Balancing the perfect with a dose of reality (Daf Yomi Eruvin 14)

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Go out and observe what the people are doing.”

After a respite yesterday, the Rabbis are back in the alley measuring crossbeams. My headache has returned, although I think it has more to do with the ragweed count than the protracted dialog of crossbeams and alleyways in the Talmud. But still, how much more is there to say about the topic? Evidentially, there is plenty more to consider. After discussing the placement of crossbeams in an alley every which way, today the Rabbinic discussion focuses on the minimum width of a crossbeam. There is a lesson to be gleaned from the discussion concerning the consideration of actual practice when policies are developed and instituted.

The voice of the Gemara asks today what the minimum width requirement is of a crossbeam and there is a chorus of Rabbis who have an answer. The Gemara asks if a handbreadth is the minimum requirement to allow the crossbeam to perform its function of establishing a private domain in order to allow carrying in an alleyway on Shabbat. Rabba bar Rav Huna says that the width of the crossbeam must be sufficient to support a small brick. He adds that the supports of the crossbeam are not required to hold both the brick and the crossbeam. There is a lot of back and forth among the Rabbis on the topic, but Rav appears to settle the matter when his teachings are consulted: the crossbeam must be “wide enough and sturdy enough to hold a small brick.”

Now that the discussion of width is more or less settled, the discussion turns to the composition of a crossbeam. Must it be made of steel? We are told that the mishna says that even a flimsy beam made of straw or reeds carries the same status of a beam made of metal. There is a leap of faith here and the voice of the Gemara says that the mishna “is teaching that we say one considers the cross beam as though it were fit to bear a brick.” The voice of the Gemara further clarifies that “even the flimsiest of cross beams is considered sturdy.”  This may be a concession to reality where steel may not have been readily available and most likely very expensive during the time of the Talmud.

We learn about further concessions in today’s reading. We are told that if the crossbeam is curved, “one considers it as though it were straight.”  The reasoning is a bit complicated, but a curved beam is considered straight if the curved section is outside the alleyway or within twenty cubits off the ground, or if it is above ten handbreadths and the curved section is below ten handbreadths. In other words, there is a lot of room for interpretation. We are told, in a further leap of faith, that “if the cross beam is round, one considers it as though it were square.”  In an analysis that may not hold up before a geometry teacher, we are told that this is true for any circle with a circumference of three handbreadths in diameter.

The key to unlocking understanding of all this resides in a “molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other.”  The molten sea was a large basin that resided in the Temple in Jerusalem. It measured ten cubits from the one brim to the other: It was round all about, and its height was five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits did circle it round about.”  Rav Pappa quotes a verse that measures the brim with lily petals: “And it was a handbreadth thick; and its brim was wrought as the brim of a cup, as the petals of a lily; it contained two thousand bat.”  A new measure is introduced: one of ritual baths. And after some back and forth, it is decided that this enormous basin can hold the equivalent of one-hundred-and-twenty-five ritual baths.

We conclude today’s text with yet another discussion on side posts. Salt and goats and small strings and floating posts are considered. The heavyweight sages weigh in, including Rava, Gamliel, Yosei, Yosef, Yehuda, Shmuel and Rav. Yosei’s reasoning comes out on top, even though it is against the majority opinion. Finally, Rav Hanan asks Abaye his opinion and he is told to “go out and observe what the people are doing.”  In other words, the Rabbis are told to leave their ivory tower and balance their rarefied discussions with the reality of real life.

Anyone who has ever been in a policy writing role will relate to the advice to “observe what the people are doing.” When developing policy, there is always the temptation to craft the perfect set of requirements that may only be achievable in an ideal world where people are highly motivated to do the right thing without the constant challenges of daily obstacles. It is always illuminating to go out into the field and observe how policy gets translated into tangible actions.  To use an analogy from today’s reading, one might have expected the policy to be implemented with steel, but in actually it is held together with straw and reeds.

Compromise is often necessary when doing policy work in order to effect change in a way that is achievable and realistic. In essence, the Rabbis are crafting policy when they debate the rules for erecting crossbeams in alleyways that will allow for carrying on Shabbat. And regardless of who wins their arguments on width and circumference and dimensions, it is all just an intellectual exercise if they are disconnected from what people are actually doing.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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