"I Was Gazing Between This Water and That Water": The Story of Ben Zoma's Encounter with R. Joshua in the Babylonian Talmud
Keywords:Talmudic Stories, Law and Literature, Early Rabbinic Mysticism
This article analyzes the story of Ben Zoma's gazing upon the upper and lower waters, as is related in the BT (Hagiga 15a). It focuses on the relationship between the narrative and the two halakhic questions posed to Ben Zoma, questions that foreshadow and immediately precede the encounter between Ben Zoma and R. Yehoshua: one that deals with animal castration, and the other with a pregnant virgin. The insertion of the questions into the aggadic section describing Ben Zoma's entry into the "pardes" and his vision is puzzling, and this article argues that they are a covert interpretation of Ben Zoma's mysterious gazing upon the waters. The thematic relationship between the two questions – that consider the issue of sexual control and its boundaries – links up with the image of the contiguous upper and lower waters. This image is understood as part of a mythic tradition that presents this pair as possessing chaotic and destructive sexuality. In its final section, the article discusses the story of David's digging of drainpipes as it appears in the BT (Sukkah 53, a-b). that also interprets the mythic picture of the gushing of the lower waters, as expressing the threat of chaotic sexuality.