Sights and Insights: Succot and the waters of Siloam

Succot’s priestly tradition of drawing water from the Pool of Siloam drips with meaning.

Pool of Siloam excavations from southeast 311 (photo credit:
Pool of Siloam excavations from southeast 311
(photo credit:
Wayne Stiles is an author who has never recovered from his travels in Israel—and loves to write about them from his desk in Texas.
While enjoying the movie Ushpizin several years ago, I laughed out loud when the family’s uninvited visitor sliced the flawless etrog and casually ate it. Clearly, he had no clue to its significance! Although the movie’s English subtitles translate the language, the movie leaves the traditions of Succot for the viewer to decode.
How puzzling the holiday must seem to those unacquainted with its modern customs—much less its biblical foundations. Succot marked the most joyful of the biblical feasts because the harvest’s labor was complete, and the people would be grateful to God and expectant for the latter rains.
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In addition to the name Succot (translated “Booths” or “Tabernacles” in Deuteronomy 16:13 and Leviticus 23:34), the Bible also refers to the holiday as “the Feast of the Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), the “Feast of Ingathering” (Exodus 34:22), “the feast” (1 Kings 8:2; 2 Chronicles 7:8-9; John 7:37), and “the feast of the Lord” (Leviticus 23:39). At Succot, every seven years on the sabbatical year, the Law was read in the hearing of all Israel (Deuteronomy 31:10-11).
The original purpose of feast centered on an essential reminder: “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the Lord. . . . You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God’” (Leviticus 23:34, 42-43). It was a time to remember how God had delivered them from bondage and how the Lord had provided for them in the wilderness.
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During the Second Temple period, the Sadducees understood the Bible’s command to take branches of “leafy trees and willows” (Leviticus 23:40) as the building materials for their succas (booths). The Pharisees, on the other hand, interpreted the foliage as what the worshippers would carry in their hands. Both are observed today, and the Mishna describes in exacting detail the construction of the succas.
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The rabbis identified the “fruit” of Leviticus 23:40 as the etrog, or citron, which the worshipper would carry in the left hand. The right hand would hold three species of branches—the palm, the willow, and the myrtle. Every year in modern Jerusalem, Succot draws hundreds of thousands of worshippers to the Western Wall who hold the Four Species in their hands.
In addition, the Feast of Tabernacles required sacrifices of sin offerings and burnt offerings. At the time of preparation for the morning sacrifice, a priest would descend to the Pool of Siloam—amidst great music and celebration—and fill a golden pitcher with water.
After dipping his pitcher in Siloam’s water, the priest would return to the Temple Mount and pour the water into one of the silver basins by the altar. “Raise your hand!” the people would shout to the priest so that they could see he indeed poured the water into the basin. The Mishna relates: “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Hasheavah [the water drawing ceremony], has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Succa 5:1).
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For many years the Pool of Siloam was thought to be the upper pool beside the exit of Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Discovered near the turn of the 20th century, this pool dates only to the fifth century AD. The Siloam of the Second Temple period was discovered by accident in 2004 while workers were digging a sewer line. Archaeologists have uncovered only a portion of this lower pool, exposing the entire north side—more than 225 feet long. Tourists can visit there today.
During the Second Temple period one year, on the last and greatest day of Succot, Jesus drew upon this tradition of pouring water to illustrate a point: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). An interesting bit of history illustrates the differing schools of thought about this water-pouring ceremony. Around the year 95 BC, the Maccabean king and priest Alexander Jannaeus revealed his contempt for the Pharisees by pouring the water on the ground instead of into the basin. For this, the people hurled their etrogs at him!
In addition to looking backward at God’s historical blessings on Israel, Succot looked ahead to the time when all nations will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem in honor of Israel’s reigning Messiah (Zechariah 14:16-21).
Anybody who has ever gone camping knows that we forgo major conveniences to do so. The Feast of Tabernacles required similar sacrifices, and it remains a timeless reminder of the fact that everything we possess—both physically and spiritually—comes from God.
What to Do There:
Visit both the Upper and Lower Pools of Siloam. While sitting on the steps of the Lower Pool, read various biblical accounts of the Feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus 23:34-43; 1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 7; Zechariah 14:16-21; and John 7. Also, if you haven’t seen it already, watch the delightful movie, Ushpizin.
How To Get There:
You can easily find the entrance to the Upper and Lower Pools of Siloam at the southern edge of the City of David in Jerusalem.
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