Locking the city gates (Daf Yomi Eruvin 101)

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“We carve out to complete the necessary dimensions.”

Today’s Daf Yomi is typical of many of the strange texts I have encountered since I started this journey with Tractate Eruvin. I am struggling to envision how objects can be dangled in the air in order to create legitimate closures and to get around the prohibition against building in order to construct a fire and cook a hot meal. This brings me back to the most basic question I have had since I encountered the early pages of this Tractate: why?

Why go through all the trouble of establishing rules restricting movement and activities on Shabbat, only to develop a complex workaround process through eruvs? Why not let people roam as they wish on Shabbat without requiring the conjoining of courtyards and traveling loaves of bread and abdication of rights? Why go through this dance of establishing elaborate restrictions and then formulating even more elaborate workarounds?

Today we learn that if one wants to close off a doorway and lacks a proper door, they may not improvise with a wooden board, bundles of thorns or reed mats. I am not sure it is practical to use thorns or reed mats as make-shift doors, but we are told that this would be prohibited because it would represent building or completing a building on Shabbat. But there is a workaround solution. One can tie and suspend the mat or reeds in the air in order to close off the doorway. I can only say to watch your head when you enter the doorway because if you bang into any of these objects it will hurt.

We are provided with an equally perplexing workaround if one wants to cook a hot meal on a festival day. Imagine constructing a fire pit log by log. If you create the pit from the ground up as you pile each piece of wood on top of another, the act represents building and is prohibited. But there is workaround. One can build the pit top down by suspending the logs in the air while you insert the lower ones beneath them.

The only way I can imagine this will work is if you build some sort of contraption ahead of the festival that allows you to stack the logs from the top down, and then when you pull it away everything falls neatly in place. The example of stacking from the top down is extended to eggs that are arranged in a pile, a cauldron that is set upon a fire, a bed that is placed on its frame and barrels arranged in a cellar. It takes an imagination of how aerodynamics might work to envision how all of them could fall into place from the top down (and forget about the eggs because we know what will happen to them.)

The discussion considers the locking of doors. We are told that one can lock the door to a shop – although there is debate on whether it is owned by a poultry or wool dealer – by turning the key and placing it in the window above the door (and trusting that it is not the first place a chicken or wool thief will look.) We are also told that one could walk around and carry in Jerusalem on Shabbat because the doors are typically locked at night and as result create one large intermediate zone or karmelit. One can lock garden gates if they close from within and remain within the private domain. But they may not be locked from without, because it would constitute passing the key from the public domain to a private one.

As I write this many of the localities around the world are in the process of closing and locking their gates as the coronavirus rides a second and in some places third wave. New York City’s numbers are still somehow miraculously lower than most of the United States, with its positivity testing rate hovering just under three percent, while other northeastern cities are experiencing positivity rates in the double digits. The language used to keep us inside and safe – shelter-in-place and lock-down – are terrifying in their promised isolation.

During the warm months of July and August when everything was just opening up in New York City I had somehow hoped that the long days would last forever. But here we are in November. The days are shorter and darker, and the wind rustles leaves that have fallen from reed-thin city trees. We have been through so much since our cities and towns first shut down in the spring, but we have not yet been through the full force of a winter. And it is starting to get really cold.



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 https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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