Water was looked upon by the Jews as extremely important and precious. The first thing placed before a guest was water to wash his feet (Gen. xviii. 4, xxiv. 32), and it was a duty of hospitality to give water to strangers coming into the house, or even passing by (ib. xxiv. 17, 43). The non-fulfilment of this duty often resulted in serious hostilities. Thus, when the Israelites were marching toward Palestine they were prevented from passing through Edom, Ammon, and Moab because the inhabitants refused to give them a drink of water, even for money. Two hundred years later this resulted in bitter warfare (see Ammon; Jephthah). During the wandering in the wilderness the lack of water caused the Israelites to murmur against their leader (Ex. xv. 22-25, xvii. 1-7; Num. xx. 1-13). On the other hand, the heroes of King David's guard won distinction by procuring water for the king at the risk of their lives (II Sam. xxiii. 16; I Chron. xi. 17-18).For Ritual Purposes.
Water was of great importance in purification, being used in cleansing the leper, in sickness, in washing utensils, and in the cleansing of one who had been defiled by touching an unclean body (Lev. xv. 16-22, 27). The liability of plants and fruits to defilement was increased by contact with water (Lev. xi. 38), a contingency which formed a topic of much discussion in the Talmudic period, and became the subject of the treatise Makshirin.Libations.
The offering of water as a libation was an ancient institution, and even before the kingdom was established the Israelitish tribes, after having suffered repeated defeats at the hands of the Philistines, gathered together at Mizpeh at the command of the prophet Samuel, and poured water on the ground before
The word "water" was often used by the Jewssymbolically, especially in expressing grief, i.e., tears (Jer. ix. 1, 18; Ps. cxix. 136). A misfortune of great magnitude, the full extent of which it seemed impossible to fathom, was likened to water (Lam. iii. 54; Ps. lxix. 2, cxxiv. 4-5), while the constant flow and unrest of water were symbolic of numerous descendants (Num. xxiv. 7). The forgiveness of sins and their complete remission were typified by sprinkling with clean water (Ezek. xxxvi. 25); and in Jer. ii. 13 God is compared to a fountain of living waters. It was customary in the Talmudic period, moreover, to use "water" symbolically for the divine teachings (see Mek., Beshallaḥ, Wayassa', 1); so that in several passages the term "water" is used without any amplification whatever (comp. Ḥag. 3a; B. M. 84b; Hor. 14a; Ab. i. 2)."Water of Bitterness."
Water prepared with the ashes of the Red Heifer was especially important, since, even though unclean, it had the power of cleansing men and things infected with defilement. Still more important, however, was the "water of bitterness," the so-called "me ha-marim ha-me'arerim," which was prepared in the following manner: Into an earthen vessel the priest poured water which had stood in the Temple, and with this water he mixed dust taken from the Temple floor. If a woman was suspected of unfaithfulness toward her husband, the priest pronounced certain maledictions, which he afterward wrote on a little scroll. This was then dissolved in the water, which the accused woman was obliged to drink (Num. v. 17-24; see also the article Soṭah).
Water was in important factor during the first three days of Creation. On the first day "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Gen. i. 2); on the second day the nether waters were divided from the upper, and the latter were transformed into the "raḳia'," or "firmament" (ib. verse 7); and on the third day the nether waters were assigned to their allotted place, which received the name of "sea" (ib. verse 10).
Through the influence of the Greeks, and especially of the Gnostics, who regarded water as the original element, similar beliefs gained currency among the Jews, so that Judah ben Pazi transmitted the following saying in the name of R. Ishmael (Yer. Ḥag. ii., beginning): "In the beginning the world consisted of water within water (Gen. i. 2); the water was then changed into ice (Ps. cxlvii. 17), and again transformed by God into earth (Job xxxvii. 6). The earth itself, however, rests upon the waters, and the waters on the mountains" (i.e., the clouds; Ps. civ. 6). This teaching, however, was rejected by R. Akiba, who warned those scholars who devoted themselves to the study of cosmogony not to be led astray by Gnosticism, and not to cry "Water!" whenever they saw in their visions a sea of crystal around the throne of God (Ḥag. 14b). In the later Talmudic period the word "water" was used as a designation for mucus, which was called "water from the nose" (Tosef., Shab. viii.; Niddah 55d), while buttermilk was termed "water of milk," and unfermented grape-juice was called "water of the grape-vine" ('Orlah i. 7).