Most of Masekhet Ta’anit discusses the process that the Jews would undergo when there were droughts or other impending catastrophes. The third perek is filled with stories of rabbis who prayed and were thereby able to sway the course of nature by convincing Hashem to intervene and bring miracles on their behalf. The first of these stories is that of Nakdimon ben Guryon, one that could shed light on some characteristics which may be common to other stories of miracles, both later in the perek and in general. One of the major parshanim who examines this aggadeta is Maharsha (R. Samuel Edeles), a sixteenth century Polish rabbi who wrote Hiddushei Maharsha, a commentary on the Talmud that includes an explanation of the aggadic portions. Using Maharsha’s commentary as a basis for a close reading of the Nakdimon ben Guryon story can highlight some points that allow for a better understanding of the circumstances in which miracles and divine intervention occur.
The story begins as follows:
Once, all of the Jews went up to Jerusalem for one of the shalosh regalim, and did not have enough water to drink [because of a drought]. Nakdimon ben Guryon went to a nobleman and said to him, “Lend me twelve springs of water [which you own] for the people coming for the regel. [In return,] I will give you twelve springs of water (i.e. the springs will be refilled), and if I do not give them to you I will give you twelve talents of silver.” He then set a time [by which the loan would need to be repaid].[ii]
The characters in this story are significant. Maharsha notes that this story took place close to the time of hurban ha-Bayit (destruction of the Temple) when the Romans were in power. The nobleman may have the upper hand and be able to control the terms of the deal because he is presumably one of the Romans.[iii] Nakdimon ben Guryon, though, is also important. The Gemara in Gittin states that he was one of three rich men in Jerusalem who were wealthy enough to potentially help Jerusalem withstand twenty-one years of siege.[iv] Although Nakdimon asks for a large loan, he has the means to repay it.
The chosen number of springs is also significant. Maharsha links this to the twelve springs in Eilim, one of Benei Yisra’el’s stops in the desert after crossing the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds).[v] Rashi explains that the twelve springs correspond to the twelve shevatim.[vi] Maharsha says that the same applies to the twelve springs in the Nakdimon ben Guryon story: Nakdimon hopes that rain would come in the merit of the twelve shevatim. If this merit proves insufficient, however, then the twelve talents of silver would serve as kapparah (atonement) for the Jews’ unworthiness.[vii] Even this early in the story, there is recognition of the need for divine intervention. Nakdimon realizes that it is unlikely that rain will come naturally, and he therefore needs to have symbols of the Jews’ merits so that Hashem will intervene on their behalf.
The story continues:
When the [day] came and it still had not rained in the morning, [the nobleman] sent a message to [Nakdimon]: “Give me either the water or the money you owe me.”
[Nakdimon] replied, “I still have time;this whole day is mine.”
At noon, [the nobleman] sent him a message: “Give me either the water or the money you owe me.”
[Nakdimon] replied, “I still have the rest of the day.”
At minhah time, [the nobleman] sent him a message: “Give me either the water or the money you owe me.”
[Nakdimon] replied, “I still have the rest of the day.”
The nobleman began to mock him, saying, “All year it has not rained, and now it will rain?!” He went into the bathhouse happily.[viii]
It is strange that there is so much back-and-forth between Nakdimon and the nobleman. The nobleman should have realized which part of the day the deadline was. Even if he did not, why did he continue to send messages to Nakdimon after he was already informed in the morning that the deadline would not be until the day ended?
Maharsha explains the nobleman’s reasoning by describing a difference between Jewish and Gentile law concerning the part of the day that would be the deadline for loans. According to non-Jewish law, the deadline would be at sunrise. In Jewish law, however, the deadline would arrive only later, at sheki’ah (sunset). The nobleman, a non-Jew following Gentile law, asks for the payment in the morning, while Nakdimon, a Jew, believes that he has the whole day to wait for rain before he would need to pay the nobleman in silver.[ix] Once corrected, though, the nobleman seems to accept here that the loan is being conducted according to Jewish law, which is unusual because, as noted above, the story occurred at a time of Roman power. However, when Nakdimon explains the Jewish version of the law to the nobleman he is not clear enough. As the nobleman mistakenly understands him, the deadline would be when most of the day will have passed, so he would not need to wait the whole day. It is for this reason that he sends a messenger to Nakdimon again at noon.[x] At this point in the story, the nobleman seems to have done nothing wrong. He is asking for money that he believes is rightfully his, and the back-and-forth is due to misunderstanding, not malice.
This tone of misunderstanding changes at minhah time. Maharsha explains that the nobleman knows that minhah is not the deadline. He nevertheless sends a messenger to Nakdimon because he thinks that there would be no time for it to rain, reasoning that if it has not rained all year, it would not rain now.[xi] This part of the dialogue is a turning point. Previously, the nobleman was asking for the money because he thought it was his right. Now, however, he begins to mock Nakdimon, because it is at this point that he considers Nakdimon to be simply pushing off the inevitable.
Maharsha further explains that going into the bathhouse is also a form of mockery. The Jews have such a shortage of water that they are forced to pay a large sum for it. The nobleman, meanwhile, is taunting them by showing that he even has enough water to take a bath.[xii] It is this action that makes the nobleman’s intentions clear: The nobleman no longer has the excuse that he acted the way he did because the payment was inevitable. Now his spiteful actions show an unwarranted lack of sensitivity to the plight of the Jews.
The story resumes:
Simultaneous with the nobleman’s entrance into the bathhouse in happiness, Nakdimon entered the Beit ha-Mikdash, upset. He wrapped himself [in a tallit] and stood in prayer. He said before Him (Hashem), “Master of the World, it is revealed before You that I did not act for my own honor and I did not act for my family’s honor, but rather I acted for Your honor, so that there would be water for the people coming up for the regel.” Immediately, the sky filled with clouds, and it began to rain until the twelve wells were filled and overflowing.[xiii]
The language of this section encourages the reader to compare and contrast Nakdimon and the nobleman. The text emphasizes that the two men entered their destinations simultaneously. Additionally, the names for their destinations share similar language; the Hebrew for bathhouse, beit ha-merhats, is parallel to the words Beit ha-Mikdash.
The introduction to Nakdimon’s prayer illustrates one difference between the two men. In his prayer, Nakdimon emphasizes that his actions were not for his own honor, thus demonstrating his selflessness. The nobleman, on the other hand, is acting in a selfish manner. It is true that he does deserve some sort of payment by the time the deadline comes, and he could also contend that he agreed to lend the wells out of a desire to help those in need. However, the nobleman knows that the deadline has not yet passed, and yet he still demands payment incessantly and goes so far as to mock the Jews. These actions show that, in reality, his motivation is to make money out of the deal. He is not acting out of altruism.
Another difference between the two men concerns their faith in Hashem and His ability to perform miracles. As mentioned earlier, the nobleman thinks that there is not enough time left for it to rain, and he will therefore inevitably be repaid in money. He automatically assumes that the world will work as it always has, and that there is no room for miracles. His entrance into the bathhouse demonstrates nonchalance—an ordinary activity for an ordinary time. Nakdimon, though, recognizes the power of prayer. The story does not mention prayer until this point, suggesting that Nakdimon thinks that it is best to depend on nature; however, when there is no other option, Nakdimon has faith that a miracle will happen. He states his plight to Hashem, but neglects to request what Hashem should do about it, as if to say that he accepts Hashem’s authority over the matter and does not want to tell Him what to do. However, the fact that he is praying shows his faith that Hashem will listen to his request.
It is also interesting that Nakdimon mentions that he acted for Hashem’s sake, yet elaborates that he acted for the benefit of the Jews and the holiday. That the Gemara mentions this seems redundant, since both Hashem and the reader are already aware of his reasoning. One explanation could be that by referencing the Jewish people in his prayer, Nakdimon is broadening the need for the miracle from something personal to something affecting the entire Jewish people. By mentioning the holiday, he is drawing on the merits of the Jewish people who performed the mitsvah of undertaking the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and serving Hashem there. His mention of the Jews may also allude to the merit of the twelve shevatim, which is symbolized by the wells, as described earlier. Since Nakdimon is reluctant to ask for a miracle, as evident from the previous lack of prayer, he feels the need to call upon as many merits as possible so that it will be justified.
The story continues:
Simultaneous to the nobleman leaving the bathhouse, Nakdimon ben Guryon left the Beit ha-Mikdash. When they met each other, [Nakdimon] said, “Give me the money that you owe me for the extra water.”
The nobleman replied, “I know that the only reason that Hashem changed the order of the world was for you. But I still have a claim against you that I can take my money from you: the sun had already set, and so all the rain that fell was already during my time [that the wells had reverted back to me].”[xiv]
Maharsha points out that Nakdimon’s ability to request payment for the extra rain was not stipulated in the initial agreement. Nakdimon was mocking the nobleman in return for what the nobleman had said earlier: The nobleman had asked Nakdimon excessively for money, so he was doing the same.[xv] This may also be a form of rebuke to the nobleman for not believing in Hashem’s ability to perform miracles. As noted before, the nobleman was wrong for requesting the money at minhah time, which was also the point at which he showed that he did not believe that there was a way for rain to come. Since the two ideas of excessively requesting money and of believing in miracles seem to be tied, by mocking the nobleman’s view on one, Nakdimon is in fact mocking his view on both.
Maharsha also comments on the strangeness of the nobleman’s words– that Hashem had made it rain for Nakdimon so that he would not have to repay the loan with money, and yet Nakdimon must still pay because it rained after the deadline. According to the nobleman, what would be the point of Hashem’s miracle if it did not fulfill its purpose? Maharsha explains that the nobleman was saying that Nakdimon’s prayers were fulfilled by the rain. However, Hashem made the rain fall after sheki’ah so that the nobleman would not lose the money from the water that he lent to Nakdimon. The rain did not come for Nakdimon’s benefit but rather for the nobleman’s, so that his wells would be full.[xvi] The belief that the miracle was for him demonstrates the nobleman’s self-importance. At this point in the story, the nobleman has not yet done anything that would merit a miracle being performed on his behalf. Nonetheless, he is so convinced that he is correct in his demands for the money that he believes that the miracles were for his sake.
Maharsha notes that the nobleman emphasizes the deadline of sunset even though, according to the non-Jews, sunset is meaningless because nighttime is considered part of the previous day. The nobleman’s point is that regardless of the contract being used, he has a right to be paid in money starting at sheki’ah.[xvii] This is interesting when contrasted with the confusion about deadlines that occurred earlier in the day. The nobleman now understands the system, and is self-assured that he would be right in any case.
The story concludes:
[Nakdimon] returned and entered the Beit ha-Mikdash, wrapped himself [in a tallit], and stood in prayer. He said to [Hashem], “Master of the World, let it be known that there are those in the world whom you love.” Immediately, the clouds dispersed and the sun shone.
At that time, the nobleman said to him, “If not for the fact that the sun shone I would have had a claim against you that I would have gotten my money from you.”[xviii]
According to Maharsha, Nakdimon is praying for a miracle to follow the one he had before. This prayer makes sense in the context of the nobleman’s complaint. Hashem’s first miracle did not demonstrate whom He loved, as it was not clear for whose benefit it had come. Nakdimon therefore asked for another miracle to prove once and for all that the rain was for the sake of the Jewish people: if the sun would shine again, it would be clear that it had rained before the sunset deadline and that the rain had come to help the Jews.[xix] Maharsha also mentions that the miracle in the story was not that the clouds dispersed, but that the sun stood still instead of setting, thus lengthening the day. He proves his point from the comparison the Gemara later makes between Nakdimon and Moshe and Yehoshua, for whom this same miracle occurred.[xx] Maharsha’s reasoning is logical. The nobleman must have been aware of the time the sun was due to set to know if it had rained before or after the day was over. It started to rain while it was still day, and the rainclouds would have masked a transition between day and night. By mentioning while it was still cloudy outside that the rain fell during his time, the nobleman demonstrates that he knows that sheki’ah should have passed, so the miracle must have been that sheki’ah had been delayed rather than that the clouds had dispersed.
The comparison between Nakdimon and Moshe and Yehoshua mentioned earlier is surprising because Nakdimon did not share their stature: Despite the fact that this story centers on Nakdimon’s charity, the Gemara states in Masekhet Ketuvot that his method of giving charity was not ideal. Nakdimon gave much charity; he had garments spread out for him to walk on when going to the beit midrash so that poor people could gather and keep them after he passed. However, Nakdimon eventually became impoverished, either because he gave most of his charity for his own honor, or because he should have given more because he was so rich.[xxi] It is ironic that one of the reasons his charity was imperfect was because he acted for himself, while in Ta’anit, one of the major points in his tefillah was that he did not act for himself.
* * *
The story of Nakdimon ben Guryon highlights several aspects of the circumstances surrounding divine intervention. One aspect is the balance the recipient should have between acknowledging that events generally happen naturally and believing that Hashem can manipulate the world. In general, there is a concept that people should not depend on miracles.[xxii] This story illustrates that there is a difference between depending on miracles and believing that they can happen. Nakdimon does not explicitly ask for the miracle of refilling the wells, yet he knows that Hashem is able to provide one for him.
Another lesson about divine intervention is the helpfulness of highlighting merits that one has in order that Hashem will look upon the request favorably. Nakdimon draws on merits when he mentions the twelve shevatim that make up the Jewish nation and the mitsvah of aliyyah le-regel. It seems that miracles will not come without justification, so if a person is unsure if he deserves a miracle it is advantageous to emphasize all of the virtues of himself and of the other recipients.
Finally, it is more likely that a miracle will come if the motivations of those asking for it are altruistic and not selfish in nature, as illustrated by Nakdimon’s emphasis that he is not asking because of his own honor. Even when Nakdimon asks Hashem for a miracle at the end of the story, it is not for himself but so that Hashem can make His will clear. The altruism, however, does not have to be an ingrained characteristic of the supplicant, but can be just the motivation for a specific request. Nakdimon, in general, is not altruistic, giving charity for his own honor, as mentioned in Ketuvot; it is for this reason that he is impoverished at the end of his life. However, in this specific instance, since he is in fact acting for the sake of Hashem and the Jewish people, his request is granted.
Future study could trace these concepts through the rest of the third perek of Ta’anit to see when and how they play out.
Davida Kollmar is a senior at SCW majoring in Physics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Ta’anit 30a. All translations are the author’s.
[ii] Ta’anit 19b.
[iii] Ad loc., s.v halakh.
[v] Shemot 15:27.
[vi] Ad loc., s.v. sheteim esreh einot mayim.
[vii] Maharsha to Ta’anit 19b, s.v. halakh.
[viii] Ta’anit 19b-20a.
[ix] Maharsha to Ta’anit 19b, s.v. she-kava.
[x] Ibid., s.v. ve-shuv.
[xi] Ibid., s.v. be-minhah.
[xii] Maharsha to Ta’anit 20a, s.v. she-nikhnas.
[xiii] Ta’anit 20a.
[xv] Maharsha, ad loc., s.v. ten.
[xvi] Ibid., s.v. ve-amar leih.
[xviii] Ta’anit 20a.
[xix] Maharsha, ad loc., s.v. hoda.
[xxi] Ketuvot 66b-67a.
[xxii] Pesahim 64b.