Paris, France may be the modern world’s City of Lights but did you know that Jerusalem was once called the City of Lights? This was common knowledge to the ancient world surrounding Yisrael. During the Feast of Sukkot, Jerusalem was well known as the City of Lights and this festival was known as “The Festival of Lights.”
During the Syrian-Greek occupation, Israel was not able to observe the Festival of Sukkot because temple was under the control of Antioches Epiphanes. Once the Maccabees secured the Temple, cleansed it, and rededicated it to the worship and service of HaShem they wanted to observe Sukkot for the usual eight days.
Sukkot lasts for eight days it was known as the Festival of Lights. This was long before the Maccabees or the development of a hanukkiah menorah. We believe that when the Maccabees celebrated the festival of Sukkot ‘late’ they would have kept it for eight days. They also instituted the observance of the persecutions, fight against the oppressors, victory and re-dedication of the Temple beginning on Kislev 25 and to be held annually. Over time, this historical remembrance became known as the Festival of Lights and this was no longer associated with the festival of Sukkot.
Here are a few things we have read / heard over the years:
Indeed, the pilgrims who arrived in Jerusalem at the Temple’s courtyard came to rejoice. The focus of this rejoicing was the ceremony surrounding the commandment to pour water on the altar – the water libation. The sages of Israel testify to the celebrations of the water libation from the days of the Second Temple, describing the great joy of the ceremony:
“Whoever has not seen the celebration of the water libation has never experienced the feeling of true joy – In the Court of the women were 4 enormous candlesticks with 4 golden bowls at the top of each. They were 75-feet high!”
They used worn out priestly garments for wicks that they had cut into strips and would pour oil from 7-gallon jugs. Four young priests-in-training would climb to the top, carrying immense oil jugs with which they would fill the bowls. Once lighted, there was not a courtyard in all of Jerusalem that did not glow with the light that emanated from the celebration in the Temple courtyard.
During this event, which mainly took place in the Women’s Court, the Levites played on many musical instruments. As the people sang, the men would dance before them while juggling flaming torches. The Levites, standing on the fifteen steps that ascend from the Women’s Court, to the Court of Israel played on lyres, harps, trumpets and many other instruments. Two priests who blew silver trumpets stood at the top of the stairs on either side of the entrance to the great gate of the Court. All this was done to honor the commandment of the water libation.” (based on Mishna, Tractate Sukkah, Chapter 5)
Men, women and children participated in the immense joy of the water libation. Special elevated balconies were constructed to enable the women of Israel to watch the men of the Sanhedrin as they danced.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanina said:
“During the days of the water libation ceremony, we barely got to sleep at all. The first hour of the day saw us attending to the daily offering; following this we were engaged in prayer, afterwards, the additional offering. Then we ate, and it already became time to attend to the afternoon service. And this was followed by the celebration of the festival of the water libation, which lasted the entire night, and then we would begin again”
(Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5).