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The Sukkot-Passover Rain Continuum

May 9, 2009 | by

The mystery of the water of Sukkot and the aridness of Passover.

Sometimes, a theme in the Torah is not identified explicitly by classical sources, but becomes apparent only gradually, by connecting the dots between separate sources in the Chumash, the Talmud and the natural world itself. The results can be surprising.

Sukkot is the festival of water. Every mitzvah of the Sukkot observance is drenched with water. Sukkot marks the start of the rainy season in Israel, when we surround ourselves with all sorts of objects that remind us of water. At the climax, on Shmini Atzeret, we begin the year's prayers for rain.

The water references are many:

  • On Sukkot, says the Mishnah, "We are judged regarding water" (Rosh Hashana 1:2), i.e. regarding the rainfall for the coming season.
  • Temple services featured the ceremony of the water libation, which replaced the year-round pouring of wine upon the altar (Sukkah 4:9).
  • During Sukkot, public celebrations are held known as the simchat beit hasho'eva -- the festival of the drawing of well water (Sukkah 5:1).
  • For the mitzvah of the Four Species, we take only moist branches and fruits. The Mishnah notes that if any individual species is dry, it is unacceptable (Sukkah 3:1-5).
  • Among the four species are "willows of the brook," (Leviticus 23:40) which grow by flowing water, and the etrog, which according to the Talmud grows "upon all waters." The Talmud also suggests that the etrog is called "hadar" as a pun on "hydor," the Greek word for water (Sukkah 35a).
  • According to Rabbi Eliezer (Sukkah 11b), we dwell in sukkah huts because the Children of Israel were sheltered in the desert by the divine Clouds of Glory; the cloud imagery is no accident.
  • Tradition requires that the sukkah's roof of foliage must allow rainwater to penetrate it.

On Sukkot, which marks the start of the rains, all of the festival's symbols somehow recall, whether explicitly or obliquely, the bounty of water for which we pray. Water, one could say, is the symbol of life.


On the opposite side of the Jewish calendar is Passover. Just as Sukkot marks the start of the rains, Passover marks their end and the transition to the arid summer. Yet if all the mitzvot and customs are waterlogged, why don't the symbols of Passover similarly reflect its own dry season?

Indeed they do! On Passover, water actually creates the prohibitions:

Chametz is created when flour contacts with water, causing fermentation. The entire difference between matzah and chametz is the amount of time spent with water.

The Korban Pesach, the Passover sacrifice, in ancient times the main observance of the festival, must not be cooked in water: "Do not eat it raw or cooked in water, rather roasted in fire" (Exodus 12:9). The Talmud even discusses on which type of skewer the meat may be roasted -- the concern is that the fire may draw out moisture from the wood of the skewer, so that the meat would in part be cooked in water, which is forbidden (Talmud - Pesachim 74a).

The very date of Passover is determined in part by dryness. One of the criteria considered by the Sanhedrin in deciding whether to postpone Passover by adding a second month of Adar was whether the roads were still muddy from the winter rains (Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh 4:5).

Further, in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, water is a negative symbol. Egypt, the house of slavery, is a land full of water year round, due to the powerful Nile River. The Nile symbolizes the suffering of Israel: "Every son who is born you shall throw into the Nile" (Exodus 1:22), and Moses is saved from a watery death in the Nile. Likewise, the first plague was upon the Nile, whose water was turned to blood.

At the splitting of the Red Sea, water is again the instrument of death, first when the Israelites reach the sea and have nowhere to flee, and then when they are saved from the sea and the Egyptians are drowned. The Jews are saved by dryness, by "crossing through the sea on dry land" (Exodus 14:22).

Having finally crossed the sea, the Israelites immediately arrive at Marah ("bitter"), where the water is too bitter to drink, and again they are miraculously rescued (Exodus 15:22).

In general, the transition from slavery to freedom is also a transition from a land of plentiful water to a dry, bitter desert. Apparently, Passover celebrates dryness, the opposite of Sukkot's celebration of water.

As a side note, each festival has its own characteristic colors. The color of Sukkot is green, indicated by the colors of the Four Species (including the etrog, which ripens from green to yellow), and of the green branches covering the sukkah. And green is the color of Israel's lush, rain-drenched winter landscape.

The color of Passover, meanwhile, is brown -- indicated by the roasted meat, the matzah, and the barley and wheat whose harvests are beginning. Brown is the color of the desert, and of Israel's parched summer landscape.


Having identified the symbols, the message remains elusive. What does it mean "to celebrate dryness?" It's natural to celebrate the arrival of the rains, to pray for rain, to recognize our dependence on God's mercy for sustenance. But what is the point of emphasizing the dry summer on the way?

The point of interest is not the lack of water per se, but rather the presence of hidden water. After all, roasted meat isn't dry; it has internal juices which provide it with flavor. Similarly, one cannot bake matzah without using water, though the water is absorbed into the dough and is not apparent in the final product.

The same holds for the other symbols of the holiday: There is water even in the desert, in wells and springs and cisterns. Open a grain of ripening barley and wheat and you'll find moisture retained from the winter rains.

What is absent is rainwater, water falling from the sky like a visible blessing from God. In place of the visible water of the winter, the summer bears only hidden water, water which appears by surprise in the middle of the dry landscape, just like a miracle -- such as the miracle of the waters of Marah.

Just as on Sukkot we pray for water, on Passover we say the "Prayer for Dew" -- a type of hidden water, drawn out of the air itself in the late hours of the night.

On Passover we celebrate not dryness, but the hidden water, the fact that even in the dry, parched desert, there is hope of finding revitalizing fresh water to save our lives. Just as during the darkest days of slavery in Egypt, we were suddenly rescued by unexpected miracles. The water of Passover is the water of miracles, the water of redemption. The challenge before us is to believe in redemption when all around is bleak, and to work to bring it about -- to find water in the dry desert.


Another answer may be that Passover celebrates not the absence of water, but rather the presence of water's nemesis: fire. Some symbols:

  • While the Passover offering may not be cooked in water, it must be roasted in fire.
  • Meat left over in the morning must be burnt (Exodus 12:10).
  • Matzah is baked in fire, and there is "fieriness" in the bitter herbs.
  • If the winter is dominated by rain, the summer is dominated by the burning sun. Even the brownish-yellow colors of Passover reflect the colors of fire and of the sun.

Fittingly, God first manifests himself to Moses in the Exodus story not only in the desert, but in the form of a burning bush (as opposed to the revelation through the Clouds of Glory associated with Sukkot). God's revelation on Sukkot parallels the pillar of cloud, sheltering us from the hot, bright desert. On Passover, God's revelation is like the pillar of fire, lighting our way out of Egypt in the middle of the night.

The most prominent forms of fire on Passover today are the candle by which we search our homes for chametz, and the burning of chametz on Passover eve. Fire sustains us, roasting our meat and baking our bread; it destroys, both chametz and leftover sacrificial meat; and it sheds light into dark corners, like the candle we use to search.

On Passover, we are redeemed from the watery servitude of Egypt through the harsh purifying fire of the desert. On Sukkot, the desert is tempered through cooling moisture and sheltering clouds. Over the course of a year, we learn to balance purity with comfort, freedom with order, fire with water.

If on Sukkot we must learn to see the hand of God in the rains of the winter, on Passover we must learn to see God's presence in the fire of the summer. Whether we suffer the darkness of exile and slavery or the fire of war and scarcity, we must see God's hand and anticipate His redemption. We must seek out the hidden water with its hope for miracles.

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