WATER, WATER, NOT QUITE EVERYWHERE
In the beginning there was only water (Genesis 1:2), the substance from which all creation flowed. The Hebrew word for water -- mayim -- is in the plural form, thus actually means "waters," a plural noun consisting of multiple individual components constituting a single mass. Mayim is also a palindrome, reading the same backward or forward, reflecting the water cycle of repeated precipitation and evaporation, birth and rebirth. It shares the same root as "mah," meaning "what," revealing that in contemplation of water or immersing in it, a person feels insignificant, asking, "what am I?" Thus following three successive water-related incidents -- Kriat haYam (splitting of the sea), the bitter water of Marah, and the twelve springs of Elim -- when subsequently the "whole congregation" murmured against Moses and Aaron, the two entreated, "what are we (Exodus 16:7)." What humans are, amongst other things, is about 80 percent water. This seemingly simple combination of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen is the incipient source and vivifying agent of everything, all existence and all life. MEM, the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, means mayim, and when prefixed with the preposition "of/from" transforms into Am (mother), that from which all life emerges.
Water crops up throughout the Torah, the word mentioned 180 times in the Chumash alone. Water along with bread are considered the essentials of human life (such as Genesis 21:14 and Exodus 23:25), and, therefore, a source of and correlated to blessing. In addition, water represents change (Rambam in Moreh Hanevuchim 2:30 and Abrabanel Genesis 1:2), especially spiritual transformation, such as mikvah. In this vein, crossing bodies of water -- Noah in the ark, Abraham westward over the Euphrates, Jacob over the brook upon his return to Canaan, the splitting of the sea while leaving Egypt, and the Jews entering Israel through the Jordan -- are all occasions of momentous spiritual flux and development. In the Talmud (Baba Kama 82a), water is especially connected to Torah, "Water means nothing but Torah, as it says, 'Ho, everyone that is thirsty come you for water' (Isaiah 60:1)."
There are several instances of one time water offerings found in the Torah, such as at Mitzpah (1 Samuel 7:6) and with David (2 Samuel 23:16). Water per se, however, was seldom employed in the Temple ritual, although a dip in the mikveh was necessary before entering. In the Temple, every burnt offering was accompanied with a flour offering (mixed with olive oil) and a wine offering, the latter poured on the altar. (Of course, without water, flour cannot become bread or grapes yield wine.) The exception was during the seven days of Sukkot, when three lugim of pure water were drawn daily from the pool of Siloach and poured by the cohain gadol (high priest) on the altar at the regular morning sacrifice simultaneously with the wine. Although not specifically mentioned in the Chumash, the water libation is considered halacha l'Moshe mi'Sinai (a law given to Moses at Sinai and subsequently transmitted orally). Rabbi Akiva (Ta'anit 2b) asserted that the water libation was alluded to in the Torah with the use of the plural form nesakhehah ("drink-offerings thereof") on the sixth day (Numbers 29:31), reflecting that one of the two libations consists of water.
The nature of the water libation was based on the famous verse from Isaiah (12:3), "Ush'avtem mayim b'soson, mima-ai-nay ha'yeshoh" ("You shall draw water with joy from the wells of salvation"). Sukkot is the most joyous of festivals, and the most intense joy centered around the nisuch ha'mayim (pouring of the water). On chol ha'moed (intermediate days), with the exception of Shabbat, these festivities called Simchat Beit ha'Shoavah (happiness of the place of water-drawing), were accompanied with great public celebrations, replete with musical instruments and song. Each evening, the people would gather in the courtyard of the outer Temple and "Men of piety and good deeds used to dance with burning torches in their hands singing (Sukkah 5:4)." As the Misnah said, "Whoever has not seen the Simchat Beit ha'Shoavah, has never seen rejoicing in his life (Sukkah 5:1)." The timing of the water libation on Sukkot was "in order that the (ensuing) rainy season would be blessed (Rosh Hashanah 16a)," the Israeli rain during the months of Chesvan to Adar vital to the success of the year's crops. When the nation heeds God, "I will give the rain of your land in its due season, the autumn rains and the spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your olive oil (Deuteronomy 11:14)." These three promised items, completely dependent on the yearly rains, are those employed in the flour and wine offerings, all necessary on rain.
In contradistinction, too many Westerners tend to take water for granted. We just turn on the tap and have at our disposal as much as we want. With plenty of soft drinks, juices, and other liquid refreshments available, water all too often seems to get lost in the shuffle. For most of history, however, that was far from the case. In many locales, sources of water were scarce and those extant all too often proved tainted. Drought and famine were common. What drinking water there was primarily came from manmade wells, which were zealously guarded and frequently fought over (Genesis 26:19-21). Indeed, arguments concerning water rights persist in the Middle East today.
In much of the ancient world, travelers were generally not free to stop by any well and help themselves. From a city well, only residents were generally allowed to draw water unless a member of a particularly prominent family granted permission to an outsider to share this precious resource. Sometimes the community went to extremes, such as placing a large bolder on top of the well (Genesis 29:2). Therefore in the parsha of Chaye Sarah, when Eliezer the servant of Abraham wanted to locate an appropriate wife for Isaac in Charan, one who possessed the right characteristics and came from the eminent family of Abraham's relatives, he anonymously headed for the local well and looked for certain signs.
Eliezer's signs were not capricious. Rather they were designed to identify a wife for Isaac who demonstrated a special character, a combination of kindness and wisdom, necessary to help carry on the covenantal community of Abraham. Kindness performed wrong can go astray or even lead to disaster. One has only to look at Lot's life to recognize this and why Abraham's nephew was unfit to continue the covenantal community. Wisdom without kindness proves even more calamitous. In order to locate the right woman, Eliezer, relying on Divine providence, asked the young Rebecca, "Let me have to drink, I pray you, a little water from your jug (24:17)." Requesting water directly from the pitcher instead of pouring it into a cup, seemingly a most chutzphadik and unrefined demand, was part of Eliezer's test. She could tell him to draw his own water, suggest drinking from a cup, or give the stranger the jug, then pour the now possibly tainted water on the ground, each of these ways insulting him. Rivkah's kindness and tact were made apparent by her response -- she gave Eliezer the pitcher to drink from and, when he had his fill, said, "I will draw for your camels also until they finish drinking." Thus Rebecca effectively responded to the stranger's request while avoiding any potentiality of offending him by giving the remainder of the water to the camels, demonstrating both kindness and tact. In addition, her ability to give a stranger water meant that she was from a prominent family. The only remaining question was whether she was from the right family and Eliezer inquired, "Whose daughter are you?"
Interestingly, after Rebecca gave Eliezer and his camels water to drink, the Torah recorded, "And the man (Eliezer) looked steadfastly on her (Rachel); holding his peace to know whether the Lord had hahetzleeach ("made successful or prosperous") his journey or not (Genesis 24:21)." The root of hahetzleeach comes from the root tzalach (succeed or prosper), which itself is derived from two words, tzel (shade) and lach (moisture), the two elements vital for survival in a desert environment. Thus the Torah's initial employment of tzalach, in response to Rebecca's act of watering Eliezer's camels, emphasizes the association of water to success or prosperity. This connection is found in other locations, such as, "He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, that yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever he does prospers (Psalms 1:3)." Those who know Chumash understand never to take water or Torah for granted.
No, I'm not going to give recipes
for water, although plain water with a few slices of lemon or lime is one of
my favorite drinks. Instead,
here are a few very liquidy recipes.
(About 4 cups)
Moroccans learned of tea from the British and loved it to such an extent that mint-flavored tea became the national drink. In the north of the country, the tea is mild and highly sweetened. As one travels south, the tea get stronger and less sugar is used. For iced mint tea, chill and pour over ice cubes.
2 cups fresh mint leaves
Place the mint, tea, and, if
desired, sugar to taste in a teapot. Add
the water and let steep 5 to 10 minutes.
Strain through a fine sieve.
(About 4 cups)
Chai is an ancient Indian drink consisting of brewed black tea sweetened with sugar and mellowed with milk. When using a strong tea like Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon, use about 2 teaspoons for every 3 cups of liquid (water and milk). For weaker black teas, such as Orange Pekoe, use up to 3 teaspoons.
Bring the water to a boil in
medium saucepan. Add the tea,
ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, and bay leaves and simmer for 4 minutes.
Add the milk and simmer until the milk begins to froth (about 1
additional minute). Stir in the
honey. Remove from the heat,
cover, and let stand for 3 minutes. Strain.
(If the tea leaves are left in for too long, it becomes bitter.)
Serve warm, or for chilled chai, place in the refrigerator until
(About 2 quarts/6 to 8 servings)
This soup is quite a bit more spicy and colorful than the European type.
1. Combine the cumin, turmeric, pepper, if desired, saffron, and salt. Toss the chicken pieces with the spice mixture. Place in a stockpot or large heatproof casserole over low heat and cook, turning the chicken occasionally, until seared and browned (about 8 minutes). Remove the chicken (this prevents the water from washing the spices from the chicken).
Add the water. Return
the chicken and add the onions, carrots, and tomatoes.
Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer,
occasionally skimming off the foam, until the chicken is very tender (at
least 2 hours). The chicken can be removed from bones and returned to soup or
served separately. Adjust the
seasoning, adding more salt as needed.
About 2½ quarts
Vegetable stock is a delicate substitute for chicken stock in soups. It can actually be very inexpensive if you think ahead: Instead of using whole vegetables, save your cleaned trimmings and scraps (potato skins, onion skins, carrot tops and peels, celery leaves, etc.) in the refrigerator or freezer. Use about 2 cups of vegetable scraps for every quart of water. Of course, you can also use fresh vegetables as below. Do not overdo strongly flavored vegetables such as members of the cabbage family. Avoid adding bell peppers, which impart an off flavor. For extra richness, save the water when cooking vegetables to use as part or all of the stock’s cooking liquid.
1. Heat the oil in stockpot or large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
2. Add all the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Partially cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 1 hour. Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 minutes.
3. Strain the stock through a colander, pressing out any liquid, then discard the solids. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Use as a base for other soups or serve by itself with noodles, matza balls, or rice.
HINTS - A general rule of thumb in seasoning soup is for every 1 quart of stock use 2 tablespoons fresh herbs or 2 teaspoons dried herbs, Use about ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, or 3 tablespoons miso (fermented soy paste) for every quart of water. Stock reduces as it simmers, intensifying the flavors. Therefore, it is best not to add too much salt at the beginning of cooking. If you use stock as the base for soup, be careful adding additional salt. If the soup is too salty, add a whole peeled raw potato and cook until the excess salt is absorbed. Discard the potato.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and the recently released The World of Jewish Desserts. If you have a special request for a future recipe, forward them to firstname.lastname@example.org