Signs in the Well

Shoham Smith (auth.), Vali Mintzi (illus.)

  • Review
By – September 2, 2019

Tal­mu­dic schol­ar Aki­va ben Yosef is wide­ly known for being one of the great­est of all rab­binic sages. But what makes his achieve­ment so remark­able is that he did not descend from a long line of dis­tin­guished schol­ars. Rather, it is believed that he came from a fam­i­ly too poor to send him to school, spent many years herd­ing goats, and was illit­er­ate until the age of forty.

In this ver­sion of the clas­sic sto­ry, the young Aki­va was con­tent with his sim­ple life. He took pride in car­ing for the new­born kids, find­ing water for the flock and the best grass for graz­ing, play­ing his flute, and hav­ing time to think his qui­et thoughts. But, as time pass­es, he feels more regret about his illit­er­a­cy. One day, he notices some let­ters carved into the stone walls of a well and won­ders how they appeared and what they mean. A schol­ar at the Torah study hall explains that, drop by drop, water wears away the stones.” This gives Aki­va an incred­i­ble insight — if drop by drop, water can cut through stones, per­haps he can learn to read, let­ter by let­ter, word by word, and then sen­tence by sen­tence. Even­tu­al­ly, he becomes a renowned schol­ar, role mod­el, and teacher whose influ­ence lives on into mod­ern times.

The para­ble about it nev­er being too late to learn is clear, but this book diverges from the wide­ly-accept­ed sto­ry that it was Akiva’s wife, Rachel, who was his inspi­ra­tion. It is gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged that she agreed to mar­ry him on the con­di­tion that he would learn to read and become a Torah schol­ar, and she sup­port­ed him for the many years he was away studying.

Vali Mintzi, a grad­u­ate of the Beza­lel Acad­e­my of Art and Design in Jerusalem, uses a graph­ic tech­nique known as scratch art to cre­ate the rich­ly detailed and expres­sive illus­tra­tions, which look like paint­ed etch­ings. The art qui­et­ly enhances the sto­ry and gives an evoca­tive feel­ing of time and place.

Susan Kan­tor was a senior writer/​editor for Girl Scouts of the USA, a chil­dren’s book edi­tor, and a past judge for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards in the illus­trat­ed children’s book cat­e­go­ry. She is a writer and a docent at the Rubin Muse­um in New York City, where she leads pub­lic and pri­vate tours.

Discussion Questions