The Cistern And The King–An Elul Story

Haim Watzman

A cool wind blows through the vineyard in Yavneh late in the month of Elul. The sun, obscured by large but unthreatening gray-blue cloud, has passed the sky’s pinnacle. Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai’s students, who until just a few minutes previously had been engaged in a heated debate over whether the shofar could be blown when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. This was formerly allowed only in the Holy Temple, which was destroyed some years before. Could a rule applying just to the sacred precinct now be expanded to include all of Jerusalem, or perhaps Yavneh as well, or even the entire Land of Israel?

“We seem,” says Rabban Yohanan—the Nasi, head of the Sanhedrin, reconstituted here on the southwestern coastal plane of the Holy Land after the Temple’s destruction—“to have lost our train of thought.”

Rabbi Yosi points to the sky. “Since the destruction of the Holy Temple, a cloud often passes between us and divine inspiration.”

“Perhaps,” says Rabban Yohanan, “I should tell a story.

“A story?” scoffs Rabbi Eliezer. “Do we have time for stories when God’s law is in danger of being forgotten? It is our job to recall and discuss and teach all the laws we remember from the time before.”

“Still, a story,” Rabban Yohanan insists.

“About what?” Rabbi Eliezer mutters impatiently.

Rabban Yohanan begins:

This is a story about Rabbi Eliezer, son of Hurkanus.

His father had many plowers, and Eliezer plowed a rocky field.

He sat down and began to cry.

“Son, why are you crying?” his father asked. Perhaps you are sad that you are plowing a rocky field? Tomorrow I will give you an easy field to plow.

Eliezer lay down on his back and wept.

“Why are you weeping?” his father asked.

He said: “Because I wish to study Torah.”

His father replied: “Come on, now. You are 28 years old and you are asking to study Torah? Find a woman and get married and have children and send your sons to school.”

Eliezer was distressed for three weeks, until Eliyahu the Prophet appeared to him. Eliyahu told him: “Ascend to Jerusalem to study with Ben-Zakkai.”

He went to Jerusalem. He sat there and he wept.

Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai asked him: “Whose son are you?” But Eliezer would not say.

“Why are you crying? What do you seek?”

“To learn Torah.”

Rabban Yohanan said: “Did you not ever go to school and did you never learn to recite the Shema, and the prayers, and grace after meals?


Rabban Yohanan stopped everything else he had to do and taught him all three.

Now he said: “What do you wish to learn—the written law or the oral law?”

“The oral law,” said Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabban Yohanan taught him two laws each day of the week, and on Shabbat he would repeat them and place them carefully in his memory.

Hurkanus’s other sons told their father: “Write Eliezer out of your will.”

Hurkanus ascended to Jerusalem to write Eliezer out of his will, and came upon a celebration. Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai and all the great scholars of the city were dining with Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Shimon Ben-Netanel went and told Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai: “Rabbi Eliezer’s father is here.”

Ben-Zakkai said: “Lay a place for him.” They laid a place for him and seated him among them.

Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai said: “Eliezer, tell us some words of Torah.”

Rabbi Eliezer said: “Let me tell you a parable. What am I like? I am like this well here, which cannot produce more water than it takes in.”

Rabbi Yohanan said: “Let me tell you a parable. What is it like? This well, from which water flows out of its own accord. Such are you—you can tell us more words of Torah than Moshe received on Mt. Sinai.”

Rabbi Yohanan repeated himself, and repeated himself again, but Rabbi Eliezer would not accept what he said.

Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai got up and left.

Then Rabbi Eliezer sat down and taught things that had not been said to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and his face radiated light like the sun and emitted light like the rays of Moshe, and no one could tell whether it was day or night.

Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Shimon Ben-Netanel went and told Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai: “Come see Rabbi Eliezer sitting and teaching more things than were said to Moshe on Mt. Sinai.”

Rabban Yohanan Ben-Zakkai came up behind him and kissed him on his head and said: “Happy are you, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov, from whose loins this man came.”

Rabban Yohanan lowers his head. The scholars pass a few minutes in silence.

“This is a wonderful and instructive story,” says Yosi, looking with considerable consternation at Rabbi Eliezer’s red face. “There’s just one problem. The Rabbi Eliezer in this story is not the Rabbi Eliezer who sits here beside us.”

“Rabban, you seem to have taken some parts of the story of my student, Akiva, and put them into this story about Eliezer,” Rabbi Yehoshua points out. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Indeed,” says Yosi nervously, “we know Rabbi Eliezer and his phenomenal memory. He is praised among us for remembering hundreds of halachot that would otherwise be forgotten. Rabbi Eliezer, we know, is a repository of ancient law. But we do not know him as an innovator of law.”

“Precisely,” Rabbi Eliezer blurts out. “You yourself have said that I am a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop. So how can I be an overflowing cistern that cannot hold all it contains?”

“This is my story,” says Rabban Yohanan.

“But it’s not true,” says Rabbi Eliezer. “I was not a plowman. I learned Torah all my life. I would never claim to know any law not given by the Holy One Blessed Be He to our teacher Moshe on Mt. Sinai.”

Rabbi Yohanan falls silent. The cloud drifts slowly away from the sun and the afternoon grows warm.

“It is like the coming redemption,” says Rabbi Yosi. “With patience, it will arrive.”

“It will surely arrive,” Rabban Yohanan agrees. “We must make sure we are there when it does. Now, what about the shofar. May we apply the rule of the Temple to the entire Land?”

“Well, perhaps, like I said, just to Yavneh,” Rabbi Elazar suggests nervously.

“This is absurd. How can we take a law that applies to the Holy Temple alone and decide of our own volition to apply it to the rest of the Land? By what right do we do that? Where is it written in the Torah of Moshe?” Rabbi Eliezer shouts in a furious crescendo.

Rabban Yohanan ignores him. He calls his bailiff. “Please send out messengers to all our communities that they must blow the shofar this Rosh Hashana, even though it falls on Shabbat.”

“This is intolerable!” shouts Rabbi Eliezer. “I can’t allow this!”

“Who are you not to allow it?” Rabban Yohanan asks.

“I am Rabbi Eliezer!”

“Ah!” says Rabban Yohanan.

“But the Holy One, Blessed Be He, forbids it! It is not his law.”

Rabbi Yosi readjusts himself. “Um, that sounds a little sacrilegious, doesn’t it?”

“Perhaps, when the Temple was standing, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, sat among us as a king,” says Rabbi Yohanan. “Perhaps then we only needed to acknowledge his presence. Now, on Rosh Hashanah, we must bring him among us and crown him. We crown him and read him the writ we have determined, and he approves. There are many laws that were not said at Mt. Sinai that he waits for hear from us. Now what is the next question before us?”

Note: The section in italics is from Avot de-Rabi Natan, version 2, chapter 13, with some minor emendations to make it clearer. The sections in Roman type are my additions. The opinions regarding the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat appear in Mishna Rosh Hashanah 4:1. -HW