“It is immaterial how the eiruv arrives there.”
Buried in today’s Daf Yomi portion about eruvs and extending boundaries through the carrying of food on the back of monkeys and elephants is a message about what constitutes a home and a safe space and also, a side journey into a discussion on human agency. But it takes a lot of digging through a difficult circuitous text to get there.
The voice of the Gemara investigates if an eruv can be created through the placement of food set aside as an offering for a priest on a grave. If the food has not yet come into contact with liquid it is not considered impure and can eaten with a flat wooden utensil. But this is a very specific utensil. It must not be shaped liked a receptacle which would contract impurity and must be held sideways over the grave. It must not form a cover over the grave that is a handbreadth wide. Rabbi Yehuda argues that accordingly, an eruv can be set up on a grave if all the stipulations are followed. But he doesn’t have the last word.
A group of sages disagree with Rabbi Yehuda because a virtual home that is established for a priest for the purpose of carrying on Shabbat through the extension of boundaries must be through items that are permitted. The sages argue it is prohibited from seeking benefit from a grave and by extension, establishing an eruv on the spot is disallowed. The Gemara tells us that “since one acquires a place of residence for Shabbat by means of the eiruv, it would be as if the priest acquired a home for himself with something from which he may not derive benefit.”
Rabbi Yehuda is not done yet and he is all wound up and willing to press on with his argument. He puts forward the following case: Mitzvot are not given for benefit. The acquisition of a virtual home by means of an eruv is a mitzva. One may establish an eruv that extends boundaries for the sake of a mitzva. Accordingly, it is permitted to establish an eruv in a place from which it is prohibited to derive benefit, such as a grave. But yet again, the argument is not concluded.
There is some back and forth and a discussion on whether establishing an eruv on a grave should consider a voluntary matter, which according to the sages would be prohibited. But there is another winkle to this disagreement regarding safeguarding. According to Rabbi Yehuda, who is going against the crowd, once the eruv under discussion is established and safeguarded on Shabbat Eve, it is legitimate because it served its purpose and anything that subsequently happens is immaterial. The sages disagree that such a scenario is prohibited, because for some reason a priest might want to actually eat the food placed on the grave.
The discussion takes an interesting turn when it analyzes the permissibility of establishing an eruv with food that has not been separated from the required tithes, or demai. We are told that this portion of food is deemed fit for the poor and accordingly one can declare his property ownerless and himself a poor person in order to use this type of food for an eruv. Of course, it begs the question as to why one would pretend to be poor for this purpose rather than contribute the food to a needy family.
Today’s Daf Yomi resonates with what it means to have a home and a safe place. The meaning of home changes as we get older and acquire more things and establish deeper roots in the community. When I first moved to New York I rented what cannot even be called a room in an illegal loft that was not zoned for living. My space was built on top of the loft’s kitchen and required a climb up a steep ladder into a dark area where there was room for a bed, a bureau and a rack for my clothes. I owned very little and it worked for me at the time. One of the residents of the loft was a musician who played in a salsa band and there were rehearsals and dancing most nights. It was small and cheap and illegal, and I was young and living the dream.
I lived for many years in a decent size studio cooperative apartment where my bedroom consisted of a twin bed behind a screen in the corner. It was small by most people’s estimation but large for a studio and it was mine. Today I live in a one bedroom that has the walk-in closet that I always dreamed of and room for a queen size bed where I can spread out with the cats. I love this apartment but have worked from home since March and I am tired of being holed up within the same four walls.
It is lonely living alone during this time, but also safe from the density of overcrowded living conditions that contributed to New York City’s COVID crisis earlier this year. The coalition for the Homeless released a report in June that stated that homeless New Yorkers experienced a 61% higher death rate from COVID-19 than the general population. (https://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/COVID19HomelessnessReportJune2020.pdf)
The study attributes this to pre-existing health conditions and over-crowded shelters. There are many tragedies associated with living through a pandemic and one of the most heart-breaking is the exposure to the disease by those who do not have a safe space of their own.