Not by the Rivers of Babylon

The talmudic tractate Ta’anit is, arguably, the most sustained body of classic Jewish thinking about the natural world and its resources. As is often the case with the rabbis, one must read between the lines. A pungent passage in Ta’anit contrasts the climate and geography of the Land of Israel with that of its neighbors and leads to reflections on the role of natural resources in Israel that still resonate.

It begins by comparing two kinds of rain: “Mist followed by heavy rain: What is its sign? A sieve. Heavy rain by light rain: What is its sign? Goat’s dung.” Finely ground flour falls from a sieve before

the coarser flour, just as mist sometimes precedes heavy rain, and something like the reverse happens in the digestive process of goats. I’ll return to the thematic significance of this bit of barnyard lore. The passage continues with the story of a 4th-century sage from the Land of Israel visiting Babylonia.

Ulla came to Bavel. He saw flying clouds [porchot]. He said to the people “clear away my things, because the rain is about to come.” In the end, the rain did not come. Ulla said, “Just as the Babylonians are liars, so too their rains are liars.”

Ulla arrived in Bavel. He saw that a basket of dates sold there for a zuz. He said to himself, “A basket of honey sells here for only a zuz and the Babylonians don’t spend their time studying Torah?” That night the dates pained him. He said to himself, “A basketful of knives sells for a zuz and the Babylonians still manage to spend some time studying Torah?” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit, 9b)

In the Land of Israel, clouds of this sort invariably portend rain. But here in Babylonia, porchot drift across the sky and no rain follows. Disturbed by this irregularity, Ulla lashes out at the

Babylonians: Neither their natural signs nor their utterances are trustworthy. Babylon is surprising in other ways: Since food is so cheap, he wonders why they don’t spend all their time studying Torah. When, later that night, the dates begin to feel like knives in his stomach, Ulla reconsiders his criticism. (Rashi explains here that during the night Ulla suffered from diarrhea.) Abundance does not translate automatically into leisure. A whole chain of contingencies stands between natural resources and their metabolization into happiness, health, or spiritual progress.

We can now see the literary point of prefacing Ulla’s story with talk of sifted flour and goat defecation. The passage is actually about the way in which different societies digest raw blessings and turn those inputs into real value. Ulla passes harsh judgment on the Babylonian Jews for their inability to convert material prosperity into Torah learning, before realizing that the societal digestion of material blessings in Babylon is quite different from what he was used to in Israel. Given their affluence, it’s a wonder that the Babylonian Jews have a spiritual life at all.


The passage continues with an argument between two sages that looks like an exercise in bad climate science:

Rabbi Eliezer says, “The whole world drinks (i.e., receives rain) from the oceans, as it says, ‘and a mist rose from the land and watered the face of the whole earth’” (Gen. 2:6). Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, “But the water from the oceans is salty!” Rabbi Eliezer answered, “The waters are sweetened in the clouds.” Rabbi Yehoshua said: “The world drinks from the upper waters, as it says, ‘the land . . . drinks up its water from the rains of heaven.’” (Deut. 11:11) So what do I learn from “and a mist rose from the land”? It teaches that the clouds grow, rise up to the sky, open their mouths like a flask, and receive rainwater (from the heavens).

Although his explanation for the sweetness of rainfall is faulty (the salt is left in the sea, not in the clouds), Rabbi Eliezer’s view approximates our understanding of the hydrological cycle. Rabbi Yehoshua’s opinion appears, from a modern perspective, to be simply mistaken. However, I am not sure that their argument is primarily (or even secondarily) about weather science.

Let us examine the biblical passages from which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua pluck their prooftexts. Rabbi Eliezer’s passage from Genesis reads as follows:

And there were not yet any plants on the earth, and the grasses of the fields had not yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not yet made it rain upon the earth and there was no human to work the land. And a cloud [eid] rose from the earth and watered the face of the whole land. And the Lord God formed the human and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living soul. (Gen. 2: 5–7)

We should note first that the import of this passage is universal; it is about the creation of the world. This is the textual basis for his quasi-scientific opinion that the world is watered by sources that originate on earth rather than in the heavens. But it is also significant that Rabbi Eliezer takes as the source for his view, a verse that depicts a pre-human reality; in the absence of either rain or the human need for it, a vapor irrigated the earth.

Where Rabbi Eliezer chose a text from Genesis about the creation of the world, his colleague Rabbi Yehoshua responded with one from Deuteronomy about the promised Land of Israel in contrast to Egypt:

For the land that you are going towards to inherit is not like the Land of Egypt, which you have come from, where you planted seeds and watered them with your feet, like a vegetable garden. The land that you are going into is a land of hills and valleys; from the rain of the heavens you shall drink water. It is a land that the Lord your God looks out for, always; the eyes of the Lord your God are upon it from the beginning of the year until the year’s end. (Deut. 11: 10–12)

For the great 13th-century medieval commentator Moses ben Nachman, known by his acronym Ramban, the Bible’s comparison turns on the precariousness of material life in Israel:

Know that it is not like the land of Egypt that you can water it continuously with your feet from rivers and lakes like a vegetable garden; rather it is a land of hills and valleys. From the rain of the heavens you will drink water, and not from any place else. And so it is necessary that God be concerned with it always, for rain, for the Land is very thirsty and needs rain all year; and if you go against the will of God, and He does not concern himself with the land for rain, then it will be very bad.

Egypt’s affluence is watered by its great rivers; in contrast, the providential gaze of God must be upon the Land of Israel; if it were not, then the land would quickly fall into the desolation that Ramban himself witnessed and wrote about at the end of his life.


What should a modern reader make of these ancient and medieval sources’ insistence on the special climatic conditions of the Land of Israel that supposedly make the weather uniquely sensitive to our prayers and good deeds? In a fascinating Hebrew book published in 2011, Pinchas Alpert, a professor of atmospheric physics and former head of the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University, mapped the weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere for January, the middle of Israel’s rainy season. Alpert discovered, to his surprise, that there is indeed

A stormy winter day in Israel. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.)
A stormy winter day in Israel. (Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.)

something highly unusual about Israel’s climate. The country is situated on a “saddle point,” a point of disequilibrium between four weather systems. To the northwest there is a low-pressure system associated with rainy weather, around Europe. To the southeast, there is another low-pressure, rainy area associated with India. In between these are two high-pressure systems associated with dry weather, one to the northeast of Israel over Turkey and central Asia and one southwest around the Sahara Desert.

This is a forecaster’s nightmare. Alpert discovered only one comparable weather system on earth, and it is located at a longitude 180 degrees west, over an uninhabited area of the Pacific Ocean, leading Alpert to muse, much like Ramban before him:

Maybe this is one reason why God chose this place to be the land of the Jewish people . . . here people are conscious of the vital need for rain. They do not feel security in having “enough” rain. We do not have water channels like the Nile Delta in Egypt. We are entirely dependent upon rain and it is “easy” for God to alter the delicate synoptic balance this way or that, in accordance with the behavior of the Jewish people. In Israel, God keeps us in a permanent state of wakefulness.

Whether or not we agree with his suggestion that God manipulates the weather of Israel behind a veil of chaotic climate systems, Alpert’s research is striking corroboration of the talmudic rabbis’ observation that there is something uniquely precarious about our relationship to water in Israel.

An interesting parallel text from the Jerusalem Talmud elaborates on the moral and spiritual implications of a nation’s sources of water:

Rabbi Hanan from Tzipori said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman: “Because of four things the Holy One Blessed be He ‘changed His mind’ and decided that the Land (of Israel) would only drink from above (and not from rivers): because of the strong; in order to disperse bad vapors; so that the high up people and the lowly should drink alike; and so that all would turn their eyes to the heavens.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Ta’anit, c.f. Midrash Bereishit Rabba, 13:9)

Here we find the rabbinic claim that social inequality and even pollution are lessened when the major natural resources come from the sky—and hence are distributed equally—rather than the earth.

It is tempting for a modern to substitute the word “oil” for “water” here. The blessing (or curse) of abundant oil can warp a whole society’s path of development. Those “high up” who control the society’s natural resources do not drink, as it were, together with the poor and lowly. The deleterious consequences for education, economic innovation, women’s rights, and the development of democracy are well known.


The passage in tractate Ta’anit that begins with Ulla’s travels concludes with some further rabbinic reflections suggesting that life in Babylon is actually not so bad:

Rabbi Oshaya says, “You that dwell on many waters, great are your store houses.” (Jeremiah: 51:13) Why are Bavel’s storehouses filled with corn? Because she rests on many waters. Rav said, “Bavel is wealthy, because you can harvest there, even if there is no rain.” Abbaye said, “It’s better to live in a wet place than a dry one.”

Where does all this praise of Babylon leave the unique quality of Israel as a land of virtuous vulnerability? There is one broad textual hint here that the message of these Babylonian sages is not so simple. For Rabbi Oshaya has dramatically decapitated the verse from Jeremiah, which is in fact part of a furious tirade excoriating the opulence of Babylon and condemning the overweening pride of her leaders, powered by their great rivers. The commentator Rashi notes this and supplies the whole verse: “O, you that dwells on many waters, abundant in treasures, your end is come, and the measure of your greed.

It is unimaginable that either Rabbi Oshaya or the Talmud’s editors could have quoted five complimentary words about Babylon without being fully aware that the surrounding two chapters passed damning judgment on that nation. Why then would they have chosen to ignore its context so blatantly? It seems to me to be an acknowledgement of the material conditions that made their creative work possible, while also subtly hinting at their knowledge of the darker side of the arrogance that undergirded the economic order in which they flourished.

Consciousness of water scarcity remains widespread in Israel. Children in kindergarten learn not to run the tap while brushing their teeth; we still scan the winter skies for signs of rain and scrutinize the weekly ups and downs of the Sea of Galilee’s level as avidly and anxiously as some watch the stock market. The traditional religious responses to water scarcity also persist. In recent years, mass prayer rallies and public fast days have been held in response to prolonged droughts.

However, the predominant Israeli effort to overcome dependence on rainfall has relied, not on providence but on technology. (See Amy Newman Smith’s article, “Water Shall Flow from Jerusalem,” on page 22.) Today many countries, particularly in the Third World, suffer from acute water scarcity and benefit from solutions that Israel has developed. If technology and humility can be harnessed, then the paradoxical blessing of Israel’s ancient and modern water vulnerability may be a blessing to the whole world.


  1. gwhepner


    From the eighth day of the hag aquacity
    comes in liturgical loquacity;
    mashiv haruah is the first refrain,
    morid hagashem follows. Next comes rain.
    In the Land of Israel they depend on rain,
    whereas in Egypt all they need is River Nile,
    but most terrific is the Babylon terrain,
    supporting even without rain a great lifestyle,
    producing dates that are extremely cheap, we're told
    by Ulla in the Talmud, with asperity
    towards the Babylonian Jews he chose to scold,
    neglect of Torah price of their prosperity.

    [email protected]

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