Sites and Insights: Linking cisterns, rain and Torah

The recent discovery of a massive water reservoir by the Temple Mount underscores the importance Simhat Torah.

Gihon Spring (photo credit: Vladimir Naykhin, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Gihon Spring
(photo credit: Vladimir Naykhin, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
Where there is water in Israel, there is life. And where there wasn’t water, the rule in antiquity was simple. Dig a cistern.
The Gihon Spring provided constant, fresh water to Jerusalem. But its limited capacity and problematic location led to a number of creative water systems over the centuries.
While excavating a first-century drainage channel and street that led from the City of David to the Temple Mount, archaeologists recently found a massive water reservoir dating from the First Temple period. The discovery of the reservoir, just west of the Temple Mount, gives silent testimony to the importance of water in the spiritual lives of God’s people.
Dr. Tvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist of the Nature and Parks Authority, said: “Presumably the large water reservoir, which is situated near the Temple Mount, was used for the everyday activities of the Temple Mount itself and also by the pilgrims who went up to the Temple and required water for bathing and drinking.”
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As the rainy season begins in Israel, the High Holy Days draw to a close with the celebration of the holiday Shemini Atzeret, which means, “the assembly of the eighth [day].”
Following the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the act of bringing a sacrifice to God was replaced with the tradition of praying for rain, called Tefilat Geshem. The prayer remains the only exclusive ritual of Shemini Atzeret; in fact, the holiday marks the beginning of the rainy season.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret also is celebrated in connection with Simhat Torah. Simchat Torah represents the end of the annual cycle of Scripture readings. It also signifies the beginning of another year’s readings.
Whether or not the connection is intentional, I find it instructive that the prayer for rain comes on a day when there is much rejoicing over the Scriptures. This connection between rain and reading the Scriptures is ancient, for rain serves as a continual reminder of the purpose for the regular reading of God’s Word.
Since water remained the most important variable in the land of Israel, the Hebrew Scriptures reveal that God used the climate to encourage his people to trust and obey him. For obedience God sent rain; for disobedience God sent drought (Deuteronomy 28). Talk about motivation.
Even today, the rains in Israel remain vital and regularly make headlines. The largest reservoir in the country is Lake Kinneret, which supplies its water to most of the country via the National Water Carrier. How the rains affect the Kinneret’s level is a constant source of concern.
The holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah offer complimentary realities. The need for rain illustrates the need for truth—both essential for life. Just as the prayer for rain is cyclical—like the reading of the Torah—it also illustrates a necessary and never-ending dependence on the God who gives it.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at