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Take Me to the River

In our last section of Sotah we come to the stark and unsettling laws of the eglah arufa, the calf that has to be slaughtered if a murder is committed and no one knows who did it. One of the details of this ritual is that the elders of the city must take the calf down to a nahal eitan 谞讞诇 讗讬转谉:

鈥渁nd the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a nahal eitan, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer鈥檚 neck.鈥 (Devarim 21:4)

I am deliberately not translating the words because if you look at different English translations of these two words you will see a marked difference. The JPS and others translate the words as an 鈥渆verflowing wadi,鈥 the Koren and the Metsudah, as well as the old version of the JPS say it is a 鈥渟tony valley鈥 or a 鈥渞ough ravine.鈥 Does this nahal have water or is it just a deep cut in the earth?

The translations continue the argument that is in the classic commentators as well as the Gemara about the meaning of the words nahal eitan. But before we get there, it is interesting to note its meaning in modern Hebrew. If you go on a hike in Israel, chances are good it will involve a nahal 谞讞诇. You tell the kids, they are excited -water, hurray! But no, most of the time the nahal is what is known as a nahal achzav 聽谞讞诇 讗讻讝讘, a riverbed that does not 鈥渒eep its promise鈥 of having water, i.e., a seasonal river that only flows in the winter. A better English word would be 鈥済orge,鈥 which does not imply water. The Arabic word wadi is similar, a topographical feature that may or may not have water.

Nahal Zin in the Negev

David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to that is the nahal eitan, the 鈥渟trong鈥 riverbed, that flows with water all year long, because its source is a spring and not rain. A good example of such a riverbed is at Tel Dan where the mighty Dan river flows out of the spring and eventually into the Jordan River:

Nahal Dan

user:netanel_h, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

This sense of a flowing riverbed is famously used in the beautiful image of the prophet Amos:

讜职讬执讙旨址芝诇 讻旨址诪旨址謻讬执诐 诪执砖讈职驻旨指謶讟 讜旨爪职讚指拽指謻讛 讻旨职谞址芝讞址诇 讗值讬转指纸谉

But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:24)

But is this what the Torah has in mind when it calls for the elders to go down to a nahal eitan? Not according to the Mishnah and the Gemara:

鈥淭he Sages taught: From where is it derived that eitan is forceful? It is as it is stated: 鈥淔irm [eitan] is your dwelling-place, and your nest is set in the rock鈥 (Numbers 24:21) (Sotah 46a-b)

Rashi explains that the parallel in the verse quoted is between eitan and sela, eitan and rock, so clearly eitan means rocky. He follows this line of reasoning in his Torah commentary as well and describes the nahal eitan as 拽砖讛, harsh or hard.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon and the Aramaic commentaries do the same. No one mentions water, all talk about a place that is rocky and hard. But a shift is detected in Maimonides, both in his commentary on the Mishnah and in particular in his explanation of the law of the calf in the Mishnah Torah:

鈥淭hey bring the calf to a river that flows forcefully. This is the meaning of the term eitan found in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:4)鈥 (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer and the Preservation of Life (讛诇讻讜转 专讜爪讞) 9:2)

Maimonides鈥 explanation is that the nahal has to have water, in fact a very strong flow of water. Other commentators, and as we have seen, modern translations, follow him, citing the prooftext we have seen in Amos as well as another one in Tehillim: 74:15

讗址转旨指郑讛 讘指汁拽址注职转旨指 诪址注职讬指郑谉 讜指谞指謶讞址诇 讗址转旨指芝讛 讛譂讜止讘址謼砖讈职转旨指 谞址讛植专芝讜止转 讗值讬转指纸谉變

it was You who released springs and torrents,
who made mighty rivers run dry;

Some also add that the Torah verse says that the elders need to wash their hands by the nahal, therefore there must be water there:

Which of these choices is correct? Is the nahal a dry but impressive ravine or a powerful stream? Water would seem to imply atonement and a washing away of sins. Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato, 1800-1865, Italy) is disturbed by this interpretation. He strongly supports Rashi鈥檚 explanation over Maimonides and explains that the blood of the calf should not be washed away, its purpose is to remain on the stones and show everyone that a murder has been committed. He also explains that the hand washing is not done with water from the nahal, rather the word nahal is connected to the fact that the calf鈥檚 neck is broken over the nahal. Water is brought from home to wash the elders鈥 hands.

Rabbi Yoel Elitzur, in his book in Places in the Parsha, brings the various interpretations and adds an interesting note. For those who say that clearly nahal eitan is one with water, as we see in Amos and Tehillim, he cites his father who explained that there is a difference between poetic language and prose. A nahal eitan in Amos鈥 poetry must be a powerful stream, washing away injustice. But in the legal, prosaic sections of the Torah, it does not have to mean the same thing. In fact, Amos may be alluding to the Torah鈥檚 use of the words in the context of an unsolved murder, and using them deliberately to talk about justice. He borrows the words but adds the extra element of water and washing away sin.

Rabbi Elitzur also adds a very important point, one that is obvious to anyone who reads the verses and knows the topography of the land of Israel. There are very few 鈥渆verflowing wadis鈥 in Israel. Even our one river, the Jordan, pales in comparison to real rivers like the Nile, Euphrates and the Rhine. If a murder happens in the Negev, which nahal eitan will the elders go to? They are not traipsing up to Tel Dan, many miles away, to do the ceremony. It must be that that they are going out to a rocky ravine, which is a common feature in Israel鈥檚 landscape.

So why do Maimonides and later commentators switch from a ravine to a river? Rabbi Elitzur says that they are basing their interpretations on the landscape they were familiar with. Maimonides lived in Egypt, beside the Nile. Others lived in Europe with its majestic rivers. And Rashi and the Rhine? Rashi had a deep feeling for the land of Israel, and much understanding of it, despite never having visited here. That sense of the nature of the land comes through in his interpretation.

The land and the law are tied together inextricably. One is channeled through the other and only in Eretz Yisrael can we truly understand the meaning of the Torah.

Nahal Paran in the Negev

Nizzan Cohen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

This article is based on Rabbi Elitzur鈥檚 article on Parshat Shoftim in his book Places in the Parsha. Thanks to Rabbi Shalom Berger for bringing it to my attention.

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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