This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Portable Holes and Rolling Stones *

No self-respecting work of science fiction is likely to omit mention of a black hole, an astronomical object whose gravitational force is so powerful that it pulls everything into its irresistible grip, including light itself. In addition to endangering the lives of space travelers, the black holes can serve as convenient metaphors for an assortment of earthbound situations ranging from bad investments to emotionally draining romantic entanglements.

Ecclesiastes declared famously that “all the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full.” Some Jewish sages understood this as a description of the ocean as a whole and to the mysterious ecological balance that prevents its waters from inundating the land in spite of being continually fed by rivers and precipitation However, an alternative approach applied the verse to a particular place in the midst of the sea that acted as an eternally bottomless pit. Some expositions in the midrash noted that this was an apt metaphor for the intellectual thirst for learning, especially for Torah study, which can never be sated.

An entity matching this description is mentioned in one of the numerous tales about Jewish sages who succeeded in outsmarting the supposedly wise men of Athens. The hero of this story, Rabbi Joshua ben Ḥananiah, tricked the arrogant and reclusive Athenian savants into accompanying him on visit to the Roman emperor. En route, Rabbi Joshua made a brief stop at a “site of swallowing waters” where he collected a sample and placed it in a jar. Rashi explained that these were “waters from the ocean that swallow up all the other waters in the world that flow into it, draw them them down to the deep abyss, and then discharge them.” Later, in order to humble the conceited Greek wise guys, Rabbi Joshua assigned them busy-work, ordering them to fill a cask from the self-swallowing waters. Unable to complete this Sisyphean task, the Athenians dislocated their shoulders and collapsed.

According to a different version of the story in the Midrash, this was a purely scientific (but apparently non-Archimedean) experiment performed by Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer in order to demonstrate to the emperor Hadrian how the waters of the ocean can absorb infinite quantities without adding to their volume.

Another concept from advanced physics that has found its way into popular discourse is that of the “wormhole,” a fast-track through the warped fabric of space-time that provides science fiction with a convenient way for adventurers to boldly traverse the vast light-years of the universe to visit galaxies far away.

A related visual image that has been drilled into my memory since childhood is the Loony Tunes concept of a “portable hole,” a flat circular, ostensibly two-dimensional object that can be placed on any surface to serve as a portal through which animated characters can burrow. (Hommages to that marvelous hole showed up in later cartoon classics like “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?” and “Yellow Submarine.”)

As with the black holes, ancient Jewish equivalents to the portable hole also tended to involve water. The most famous instance is that of “Miriam’s well.” According to the Talmud and Midrash, this vital source of liquid sustenance accompanied the Israelites throughout their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert. The rabbis noted that the wondrous well had many special associations with Moses’ sister: for example, she had burst out in inspired song at the Red Sea, and her death was immediately followed by a water shortage. (Rabbi Samson ben Zadok explained that this was the reason for the custom of spilling out water that had been in the same house as a corpse). Other midrashic traditions told that this well had existed since primordial times: it had been created along with other miraculous entities at dusk on the world’s first Friday; it imparted nourishment for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and it will flow from the gates of the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple in the time of the future redemption.

Miriam's Well at Dura Europos SynagogueSome versions of this legend depicted the well not as a “portable hole,” but as a round, sieve-like rock, a veritable rolling stone that escorted the Israelites in their journeys through the Sinai wilderness. According to this understanding, Miriam’s well was the very same rock that Moses struck when it petulantly (and anthropomorphically) refused to pour out its contents because of its grief at the departure of its beloved patroness. A picture of this well streaming its waters to the tents of the twelve tribes was included among the beautiful biblical frescos that adorned the third-century synagogue of Dura Europos in Syria.

Statements in the Talmud attest to the belief that the well could still be seen in post-biblical times, though the rabbis disagreed about its precise geographic whereabouts. Some situated it in the Sea of Galilee where the circular shape could be viewed from between the columns of a synagogue in Tiberias; others claimed that it lay off the Mediterranean coast where it could be observed from atop Mount Carmel. Several stories spoke of the well’s wondrous medicinal powers, especially their ability to cure leprosy—the same debilitating disease that had afflicted Miriam herself in the Bible. The Kabbalists of sixteenth-century Safed claimed to have discovered its location.

The Talmud commentary ascribed to Rabbi Gershom of Mainz cited a tradition that equated Miriam’s well with Rabbi Joshua’s “swallowing waters.”

A medieval manuscript told of a woman who went out on Saturday night to draw water and unknowingly filled her jug from the waters of Miriam’s well. When she returned home, her husband, who was a leper, scolded her for taking too long, and in her agitation she dropped the jug, splashing water on her husband. Every part of his diseased flesh that came in contact with the water was instantly healed!

Indeed, Jewish legends that were in circulation in medieval Europe related that the well’s waters were able to roam to far-away lands. A tradition ascribed to Meir of Rothenburg described how, in some inscrutable way, those healing waters were able to blend with a network of springs and wells throughout the world—but only during the twilight hours of Saturday night at the conclusion of the Sabbath. In some localities in Germany, this belief gave rise to a practice of actively seeking out drinking water on Saturday evening, in the hope that it might derive from Miriam’s well and bestow its benefits upon ailing bodies (as well as strengthening weakened memories)—in a manner reminiscent of the beliefs current among their Christian neighbours about the miraculous healing powers of water blessed by the Virgin Mary. For this reason, women in some localities would rush out to draw water at the very start of the Saturday night prayer service. In doing so, they were overriding a venerable tradition of refraining from drinking water at that time for fear of depriving the sinners in the next world of their last sips as they returned to their fiery punishment following the Sabbath reprieve.

A vestige of those old beliefs and customs surrounding Miriam’s well might be preserved in the familiar practice of introducing the Havdalah blessing at the conclusion of the Sabbath with the verse from Isaiah: “therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”

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Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 14, 2014, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • Abramson, Shraga, ed. Nissim ben Jacob ben Nissim ibn Shahin: Libelli Quinque. Jerusalem: Meḳitse Nirdamim, 1965.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews. Translated by Henrietta Szold. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909.
    • Hachlili, Rachel. “The Dura-Europos Synagogue Wall Paintings: A Question of Origin and Interpretation.” Pages 401–18 in “Follow the Wise” (B. Sanhedrin 32b): Studies in Jewish History and Culture in Honor of Lee I. Levine. Edited by Z. J. Weiss, Jodi Magness, Seth Schwartz, and O Irshai. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2010.
    • Lieberman, Saul. Tosefta Ki-Feshutah. New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1995.
    • Shoham-Steiner, Ephraim. “The Virgin Mary, Miriam, and Jewish Reactions to Marian Devotion in the High Middle Ages.” AJS Review 37, no. 1 (2013): 75–91.
    • Ta-Shma, Israel M. “Miriam’s Well—French Customs Relating to the Sabbath Third Meal.” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 4, no. 3–4 (1984): 251–70.