When the Beis HaMikdash stood, Sukkos was celebrated with the Simchas Beis HaShoe’va, “Festival of Water Drawing,” which took place each day of Chol HaMoed in the Beis HaMikdash. In memory of these joyous festivities, it is customary in many communities today to make a Simchas Beis HaShoe’va, in which we gather together to rejoice in the holiday. The Rambam writes as follows:
אף על פי שכל המועדות מצוה לשמוח בהן החג הסוכות היתה שם שמחה יתירה שנאמר ושמחתם לפני ה' אלקיכם שבעת ימים. וכיצד היו עושין ערב יום טוב הראשון היו מתקנין במקדש מקום לנשים מלמעלה ולאנשים מלמטה כדי שלא יתערבו אלו עם אלו ומתחילין לשמוח ממוצאי יום טוב הראשון וכן בכל יום ויום מימי חולו של מועד. מתחילין מאחר שיקריבו תמיד של בין הערביים לשמוח לשאר היום עם כל הלילה. והיאך היתה שמחה זו החליל מכה ומנגנין בכנור ובנבלים ובמצלתיים וכל אחד ואחד בכלי שיר שהוא יודע לנגן בו ומי שיודע בפה בפה ורוקדין ומספקין ומטפחין ומפזזין ומכרכרין כל אחד ואחד כמו שיודע ואומרים דברי שירות ותשבחות. ושמחה זו אינה דוחה לא את השבת ולא את יום טוב מצוה להרבות בשמחה זו ולא היו עושין אותה עמי הארץ וכל מי שירצה אלא גדולי חכמי ישראל וראשי הישיבות והסנהדרין והחסידים והזקנים ואנשי מעשה הם שהיו מרקדין ומספקין ומנגנין ומשמחין במקדש בימי חג הסוכות אבל כל העם האנשים והנשים כולן באין לראות ולשמוע.
Although we are commanded to rejoice on all the festivals, there was an additional level of joy experienced there (in the Beis HaMikdash) on Sukkos, as the verse states: “And you shall rejoice there before Hashem your G‑d for seven days.”
How would they celebrate? On the eve of the first day of Yom Tov, they would prepare in the Beis HaMikdash an elevated platform for the women, while the men remained below, to prevent them from mingling. The celebrations would begin on the night after Yom Tov, and continue throughout Chol HaMoed. Immediately after the Tamid korban of the afternoon, they would begin to celebrate for the rest of the day and throughout the night.
The flute would strike a note, accompanied by violins, harps and cymbals. Each person would play upon the instrument of his proficiency, while those who could sing would sing along. They would dance and clap with fervor and zeal, each to the best of his skill, while singing praises to Hashem.
These festivities did not override the laws of Shabbos or Yom Tov, although it was a mitzva to pursue them.
Privilege to participate was not granted indiscriminately to the unlearned, or to anyone who wanted to join in. Only the leading Torah scholars, the heads of Yeshivos, the members of the Sanhedrin, the pious, the elders and the men of great deeds would dance, clap, play music and rejoice in the Beis HaMikdash during the Festival of Sukkos, while the rest of the nation, both men and women, would come to see and hear.
Our Sages tell us that “Anyone who never saw the festivities of the Simchas Beis HaShoe’va, never saw festivities in his life.” What was the reason for this special joy, which was so remarkable, that the joy of all other festivals paled in comparison?
The Simchas Beis HaShoe’va was centered around the ritual of water drawing, which was done in preparation for the water libations which were offered on Sukkos. However, the water drawing itself was no mitzva in its own right. It was only a preparation for a mitzva. Why then was it a cause for such great rejoicing?
The verse ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה “And you shall draw water with rejoicing from the wellsprings of salvation” is cited in the Gemara as a source for the Simchas Beis HaSho’eva. The Aramaic translation of the verse, as rendered by Rebbe Yonasan ben Uziel, is ותקבלון אולפן חדת בחדוה מבכירי צדיקיא “And you shall receive new wisdom from the greatest Tzaddikim.”
This interpretation is no mere allegory, but the true, simple explanation of the verse. The invigorating, life-giving waters of the Torah will flow from the wellsprings of wisdom entrusted to the Tzaddikim of each generation. The classic commentaries of Tanach develop this interpretation, each in his own way. Rashi explains:
כי ירחיב לבם על ידי ישועה הבאה להם ויתגלו להם רזי התורה שנשתכחו בבבל על ידי הצרות
When their minds will be expanded by their salvation, the secrets of the Torah that were lost in the tribulations of the Babylonian exile will once again be revealed.
The Radak explains similarly:
ויונתן תרגם הפסוק במשל למוד החכמה כי החכמה נמשלת למים והמלמדים הם כמו מעיין והתלמידים הם השואבים וכת"י ותקבלון אולפן חדת ואמר חדת לפי שאותו הלמוד יהיה חדש וכן ילמדו אז דעת את ה' מה שלא למד אדם עד אותו היום כמו שאמר כמים לים מכסים
Yonasan interprets this verse as a reference to the pursuit of wisdom, which is compared to water; its teachers to wellsprings; and its students a to those who draw water from the spring. Yonasan adds that this verse foretells of a new form of wisdom. An entirely new dimension of the Torah’s wisdom will then be revealed, in which our awareness of Hashem will be heightened to a degree that no man has ever yet achieved, as the verse states, ‘The world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as water covers the sea.’
Accordingly, Tosefos explains that during the Simchas Beis HaShoe’va, they drew not only physical water for use in the water libations, but also the proverbial spiritual waters of Divine inspiration.
After the Days of Awe have passed, in which Hashem forgives His repentant children, the gates of Heaven are opened, and a bountiful flow of spiritual blessing descends, inspiring us all to reach higher levels of Torah, yiras Shomayim, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. This was the true cause for rejoicing in the Simchas Beis HaShoe’va.
For this reason, it was the Torah leaders, heads of Yeshivos, and members of Sanhedrin, who would dance with great fervor, while the rest of the nation looked on. As they rejoiced together, the Torah leaders drew down a new flow of joyous wisdom from Above, with which they watered the flock of Israel, who partook of the spiritual influx that they funneled into the world.
On the second day of Creation, Hashem made a firmament to divide between the Heavenly waters above, and the terrestrial waters below. On this day alone, Hashem did not say, “It is good,” since the terrestrial waters were grieved to be distanced them from their Creator, while their counterpart, the celestial waters, remained in Heaven Above.
On the following day, however, Hashem twice said, “It is good,” since the plight of the lower waters was amended. Hashem then decreed that Bnei Yisrael would offer the lower waters on the Mizbei’ach on Sukkos. Thereby, the terrestrial were given the opportunity to draw close to Hashem, by taking part in the service of the Beis HaMikdash.
Man’s body is composed of all the physical elements of Creation: fire, air, earth and water. Each element forms a different aspect of his emotional composition. Water is source of his drive for pleasure. The celestial waters represent his desire for the spiritual pleasures that the righteous are destined to enjoy, as they “sit with their crowns upon their heads and delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence”. In contrast, the terrestrial waters represent the pleasures of this world. It is no wonder, then, that the lower waters were so grieved to be given this lowly function, and thus separated from the ultimate spiritual pleasures of the World to Come.
However, the lower waters were consoled on the following day, when Hashem informed them that there are pleasures in this world that surpass the pleasures of the World to Come. The life-giving waters of Torah study, which can be found only in this lower world, are poured on the Mizbei’ach, to ascend to a position of prominence in Heaven, much higher than the celestial waters Above. This is the greatest joy in all existence: to cleave to the Creator through His wisdom, which He revealed to us in His holy Torah. The Ohr HaChaim writes:
אם היו בני האדם מרגישים מתיקות עריבות תורתנו הקדושה היו משתגעים ומתלהטים אחריה, ולא יחשב בעיניהם מלא כסף וזהב שבעולם לכלום
If people would realize the tremendous pleasure that Torah study has to offer, they would run madly after it, and all the silver and gold of this world would be as naught in their eyes.
It was with this sublime pleasure that the Torah leaders and the members of the Sanhedrin would rejoice in the Simchas Beis HaShoe’va, as they gave praise and thanks to Hashem, for this greatest of all gifts. Their enthusiasm would spread out to the entire Jewish people, who came to witness their celebrations, thus inspiring them to draw close to Hashem through the study of His Torah, and draw Divine inspiration upon themselves.
 Rambam, Hilchos Lulav 8:12-14
 Sukkah 51b
 Yeshaya 12:3
 Sukkah 48b, 50b
 Yeshaya 11:9
 Sukkah 50b, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi
 Berachos 17a
 Ohr HaChaim, Parshas Ki Savo