“How precise are the traditions of the Elders.”
I have lived in New York City since 1980 when I entered the Graduate Creative Writing program at New York University. On one of my visits with the university faculty before I matriculated, I sat for hours in Café Figaro on Bleecker Street and decided that this would be my home forever. I have moved about 15 blocks north of NYU and Greenwich Village since my NYU days, but I am still here after most of my good friends moved out of the city. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.
Living in New York has never been as fabulous as I imagined it would be that day all those years ago when I sat in the Greenwich Village café. I initially lived in a dingy East Village apartment that was infested with mice until my slum landlord told me to get a cat and name him mouse trap (I did and named him Anton, which started my life-long love of cats.) In the 1980s and most of the 1990s, there was in the city a lot of crime and drug addiction and the wreckage of the AIDs crisis that claimed several of my good friends.
Mostly, I parse the hard times in New York into three buckets: September 11th when I worked at the World Trade Center and witnessed scenes that to this day, I cannot make total sense of. There is the current pandemic which has made living in crowded dense spaces challenging. And there was the pure horror of living through Hurricane Sandy when downtown Manhattan went dark for a week and the East and Hudson Rivers rose to breach whole sections of the city.
Today’s Daf Yomi reading involving a breach of a courtyard by the sea took me back to the dark days of living in the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Rav Yosef relates an incident to Abaye (who has had a prominent role throughout much of the discussion of courtyards) concerning a breach of a courtyard in a shepherds’ village by an inlet of the sea. We are told that the sea flowed over the walls of the courtyard completely which suggests that this was more than just a small stream. For some reason, the Rabbis are more concerned with whether it is allowed to carry out on Shabbat in the flooded courtyard than the danger of being swept away by the sea. Rav Yehuda said that in this case, only one upright board of a wall would be required to create a permissible space for carrying.
Abaye said that an “inlet is different” and that there is a “leniency” when bodies of water are involved, and a partition of inferior construction would be permitted. We are told that a suspended partition that is usually considered inadequate is allowed if it resides over water. Rav said that the requirements are lessened in “cases involving water.” And although a wobbly suspended partition is allowed, one must not use the opportunity of a flooded courtyard to gather water, because it is prohibited to carry the water from the courtyard which has been transformed into a karmelit or intermediate domain. The exception – and there is always an exception — is if there is a partition ten handbreadths high at one side of the wall that would encompass the inlet as part of the courtyard and by so doing, create a contiguous private domain.
The Rabbis afforded water a special status of leniency. I am reminded of the loss of electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy when everything went dark. There was no water in the city’s high-rise buildings which was a reminder of how dependent we are on modern plumbing. Food was scarce due to the lack of refrigeration and one had to dodge cars in order to cross the street because traffic lights no longer worked. It was a reminder that the great force of nature could rise up and in an instant erase the modern life that one had taken for granted. In some ways it was a harder time than living through the pandemic, because all the modern conveniences that made life bearable were gone. This included running water, and toilets, and light and internet services and television and the ability to charge a cell phone.
Did the Rabbis consider the power of nature when they afforded water the special status of leniency in today’s reading, or is there really nothing more to the text than an intellectual exercise involving the breach of a courtyard wall? In the words of the great Peggy Lee, is that all there is my friends?