The Mishnayot on today’s daf focus on the number of kohanim needed to perform the various tasks that made up the daily Temple service. Obviously, any “special events” that were going on on a given day would affect the number of kohanim that were needed. The Mishna teaches, for example, that the korban tamid, which was the first sacrifice brought every day, was brought by nine, ten, eleven or twelve kohanim, depending on the day.
The korban tamid itself needed nine kohanim.
- On Sukkot, when there also was a water libation, an extra kohen was needed to carry the jug of water.
- The afternoon korban tamid needed eleven kohanim; the additional two kohanim carried extra wood to the altar.
- On Shabbat there were eleven kohanim involved, two of whom carried the levonah (frankincense) for the lehem ha-panim (shewbread).
- On Shabbat of Sukkot, there also was a kohen carrying the jug of water, so there were a maximum of twelve kohanim involved.
The Gemara teaches that the nisukh ha-mayim – the water libation on Sukkot – was only done with the morning tamid. As a proof to this a baraita is brought that recounts a fascinating story. As part of the avodah (service), the kohen who was to pour the water as part of the ceremony was instructed to raise his hand up so that it would be clear that he was doing the avodah properly. This was instituted because once a kohen poured the water on his feet instead of on the altar, and the enraged crowd pelted him with the etrogim that they were holding in their hands. The Gemara sees this as a proof that the nisukh ha-mayim was done in the morning, since the people were all carrying their etrogim.
The background to this story involves the different sects that lived during the second Temple period and their approaches to the Oral Law taught by the Sages. Many of the kohanim were Tzedukim, who did not accept the traditions of the Sages. Unlike nisukh ha-yayin – the wine libation – which is clearly written in the Torah, the nisukh ha-mayim – the water libation – was a tradition handed down from Moshe on Mount Sinai, and it was not accepted by the Tzedukim.
The particular story referred to in our Gemara, is described in great length in Josephus. According to him, the individual who poured the water on his feet rather than on the altar was a Hasmonean king, Alexander Yannai, who rejected the teaching of the Sages. After the people – who supported the interpretation of the Sages – pelted him with etrogim, the king summoned the non-Jewish guard, and they killed many of the people who were on the Temple grounds.