“Most of the area is the empty space of the pit.”
I have been thinking a lot about public space since the start of Tractate Eruvin and how in the aftermath of the pandemic cities need to rethink how it is used. Restaurants, gyms, yoga teachers, personal trainers are taking over unused space in New York City wherever they can find it. Gyms are holding classes on abandoned construction sites, and yoga teachers have set up shop in small neighborhood parks. Restaurants have spread out across bus lines in the street and performance artists and dancers are holding mini concerts on sidewalks in Greenwich Village.
New York City, like many cities around the world, has been severely damaged by the pandemic, but still, the spirit of tough urban dwellers is apparent in how public space is being reimagined. We are told today that an entrance is still a valid entrance even if there is a crouching lion before it, which can be compared with the virus that is preventing people from visiting the city. But still, the residents find a way to go on with their lives.
We are provided with a different type of reimagining of space in today’s Daf Yomi reading through the use of ladders, trees, ditches, and the hollowing out of steps in a wall. We are told a wall can be transformed if it has a projection attached to it that is four by four handbreadths in area and a ladder is placed against it. The wall is permitted to function as an eruv if the ladder is placed directly against the projection, rather than adjacent to it, so that “the ladder serves as a passage to it.”
We are provided with other examples of how spaces can be transformed in order to establish eruvs that allow carrying on Shabbat. Public domains can be converted into private ones, through the driving of a stake into the top of a pillar. Rav Huna provides the necessary dimensions for such an act which is ten handbreadths high and four handbreadths wide. Rav Adda bar Ahava adds, however, that if the stake is less than three handbreadths high, it is considered part of the pillar and the private space is not transformed. Abaye and Rave disagree and state that even if the stake is less than three handbreadths high, the pillar is no longer considered a private domain. This opinion is based on the logic that the pillar has been altered to the point that it is no longer fit to be used in this way.
Rav Ashi counters this perspective and says regardless, the stake is “still useful in some way.” He conjures the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan who considered an empty pit. He said that an empty pit and its surrounding embankment can be counted together in the required measurement of four by four handbreadths that are necessary to define the pit as a private domain. We are told that this is possible if a board is placed over the “mouth of the pit” so that the empty space can be accounted for.
New York City was in the middle of a construction boom right before the pandemic hit. People wanted to live here and the amount of space that could be created from the sky seemed endless. Short, squat buildings were torn down and residential towers were going up in their place that promised access to everything a vibrant, cultural city has to offer. And then seemingly overnight in March it all stopped. It is as though the lights went out, and when construction ceased, empty pits were left on construction sites. Once construction was able to restart, some of the building activity started up again, but not all. I suspect some of the abandoned construction sites will remain untouched over the next few years as the city struggles to recover.
There are metaphorical empty pits left throughout the city, including the one in my heart as I witness my city struggling to survive. Does the wide-open space of Grand Central Station still make sense, where once a cross-section of the region traveled through each day? I have not been in a train or subway station since early March and cannot imagine reentering them until “COVID is over”, whatever that means. How do we reinvent our public spaces in densely populated cities, where the very density that made them so exciting, now poses the threat of community spread?
Today’s Daf Yomi reading left me with the image of an enormous ladder that is placed against the edge of New York City and reaches to the sky. The ladder leads to somewhere we may not have imagined yet, but still somewhere.