“Isn’t it possible to be precise?”
Today’s Daf Yomi text follows days of discussion about the placement of crossbeams in an alley. The conversation continues today with an examination of whether natural barriers – like the willow trees that I remember playing under in my childhood – transform a space into a private domain for the purpose of carrying on Shabbat. The discussion hinges on whether what we have been talking about all these days is a partition or a conspicuous marker; one creates a physical barrier while the other creates a symbolic one. There is consideration of how an object that is serving as a barrier has been regarded in the past: the question is asked if it had been relied upon yesterday. And finally, there is a discussion if a live animal – perhaps one’s precious donkey – can be tied to a post and considered a permissible barrier. There are a lot of extensions of logic in the Talmud and today we are presented with an odd one that extends the discussion of using animals as partitions to the execution of a divorce writ.
Today’s action unfolds with a disagreement between Abaye and Rava. Abaye says that a side post that is situated at the entrance of an alleyway creates a legitimate space for carrying on Shabbat even if it was not created for that purpose. He considers this in the context of a physical barrier. Rava, who envisions a conspicuous marker, disagrees and says it is not a valid post. Abaye, who is less rigid in many of his interpretations, establishes a simple principle: if a post was relied on before Shabbat for the purpose of creating a barrier it is legitimate. Rava stays true to his belief that only a post that was intentionally constructed for the purpose of creating a barrier can be considered valid.
The voice of the Gemara tells us that a sukka that is created by an enclosure of trees is legitimate. The trees function as partitions even though they have been anchored in the ground long before anyone thought they would serve as substantial walls for a sukka. We are told that the use of trees for the purpose of encircling a sukka has never been challenged and as a result, they are permissible barriers. We are also told that a barrier of reeds can serve as a valid partition if there are at least three handbreadths between each one. The consideration of natural barriers is extended to a mound, a natural formation of rocks, and a wheat field.
We are told that a tree that hangs down from a height of greater than ten handbreadths and reaches almost to the ground can be considered a valid partition and one may carry under it. I envision lush willow trees with dense branches that flow toward the ground and create private spaces. The Gemara tells us that “the branches constitute partitions all around, and it is therefore permissible to carry in the enclosed area.” Rav Huna added a condition and says that one may only carry under the tree if its branches enclose an area no larger than five thousand square cubits. Any larger than this and it would not be considered an independent dwelling and by extension, a private domain.
In an example of how the Talmud sometimes makes grand leaps from one topic to another, we are told that one can construct a side post from anything, including a living creature. Rabbi Meir rejects this out of hand. Rabbi Yosei extends the discussion to the impermissibility of using a live animal as a surface for writing a woman’s divorce writ. He bases his opinion on the fact that we are told such a divorce writ should be written on a surface like a scroll and a live animal or food would not qualify. (I can imagine an angry wife serving her husband a slab of meat for dinner with the letters “I am done” scratched into it.)
The discussion is extended to consider the content of the divorce decree rather than the substance that is it written on. In a passage that is a reminder that when one leaves a marriage it should be done completely without scraps of hurt and betrayal holding on to a past life, we are told that there should be no conditions in the divorce get. We are told that the Rabbis have advised that the marriage arrangement should be entirely severed: “A scroll of severance, is required to teach that a bill of divorce must be a matter that severs all connection between him and her.” It is a reminder to move on with one’s life without regret.
While it is important to move on in life, we are also formed by our memories. The mention of large trees that create private spaces reminded me of the overhanging willow trees in the backyard of a neighbor when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey. I sometimes dream about those trees which were large and foreboding; it was both terrifying and tempting to crawl under them. They created private domains under their dense canopy of branches. There was a beautiful swishing sound when the hanging branches were swayed by the wind. But there was also a dark underworld living beneath those branches of damp soil, tangled weeds and creeping insects. For me as a child, the trees held both the promise and the fear of what was out there in the larger world that I was so anxious to enter.