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The Surprising Behaviour Of The Waters Of The Deep & King David In Daf 53A-B of Masechet Succah

The Waters Of The Deep wanted to submerge the world when King David dug the Sheeteen (Shitin) beneath the mizbeach, as recounted by a certain rabbi who was expert in aggadta, in daf 53A-B of masechet Succah.

There are two shocking aspects to this story.

The first is that G’ promised to Noah that He would not flood the world again. So what threat did the water pose? It wasn’t an empty threat, as we’ll see.

This point alone makes for quite a surprising aggada.

It gets more surprising.

Faced with this threat from The Waters Of The Deep, King David asked his court if anyone could tell him whether he could write G’s name on a piece of pottery and cast it into the water so that the waters should subside and the world would not be flooded. (He didn’t rule on it himself, as the Artscroll explains, because he was in the presence of his master Achitofel.)

We know that saving human life (pikuach nefesh) overrides every commandment in the Torah save for three: idolatry, murder, and illicit relations (adultery and incest with a range of relatives). There doesn’t appear to be any idolatry, murder or illicit relations here.

Why did King David wait to get a ruling? Elsewhere in the Talmud delay in matters of pikuach nefesh are criticized severely!

Artscroll cites Aruch LaNer as raising this question, but they don’t quote his answer. You can find Aruch LaNer’s commentary to Masechet Sukkah, here. I couldn’t figure out where he raises this point, so I’ll offer my answer and hopefully add Aruch LaNer’s once I get an answer from DafYomi.co.il.

In short, there’s a commandment enjoining us to destroy idols, and in parallel there’s a negative commandment not to do so to G’ name. So erasing G’s name can be seen as a form of idolatry, i.e. rejecting (chas v’shalom) Him for another.

Going a bit deeper, we can see that there’s a common thread to idolatry, murder and illicit relations. Each involve a “tearing down,” (stira in Hebrew) as it were, of G’. Idolatry’s tearing down is obvious. Murder involves the destruction of man, who was made in G’s image and thus we again have a tearing down. And Judaism’s mystical side seeks the union of G’s male and female aspects so that His Blessed Name should be One. So having impure relations with forbidden relatives or outside marriage introduces unholiness in what should be a holy union and is again a “tearing down”. It’s clear that erasing His Blessed Name could be a tearing down, too. That’s why David had to ask if he could write it on the shard that would be thrown into The Waters Of The Deep.

In the end, King David’s master Achitofel indicated that it was permissible, based on a kal vachomer from the case of a sotah, a woman suspected by her husband of adultery.

The woman and her husband go to the Beith Hamikdash, where a Cohen writes the verses where the Torah describes the case of a sotah onto parchment. He asks the woman if she’d like to admit what she’s done, and if she denies wrongdoing, the Cohen places the parchment into water whereupon G’s name dissolves. The woman drinks the water, and depending on whether she lives or dies, we know whether or not she has committed adultery.

Achitofel reasoned that since we allow G’s name to be erased for the sake of peace between a man and his wife, all the more so we should allow it for the sake of the whole world’s peace.

In other words, just as we don’t consider the erasing in the case of the sotah to be analogous to ‘tearing down’, so too (and with even greater reason) do we not consider the erasing to save the whole world to be a ‘tearing down.’

Alternately, even if it is a ‘tearing down’, it is necessary to preserve G’s world so that His Name can be sanctified in it. Desolation cannot glorify G’, as King David himself wrote in the Psalms, “Will the dust (of one who died) praise You? Will it recount Your Truth?” As we see in certain parts of the Talmud (with very limited application for obvious reasons), this might be an application of “A time to do to/for G’, [for] they have overturned your Torah.” This principle indicates that a small transgression is allowed to preserve the Torah from being totally forsaken, when it’s already being partly forsaken. (Again, this is not something you can just decide on your own, but is a principle with strict, limited application.)

Clearly, we can tell that the threat of The Waters Of The Deep was not an empty one, because if it had been an empty threat Achitofel would never have been allowed King David to erase G’s Blessed Name.

This leaves us to wonder about a paradox – we see that the threat from the Waters of the Deep was serious, yet how could this threat ever be substantial in light of G’s promise to Noah?

My wife suggested an answer that may work with some slight adaptation. Rosi said that since G’ promised not to destroy the whole world with water, perhaps this would be a partial, not total, submerging? That’s hard to maintain since the language of the Gemara explicitly says it was going to submerge the world (though you could define that as perhaps the majority thereof) and Achitofel said that the erasing was ok for the peace of the “whole world.”

(Does this “whole world” phrasing imply that saving part of the world would have been insufficient reason to erase? I don’t think that implication is valid; rather I think Achitofel just stated his argument in reference to the case at hand. And we can say that his reference to the “whole world” means merely a majority. This is nevertheless tenuous, because saying it means only a majority implies that we’re relying on the principle of “the minority is annulled [i.e. insignificant] relative to the majority,” (batel berov, in Hebrew). And we do NOT rely on that principle when the minority is inherently significant, which is clearly the case here.)

So how can you adapt Rosi’s suggestion to answer the question?

You can say that the force and quantity of the water would be sufficient to submerge the world. However we know from the flood in Beresheet that it takes 40 days and nights to completely destroy the whole world. So before water on its own were able to destroy everything, it’s possible that interlinked natural disasters such as earthquakes (to allow the water to come to the surface) leading to volcanic eruptions (hi, Pompei) and so on would destroy some of the world. (You can read more about what might happen if water burst forth from the deep at Quora, especially the answer here discussing a possibility of it welling up as hot water with minerals etc (known as hydrothermal fluid.)

Hence the water has the capacity to endanger the entire world, but in practice part of the destruction would come from other natural forces.

So that might be the solution, but it’s still not great. The world was destroyed by a flood, and we’re discussing the same thing (or arguably even less, since the flood in Noah’s time included rain whereas here we’re just talking about water from the ground). So if there were geysers then, we could have anticipated eqrthquakes, volcanic eruptions. Yet we see that the promise was not to destroy the world again with water … suggesting that back then the problem was not earthquakes, volcanoes etc. And even if you say that’s a reference to geysers + rain whereas here the issue is just geysers, that’s still tenuous because there’d still be earthquakes and other natural disasters in the original flood.

Perhaps I need to review the verses properly. May G’ enlighten my eyes to understand these questions from Massechet Sukkah fully and in depth.

Posted in Judaism.


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