The Mishna 22b speaks of the well and the cistern, באר and בור, and whether they are private or public. The main difference that affects halakha is the source of the water. A well or באר is a deep hole that reaches the groundwater. Depending on the location, the well can be very deep until it falls into the water deep underground. 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. Only in extreme cases or over a long period of time will the well dry out. 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 פסי ביראות markers work only when there is water inside, otherwise they are insignificant. This is why our Mishnah says that in a public or even a private well there may be י ביראות, because the water will not run out. 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 בור cistern is just a deep plaster hole in the ground. It is designed to be filled with rainwater and therefore often has channels leading to it on the ground. As we learned in Brakhot: a tank cannot be filled only through a hole (Berachot 3b). During a good rainy winter, the tank will fill up and ensure a long dry summer. 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.
Cisterns, Avtimus Monastery, Maale Adumim (Wikipedia)
But the tank is finite. Once the water runs out, there will be no water until the next rain. That is why it is problematic in our situation, the harabim will decide. When the water runs out, the markers become useless as they only allow you to carry them when water is present. Such indulgence is unacceptable without water. So why does our Mishnah say there might be markers in the public cistern? According to Rashi, this is because people will remind each other not to carry with them when they see that the tank is dry. There is no such critical mass of reminders in a private cistern. Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava does not like the cistern at all, and he forbids פסי ביראות even in the public sphere.
Have we found such public cisterns? Yes, and although this one does not demonstrate our Mishnah, it does show the concept of protecting people from בור, one of Nezikin’s laws. 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 מעין. The springs are very important in Israel, where water is scarce, and they were part of the landscape, although not in the cities. 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. He [Rabbi Yochanan] listed their outstanding qualities: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop ; Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiya is happy with the woman who gave birth to him; Rabbi Yose, priest, devout man; Rabbi Simeon ben Nathanael is afraid of sin, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach is like a fountain that [ever] gains strength . (Pirkei Avot 2: 8)
Of all the brilliant disciples of Rabban Yochanan, we will focus on Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar. One is a cistern בור סיד שאינו מאבד פיפה, and the other is a source of מעין המתגבר. What do these metaphors mean? Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was known as a rabbi who was very wary of the transmission of traditions. He even went so far as to say that he never taught what he had not learned from his teachers. This attribute was of decisive importance in those days when all laws were oral, and all traditions had to be meticulously passed on. Rabbi Eliezer was the living Torah, the source of all the teachings of the past for his colleagues. 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. He was a flowing spring, always coming up with new and innovative ideas. Just as the flowing water does not return, Rabbi Elazar did not repeat his ideas and thoughts twice, but continued to invent new ones. 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? We cannot say, but we certainly cannot live without them.
Source Ein Karem (Flickr)