Eruvin 71b – When Logic Vanishes: The Primacy of Jewish Education

If one were to consider the importance of children’s education in the Jewish tradition, one could present a wide variety of fascinating sources. At the forefront would be the Seder, focused as it largely is on how we tell a story thousands of years old to the next generation, along with a multitude of discussions relating to how successful various characters were in Tanakh with educating their children.

Last week’s DafYomi presented us with a fascinating insight into the importance of children in our tradition, and the extent to which the halakhic world adjusts itself to ensure that their education incorporates all areas of Judaism. In a discussion as to whether the members of an alleyway, who have all contributed to a communal shituf mevo’ot to ensure that they can carry in the alleyway on Shabbat are also required to create an eruv hatzeirot for each separate courtyard, the gemara stated as follows (Eruvin 71b).

מְעָרְבִין בַּחֲצֵירוֹת וּמִשְׁתַּתְּפִין בְּמָבוֹי שֶׁלֹּא לְשַׁכֵּחַ תּוֹרַת עֵירוּב מִן הַתִּינוֹקוֹת, שֶׁיֹּאמְרוּ: אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לֹא עֵירְבוּ, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: אוֹ מְעָרְבִין אוֹ מִשְׁתַּתְּפִין.

Why does one establish an eiruv between courtyards and also merge the courtyards that open into an alleyway? It is so as not to cause the halakhic category of eiruv to be forgotten by the children, as if a merging of alleyways alone were used, the children would later say: Our fathers never established an eiruv. Therefore, an eiruv is established for educational purposes; this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the Rabbis say: One may either establish an eiruv or merge alleyways.

Although the gemara goes on to elaborate this braita in more details, and to assess when exactly a separate eruv is actually required, Rabbi Meir’s position is fascinating. In short, Rabbi Meir admits that a second eruv is in fact unnecessary, since once the inhabitants of the alleyway have all joined together in a process known as shituf mevo’ot, and can wander freely throughout the alleyway, automatically the residents of each courtyard can also carry within said courtyard. The only reason to enforce an eruv for each courtyard is to ensure that the institution of eruv is not forgotten in the next generation of children.

In short, Rabbi Meir argues that we must add something to our halakhic repertoire that is in essence completely pointless, simply to ensure that our children are familiar with the specific practice of establishing an eruv for a courtyard. This is not something to be sniffed at – the very idea that the halakha permits something unnecessary is uncommon to say the least! And yet Rabbi Meir is convinced that the necessity of accurate generational transmission outweighs the fact that your action is in effect meaningless. Yet we are left with 2 questions, firstly why the educational imperative of teaching this mitsva to the next generation overrides the logical conclusion that it’s simply unnecessary, and secondly why is this specific mitsva, eruv, deemed so crucial?  

In a powerful essay in which he discusses the imperative of educating all children, especially those with special educational needs, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik writes as follows (Logic of the Heart. Logic of the Mind, Jewish Education:The Fire of Sinai, Part III: Special Children, p.24:

Avraham was chosen by God as the father and molder of Israel, not so much because of the fact that Avraham was the propounder of monotheism, with its concomitant ideals of love, righteousness and generosity, but primarily because of Avraham’s wholehearted dedication to the task of educating children. (In an earlier essay, he quotes the verse from Bereishit 18:19 – “I (God) have regarded and chosen him, for he instructs his sons and his household after him so that they will keep the way of God in practising righteousness and justice”)

And further in the same essay, he writes that:

Man should always consider himself a link in the chain of humanity. And we Jews have to remember that each and every one of us is not only a horizontal link in the chain of the human society of our generation, but we are also vertical links in the chain of generations of our own people.

So our first question has been answered – the importance of educating the next generation was THE reason that Avraham was chosen to be the forefather of the Jewish People! And armed with that knowledge, we can easily understand that in order to fully inculcate both knowledge and values to the next generation, we sometimes do things that seem entirely unnecessary, just to be an appropriate example to our children.

As to the second question, why is eruv the mitsva chosen for this educational message? To answer this, we need to refer back to the gemara earlier in Eruvin (21b) which said as follows:

אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁתִּיקֵּן שְׁלֹמֹה עֵירוּבִין וּנְטִילַת יָדַיִם, יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה: ״בְּנִי אִם חָכַם לִבֶּךָ יִשְׂמַח לִבִּי גַּם אָנִי״. וְאוֹמֵר: ״חֲכַם בְּנִי וְשַׂמַּח לִבִּי וְאָשִׁיבָה חֹרְפִי דָבָר״.

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: At the time that King Solomon instituted the ordinances of eiruv of courtyards and of washing hands to purify them from their impurity, which are added safeguards to the words of the Torah, a Divine Voice emerged and said in his praise: “My son, if your heart is wise, My heart will be glad, even Mine” (Proverbs 23:15). And it states with regard to him: “My son, be wise and make My heart glad, that I may respond to he who taunts Me” (Proverbs 27:11).

In effect, the institution of eruv was one of the first Rabbinic mitsvot, and as the accompanying pasukkim in the passage of the gemara above attest, God is delighted by the institution of Rabbinic safeguards is they come from a place of wisdom. As Rav Kook comments in Ein Ayah (Shabbat I, p.45), adding genuine and thoughtful safeguards to mitsvot reveals a deep and spiritual connection to love of God and his mitsvot.

So Rabbi Meir teaches us a fascinating lesson – sometimes logic takes a backseat, replaced instead by the requirement to be a firsthand role model to our children.

About the Author
Before making aliya, Simon worked in many roles within Jewish Education in the UK, including as the National Director of Bnei Akiva UK, teaching Jewish Studies and heading Mizrachi UK. In Israel, he has continued in the world of education, including as the Director of Education for Lavi Olami, an educational consultant for the National Library of Israel and Director of Educational Projects for the Shabbat Project. He writes in a personal capacity.
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