Crossing the Line
By avoiding authoritative rulings in favor of nuanced debate with the ideas of the past, the Oral Law refuses to simplify
But wait, the Gemara goes on. Surely Rabbi Yehudah would also have agreed with this principle: That can’t be the grounds of the disagreement. Why, then, does he still allow an eruv in a graveyard? It is because, the Gemara speculates, he has a different definition of what it means to derive a benefit: “He is of the opinion that mitzvot were not given for the purpose of our deriving benefit from them.” That is to say, an action performed as part of a mitzvah does not qualify as a personal benefit, even if it might seem to be to the advantage of the person doing it.
Here the Gemara objects once again. Wouldn’t all the rabbis agree to this principle, too? So, then where does the conflict between Yehudah and his opponents lie? It lies, the Gemara now suggests, in the purpose for which an eruv can be made. To Rabbi Yehudah, an eruv can be made only in order to facilitate the performance of a mitzvah. Say, Rashi explains, that you had a sick friend who lived 3,000 amot away from you. In order to visit him on Shabbat, you could make an eruv that would bring your friend inside your techum. But you couldn’t, as I understand it, make an eruv just because you wanted to take a walk: That would be a mere personal benefit, and you can’t make an eruv for such a purpose.
But the rabbis—and by this phrase the Talmud means the majority of rabbis, the consensus—disagree. They hold that “an eruv may be made even to facilitate the performance of a discretionary act.” You don’t need a specific mitzvah in mind to justify making an eruv; you can make one if you happen to feel like it.
Now we must trace the chain of the argument backward, in order to understand how the rabbis and Yehudah arrived at their initial disagreement. All parties agree that it is prohibited to derive personal benefit from a forbidden object, and that a grave is a forbidden object. To Yehudah, an eruv is only for performing mitzvot; mitzvot are not for personal benefit; so establishing an eruv does not confer a personal benefit; so an eruv can be made on a gravesite, since it does derive any benefit from a forbidden object: QED. The rabbis, on the other hand, hold that an eruv can be for personal benefit, and so an eruv can’t be made on a gravesite, since this would involve deriving a benefit from a forbidden object.
But we’re not done yet. Now Rav Yosef enters the debate with an entirely different explanation for the disagreement between Yehudah and the rabbis. They all agreed, Yosef believes, that an eruv is only for mitzvot, and that mitzvot are not personal benefits. Where they differed was over the status of the eruv food once Shabbat begins. Recall that it is not necessary to be able to actually eat the food used to establish a Shabbat residence. Because of this, Yehudah might have argued, the placement of food on a grave does not involve getting any benefit from the grave, since the Jew who places the food there has no intention of returning to eat it; he is “indifferent to the safeguarding of the eruv food.” This may be so, the rabbis could respond, but after all “if he needs it, he may eat it”: Thus there is a potential personal benefit from the gravesite, and this is enough to disqualify it.
And so the debate ends. What’s remarkable about it is that, pragmatically speaking, we know no more at the conclusion than we did at the beginning. If the Talmud simply wanted to tell us what to do and not to do, it could have simplified things greatly by just giving us the authoritative halachic ruling: An eruv cannot be established at a gravesite. But then we would have missed out on the distinctively Talmudic pleasure of comprehensive understanding.
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