Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat 5765 / July 9, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




On Water, Wells, and Women


 Dr. Yael Levine




Scripture tells us about the birth of Moses, [1] but not about the birth of Aaron and Miriam.  However, the deaths of all three children of Amram and Yochebed are recounted in the Torah, two of them in our parasha. [2]   The story of Miriam’s death begins chapter 20 of Numbers, the death of Aaron is recounted in the latter part of the chapter; the passing of Moses is the subject of the last chapter in Deuteronomy. [3]   The account regarding Miriam’s death differs from the report of Aaron’s passing and that of Moses, both of whom, according to the account given in Scripture, were mourned by the people thirty days: while her death and burial are mentioned, there is no description of mourning or eulogies . [4]

Two commentaries believe that because Miriam was not properly eulogized, dire consequences ensued.

In Parashat Hukkat [5] Solomon Ephraim Luntschitz (Kli Yakar) wrote that the lack of water following Miriam’s death came as a punishment for lack of a proper eulogy, which he concluded from the fact that there is no mention of any in the Torah:   she was buried forthwith in the place where she died, and from the brevity of the description (one verse!) and the new subject which begins immediately (the lack of water) it appears that her passing was not felt.  Therefore he explained that the  reason for cessation of the supply of water was to inform the people that the well [that accompanied them in the wilderness] had been due to her merits.   A similar idea appears in Midrash Yelamdenu, which has come down to us by way of Yalkut Shimoni.   According to this source, the well ceased to give water in order to inform all the people “how righteous she had been, so that many people would grieve for her and show her kindness.” [6]

However, the supposed lack of eulogy can be viewed differently. It should be mentioned that Rachel, as well, was buried at the spot where she passed away, and Rebekah’s nurse Deborah is mentioned in Scriptures as having been buried where she died, under the oak. In our case too, Scripture may be describing the prevalent custom to bury women immediately at the spot where they died, rather than transporting them for burial to another site.  Vatamatvatikkaber”(Num. 20:1) may mean that women were not eulogized.

Some support for this may be found in the Mishnah, Mo’ed Katan 3.8, which says that on festival days, the bier of a departed man is not set down in the public thoroughfare in order not to have funeral orations on such days, and “[the bier] of women, never, out of respect.”  The Babylonian Talmud on this mishnah says that this rule that women are not to be eulogized applies only to women who died in childbirth.   According to Rabbi Eleazer, however, a second-generation amora from the land of Israel, it applies to all other women as well, this being deduced from the case of Miriam:  “Rabbi Eleazar said:  Even all other women, as it is written, ‘Miriam died there and was buried there’ (Num. 20:1), right after dying, she was buried.” [7]   In Rabbi Eleazar’s opinion, burying Miriam immediately after she died was an indication of praise and esteem for her, whereas Kli Yakar associates her immediate burial with the fact that she had not been properly eulogized, which resulted in harm to the people.

In his commentary on Parashat Ekev, [8] with reference to the second time Aaron’s death is described (Deut. 10:6), Kli Yakar elaborates on the relation between Miriam and water.  After she died, “water lacked because every righteous person is like a plentiful wellspring, as we find in the chapter ‘The Rabbis learned”, [9] and those who do not eulogize such a Tzaddik properly do not sense the absence of the source of life-giving water; therefore it is fit that their water dry up; and this is what happened to them when Miriam died.”  In this passage Kli Yakar ascribed symbolic importance to the disappearance of the well: whoever does not eulogize a righteous person properly does not realize that this person was the life-waters of the community, hence, measure for measure, he will experience spiritual thirst and desolation.

Another source that relates to the spiritual consequences of Miriam passing from this world without being properly mourned and eulogized is the unusual composition, Hen ve-Khavod, by Rabbi Rahamim She’altiel Jacob Ninio (d. 1898), [10] a Jerusalem rabbi who belonged to the kabbalistic circle at the yeshivah Beth El in the Old City. [11]

According to the author, who explains a passage from Midrash Yelamdenu, the great leaders of the times did not feel any need to grieve and mourn her passing and to step forth to eulogize her because “in the final analysis, she was a woman.” [12] Since [religious] instruction did not emanate from her, there was no need to “shake up the world over her.”  This reason is similar to what was said in the Talmud of Rav Safra, namely that when he died the Sages did not rend their garments over him, saying that they had not learned any teaching from him. [13]   So too leaders of Miriam’s generation claimed that instruction was given to Israel by their teacher, Moses, and by Aaron, the priest; therefore the spring that had disappeared when she died would return because of their merits. [14]

To dispel such reasoning, says R. Ninio, Scripture attests:  “Miriam died there,” meaning that she died by the Divine kiss, as did her brothers, [15] to indicate to us that she was of equal weight to Moses and Aaron. [16]   She was buried where she died, and her passing made an immediate impression:  “The community was without water,” “which [water] is the sages of Israel, for water signifies none other than Torah, [17] and their springs of wisdom had become blocked and they could not understand anything properly, so it must have been that the Divine Presence had removed itself from Israel; thus the wellsprings of wisdom became blocked.”   The disappearance of the well, i.e., the disappearance of the Divine Presence (“for ‘well’ is another word for the Divine Presence”), [18] was intended to teach everyone – “sages and righteous men and men of action – how righteous she had been, that on her merits the Divine Presence had dwelled over Israel and by virtue of this its message had become clear to the sages of Israel, [19] so that many would grieve over her.”  It was these sages of Israel, the famous men of that generation, who had not mourned for her.

The great wise men of the times at first were inclined to belittle the value of Miriam’s spiritual accomplishments and therefore they did not give her the honor due her.  This attitude was taken consciously:  they were of the opinion that the spiritual life of the people was maintained through male figures.  In the end, however, they were forced to recognize against their will and to acknowledge that the people also drew sustenance from the deeds of the righteous and wise women in their midst. [20]

Thus we learn from Rabbi Ninio that responsibility for noting Miriam’s spiritual contribution acknowledging her lay on the great men and sages of the times.   According to this Midrash which Ninio explained, there is mutual responsibility and reciprocal relations between men and women on the spiritual level; even sages can derive benefit from the “wellspring of Torah” in the form of a woman.

[1] Ex. 2:1-10.

[2] Miriam (Num. 20:1); Aaron (Num. 20:22-29; Deut. 10:6); Moses (Deut. 34).

[3] Miriam is one of the few women whose death is mentioned in the Bible.   The other women are:   Sarah (Gen. 23:2), Rebekah’s nurse Deborah (Gen. 35:8); Rachel (Gen. 35: 18-19, also cf. Gen. 48:7), Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua (Gen. 38:12), the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 20:5), Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas (I Sam. 4:20), the wife of Ezekiel the prophet (Ezek. 24:18), and Azubah (I Chron. 2:19).

[4] It should be noted that on the death of Moses and Aaron there are several legends in Midrash Katan, whereas we have found no parallel legend about the death of Miriam.   For legends about the death of Moses, see R. Kushelevsky, Moses and the Angel of Death, New York:  Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 289-291.  For legends on the death of Aaron, see “Midrash Petirat Aharon,” Beit ha-Midrash, I, pp. 91-95; ibid., Introduction, p. xix.

[5] Cf. Solomon Ephraim Luntschitz, Kli Yakar, on the words, “the community was without water.”

[6] See Rabben Simeon ha-Darshan, Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers, D. Hyman and Y. Shiloni ed., Jerusalem 1986, Hukkat, par. 763, p. 434.

[7] Mo’ed Katan 27b-28a.  Also cf. N. Rubin, Ketz Ha-Hayyim:   Tiksei Kevurah ve-Evel bi- Mekorot Hazal, Tel Aviv 1997, p. 193, 201.  Compare Jerusalem Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 3, 9, 93d.

[8] Parashat Ekev, 132c, on the verse, “From Beeroth-bene-jaakan the Israelites marched to Moserah.   Aaron died there.”

[9] See Avot 6.1.

[10] Rabbi Rahamim She’altiel Jacob Ninio, Hen ve-Khavod, Jerusalem 1884, sermon 55, 197b-198a.  The entire sermon appears there, 194a-198b.  Also cf. what is written there about Sarah, sermon 57, 202a.

[11] M.D. Gaon, Yehudei ha-Mizrah be-Eretz Yisrael, Part II, Jerusalem 1938, p. 469; I. S. Gafner, Or ha-Shemesh, Jerusalem 1970, pp. 198-199.  His date of birth is not mention, although Gafner writes that he apparently lived to a ripe old age.

[12] For similar things said about Sheba daughter of Leah, wife of the kabbalist Rabbi Abraham Hayyim of Yeshivat Beth El, cf. Y. Levine Katz, “ Sheva Neviot ve-Sheva SpherotIyyunim be-Farshanut Kabbalit,” Da’at 44 (2000), pp. 129-130.

[13] Mo’ed Katan 25a.

[14] The idea that the well returned after Miriam’s death, be it by the merits of Moses or by the merits of Moses and Aaron, appears in many sources, beginning with the Tannaitic Midrash and the Tosefta (sources will be supplied upon request).

[15] Midrash Tannaim, loc. sit., 34.5, pp. 225-226; Mo’ed Katan 28a; Bava Batra 17a; Songs of Songs Rabbah, Midrash Rabbah, Part III, Vilna 1878, 1, 2, 5, 5b.

[16] On Miriam being of equal greatness to Moses and Aaron, see Midrash   àñôä , Batei Midrashot2, S.Wertheimer ed., Jerusalem 1953, vol.1, p.212.

[17] This idea appears in many sources.  The author himself, at the beginning of his remarks about Miriam, points to what was said about Miriam in Bava Kama 82a:  “ ‘They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water’ (Ex. 15:22) – commentators noted that water is none other than Torah, for it is said, ‘Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water’ (Isa. 55:1); having traveled three days without Torah, they became weary.”

[18] This idea appears in many kabbalistic sources.   See Zohar, Va-Yetze,151a-152a.

[19] Also see what is said about Samson’s mother studying Torah and even interpreting it, elucidating the Torah as a result: “‘She makes covers for herself’ ( Prov. 31:22)– this was Samson’s mother, who used to sit and spin, and sell in the market, and raise her son, and what is more, she even used to sit and explicate the Torah until it became clear” (“ Midrash Eshet Hayyil,”  Batei Midrashot2, ed. S. Wertheimer, Jerusalem 1953, vol. 2, pp. 148-149).  

[20] On Miriam’s extensive knowledge of the Torah, see Y. Levine Katz, “ Hora’at ha-Torah al yedei Miriam,” Ha-Tzofeh, Friday, November 2, 2001, Soferim u-Sefarim, pp. 11-12.