Although digging a hole, ditch or cistern in the public thoroughfare ordinarily will make the person who dug responsible for any damage that befalls someone who trips or falls in it, the baraita in our Gemara teaches that if it is given to the public for their use, he will not be held liable. In fact, this was the practice of Nehunia Hofer Borot, Shihin u’Me’orot, who dug cisterns and handed them over for public use, for which he received the approbation of the Sages. The reason for this ruling is fairly straightforward – if the cistern was dug for the community, he was never the ba’al ha-bor – the owner of the cistern – to be held responsible for it.
According to the Mishna in Massekhet Shekalim (5a) Nehunia Hofer Shihin – whose name literally means “Nehunia the ditch digger” – was one of the appointed workers in the Temple, whose official position was to be responsible for water for Jerusalem generally, and specifically for the pilgrims coming to the Temple during the holidays. The Gemara tells that Nehunia was an expert in choosing the correct place to dig wells, thus he was able to fill cisterns not only from the collection of rainwater, but from underground reservoirs, as well.
The Gemara brings a baraita that tells the story of Nehunia Hofer Shihin‘s daughter who fell into a cistern (some manuscripts have “the great cistern,” which would be a reference to a particular cistern that was in the Temple precincts). When the report reached Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa, he reported that all was well, and after a time that she had been saved. When questioned about it, Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa said that throughout the ordeal he was certain that Nehunia Hofer Shihin‘s daughter was safe because she would not be punished with the very object that her father devoted his life to.