“Any partition that is not made of both vertical and horizontal elements is not a partition.”
Today’s Daf Yomi portion is a reminder of how we carve out private spaces in which we inhabit our lives. It is evident when you see people living on the streets who pile up bags and mattresses and blankets in order to create a private domain for themselves, and people on a crowded subway who have walled themselves off from everyone around them. When I check into a hotel the first thing I do upon entering my room is arrange my toiletries in the bathroom in order to claim the space as my own for the time I am there.
Today we are presented with the scene of a campground where a caravan of travelers set up for the night. We are told that if they surround the camp with their camels, who are settled into a seated position, they have created the equivalent of a private domain for purposes of carrying on Shabbat. Alternatively, they can use saddles, or wheat sheaves or boards of stalks for this purpose. It is all legitimate as long as there is no camel-length or saddle-length gap between the objects used to create the temporary wall.
If boards are used to create the private space, any gaps cannot be large enough for a goat to pass through or more than three handbreadths wide, although there are debates on the allowable dimensions. An extension in the argument is made to partitions erected to allow the planting of diverse seeds and the configuration of a permissible field. We are told that in such a field, if the breached segment of a partition is greater than a standing segment, it is prohibited to plant diverse species of seeds.
The Rabbis arrive at a conclusion that in all cases a breach of a partition less than three handbreadths wide is permissible. But Rabbi Gamliel is not satisfied with the determination and asks about a breach between three and four handbreadths wide. Is this permissible? Abaye says that it is if there is a significant partition that allows for the sowing of seeds opposite the structure. The Rabbis arrive at the conclusion that “there is a difference between a fence of three handbreadths and one of four handbreadths, as even the Rabbis concede that a fence of four handbreadths is more significant.” There is further refinement of the principle and we are told that four handbreadths only apply to a gap in a beam off the ground, while for a beam near the ground, the breach cannot be large enough for a goat to pass through.
The Gemara analyzes the case of walls that are comprised mostly of entrances and windows. We are told that any breach cannot be greater than the standing segment. Life in a big city highrise means catching glimpses of people’s lives through rear windows when their blinds are open and there is the equivalent of a breach between domains. Sometimes, there is a glimpse of someone’s private world through the windows and then suddenly the blinds get drawn and the domain is closed from view.
Today’s reading is a reminder that we create private spaces wherever we are in the world and now more than ever. It might be through the drawing shut of our window blinds or pulling into ourselves when riding in a crowded subway car (although in the aftermath of the coronavirus, I cannot envision ever getting on a subway again.) There is the human impulse to make a shared space our own when we travel – including in the wildness on a camping trip or in a hotel when visiting a foreign city. We find safety – whether real or illusory – through the marking of space.
We all have methods for creating private space around us, and never more than now, when we have been told to keep six feet apart from each other for the sake of public safety. We are living through very sad times when the contact with another person is a threat in and of itself.