Considering the excluded (Daf Yomi Eruvin 59)

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The excluded area need not be so large.”

It struck me during the reading of today’s Daf Yomi portion how urban the Rabbis are in the description of the mechanics of establishing city eruvs. I had the sense that the Rabbis lived in an agrarian society from the descriptions of the land and sky in the Berakhot Tractate, but the last few days suggest that they were as much aware of urban planning as the planting of fields.

After days of squaring off the edges of cities for the purpose of measuring Shabbat limits, we return to the establishment of eruvs within those boundaries. We are told that if a private city grows and grows through an influx of population, it becomes a public city that requires consideration of the joining of eruvs for all its residents.

In a reflection of current times when residents are fleeing cities, we are told that if a public city loses a significant portion of its population, then the city becomes a private space and the eruv is not established on behalf of all people, unless an area is maintained of a certain size and population. The city of Hadasha in Judea is cited as the benchmark for this purpose, which had fifty residents.

We are provided with examples of private cities that become public, as people tended to want to live near each other in towns and cities in pre-pandemic times. We are told that a small village was essentially owned by the Exilarch family, but it became frequented by so many visitors that in time it took on the status of a public city. An example is given of a governor’s residence that was a destination for people who went there for the granting of licenses and authorizations. Public cities also came into being through the gathering of people on Shabbat who prayed together as a community.

It is difficult not to consider the division among our cities when reading today’s Daf portion, no matter how lines divide us from each other. The division between neighborhoods in New York City is never more apparent than during the pandemic when those that are more disadvantaged have higher rates of disease. The shut-down of densely populated cities and the migration away by the most affluent to the suburbs provides an opportunity through reimagining what the future will like to build a foundation that is more equitable for everyone.

Perhaps this is our opportunity as we imagine recovering from the pandemic and its devastating economic impact to rethink what constitutes the measure of a city. It is an opportunity to get rid of healthcare, education, housing and digital divides and envision a more equitable way to live. Maybe it is an opportunity while we wait for a vaccine to come and for our lives to return to some semblance of what we previously considered normal, to dream of a better living world.

As I write this the Governor of New York has divided New York City into COVID zones. Schools and non-essential businesses in red zones will be closed and gatherings limited to ten people, including religious services. Red and yellow zones have been designated which are under lesser restrictions. I can’t help but wondering how the approximately one million people who live in these zones will stay within their borders. How long before hot zones become community spread as people travel outside their neighborhoods to avail themselves of non-essential services in yellow and green zone neighborhoods? It seems like a heroic attempt to salvage the large portion of the city’s economy that is currently operating in neighborhoods that have low infection rates, but I fear the second wave may be upon us.

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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