedrin, the elders, and the men of piety and good deeds – they would dance and clap and play music and rejoice in the Temple on Sukkot.” The Gemara (Sukkah 53a) relates that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel would celebrate the Drawing of the Water as seen in the center of the painting, by juggling no fewer than eight flaming torches, without one touching another.
The Wooden Platform
In preparation for the Hak’hel ceremony, held every seven years, a raised platform was erected in the Azara. The king would stand at the top and read aloud from the Torah, and the entire congregation would be able to see and hear him, in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 31:11–12. The Mishna (Sota 7:8) teaches: “At the conclusion of the first day of Sukkot (following the Shemitta - sabbatical - year), a wooden platform is made for the king in the Azara, and he sits there.” The sukkah seen on the platform in the painting is not mentioned in the Sages’ teachings, but it fits with Nehemiah 8:16, which states that sukkahs were built “in the courtyards of the House of God and on the street of the Gate of Water.” It is therefore logical that a sukkah would be built for the king and the elders where they spend an extended amount of time.