Life among the trees (Daf Yomi Eruvin 33)

Embed from Getty Images

“A private domain rises to the sky.”

Today’s reading continues the discussion of an eruv that extends the boundaries of a space where one can carry objects on Shabbat through the perspective of a tree. The discussion is very technical, and at this point in the Daf Yomi cycle I am wondering why I have signed myself up for this journey. I am regretting that I spent so much of my youth collecting literature degrees rather than taking Judaica studies, which I am sure would have helped get through this difficult patch. In the spirit of finding just one thing that I can glean onto each day, I am intrigued with the function of a sturdy, dignified tree in the creation of an eruv.

Today’s reading takes us to a time when people must have lived closer to nature and would travel through forests and valleys and fields where they would rest their heavy loads on the branches of a tree. It must have been a time when someone would walk through an area with a canopy of mature trees and claim one for his own eruv. By claiming the tree, he extended the area in which he can carry objects on Shabbat. But the rules and regulations on what is permissible are a bit arcane.

I admit that this reading is a head scratcher and I most likely have gotten the details wrong. The Gemara (who is becoming a good friend since this Daf Yomi cycle started in January) also appears to be trying to figure all this out and asks if a tree stands in the outskirt of town, if it matters if its height is more or less than ten handbreadths. Rava says that if four cubits surround the tree, then we have a private domain which reaches to the sky, and as such the tree constitutes a private domain without consideration for its height. Are you following me? There is more to come.

Rav Yitzḥak comments on a snarled tree that has branches that lean out horizontally beyond four cubits. If someone places an eruv on the branch beyond four cubits of the trunk, can he establish an eruv? Does the height of the tree matter and determine if the tree is in a private or public domain, remembering that one cannot carry from one to the other on Shabbat? We have been told that any area of the tree below four cubits is a private domain, and an area below three cubits is considered the dark, moist ground. Our old friend the Gemara tells us that the concept of “above and below” matters if in the case of our snarly tree if its branches reach out beyond four cubits and then rise again in an upright position to the sky.

Are you still with me? Ulla returns to explain this further. I assume this is the same Ulla who angered Yalta so deeply back in Berakhot. Remember the light and breezy Tractate of blessings? I miss the days of the daily readings that honored everything around us. But here we are, back in eruv land with Ulla, who comments on the snarly tree’s horizontal section of the branch that is used by travelers to rest their heavy loads. He demonstrates through the throwing of an object from a private domain onto a load resting on the tree branch, that its horizontal branch constitutes a public domain. As such, one may not carry an object that resides on this branch into the private domain or visa versa. This includes moving an object that might be resting on the ground beneath the tree to the horizontal tree branch.

The Gemara cites a basic principle: an eruv placed below ten handbreadths is valid, while one placed above ten handbreadths is not. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi contradicts this principle and says that if one places the eruv food in a basket and hangs it from a tree, it is valid regardless of height. A group of nameless Rabbis disagree and stick with the ten handbreadths principle. We return to what we learned in the Shabbat Tractate about an exempt domain.  If the tree is less than four by four handbreadths wide (perhaps a younger tree than the one we have been discussing), it constitutes a neutral place and is exempt with laws of carrying on Shabbat and the eruv is valid.

Today’s reading reminded me of how intrigued I was by treehouses as a child. There was something magical about living among the trees. My brother built a treehouse in our backyard with some of his friends. It was lodged between the branches of an old oak tree that had roots that were thick and deep and pushing up against our lawn. In actuality, there was not much there. My brother filled the treehouse with comic books, an old bathroom rug, and some silverware from our kitchen. The treehouse was claustrophobic, damp and cold in the winter and suffocatingly hot in the summer, but it was a space built for dreaming among the trees.

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
Related Topics
Related Posts