In the book of Ezekiel the prophet receives a Divine revelation at the River Kevar.[1] In Psalms 137 the exiles mourn and weep for Zion "by the waters of Babylon." And, by the River Ahva, the Jewish leader Ezra proclaims a fast for the people who are about to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem.[2] The emphasis on religious activities which take place near river banks cannot be merely coincidental but must point to some special connection. Indeed, the midrash on Ezekiel gives us a direction.[3]

The Rabbinic Sages were undoubtedly troubled by the fact that Ezekiel was a prophet who received some of his revelations outside of the Holy Land; they apparently had a tradition that limited prophecy to the Land of Israel. In order to surmount this problem the midrash states: "Although [Ezekiel] received Divine communication outside of the Holy Land, it was granted him in a pure place", i.e., near a body of water.

To solve the dilemma of prophecy outside of Eretz Yisrael, the Sages came up with the theory that since water serves to purify those who have been contaminated (presumably from idolatry which was rife throughout the land of Babylon) — even the area near a body of water can be considered sufficiently pure for Divine revelation. This may indeed have been the way the Judean exiles solved the dilemma of living surrounded by idolatry: They simply gathered for Jewish religious activities near rivers or other bodies of water such as canals, as these were considered unpolluted areas fit for Jewish worship.

Another possible explanation may be that Jews wished to purify themselves by bathing prior to engaging in religious activity, and that the gathering near rivers was simply a matter of convenience. A third explanation may be related to the fact that Jews sought to escape the prying eyes of their idolatrous Babylonian neighbors; river banks were a places of isolation where they were free to conduct their own kind of rituals and where they could pray for the restoration of Zion without being accused of treason.

[1] Exekiel Ch. 1 [back]
[2] Ezra 8:21 [back]
[3] Ezekiel, Yalkut Shimoni [back]

Reprinted with permission from the JEWISH BIBLE QUARTERLY, POB 29002, Jerusalem, Israel

Joshua J. Adler, formerly Rabbi of Congregation Chizuk Emuna of Harrisburg, Pa., now resides in Jerusalem, and lectures on Judaic subjects at various institutions in Israel. He is now Managing Editor of Dor le Dor.



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