Contemplating Public Spaces (Daf Yomi Eruvin 23)

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“There is no need to be particular about a square shape.”

Today’s Daf Yomi reading has me thinking, as has this entire Tractate, about private and public spaces. When you live in a city, unless you are very wealthy, you live in small space, but you have the expense of the city before you. At least, that was the true before the pandemic forced upon us a lengthy quarantine, which severely limited the reach of city life. Suburbanites probably do not feel the force of isolation so acutely, because they have gardens and home offices and cars that can take them for socially distanced drives outside their neighborhood, but life is contained within small cubit spaces for city dwellers. A colleague asked why I have not left the city during the quarantine and shelter with a friend who has a big house somewhere. The real answer is that no one asked, but also despite all the limitations COVID-19 has placed on city life, I still feel committed to living here.

Today’s Daf Yomi returns to a discussion of upright boards that are arranged around a well. We are told that such boards may be arranged around a public well in order to create a permissible space for carrying on Shabbat but not a privately-owned one.  One may carry within an enclosed garden or courtyard that is used for storage if they are no more than seventy cubits. This is allowable if the spaces are surrounded by walls that are ten handbreadths high and are near a dwelling place of some kind, including a watchman’s booth, or are near a town where the owner lives, in order to extend the concept of public space into the private domain through the stamp of domicile.

Rabbi Eliezer engages in an exercise of urban planning, when he says that the space under analysis must be perfectly square and its length cannot be greater than its width. Rabbi Yosei is more accepting of irregular shaped spaces and said: “there is no need to be particular about a square shape.” Rabbi Akiva takes a typical more lenient stance and says that the shape and location of the enclosed garden does not matter, as long as it is no more than seventy cubits and a remainder of seventy cubits (is that altogether no more than one-hundred and forty cubits?) He says the remainder “is superfluous.” When you live in a dense city, there is no measure of space that is superfluous.

We are introduced to a Rabbinic trait that is very New York: when the Rabbis disagree, they interrupt each other with a “furthermore.” The word “furthermore” sounds akin to the New York slang word “fuhgetaboutit.” We are told that a group of Rabbis interrupted Rabbi Yehuda’s lecture on upright boards in order to disagree with him with a firmly sounded “furthermore.” I can hear them saying to Rabbi Yehuda: “Leave it alone. Fuhgetaboutit. A board is a board. Let’s move on to something more interesting already.”

The sad truth is that the classic New York accent that so charmed me when I first moved to this city in the 1980s is rarely heard anymore. The linguistic sounds of New York have been diluted as the city’s population swelled with people who moved here from all around the world. It may be with so many people leaving the city that New York may become purely New York again. And by that, I mean that while fair-weather citizens leave the city for more space during lockdown, the people who are left behind are the true die-hard New Yorkers who are the heart and soul of the city. It is this determination and grit that makes you a New Yorker no matter where you are from.

The upside of so many people leaving because of the pandemic is that public spaces feel open and devoid of the crush of crowds that would sometimes make the city feel oppressive. Those of us left behind can feel like we own the public spaces. But then of course, there is the pandemic.

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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