Courtyard and balcony people (Daf Yomi Eruvin 84)

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The residents of the lower balcony go up to the upper balcony by means of a ladder.” 

Today’s Daf Yomi brought me back to the days when I lived in a railroad flat apartment in the East Village in the 1980s and a great deal of life transpired on fire escapes. Fire escapes were a bridge between apartments and provided access to the roof, where one could sit at twilight and watch the dark sky descend on the city. Today, I am lucky to live in a more upscale building (although the East Village was gentrified decades ago), where I have a proper balcony and elevator to a nicely maintained roof.

We are told in today’s text that there are two opinions concerning the air rights of residents of homes that open onto courtyards and those that open onto balconies. I understand how a home can open onto a courtyard but considering that a balcony is several stories above the ground floor, I can only envision a fire escape as a permanent ladder that would allow one to have direct access from the outside. If the residents of the balcony who have steps that lead down to a courtyard forgot to establish an eruv there are specific rules of ownership of the air rights. Anything in the courtyard that is ten handbreadths high– such as a post established for the purpose of an eruv – belongs to the balcony. Anything less than that height belongs to the courtyard.

Rav and Shmuel, who have been debating various issues throughout the Talmud, disagree on air rights. Shmuel argues that they belong to the residents of the balcony, because they can take possession through lowering an object down to the courtyard, while those below must throw an object upwards. Shmuel’s argument seems the most logical of the two. Rav complicates matters with his argument that in fact he is talking about a balcony that opens level to an area that is ten handbreadths high and is not necessarily located on an upper story.

In addition to bringing me back to the days when I lived in the East Village (and although I write about it fondly all these years later, it was not an ideal place to live with the hot water and heat always breaking down), today’s passage led me to ponder the differences between courtyard and balcony people.

Courtyard people live at ground level and tend to their gardens and view the world by being immersed in it. They climb upwards to the roof when they need a more expansive view, but have their feet planted squarely on the earth. They have nicely decorated entryways with welcome mats and this time of year, fall wreaths on their doors. They are the people who get things done.

Balcony people live above the city with a wide sweeping view of their domain.  They decorate their balconies with chairs and little tables and window boxes. They watch the world from above and imagine what life would be like if they rearranged the neighborhoods below. They climb down when they need supplies or food or to go about their lives. But they are always envisioning how things could be different. They are the dreamers among us. They also get things done. But in a different way.

This is of course an oversimplification and most of us have both balcony and courtyard traits within us. But we live among neighbors – in our cities, towns, suburbs, and countryside – who have world views that are different from each other. The Talmud provides guidance for how to live together side-by-side through the establishment of real or symbolic eruvs.

I write this on the eve of what many are calling one of the most important US elections of our lifetime. I am praying that the value that is foundational to a democracy – peaceful transfer of power – holds true in the coming days.

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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