Two of my many eclectic interests dovetailed nicely this week; the High Holiday festival of Sukkot of which much has been written* and the art of juggling; specifically as practiced in the ancient but less familiar custom of Simchat Beit HaShoeva (Water Drawing Celebration).
Sukkot began in the mostly agrarian society of ancient Israel as a seasonal harvest celebration when a portion of fresh produce was offered as tribute to the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the first and second Temples, this holiday became characterized by a ‘sukkah’ or three-walled temporary ‘house’ and a ‘bouquet’ representing the four species associated with the holiday as mentioned in the Torah.** These ‘arba’a minim’ are: an etrog or citron fruit, one sprig each of myrtle and willow and a palm frond or ‘lulav’. These are held together and blessed in a special way upon entering the sukkah’. In addition to offering prayers, meals are shared with family and friends during the eight days of the holiday. In time, the Sukkot holiday acquired deeper significance as a beautiful spiritual recognition of life’s finite nature and of the importance of living joyfully despite hardships both natural and man-made. And here is where my interest in juggling, particularly as it relates to Jewish history, comes in.
Though I do not have the requisite skills, I’d become interested in the art of juggling and its colorful traditions many years ago when one of my sons demonstrated a special talent for it and turned professional at age nine, maintaining his career and associated travels until beginning college. But I first learned about jugglers in Jewish history upon reading a fascinating article by Raphael Harris in a 1995 edition of Juggler’s World***, one of the magazines my son received as a member of the International Jugglers Association.
In it, Mr. Harris, who was a professional juggler in Israel at the time, describes the ancient custom of Simchat Beit HaShoeva which occurs during the Sukkot holiday when waters are drawn from a spring near Jerusalem for use in the Temple service. It seems that juggling at joyous occasions was inspired by the prophet Isaiah (“with joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.” –12:3) and practiced by several distinguished sages and scholars such as Shmuel bar Abba (180-275 CE), Levi bar Sissa (150-220 CE), Abaye (280-339 CE) and Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel (10BCE-70CE), the titular head of the Sanhedrin or High Court who was the earlier juggler mentioned.
Rabbi Ben Gamliel was known for his ability to juggle eight lighted torches. He would toss them in the air in a pattern to ensure that they never touched each other. In addition, he would then prostrate himself on the ground, raise himself into a headstand and manage to kiss the ground before standing up again, an unheard of feat until then. Juggling eight of anything, let alone flaming torches is a masterful feat but I became curious as to the significance of that number and eventually came upon a 2002 article by Calgary Rabbi Eliezer Segal.
Writing in the Jewish Free Press, Rabbi Segal relates that juggling eight objects, symbolically represents various aspects of Jewish learning and observance during the eight days of Sukkot such as the eight disciplines of Torah study: Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Aggadah, received traditions, scholarly debate and the secret doctrines surround the Creation story (Genesis Rabba) and Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkabah (mystical Chariot). He also notes that, “one Rabbi Henokh Zundel observed that the juggling of torches served as a demonstration of how the scholar had mastered (grasped in his hands) all eight disciplines. Tossing them into the air represents the spiritual and intellectual elevation that comes through study. The fact that the torches never got confused symbolized the sages’ ability to apply the distinct mode of learning that is appropriate to each area, without mixing them up into an indistinguishable mess.”
All of this led me to portray Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel and his eight torches for the illustration above as part of a new series of drawings in tribute to the art of juggling that I’ve been developing during the past few months. In addition to the ‘The Art of Juggling Dangerously’ (published here on August 10th, 2015) which also addresses fire torch juggling but from a different perspective, I’ll post some of the others here at Imaginarius as they are completed.
Meanwhile, I wish all who observe and/or appreciate the Sukkot holiday much joy in its remaining few days ahead !
Tags: etrog, flaming torches, four species, fruit, harvest, Isaiah, Jerusalem, Jewish holiday, Jewish jugglers, joyous occasions, juggling, Leviticus, lulav, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, sanhedrin, Simhat Beit HaShoeva, Sukkot, Temple, Torah, tradigital illustration, tribute