Water in the streets (Daf Yomi Eruvin 87)

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“Under what circumstances can a balcony with these dimensions be found?”

Water is essential to life and is easy to take for granted because, well, it is just there. Today’s Daf Yomi portion is a reminder of how difficult it was to gain access to water 1,500 years ago when there were no electric pumps or water heaters to provide access to a steady stream of warm water for a nice bath. It had to be fetched and retrieved from cisterns, which were carefully monitored for water quality, although some Roman cities had aqueduct systems. I visited Masada last year in Israel where Herod built quite elaborate cisterns that provided enough water to fill his luxurious swimming pools.

A household required access to water even on Shabbat. There are all kinds of measurements and restrictions on how to complete this task. A privileged household was able to live near a water source with a balcony suspended above it. I imagine a seaside condominium in a high-rise apartment building with a balcony that faces the Mediterranean. Henri Matisse’s Nice paintings with balconies overlooking the sea come to mind. These balconies would have to be altered for purposes of retrieving water on Shabbat, by carving a hole in their center of four by four handbreadths so that one could draw water from below.

We are provided with the example of a water channel that passes through a courtyard. Residents may freely draw water from this channel on Shabbat if they erect a partition ten handbreadths high at both the entrance and exit of the courtyard. If a wall runs on top of the courtyard, according to Rabbi Yehuda, one does not need to bother with partitions. If this same channel runs between two homes, the residents can lower buckets and draw water on Shabbat if it is less than three or four handbreadths, depending on the Rabbi you listen to.

I have experienced several really terrible periods in the 40 years that I have lived in New York. I worked on Wall Street in 1987 and was young and inexperienced and when the stock market crashed that year, I thought the world would come to an end. I worked at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and have considered my life as one that is before and after the events of that day, because it was the end of feeling safe in my own city and the end of innocence. The events of 2008 were not as traumatic as the earlier market crash that I lived through because by then I had experienced several market dislocations and knew the world would not come to an end. But we were close to the precipice in 2008.

And then there was Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012 when there was water in the streets but none from the taps in my apartment building. It was a cold late October and early November like we are now experiencing in New York City, with an early snowstorm. Halloween and the New York Marathon were cancelled, as they have been this year. I lived in downtown Manhattan where there was no electricity for almost a week.

And in a high-rise building, no electricity means no water. I learned that one can live days without electricity and phone and internet service, but water is critical. I had filled up my bathtub right before the storm passed through the city and for that week, it had become my improvised cistern. Whenever there is the possibility of a hurricane passing, I fill up my bathtub just in case.

Surviving through Hurricane Sandy was among the worst of times in the city. And now there is this time. In the early days of the pandemic a friend told me to stock up on water, which I did along with disinfectants and toilet paper and extra cash. It was if we were stocking up for a weather event instead of one even more pernicious. But somehow, after the market crashes and the terrorist event and weather events, I am still here, trying to survive through a public health crisis that makes living in a densely packed city seem somehow naïve.

But there is still hope.


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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