“One person does not render it prohibited for another by way of the air.”
Yesterday’s Daf Yomi reading focuses on the ownership of air rights belonging to the residents of homes that open onto courtyards and those that open onto balconies. Today the discussion considers another scenario of two balconies that extend over a body of water, with one above the other. The residents of the upper balcony erected a partition for their space, but not one for the lower balcony. This is an important matter in the days before homes had running water, because the residents would seemingly need to draw water even on Shabbat. We are told that unless a common eruv is established, both homes are out of luck. It speaks to the importance of neighbors banding together in search of a common solution.
Of course, there are no simple solutions in the Talmud and when one is offered there is a contradiction coming quickly on its heels. Rav Huna quotes his teacher Rav and says that the space between the balconies matters and that it is prohibited to draw water when they are four handbreadths within each other. But if they are at least four handbreadths apart, the upper balcony can draw water while the lower one is prohibited from doing so. We are told that “this teaching indicates that one person does not render it prohibited for use by another by way of the air.”
This discussion leads to a query of Rav by Rabbi Elazar. Rav had ruled that if there are two houses with three ruins between them, the resident of each house only has access to the ruin that is closest to their property. He has access to the ruin by opening his window and throwing an object into it. But the middle ruin is prohibited to the resident of each house. Rabbi Elazar seemed to find this scenario so unusual that he insisted on showing up at Rav’s home to confirm his opinion.
I imagine Rabbi Elazar knocking on the door first thing in the morning and Rav showing up in the doorway with a coffee cup in his hand. Rav allowed Rabbi Elazar into his home and poured him a cup of coffee and elucidated on his opinion. He said that things were more complicated than they seemed because the ruins were not necessarily arranged in a straight line. Instead they were organized in a shape of tripod, with one ruin directly next to each home, but the one in the middle at the tip of the arrangement and inconvenient to both. There is a lot in the Talmud that is more complicated than it seems on the surface.
I have read reports that Manhattan is becoming a ruin. I do not think that is the case, because there is still enough activity left in the residential neighborhoods, but what will become of the business district in the middle? Is it like the ruins that we read about in today’s Daf Yomi? I have not been to midtown Manhattan where my office is located since the city shut down in mid-March. I am told that the office towers are nearly empty. And what about the food carts and cafes and midtown take-out places that services all the office workers. What happened to them?
My favorite place to meet people after work is under the clock at Grand Central Station. I would show up early just so that I could breathe in the swirl around me. This was the air rights that I felt belonged to me as a resident of the city: the energy, and flow of humanity which every New Yorker earned by living and working here. And there was nothing more nourishing then sitting at the counter of the Grand Central Oyster Bar on a cold winter day with a bowl of thick, creamy Manhattan chowder. The Oyster Bar opened briefly in September and then closed again due to lack of foot traffic. On their website they promise to come back again stronger than ever.
One by one institutions that made this city unique – and there are a million stories – are struggling and many are outright failing. I like to think of the state of this city as one on pause, rather than a ruin. And one day, when the pandemic is behind us, it will all come back. The lights will come back on, and there will be people to look up at the billboards in Times Square, and in line at the café in Rockefeller Center ordering morning coffee. The crowds will come bustling back into Grand Central Station and there will be a bowl of thick chowder waiting for me at the counter of the Oyster Bar. And we will all be back!
I write this on the eve of what many are calling one of the most important US elections of our lifetime. I am praying that the value that is foundational to a democracy – peaceful transfer of power – holds true in the coming days.