By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
There are over 700 brands of bottled water currently on the market. Each brand claims to offer the perfect water taste. One would have assumed that in ancient times, there was no choice of water; you drank the water from whatever well the water carrier drew from. That was not necessarily the case, however.
The Gemara in Yevamos (78b) relates an incident that took place during the rule of Dovid haMelech. There was a famine in Eretz Yisrael due to the lack of rain. Dovid haMelech theorized that there are three sins that could possibly be the cause of the drought: (a) idolatry, (b) immoral and promiscuous behavior, or (c) the failure of people to follow through with their pledges for charity. After three years of thorough investigation, Dovid haMelech concluded that Klal Yisrael was free of these sins.
Realizing that he could not ascertain the reason that Hashem was causing the famine, he turned to the Urim v’Tumim. It turns out there were two causes for the famine: The first was that it was a punishment for the fact that King Shaul was not eulogized properly as befitting a tzaddik of his stature. The second was that it was a punishment for the complicity that Klal Yisrael’s king had in causing the death of members of the nation of Givonim.
The Gemara states that we don’t find anywhere that Shaul actually killed any Givonim. Rather, his culpability stems from a different event. Under his instruction, the city of Nov was annihilated for what he perceived to be a rebellion against his authority. The penalty for someone who rebels against a king is death. Ultimately, however, King Shaul was held accountable for this grievous error, since in fact the inhabitants of Nov were not rebelling against him. King Shaul was already punished and forgiven for this aveirah. However, the sin had an unforeseen effect, for which King Shaul was likewise held accountable.
Rashi explains that the Givonim would supply wood and water to the city of Nov for use on the altar. The Gemara states that they—meaning the inhabitants of Nov—supplied the Givonim with food and water. When the city of Nov was annihilated, the Givonim no longer had a source of sustenance. Seven Givonim subsequently perished. King Shaul was held responsible for their deaths since he (wrongly) eliminated the source of their provisions.
The actual text of the Gemara, though, is a bit peculiar. If the Givonim provided water to Nov, why did the residents of Nov provide water in return? Rashi in fact appears to have had a different text in the Gemara, for he simply states that the residents of Nov provided the Givonim with food. They suffered from a lack of food, but they had their own water.
There is a fascinating Maharsha that explains the Gemara differently from Rashi. When the Gemara states that “they provided them with food and water,” it doesn’t mean that Nov supplied the Givonim with food and water. Rather, it means that the Givonim provided the city of Nov with food and water. So why did the Givonim perish if in fact they had their own food and water? The Divine merit that ensured that the Givonim had food and water stemmed from the fact that they were the suppliers of food and water to people who served Hashem. This was their mitzvah. When there were no longer any ovdei Hashem to supply, they no longer had a Divine merit to support their own well-being. Lacking this merit, the Givonim suffered economically. They were so impoverished that seven of their members apparently starved to death.
King Shaul was held liable for their deaths since he deprived them of their source of merit. We see from here the great merit in supporting people engaged in mitzvos. Some of the Givonim only lived on account of this merit. On the flip side, we see that the depth of Divine judgment is awesome. A person can be held accountable for the suffering of an individual that was only indirectly caused by his taking a z’chus away from that individual.
However, the Aruch L’Ner understands our Gemara according to the simple reading; the residents of Nov did in fact provide food and water to the Givonim in return for their wood and water. Why did the Givonim need water in return? Because their water was not fit for human consumption. The Givonim needed Nov to provide them with potable water to survive, which brings us back to the idea of purchasing water.
Not all water that is sold on the market comes from a natural spring. PepsiCo Inc.’s Aquafina bottled water is made with tap water. Likewise, Coca-Cola Co.’s Dasani is produced from purified water sourced from public reservoirs. Although this isn’t news to some consumers, many people are blindsided by this revelation. They indignantly complain, “Why should we have to buy our own water?” This statement sounds eerily similar to the statement in Eichah (5:4) of “Meimeinu b’kesef shasinu—Our water we drank for money.” The literal understanding of the verse is that the B’nei Yisrael were bemoaning the fact that they had to pay for water that was rightfully theirs anyway.
The Gemara in Yevamos (108b) has a different application of that verse. It is well known that water is a metaphor for Torah. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav that the verse can be applied to the following incident: The Romans imprisoned Rebbe Akiva. A halachic question arose that no one could answer. They had to pay a man 400 zuz to somehow get into the prison and ask Rebbe Akiva the question. To get their “water”—namely the Torah—they had to pay a fee. Rav felt that the scholars felt indignant having to pay for their own Torah. However, the plain meaning of the verse doesn’t seem to be a parallel with this homiletic interpretation.
The Midrash says that the pasuk in Eichah was referring to water from a well owned by Jews. Presumably it was dug with much exertion and expense. A person can certainly feel indignant at having to spend money to acquire something that he already worked so hard for and already owned. However, why should a person feel indignant having to pay money to acquire Torah knowledge from the greatest sage of the generation? Rebbe Akiva acquired his Torah knowledge through his own toil and selfless devotion. The seeker shouldn’t feel indignant paying for something that he never worked for and never attained.
A professional would have no issue in paying a consulting fee to discuss a matter with another professional with more experience than himself. Yet the Gemara describes Rebbe Akiva’s Torah as meimeinu, our water. My rosh yeshiva pointed out that we see from this Gemara that the Torah is everyone’s birthright. Clearly, Rebbe Akiva attained a level of Torah scholarship that surpassed others in his generation. Yet his loftiest levels of Torah are still called “ours.” We have a right to the entire Torah as much as we have a right to water that we drilled deep into the earth through clay and rock to reach.
Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.