“The principle is that where there is an uncertainty with regard to a rabbinic law, one may assume the lenient position, as opposed to an uncertainty arising with respect to a Torah law, where one assumes the stringent position.”
It struck me today as I made my way through a very difficult text that reading the Talmud is like an alleyway that opens on three sides to private domains and one to a public space. The struggle when coming in from a public space is to find the doorway that leads into a quiet courtyard with some shade, and a faint breeze and a respite from a busy street. Today I am mostly left out there wandering the streets looking for a way in.
One of my handicaps is that I was never good at math. I was reading above my grade level throughout elementary school, but when it came to math, it was another story. I spent evenings by my father’s side trying to discern the complexities of math problems. He was very patient while I pulled my hair out trying to make sense of the seemingly impossible riddles. These problems often involved two trains heading toward each other at different speeds and I had to solve the problem before they crashed into each other. For me, words have shape and meaning, but numbers just gloss over like a foreign language.
Deciphering today’s text is like solving a complex math problem that will allow for determining the right measure for building boundaries around a semi-confined space. It all comes down to the width and length of crossbeams that are measured in units of handbreadths. We are told that a crossbeam should be four handbreadths if it is able to turn the public entrance of an alleyway into a spatial seal in order to create a private domain for purposes of carrying out on Shabbat. Rav Yosef take a liberal position and said that the crossbeam can be as small as a single handbreadth. The principle is that it creates a “conspicuous marker that demarcates the alleyway from the public domain.”
In an attempt to articulate a precise measure at a time when standard measurement systems did not exist, Abaye established that to allow a crossbeam to serve as a partition in the alleyway, it is not effective unless it spreads over an area for four handbreadths. The voice of the Gemara seeks to find an explanation for the disagreement between Abaye and Rav Yosef. Rav Yosef is not concerned that people who tread upon the crossbeam, which we are told functions as a conspicuous marker, will diminish it, while Abaye has such a concern and as result would like to see it raised to four handbreadths so that people will notice it.
And here is another math problem: if the crossbeam is less than ten handbreadths above the ground, how much ground would one have to hollow out beneath it to make it usable as a conspicuous marker? We are told that even the voice of the Gemara is “surprised by the question.” Rav Yosef and Abaye disagree once again. Rav Yosef said one must hollow out four handbreadths, while Abaye said four cubits. Abaye argues that at least four cubits is necessary because an alleyway is only permitted “by means of a side post or crossbeam” if it has houses on either side opening into a courtyard and such an arrangement would not be possible if it were only four handbreadths. In essence, it would be too short.
The voice of the Gemara queries how Rav Yosef would respond to Abaye’s challenge. The text has taken on the drama of a boxing match with a Rabbi ready to pounce from each corner of the ring. Rav says that he is imagining a courtyard that opens into the alleyway at its corners. In this case it has two openings and each one is four handbreadths wide. The length of the courtyard he has in mind may be no greater than four handbreadths, but “the four handbreadths of the openings to the courtyards are divided between the width and length of the alleyway.” I was with the Rav until I got to the word “divided’ and wonder if he meant multiplied instead? I suspect he might have been knocked out in this round.
Unless any of us are planning to design a courtyard using handbreadths, the exact dimensions are less important than the insight we gain into the Rabbinic attempt to arrive at some sense of precision. Measuring space is one way of creating boundaries and establishing a sense of order. Today we live in a world defined by a pandemic where we are told we must space ourselves out by six feet or two meters when in public.
My apartment building placed circles on its elevator floors that provide guides on where to stand (and no more than two people are allowed in an elevator at a time.) Stores have placed social distance markers near their checkout counters, and on their outside sidewalks to space us out while we wait to enter. Restaurants in New York City are allowed to set up outdoor tables that are six feet apart. And yet, there is no real evidence that even standing six feet apart can keep us safe. It might be that we need to be ten feet apart or even further away from spreading coronavirus droplets.
I am left wondering if there can be any real precision when a virus floats through the air. Is it a delusion that six feet will keep us safe? Is it an even greater delusion that we can find order in our world?