This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

All's Well That Ends Well*

Amidst the excesses of depressing disasters that monopolize the news media these days, there was something especially uplifting about the recent report about the rescue of nine miners who had been trapped for three days in a flooded shaft in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Some of the accounts noted that prayer played a crucial part in maintaining the spirits of the miners and their anxious loved ones during the ordeal.

In Jewish sources, being stuck at the bottom of a pit or well is a hazard that has vexed people at least since the time of Joseph. The likelihood of a successful rescue was often correlated with the victims' righteousness or faith.

The Talmud records an incident involving a certain Nehunia whose daughter fell into a deep well. The calamity was reported immediately to the saintly miracle-worker Hanina ben Dosa.

To everyone's surprise, Hanina displayed no alarm whatsoever, and declared with confidence that the girl was alive and well.

As the hours elapsed, Hanina continued to astound his audience with his inexplicable assurances of the child's safety. After three hours had passed, he announced that the girl had certainly been rescued. And of course, he was proven right.

When Hanina ben Dosa was asked about the source of his clairvoyance, he was quick to dismiss any suggestions that he possessed supernatural powers. He claimed to be neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. Quite the contrary, it was simply inconceivable to him that this particular girl could meet her doom in a well.

Her father, Nehunia, was, after all, a well-digger by trade. In fact, he is listed in the Mishnah as an employee of the Jerusalem Temple, and one of his chief responsibilities was the provision of water for the pilgrims who came to worship at the holy sanctuary.

Given this background (Hanina explained), it was impossible to imagine that the daughter of a man who devoted his life to digging wells for pious purposes should come to an untimely end through the agency of a well! Ergo, there could be no doubt that the young lady was safe and would shortly be pulled out unharmed.

Just how was the girl freed from her plight? The Babylonian Talmud relates that she was extricated from the well by a mysterious old man leading a ram.

Such an enigmatic detail presented the commentators with an irresistible challenge: Who was that mysterious figure, and what did he represent?

The Tosafot cited a tradition from the Jerusalem Talmud according to which the mysterious elder was none other than Hanina ben Dosa himself, who had somehow beamed himself (or perhaps a doppelganger) to the site, notwithstanding his protestations of not having supernatural abilities.

Actually, in the known versions of the Jerusalem Talmud neither Hanina ben Dosa nor Nehunia appear in the story. A virtually identical episode is related there involving an unidentified well-digger and Rabbi Phineas ben Yair, a saint who flourished several generations later. To add to the pathos, in that version the girl was on the way to her wedding when she stumbled.

For Rashi, the presence of the ram was an unmistakable clue that the mysterious old man must be Father Abraham, whose unflinching devotion to his Creator is symbolized by the ram that he sacrificed in place of his beloved Isaac. The merits that were credited to the great patriarch continue to bring protection to his descendants throughout the generations.

As the Maharal of Prague developed this theme, Abraham's act of selfless devotion and unconditional love serves as a model for us all, and through emulation of the patriarch's virtues some of us can become worthy of special divine providence.

The Maharal proposed an additional allegorical interpretation. He explained that the ram represents the rigidity of strict justice, while the elderly stranger symbolizes God's gentle compassion. In this way, the story comes to teach us that the ideal balance is created when the power of justice is subjected to the guidance of divine mercy. In our daily lives, we can emulate this model by letting our compassion rouse us to act with courage and decisiveness to come to the assistance of those in need.

Not all the Jewish sages were as confident as Hanina ben Dosa and Phineas ben Yair about the imperviousness of the righteous to harm. Some rabbis in the Talmud were scrupulous to report that Nehunia the well-digger had a son who perished from thirst. This unfortunate incident was ascribed to the principle that God judges the righteous according to stricter standards than he applies to others, and punishes them (as well as their offspring, it would seem) for even trivial infractions.

The commentators expended a great deal of effort in trying to resolve the apparent inconsistencies between the fortunes of the two siblings. For example, one author proposed that Nehunia collected merit points for the wells, because he had done the digging; but he could not claim credit for the water, which filled the cavity without Nehunia's direct assistance. Hence there is no real unfairness in the fact that the daughter was saved from the well, but the son died from lack of water.

On the whole, I am not convinced by these attempts at harmonization. It seems far more plausible that the differing stories reflect a fundamental theological conflict among the rabbis about how much we ought to rely on supernatural assistance and protection, and whether people should put their faith in divine miracles.

Although it is always nice to have the unwavering faith of a Hanina ben Dosa on one's side, this should probably not be viewed as an alternative to more practical precautions. If I ever find myself at the bottom of a well or mine shaft, I would prefer that the authorities summon a team of well-trained rescue engineers with lots of heavy equipment.

And of course, it would be very convenient if Lassie were in the neighbourhood.

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  • First Publication:
      The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, August 22, 2002, pp. 12, 14.
  • Bibliography:
    • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. "Miracles: Elisha and Hanina ben Dosa." In Miracles in Jewish and Christian Antiquity: Imagining Truth, ed. John C. Cavadini, 57-81. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
    • Büchler, Adolph. Types of Jewish-Palestinian Piety: From 70 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.: The Ancient Pious Men. Jews' College. Publications. Farnborough UK: Gregg, 1969.
    • Frankel, Yonah. 'Iyunim Be-'olamo Ha-ruhani shel Sippur Ha-aggadah Sifriyat Helal Ben-Hayim. Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1981.
    • Freyne, Sen. "The Charismatic." In Ideal Figures in Ancient Judaism: Profiles and Paradigms, ed. John J. Collins and George W.E. Nickelsburg, 223-258. Chico: Scholars Press, 1980.
    • Urbach, E. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated by I. Abrahams. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1987.