“Establish a human partition for him.”
Today we are presented with a story of how a group of people came to the aid of Nehemya who inadvertently went beyond his Shabbat limit. The lesson behind the story is not what is seemingly on the surface, but it resonates with how people can help each other during times of distress. Nehemya was so engrossed in his studies that he kept walking and walking while he was trying to solve a problem and ended up outside his Shabbat limit. He was now on the other side of where he should be, and he needed to get home.
Rav Nahman devised a solution to assist Nehemya with finding his way back. He suggested that a human wall be established with people who are permitted to travel beyond the scholar’s boundaries. Since everyone has different boundaries depending on where they established their home, the Rav suggests that Nehemya leverage the people who are out and about in order to allow him to return. He would then be “permitted to walk and thereby reenter the Shabbat limit.”
Rav Nahman’s solution seems quite elegant, but there is dissent among the ranks. We are told Rav Hisda raised an objection to this solution (and poor Nehemya is still out there beyond the city boundaries while the Rabbis debate his fate.) Through a circuitous discussion that considers the use of animals as walls (which is not a good idea because they can walk away), it is determined that human beings can only be used as partitions if they are unaware of the agency they have been assigned.
We are told that in the case of Nehemya, the proposition that Rav Nahman put forward would be prohibited because people would knowingly serve as a partition and as a result breach the ban against building on Shabbat. But if they were to unknowingly serve in this way, “which is not the usual manner of building” it would be allowed.
The Gemara relates a story where a wedding party relied on a wall of people to bring water on Shabbat from a public domain to a private one, although the people knew they were being used as a partition for this purpose. In a tough stance, Shmuel said that they should be flogged for this behavior. We are also told that if people are used unknowingly for the purpose of a partition, it is good for just one instance, because by the second time they would presumably know they are being used for this purpose and game the system.
When I first read Rav Nahman’s proposal for saving poor Nehemya from being locked out of his home, the image of people creating a human wall in protest of something significant came to mind. I envisioned the group of mothers in Portland, Oregon who created a human wall to protect protestors from federal agents who were sent in to break apart the demonstrations against racial inequality. I thought about all the human walls that we create knowingly in order to protect each other.
There is a more subtle message in today’s Daf in the distinction between human walls that are created knowingly and unknowingly. We create human walls of protection for those who we do not know when we wear masks, observe social distancing, limit the size of crowds we gather in, and listen to the science. We may be protecting someone’s elderly parent or child who has a serious pre-existing condition when we do the right thing and form the human wall of good social behavior. This is a social imperative because we are engaged in a never-ending line dance of exposure to the people who we interact with. We are all interconnected through this virus and need to fortify the human wall so that the lost and vulnerable among us can find their way home.