On today’s daf, we learn in a beraita (early rabbinic teaching):
If someone dug or opened a well and transferred it to the public for their use, he is exempt from damage caused by the well. If he dug or opened a well and did not transfer it to the public, he is liable.
If you dig a well and keep it for yourself, you assume liability for any damage that it causes. But if you dig a well and transfer it to the public, you are exempt. Making the well available for public use serves the community in two ways. First, and most obviously, it provides the community with a source of water. Second, it makes the public aware of the well’s existence, reducing the likelihood that someone will fall into it. For both these reasons, the person who labors to dig it is exempt from liability.
Digging a well is back-breaking work. Who would devote time to such a project only to gift the well away to the public? The Talmud tells us that Nehunya was known for doing exactly this: digging not only public wells but also cisterns and pits — all manner of water systems. And whenever he dug one, he transferred it to the public. Three cheers for Nehunya!
When the sages heard about the matter, they said: This individual has fulfilled this halakhah.
Did that sound like lukewarm praise? The Gemara amends this accolade:
He even fulfilled this halakhah.
Nehunya was an impressive figure who devoted a lifetime to public service. The Gemara now tells a story about him. Once, we learn, Nehunya’s daughter fell into a large cistern and no one could get her out. The locals went to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa to pray for her rescue, and meanwhile an old man with a sheep found a way to get her out. Before she returned to town, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa — who was possessed of not only great wisdom but also supernatural powers — informed the townspeople that she had survived and emerged from the cistern. How did he know?
They said to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa: Are you a prophet?
Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa said to them: “I am no prophet, neither am I a prophet’s son” (Amos 7:14), but this is what I said to myself: Shall the offspring of Nehunya stumble by means of the very matter which that righteous man troubled himself?
Though the rabbis attribute extraordinary powers of intercession with heaven to him, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa didn’t use them to rescue this girl or even to determine that she was safe. Rather, he knew she would be safe because of his certainty about how the world works. There is no way, posits Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, that a person who digs wells and cisterns and transfers them to the public could suffer the loss of a child in this manner. The merit of Nehunya’s actions protect him, and his children, from such a tragedy.
Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa’s worldview is comforting: the idea that our merit provides protection to our family. But we know this is not how the world always works — and so does the Talmud. While the rescue of Nahunya’s daughter gives credence to this worldview, the fate of his son shows it to be naive.
Rabbi Aha says: Even so, his son died of thirst.
Nahunya is upheld as a great man by the Talmud. He lived a life of meritorious deeds, including his public works projects that provided water for others. For this he is honored, and yet his own son died for lack of water.
We don’t hear from Nahunya himself in his story. I hope that he took great pride in his work and understood that the merit of a good deed is intrinsic to the act itself. And I hope that the irony in the manner of the death of his son did not add to his grief, or stop him from digging public wells.
Read all of Bava Kamma 51 on Sefaria.