The Hebrew language distinguishes between two kinds of wells: (1) "be'er," an artificially constructed hollow in which the water of a spring or underground water collects, and "bor," a cistern in which rain-water is stored. Of the former, which were probably designated also as "wells of living water" (Gen. xxvi. 19), the best preserved is that atthe foot of Gerizim, which in the time of Jesus was called "Jacob's Well," and is undoubtedly very old (comp. John iv. 2). It is 23 meters deep and 2½ meters in diameter. The shape of the cisterns for collecting rain-water of course differed. A number of such ancient cisterns are still well preserved. Those shaped like a bottle, round, broad at the bottom, and narrowing at the top, seem to have been the oldest. They were usually like chambers hewn out of rock, or built up with walls; and in their construction natural cavities were preferred. Sometimes they were of very considerable size. For instance, the largest of the celebrated cisterns on the Temple area, called the "sea" or the "king's cistern," had a circumference of 224 meters and a depth of 13 meters. These Temple cisterns were fed not only by rain-water but also, through large conduits, by spring-water. In distinction from open pools, cisterns and wells were wholly covered. Even the hole through which the water was drawn in leather buckets (Ex. ii. 16; Isa. xl. 15) was tightly closed with a large stone (Gen. xxix. 3 et seq.; comp. Ex. xxi. 33), in order to prevent any one from using the well without permission.
In a land so poor in springs and water, a well was always a valuable possession. In Jerusalem every house of the better sort had its own cistern. King Mesha of Moab in his inscription (line 23) boasts that by his command every house in the city of Ḳarḥah was provided with a cistern (comp. also II Sam. xvii. 18; Prov. v. 15). The wells outside of settlements formed the stations for caravans. Today, as of old, strife among the wandering herdsmen, the Bedouins, arises chiefly from disputes over wells (comp. Gen. xxi. 25 et seq.; xxvi. 15, 19 et seq.). The importance of good wells is shown also by the situation of many cities near wells, after which they were named.
Some of these wells and cisterns had their origin in the time of the Patriarchs. Abraham dug a well in Beer-sheba (Gen. xxi. 30), and Isaac restored the wells dug by his father, which had been filled up by the Philistines. Ordered by the king of the Philistines to leave the country, Isaac dug three wells in succession elsewhere; the first he called "Esek," the second "Sitnah," and the third "Rehoboth" (Gen. xxvi. 16-22).
Near Mosera, where Aaron died, were the wells "of the children of Jaakan" (Deut. x. 6 [R. V., margin]), and at the ford over the Arnon the Israelites found a very ancient well, which they celebrated in song as the work of princes and nobles (see Well, Song of the). The King of Edom refused to allow the Israelites to drink from his wells, even though they offered to recompense him for the privilege (Num. xx. 19). Eliezer, sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac, stopped at a well to rest and to await the course of events (Gen. xxiv. 11, 13).
In early times cisterns were used as dungeons, and even in later times, when prisons were built, they were still constructed for this purpose. Reuben counseled his brethren to throw Joseph into a cistern (Gen. xxxvii. 22); when Jeremiah was accused of having incited the people against the king, he was thrown into a miry dungeon in the court of the guard (Jer. xxxviii. 6-13); and when a later prophet wished to picture a real deliverance, he described a liberation from a waterless cistern (Zech. ix. 11).
The well, or spring, was also used symbolically, as in Cant. iv. 12, where virginity is compared to a sealed fountain; but such symbolical interpretations are chiefly found in the Talmud and Midrash. Commenting on Prov. xx. 5 ("Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water"), the Midrash observes: "Only a man of understanding, who can join rope to rope, can draw from a deep well [the Law] full of water" (Cant. R. xciii.). When Johanan ben Zakkai wished to describe the ability of his pupils, he compared R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus to "a cemented cistern that loses not a drop," and R. Eleazar b. 'Arak to "a rising well" (Ab. ii. 9, 10).
The cistern figured also in Biblical and Talmudic law. In case one opened a cistern and failed to cover it again, and a neighbor's animal fell into it, the owner of the cistern was required to make good the loss (Ex. xxi. 33-34). The Rabbis regarded a cistern in a public place as one of the four chief sources of danger, and determined upon various punishments for breaches of the regulations connected with it (B. Ḳ. i. 1).
- Herzog-Plitt, Real-Encyc. iv. 783; vi. 563; xiv. 296, 299;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. i. 198;
- Tobler, Dritte Wanderung nach Palœstina, pp. 206-217;
- Benzinger, Arch.