Are Truffles Food?
As our Talmud column returns, debates over Oral Law range from the existential to the mundane
In Chapter 3 of Eruvin, which we reached in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the questions at issue have to do with a specific provision of Shabbat law, the techum, or boundary. The principle of the techum is not explained in the Mishnah or Gemara; the rabbis take it for granted that all students will know what they are talking about, and they move directly to advanced case studies. Thankfully, the Schottenstein edition’s notes lay the groundwork for the novice reader. On Shabbat, it is not permitted to travel more than 2,000 amot from where one is residing when Shabbat begins. (An amah, or cubit, is a bit less than two feet, so the distance we are dealing with is about two-thirds of a mile.)
This techum can be expanded, however, by establishing an eruvei techumin, a merger of boundaries. This is done by creating a legal residence other than one’s actual residence, so that the Shabbat boundary is extended to 2,000 amot from that new location. To create this legal fiction, one must place food at the spot that is to be considered one’s Shabbat residence. (Note, however, that the new location must be within the techum of where one actually is when Shabbat starts, so that the maximum extension one can create is 4,000 amot in a single direction—2,000 from where one actually is to the legal residence, then another 2,000 from the legal residence.)
What kinds of food, the rabbis ask, are capable of creating an eruv? Any food or drink, the Mishnah says in Eruvin 26b, except for salt and water. The food does not even have to be a kind that the person in question can actually eat. A Nazirite, for instance, vows not to drink wine, but it is permissible to use wine to create an eruv for him. This might seem so plain as to require no further discussion. But, of course, there is one, because of a principle the Gemara goes on to explain. “We cannot learn from general rules,” Rabbi Yochanan says, because any rule might carry unstated exceptions.
This principle seems designed to make legal interpretation as difficult as possible, since what it means is that no law can be taken at face value. Rather, one must consult the collective memory of all the scholars, to see if anyone remembers an exception handed down from the tannaim. And when it comes to eruvs, there is indeed an exception: Truffles and mushrooms cannot be used, though this rule is not attributed to anyone by name.
The rabbis go on to discuss many other kinds of food, using analogies from other areas of law to determine whether they really qualify as food items. Are hearts of palm, for instance, food or wood? If salt and water are each unusable separately, what about if you mix them together to make salt water, which was used as a dip? To make an eruv you are supposed to use enough food for two meals: Exactly how much does that mean for different kinds of food? Along the way, the rabbis offer some dietary advice: Coriander makes men impotent, we are told, and onions are potentially lethal. From the worth of human life to onions: Reading Tractate Eruvin is a reminder that the Talmud really does contain everything.
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