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Navigating the Talmud’s Alleys

The range of problems and the variety of answers in the study of Oral Law lead to new pathways of reasoning

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo US National Archives)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Last week, Daf Yomi readers said goodbye to Tractate Shabbat—but not to Shabbat itself. For the next tractate in the cycle, Eruvin, is dedicated to one subcategory of legal questions that arise on Shabbat. Generally speaking, Talmudic law divides space into two main zones, the public domain (reshut harabah)—such as a street—and the private domain (reshut hayachid)—such as a house. (There are also other zones, which will come up later in the tractate.) On Shabbat, it is forbidden to carry an item from one private domain to another, or from the private to the public domain, or more than four amot, or cubits, within the public domain. These general rules give rise to a thicket of questions and problems, and a whole range of legal strategies for circumventing them, which make up the substance of Tractate Eruvin.

The title Eruvin literally means “mergers,” but these are not, of course, the kinds of mergers we’re familiar with from Wall Street. Rather, an eruv is a legal merger of different spaces for the purposes of Shabbat, which is designed to extend the range allowed for walking and carrying. (Many American cities have such eruvs in place, including Manhattan.) As I began to discover this week, making sense of these rules requires a better spatial and geometric imagination than I possess; so I’m grateful for the detailed diagrams that the Schottenstein Edition includes in its footnotes.

When I first heard about eruvs as a teenager, I regarded them a little indignantly. If the point of Shabbat is to rest from labor, to rejoice in prohibitions, why invent legal fictions to allow you to get around those prohibitions? Isn’t the eruv contrary to the very spirit of Shabbat? Now, after being immersed in the Talmud for half a year, I’ve begun to understand the more flexible imagination that the rabbis brought to these problems. For them, it was not a question of enjoying a holiday from reality, but of finding a way to obey very specific divine laws while still carrying out the necessary business of life. Precisely because they take the letter of the law seriously, they want to know the exact boundaries of that law—what it allows and disallows, and how to tell the difference.

Chapter One of Tractate Eruvin addresses a specific subset of space-related questions. In Talmudic times, residential houses were usually grouped around a courtyard (chatzeir), and courtyards connected with the street by means of an alleyway (mavoi). Naturally, it would be very convenient to be able to carry items within the alley. But is the mavoi a private or a public domain? The answer depends on whether it is open at both ends or only one. If a mavoi is closed at one end, it can be marked as a private domain by putting a symbolic closure at the open end—not an actual door or gate, but some architectural feature to distinguish the mavoi from the public street beyond. The rabbis describe three such markers: a sidepost (lechi) that partially closes off the open end; a crossbeam (korah) laid across the top of the walls of the entryway; or a set of posts topped with a crossbar, in the shape of a door (tzurat hapetach).

This week’s reading was devoted to the technical requirements for these kinds of markers. The first mishna quoted in Eruvin 2a, for instance, holds that a crossbeam placed over the entrance to an alleyway cannot be more than 20 amot or cubits from the ground. An amah is approximately 20 inches, so the height restriction is about 33 feet. Typically, there is some rabbinic debate about how to define an amah and a tefach or handsbreadth (about 3 inches), and how many tefachim go into an amah. In the course of this digression, the rabbis say that the definition of these measurements was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

I found this a revealing moment, since it shows what kind of intellectual work the idea of the Oral Law performed for the rabbis. The Torah speaks of cubits and handsbreadths, but after all, how are we to know exactly how to measure these things? The Torah, like any law, presupposes a world and a language in which that law is practiced. But between the giving of the Torah and the writing of the Talmud, something like 1,500 years had passed, and what was common knowledge to the ancient Israelites was a matter of guesswork to the Babylonian Jews. The Oral Law is what allows Jews to be certain that they are interpreting the Written Law correctly; it collapses the distance between the present and Sinai. To use the language of American constitutional debates, the Oral Law allows the Jews to be confident originalists. For this reason, if the Oral Law didn’t exist, it would surely have to be invented.

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41953 says:

Now I know why Jewish boys who did not have the inclination to immerse themselves in Talmudic minutae converted.

41953 says:

Kirsch writes:
“I’m beginning to understand how studying the Talmud alone constituted a whole education for generations of young Jews.”
Does he see the down side?

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

Among other things, you don’t know much about Jewish history.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

Why are you STILL here? You aren’t getting anything from this series, and you certainly aren’t adding anything of use or of value.

Tovah Miriam says:

Converted to what?

The concept of eruvin is very interesting and yet obscure. One thing that should be noted is that since as you mentioned the construction of the tabernacle is from where the laws of forbidden labor are derived, and that ~600k jews left Egypt, that biblically speaking a throughway which more than 600k people travel daily is considered a public domain. Any street or alley with less is rabbinically a public domain (that the rabbis said they should be considered a public domain lest people get confused) and therefore these little ‘tricks’ such as eruvin can be applied to make life a little easier. One would not be permitted though to construct an eruv around a throughway through which 600k people pass though.

IMO eruvin is not a very fun mesechta to learn. I much prefer learning nezikin (property laws, damages, etc…) they are much more applicable to everyday life and illustrate moral concepts to a greater degree. It provides more of a substantive outcome from the intellectual exercise of talmud torah. By delving into minutia of legal issues you gain a deeper understanding to the underlying moral principles.

Refael Hileman says:

Adam Kirsch’s article today appears to convey a misunderstanding of an
eruv techumin according to my understanding. Typically your domain for
Shabbos extends in a
radius of 2000 amot from where you are when the sun goes down Friday
night. Making an eruv techumin does not extend your permitted area,
rather, it allows you specify ahead of time where the center of your
domain on Shabbos will be. So the size of the domain remains the same,
it just is displaced.

So if make an eruv techumin before Shabbos, and then walk 2000 amot to
the west before Shabbos begins, I would then be able to walk 4000 amos
straight east. But in any other direction the amount I could walk would
be less. Again, your domain (outside of a city or some other extending
structure) is a circle with a
radius of 2000 amos.


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Navigating the Talmud’s Alleys

The range of problems and the variety of answers in the study of Oral Law lead to new pathways of reasoning