“What is a new town, and what is an old town?”
Today’s distinction between the boundaries of an old and new town brought me back to when I matriculated as a literature student at the University of Edinburgh for my junior year of college. I grew up in Southern New Jersey and spent a lot of time visiting my grandparents in Philadelphia who lived down the street from the Liberty Bell. My mother still lives near the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall where you can cross the same path that the American founding fathers traversed during a brutally hot summer when they were embroiled in a struggle to frame the constitution.
I thought I understand what it meant to stand on a spot that resonated with the centuries of history until I found myself in Scotland. The University of Edinburgh traces its roots to the 16th Century. Edinburgh is divided into an old city that dates back to the 12th century and a new city that was developed in the 18th century and is older than most American towns. During a trip to Israel last year my mother told our tour guide in Jerusalem that she was from the historic city of Philadelphia. He told her to look down at the ground she stood on which dated back to 3,000 BC. Americans can forget that what we think is historic and riveted with history, is relatively new when the trajectory of human history is considered.
Today’s Daf Yomi text asks, “what is a new town, and what is an old town?” We are told that a new town is one that was first surrounded by a wall and settled later, while an old town was first settled and then later surrounded by a wall. And why would we care? It is to understand the measure of a permissible eruv as described in this reading portion. We are told that for a new town we measure Shabbat limits from where its residents reside, while in the case of an old town, we take the measure from the wall. Another historic place that comes to mind is the London Wall which was built by the Romans in the 2nd century and runs through the city’s financial district. It is an odd relic in a part of town that has undergone tremendous development and is punctuated by modern office buildings.
Today we also learn that Isaiah traveled through a courtyard in order to visit the ailing Hezekiah. He organized a Torah study group outside the house where his ill friend was convalescing. The voice of the Gemara interrupts this compassionate scene by telling us that it is improper to study Torah near an ailing person, because it may serve as a signal for Satan to appear and “challenging Satan might worsen the health of the sick person rather than improve it.”
The gathering at the bedside of a gravely ill person results in a very specific familial scene. It is not to heal the loved one as suggested by the Torah study group in today’s text, but to be there for them in the end. There is the tension and stress of watching someone die, and among the family dynamics that are played out when everyone gathers in a small hospital or care facility room. There is a certain normalness in the conversation among those gathered while the dying family member falls into a deeper and deeper state of unconsciousness. The talk in the room is often of routine matters, such as sports scores and movies and house chores while everyone is waiting for the inevitable to happen. There is a sense that maybe the dying relative can hear the discussion and is participating in his own way.
Like the boundaries between old and new towns, the family retreats into some sort of normalcy in their conversation while their lives are suspended in time between the here-and-now and the tomorrow when their loved one will be gone. There is a sense of separation between those who will go on to live an ordinary life and the person who will no longer be here. Among the many tragedies of COVID-19 is the inability for families to be with their loved ones at the end of their lives and saying goodbye through the ritual of a bedside vigil.