Jewcology: The Jewish value of appreciating water

For modern use of water to continue in the long-term, we will have to develop a deeper water awareness.

August 15, 2012 17:03
4 minute read.
A VIEW of the Jordan River in 2005

A VIEW of the Jordan River in 2005 (R) 311 . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Human beings depend on a sufficient supply of high quality fresh water for their survival. Because of this essential dependence, Jewish sources equate water with life. By recognizing our dependence on water, and ultimately our dependence on God, we can strengthen our appreciation and protection of our precious natural resources, and our relationship with the Creator of the world.

Even before the Israelites entered the land of Israel, water was central to their collective experience. In the desert, uncertainty about water resources inspired numerous complaints and lessons for the wandering Jews. The Talmud teaches that in the merit of Miriam's song, a well appeared in the desert which accompanied the Jews wherever they went (Tractate Ta'anit 9a). God gave us this essential resource, without which we could not live for more than a few days, in the water-scarce desert.  But in the desert the long-term security of the resource was never certain.

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The Biblical experiences with water in the desert can be understood as a spiritual training to cultivate appreciation for God's goodness. Through the process of taking water for granted, losing it and then receiving it directly from God, the desert wanderers certainly appreciated water and the one who provided it. The Prophet Jeremiah refers to God as the "Source of Living Waters," since water is one of the chief means by which God provides life to people (Jeremiah 2:12, 17:13). Thus, at the end of the Jews' desert experience, they sang an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water (Numbers 21:17).

In the Land of Israel prior to modern times, the agrarian society’s bounty or famine was regulated by rain. Israel is a semi-arid country with no major rivers. It receives modest rainfall, averaging less than 100 millimeters per year in the extreme south to 1,128 millimeters in the north. Until the 20th century, most agriculture in Israel was rain-fed and not irrigated; farmers depended on the winter rains in order to eat and live.  This water insecurity is by Divine design, to helps us realize that God is the ultimate Provider not only of water, but all our needs.

Jewish prayers and texts reinforce this message and remind us of what our ancestors knew about water. Our prayers and texts are replete with appreciation for rain, profound recognition of the importance of water, prayers imploring God to provide us with water, and gratitude for the rains when they come. For example, Dr. Jeremy Benstein notes that Biblical Hebrew contains at least six different words to describe liquid precipitation (geshem, matar, yoreh, malkosh, revivim, se'irim), which denote different times and intensities of rainfall.

Today, the industrialization of water distribution has increased the availability of water yet reduced our appreciation of its importance.  We generally do not see where food is grown or the rain or irrigation that waters the crops. Piped water now comes directly to us, replacing reliance on local water sources.

These innovations have relieved us from the burden of transporting water from streams and cisterns to our homes. However, they have blinded us to where our water comes from - both physically and spiritually. With this, we have lost the deep-seated experience of the preciousness of water.  For many, this is partly a spiritual loss: lacking the sense of our ultimate dependence on God for all our needs.  But it also has very significant practical impacts, because where appreciation ends, misuse begins.

The world increasingly faces a water crisis, experienced most by those in Africa, South Asia, and China. A lack of sufficient drinking water is recognized to be a leading cause of death in the world.  The World Health Organization reports that some 884 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking-water sources. In the United States, many counties in the West and Southeast experience increasing water scarcity, with government agencies forced to regulate consumption or call for conservation. Israel’s main aquifers and Lake Kinneret have dipped below their red lines in recent years, endangering water quality.

Piped water and irrigated fields give us the wrong impression that the availability of fresh water is virtually limitless. Yet freshwater is scarce on planet earth. These technologies also obscure that water is becoming even more limited due to a plethora of factors, among them increasing demand, climate change, and pollution of freshwater supplies. Can human society simultaneously enjoy pumped and piped water and use it wisely? 

For modern use of water to continue in the long-term, we will have to develop a deeper water awareness. That is where the teachings of our 3,000-year old tradition come in. These teachings on rain and water can help us cultivate an appreciation for water, and inspire us every day to value and protect our resources - and everything we use.

Evonne Marzouk contributed to this report

These materials are posted as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment,” in partnership with Canfei Nesharim.  Learn more at

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