The festival of Sukkot gives us a window into how religion and science speak to each other. Now in one sense, the pilgrimage celebration as we know it from two thousand years ago was a crazy party. It culminated in a ritual in Jerusalem called Simchat Beit Ha-Shoevah, “The Celebration of the Place of the Drawing-of-Water”, which is not mentioned specifically in the Bible. In the Mishnah, written down a couple centuries after the ritual would have last taken place, here is some of how Simchat Beit Ha-Shoevah is described:
One who did not see the Celebration of the Place of the Drawing-of-Water never saw celebration in his days… There were golden candelabra there, and four basins of gold at the top of each And there were four ladders for each and every pole and there were four children from the priesthood trainees, and in their hands were pitchers with a capacity of 120 log of oil that they would pour into each and every basin.
… And there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that was not illuminated from the light of the Place of the Drawing-of-Water.
The pious and the men of action would dance before the people with flaming torches… And the Levites would play on lyres, harps, cymbals, and trumpets, and countless other musical instruments. … Two priests stood at the Upper Gate … with two shofarot in their hands. When the rooster crowed, they sounded a tekiah, and sounded a teruah, and sounded a tekiah. When they reached the tenth stair they sounded a tekiah, and sounded a teruah, and sounded a tekiah… They continued sounding the shofarot until they reached the gate through which one exits to the east… (Mishnah Sukkah, Chapter 5)
Pure spectacle? Pagan celebration?
The whole festival of Sukkot and the particular ritual of Simchat Beit Ha-Shoevah are about rain. You could certainly dismiss a lot of this as a very thinly veiled pagan sympathetic magic – the drawing and pouring of waters, the whooshing sounds coming as one waves the Four Species, all meant to arouse God to start the winter rains in due time.
But our ancestors were and had to be much more keen observers of rain than that. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I took a course with Professor Paul Hanson, a scholar of the ancient Near East, comparing the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Land of Israel. From Professor Hanson I learned that each civilization had its own experience of the rains, and these shaped the fundamental worldviews and religions of the three areas. Mesopotamia depended on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and civilization developed as rulers created a set of levees and canals to harness the fairly regular cycle of the rivers. Egypt was even more centered on the Nile, and the canals created to catch the overflow of its floods. In both places, the rivers on which people depended were fairly predictable. The stories and rituals in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt projected and protected that stability. Look at ancient Egyptian art over many centuries, depicting the Pharaohs or the transit of the soul after death, and so much of it remained the same.
In the Land of Israel, by contrast, there are no comparable rivers. The settled part of the land depends entirely on rain, and the rains are far from predictable from year to year. The ancient Canaanites called the drops of dew on plants ba’al, the same name they gave to the god at the head of their pantheon. For the Israelites in the time of the Bible, God’s favor meant good rains in the winter, and violating the covenant meant the risk of drought from the skies. That outlook is distilled in the passage from Deuteronomy 11 that eventually became part of our central prayer, the Sh’ma. Rain was more than a metaphor.
On one level, Sukkot even in biblical times was sort of like the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual, a dramatic spectacle for the public praying for good rains in the coming months. But just as on Yom Kippur there was a more intricate and serious ritual – the visit by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies – so too on Sukkot there is ritual that is more subtle.
Leviticus 23:40 mentions a dance or some kind of celebrating involving what we now call Arba’at Haminim, the Four Species. They are an etrog (citron), lulav (palm branches), hadas (myrtle), and aravot (willows). Hold them together, and wave them around, and they sound like a drizzle. Imagine hundreds or thousands doing the same, and it’s a shower or a storm.
And yet these four seem to be selected for a deeper reason. Dr. Nogah Hareuveni was an Israeli botanist who created a nature preserve in the foothills called Ne’ot Kedumim, which presents species from biblical times and shows what agricultural was like in that era. Dr. Hareuveni suggested that the Four Species represent four ways that plants can get water – the only four ways, in fact.
The lulav (palm) is a tree of the oasis, drawing from deep ground water. The hadas (myrtle) draws from water vapor, water in the air after the rain. Aravot (willows) grow by rivers, which flow with rain water. (Most of Israel’s streams are bed that only flow in the rainy season; they are known as nachal in Hebrew and wadi in Arabic.) The etrog (citron) is a cultivated fruit, and depends on irrigation – human gathering of water saved after the rains, for instance, in cisterns.
The ritual of waving the Four Species, strange and quasi-pagan as it might strike us, is itself the product of observation: the careful observation of nature, plant life, cultivation, the rains, the water cycle. The observations were not disinterested, obviously. This was a motivated science.
But the observations also led to something else, a fundamental change in mindset. These observations of the rains and the water cycle led our ancestors to a new idea, that there was a unity to every form of water and every facet of the cycle. Storms and rivers and the salty seas were not each the province of some individual deity. They were all the domain of a One. No wonder the prophet Zechariah associates Sukkot with the idea that God is One, and all people will share that awareness. Indeed, to the later prophets all the nations are in some sense one, at least in potential. The idea that all humans of any origin are created in the image of God may be in the first chapter of the Bible, but that chapter was probably one of the later ones written down, a result somewhere downstream in the biblical “science” of the rains.
This is why I like to describe the Four Species as a spiritual antenna. It’s not anymore that we think the mimicking of a rain shower will bring the rains. Instead, I think of all the unities in nature that we don’t take notice of, just as we aren’t aware of the broadcast waves all around us at all, until we take a radio and tune it, and suddenly we hear a coherent sound or a beautiful one. Taking the Four Species in hand is tuning ourselves, as the apparatus that can perceive the unity in water and in all things.
When we talk about the meeting place of religion and science, it is not that religious principles drive our science. It’s that many of the same needs that drive our spiritual quests also drive our desire to understand the multifaceted world and universe we live in. At our best, we observe, we test, we synthesize, we experiment conceptually – and we hit on bigger realizations. That part is common to the fundamental quests of science and religion. The same habits are important for both.
Can we prove scientifically that there is a God, and that God is One? No. Can we understand better what the meaning of Oneness is, by looking back at our ancestors’ science? Yes. And thinking of what they did at least partly as science is far richer than just saying “One God means no idols, and pagans were fools.”
In our time, the desire to understand things like light and energy and the atom led to other ideas of underlying unities: that the whole universe was generated from a single point, from a mass and energy that were one, and that in some sense all of the universe is one thing in different forms of masses and energies and forces. That much seems clearer and exciting, though of course the basic realities are still so mysterious. Some call this unity divinity or God; it is after all more fundamental that the unity of water in its many forms. Yet seeing God in the unity of waves and particles leaves other religious questions, like where in that picture is wisdom or love or Torah.
On Sukkot, our ancestors began with a desire to master the cycle of water for their purposes. But taking the Four Species, and enacting the Celebration of the Drawing-of-Water, led them farther. As one Chabad teaching points out, Jewish festivals are usually celebrated with wine, representing joy – a single dimension of our lives. Sukkot is also celebrated through water – no taste, many forms, a higher level. Water has become of one the key Jewish metaphors for divine unity, the energy that cycles everywhere and sustains us. And so too water has become the key metaphor for Torah itself, the way wisdom flows always where it is needed, and cycles among us.
Scientific inquiry is one way we develop a sense of wonder and connection. The celebration of Sukkot arose partly because of that. Sukkot and the need to understand water and rains remind us, too, how much there is to gain when we use our minds, and how much is at stake – prosperity or drought in the coming seasons, marshalling water as a scarce resource for our planet. And Sukkot reminds us that sometimes the explorations that we think we need for practical reasons lead us to wider truths.
And our ancestors realized that all of that deserves a celebration. The joy of anticipating our knowledge paying off for the good. The joys of understanding the oneness of everything in that process in ways we hadn’t imagined. So they drew and poured water, brought water to their sacred altar, and sang and danced. So too we can sing and dance, for Sukkot and for science.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Jon Spira-Savett is Rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, NH. This was a sermon given on the morning of Rosh Hashanah 5784 – September 16, 2023).