“Miriam died... and was buried. And the community was without water to drink” Numbers 20:1-2
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This odd juxtaposition of these verses suggests a connection between Miriam’s death and the people’s thirst for water. The Midrash explains that as long as Miriam was alive, a well accompanied her, bringing water to the people in the desert. When Miriam died, the well dried up and disappeared. Like many things in life, as long as the well was there, no one paid attention to it. Only after it dried up did they realise how dependent they were on it. Until then, no one realised that it was Miriam who sustained the people during their long journey.
Miriam’s well, as a source of nourishment and healing, remained a powerful image throughout Jewish history. It was part of Jewish life in the 11th–12th centuries in France. At that time, the custom among French Jews was to refrain from eating or drinking between the afternoon meal and nightfall. This was a particularly hard burden on long Shabbat afternoons in the summer.
Some communities believed that on Shabbat the water of Miriam’s well miraculously mingled in the water of their wells, and anyone who drank of these waters would be cured of any disease or ailment. At the end of Shabbat, the Jews would run out to their wells to draw water, while the healing waters of Miriam’s well were still available. Thus, the long “fast” on Shabbat afternoon finished with the cool waters of Miriam’s well.This custom continued until the advent of the Black Death in Europe. With Jews being blamed for poisoning the wells, it became too dangerous to gather around the wells at the end of Shabbat — and so the custom disappeared.