The Talmud relates how the Elders of Israel used the image of the cistern and the hungry lion as a metaphor for the difficulties of providing sustenance for the people. They appear before King David, informing him of the people's economic distress: "Your people Israel need a livelihood." To which David replies: "Let them earn a living by trading with one another." The Sages respond: "A mouthful cannot satisfy a lion, nor can a cistern fill up from its ring." Clearly, a cistern cannot fill up only from the rain that falls directly into its mouth; runoff from the entire drainage area must find its way into the cistern for it to be effective. David, understanding the implications of their words — that the nation can not sustain itself by living solely on its own limited resources — advises them to go out to war, to expand the nation's borders so as to provide a livelihood for all the people. [1]

By using the example of the hungry lion that is not sated by a mere mouthful, the Elders also remind David of his shepherding experiences as a youth in the desert; as a shepherd anxiously watching the flow of water into the cistern, David was responsible for protecting his flocks from the marauding lions that came out of the Jordan thickets to appease their hunger by preying on the sheep and goats.

To fully understand this metaphor, we observe in the photograph a round, stone "ring" two-thirds of the way down the slope in the Judean Desert. This stone ring is placed on the mouth of a deep, bell-shaped cistern cut in bedrock and usually plastered with lime to prevent seepage; the ring eases the chaffing on the rope attached to the jug or bucket used to draw water from the cistern. The photograph also shows remnants of conduits that channeled precious rainwater from the surrounding hills (left). As a slow desert shower fast turns into a downpour, rivulets of water quickly start to flow down the bare hills and into the conduits carefully constructed to direct the flow to the opening below the stone ring.


[1] Brakhot 3b


Nogah Hareuveni, Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. Translated from Hebrew by: Helen Frenkley. Published by Neot Kedumim (The Biblical Land Reserve in Israel), 1991.

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