Read Rabbi David Polsky's Water Justice Source Sheet

Water Access Source Sheet
by Rabbi David Polsky

Background to the following source: A Tosefta is an early rabbinic source from that, for one reason or another, was not included in the Mishnah. This passage speaks about a case in which one town has a water source, but another town needs water as well. What should happen? The passage first states that the town that owns the water source is entitled to make sure that they have enough water to drink before giving their leftovers to other towns.

A stream owned by a particular town--if both that town and others [need it for drinking water], they come before the others...

Afterwards [i.e. after the other towns have finished using the first town's stream], they come together to settle the cost [of their usage].

Discussion: The passage suggests that the first town should give any necessary water to the second town before demanding any payment. But why should that be? One of the commentaries explains:

  • Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor b. Avraham, Mitzpeh Shmuel Bava Metzia 11:37

[The town receiving water] uses what they need, they calculate the value of the water they used afterwards, and not beforehand, since [water is] essential for life…

Background to the following source: This passage is an early Rabbinic source that discusses the obligations of neighbors to contribute towards mutual needs. Citizens of a town are obligated towards things like education, a synagogue, and a Torah scroll, whether or not they actually make use of these things. According to this passage, if someone owns a house in one city but lives in another, their obligations are more limited. Since they do not live in the city, they don’t have to pay for a synagogue they don’t use. However, the very fact that they own a home in a locale obligates them for certain payments:

If someone has a courtyard in another city, the people of the city can still force them to help them dig wells, ditches, and caves, and to help them repair the ritual baths and water streams. But they cannot compel them regarding other things. Though if they lived in that city, they can compel them regarding all of the charges.  

Discussion: In other words, even if they don’t live in the city where they own a home , they must still pay for the water needs of the town. 

Rabbi Yosef Ibn Migash, a medieval commentator, explains why this should be the case:

...Rabbi Yosef Ibn Migash explains... that without these ditches and caves [for water], no one would be able to live in the city, and it would become desolate...

Discussion: Water access is considered so essential to the life of a municipality that it is impossible for it to function without it. Every stakeholder within the town must therefore contribute so that everyone living there has water.

But how much should each person contribute towards the cost of water? How should it be determined? The Talmud isn’t completely clear, but a number of rabbinical authorities suggest that the cost should be apportioned based on wealth. R. Menachem ben Abraham Krochmal (1600-1661) makes this argument the most explicitly.  In his volume of responsa, Tzemach Tzedek, he responds to a community asking him how to apportion the cost of extending a water source closer to the Jewish community:

…Improving the water supply to bring it towards the Jewish community is a communal enactment that is brought about through money and thus it is collected apportioned based on wealth….

But based on [the fact that the water would also be used to put out fires to homes in the community], it is possible to say that some of the funds should be collected based on property values. (However, nonetheless, homes owned by rich people will be worth more than those owned by the poor.) Thus, it seems that three quarters of the money should be apportioned based on wealth, while a quarter of the money should be collected according to property values. 

Discussion: Since, in that time, the same water could be used to save houses from fire, which meant that home values should play a role in such assessments. However, the cost of fixing drinking water  should be apportioned based on wealth. 

With G-d’s help, we will ensure that all citizens of Detroit have access to water, enabling us to apply this verse:

Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of triumph.


Source Sheet created on Sefaria by Rabbi David Polsky

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