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Living Waters

It’s all about water this week. How we lead our animals to water on Shabbat (whether or not we can get them to drink) and how we can make a public water space available on Shabbat. So, let’s talk about the sources of water in ancient times (and today). Hebrew words can be confusing and English words are often misunderstood.

The Mishna 22b speaks of the well and the cistern, 讘讗专 and 讘讜专, and whether they are private or public.聽The main difference that affects halakha is the source of the water.聽A well or 讘讗专 is a deep hole that reaches the groundwater.聽Depending on the location, the well can be very deep until it falls into the water deep underground.聽At the biblical site of Tel Sheva, not far from today’s Beer Sheva, a city well runs nearly 70 meters (over 200 feet) until it reaches water!

Tel Sheva Well (Wikipedia)

However, this investment pays off because the groundwater is usually constant.聽Only in extreme cases or over a long period of time will the well dry out.聽When Isaac has to dig up the wells of his father Abraham, it is because they were closed on purpose, not because they were dry.

This is a very important fact for our halakha, which says that the 驻住讬 讘讬专讗讜转 markers work only when there is water inside, otherwise they are insignificant.聽This is why our Mishnah says that in a public or even a private well there may be 讬 讘讬专讗讜转, because the water will not run out.聽Meiry adds that an additional factor for a private well is that the owner doesn’t mind being used by others as the water won’t run out.

On the other hand, the 讘讜专 cistern is just a deep plaster hole in the ground.聽It is designed to be filled with rainwater and therefore often has channels leading to it on the ground.聽As we learned in Brakhot: a tank cannot be filled only through a hole (Berachot 3b).聽During a good rainy winter, the tank will fill up and ensure a long dry summer.聽The desert dwellers, from the Nabataeans to the Byzantine monks, knew how to position their cisterns to capture all the water that suddenly appeared (and disappeared) from a flash flood.

聽Cisterns, Avtimus Monastery, Maale Adumim (Wikipedia)

But the tank is finite.聽Once the water runs out, there will be no water until the next rain.聽That is why it is problematic in our situation, the harabim will decide.聽When the water runs out, the markers become useless as they only allow you to carry them when water is present.聽Such indulgence is unacceptable without water.聽So why does our Mishnah say there might be markers in the public cistern?聽According to Rashi, this is because people will remind each other not to carry with them when they see that the tank is dry.聽There is no such critical mass of reminders in a private cistern.聽Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava does not like the cistern at all, and he forbids 驻住讬 讘讬专讗讜转 even in the public sphere.

Have we found such public cisterns?聽Yes, and although this one does not demonstrate our Mishnah, it does show the concept of protecting people from 讘讜专, one of Nezikin’s laws.聽On the main street of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (today it can be seen inside the tunnels of the Western Wall), you can see a beautiful cistern, protected by stone railings to prevent people from falling or tripping over.

Railings for cisterns in Western Wall tunnels (Wikipedia)

Another source of water not mentioned in our Mishna is the source of 诪注讬谉.聽The springs are very important in Israel, where water is scarce, and they were part of the landscape, although not in the cities.聽Because these different water sources were so familiar, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was able to use them in a famous metaphor:

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkay had five students, and they were the following: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcan, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiya, Rabbi Yose, priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Nethaniel and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach.聽He [Rabbi Yochanan] listed their outstanding qualities:聽Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop聽;聽Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiya is happy with the woman who gave birth to him;聽Rabbi Yose, priest, devout man;聽Rabbi Simeon ben Nathanael is afraid of sin, and聽Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach is like a fountain that [ever] gains strength聽.聽(Pirkei Avot 2: 8)

Of all the brilliant disciples of Rabban Yochanan, we will focus on Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar.聽One is a cistern 讘讜专 住讬讚 砖讗讬谞讜 诪讗讘讚 驻讬驻讛, and the other is a source of 诪注讬谉 讛诪转讙讘专.聽What do these metaphors mean?聽Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was known as a rabbi who was very wary of the transmission of traditions.聽He even went so far as to say that he never taught what he had not learned from his teachers.聽This attribute was of decisive importance in those days when all laws were oral, and all traditions had to be meticulously passed on.聽Rabbi Eliezer was the living Torah, the source of all the teachings of the past for his colleagues.聽His memory was so great that he was not just a cistern, but a plastered cistern from which water could not come out.

Plastered cistern at Qumran (Wikipedia)

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was different.聽He was a flowing spring, always coming up with new and innovative ideas.聽Just as the flowing water does not return, Rabbi Elazar did not repeat his ideas and thoughts twice, but continued to invent new ones.聽He was the complete opposite of a cistern that quietly keeps its treasures, rather, he constantly put forward new ideas, not from traditions, but from his own logic and intellect.

Which source of water or Torah is preferred?聽We cannot say, but we certainly cannot live without them.

Source Ein Karem (Flickr)


Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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