Section one: After having lit the menorah, the party kicks off with dancing, singing and the playing of musical instruments. The first participants mentioned are the “Hasidim” or the men of piety and men whom are known for their good deeds. This group’s participation is unusual and noteworthy for these were men chosen based on their deeds and not on their lineage. In my opinion this was indeed one of the functions of the Simchat Bet Hashoevah, to give a greater role to those who are not of the priestly or Levitical clans. It is these people whose dancing, songs and praise would probably have stood out the most. This dancing and singing took place in the Court of the Women.
Section two: The second group is the Levites who would arrange themselves on the fifteen steps leading up from the Court of the Women to the Court of the Israelites. The mishnah notes that these fifteen steps correlate with the fifteen Psalms which begin “A Song of Ascents (Shir Hamaalot)” (Psalms 120-134). One can only imagine how beautiful, indeed sublime, their music must have been.
Section three: The third group involved is the priests. The priests begin the ceremony standing above everyone else, up in the Court of the Israelites. When the cock crows at the crack of dawn they begin a process of descending and blowing shofar blasts at set stages. Eventually this leads them down through the women’s court and out to the eastern gate.
Section four: When they get to the eastern gate they are facing the sun. They turn around so that their backs are to the sun and use this opportunity to profess their faith in God and their denial of the worship of the sun. They quote from Ezekiel 8:16 in order to highlight that the sin of sun-worship is not just something that “others” or Greeks were engaged in, but something that Israelites themselves were accused of by Ezekiel. It seems to me likely that there is also a polemic here against other contemporary Jewish groups who had a solar calendar. A calendar based on the sun and actual worship of the sun could probably have been associated. Certainly it would make sense that the Pharisees/rabbis would claim that their rivals, the Essenes and perhaps the Sadducees, were not just basing their calendar on the sun but were worshipping the sun as well. We have already seen on a number of occasions that Sukkot was a holiday full of strife between the various sects of ancient Judaism.
The mishnah ends its procession at this point, but it is quite clear that it was not actually over at this moment but that from the eastern gate they would make their way down to the Shiloah spring in order to draw water for the water-libation.
The mishnah had stated that whoever hadn’t seen the Simchat Bet Hashoevah had never seen rejoicing in his life. Today’s section of Talmud discusses what a spectacle the Temple in general was.
This section notes the beauty and splendor of Jerusalem and the Temple as well.
This section contains a brief description of Herod’s Temple, which according to traditional rabbis and academic scholars alike, was the most beautiful of all of the various versions of the Temple that stood in Jerusalem. Herod built the Temple of marble, with stones layered so that the plaster could be laid down layer by layer. While he wanted to cover it with gold (at least according to this legend), the blue, yellow and white marble gave it the look of the sea, which was even more beautiful. It must have truly been quite a sight, especially on a hot day in Jerusalem.
Today’s section discusses the glorious double colonnade that served as a synagogue for the Jews of Alexandria, Egypt.
Alexandria served as a major settlement of Jews during the Second Temple period. In this section we learn of the beauty and glory of a double colonnade where the leaders of the Jewish people would sit and which also served, as we shall see, as a synagogue. While it seems quite obvious that some of these numbers are exaggerations, clearly the Talmud describes a large number of people.
What is most interesting about this section is the description of separate seating in the synagogue. This was a way of separating people by class as seating was in European synagogues and still is in some places today. It was a way for people looking for jobs to meet people of their own profession. In other words, there was a strong socio-economic component to it as well.
In this section, Abaye claims that all of these myriads of people in Alexandria were slain by Alexander of Macedonia. I wouldn’t grant a significant amount of historical accuracy to this statement, but it does seem that Abaye senses that Alexandria’s Jewish community was destroyed at some point. However, there is some interesting theology in this section. As is typical, the rabbis portray the non-Jewish political leader as if he subjects himself to the Jewish God, reads verses and makes decisions based upon them. Second, the people are punished for their sins. In this case, the very decision to return to Egypt was against the Torah. This is actually quite a complex subject, for despite the prohibition of living in Egypt, Jews have lived there periodically over the past 2000 years and for a time it was an important Diaspora community. There also seems to have been some antagonism between the Jews of Babylonia and those of Egypt. This may be partially the background to these statements of Abaye, a prominent Babylonian sage.
This section begins a long discussion of the separation of the sexes that supposedly occurred during the Simchat Bet Hashoevah.
The mishnah stated that at the end of the first day of Sukkot they made a “great enactment.” While the original meaning of this “great enactment” may have been simply a reference to the preparations for the Simchat Bet Hashoevah itself, the Talmud takes this in a different direction, interpreting that this “enactment” was the separation of the sexes during the celebrations. This is the source for the idea of a mehitzah (a separation) between the sexes in religious areas such as the synagogue. According to the Talmud, they actually built the balcony around the Women’s Section (Ezrat Nashim) for this very reason. I should note that other readings of this passage portray the actual separation as the “enactment.” The balcony was built for other reasons.
This baraita presents various manifestations of where the men and women would sit either in or outside the Ezrat Nashim, the Women’s Court, in the Temple. I should note that this baraita seems to be more ideology than actual history. The point seems to be that according to the rabbis the best place to prevent the mingling of the sexes is for the women to be in the balcony.
The Talmud questions what gave them the right to add on to the Temple’s physical structure. There is a verse in Chronicles according to which all of the Temple’s architecture was given to Solomon by his father David, and that it shouldn’t be changed. So how could they add the balcony?
Rav finds a verse according to which in the time to come (the end of times) when they come to mourn the great destruction, men and women will sit separately. If during this time, when people are mourning and when the evil inclination has been destroyed (we will read more about this in the coming passages), they still need to sit separately, all the more so during the Simchat Bet Hashoevah when they are celebrating.