Bava Batra 7

Elijah at the gate.

Do you live in a gated community? Many of these neighborhoods, such as the one in which my in-laws reside in Florida, have a gatehouse staffed by an attendant who controls access. 

Gated communities existed in the time of the Talmud too, as a mishnah on today’s daf discusses.

The residents of a courtyard can compel each inhabitant of that courtyard to financially participate in the building of a gatehouse and a door to the jointly owned courtyard. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel disagrees and says: Not all courtyards require a gatehouse. 

As we learned previously in Tractate Eruvin, those that reside in a shared courtyard are obligated to help pay for the gatehouse and the door in the wall surrounding it. But, as Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel points out, not all courtyards need a gatehouse. The Gemara continues with an anecdote in which having a gatehouse is a detriment. 

There was a certain pious man, with whom the prophet Elijah was accustomed to speak, who built a gatehouse, and afterward Elijah did not speak with him again. 

As we’ve seen previously, the Talmud frequently recounts stories of the prophet Elijah walking among ordinary people, often in disguise, in order to teach a particular value. Here, Elijah’s visits to a pious man stopped once he helped pay for a gatehouse to his shared courtyard. Why would such a move deter Elijah, who presumably can materialize wherever he wants? 

Rashi interprets Elijah’s actions as a commentary on one of the primary purposes of a gatehouse: to deter paupers from bothering residents of the courtyard. Rashi’s words are poignant; he describes the cries and shouts of the beggars going unheard by the residents of the gated enclave. Because Elijah is a champion of the down and out, he himself now refrains from visiting the courtyard to which the poor are barred. 

Because we know that some gatehouses are permitted, the Gemara explains why this one is forbidden: 

This is not difficult: This case (in which a gatehouse is permitted) refers to a gatehouse built on the inside of the courtyard; that case (the story of the pious man and Elijah) involves a gatehouse that was built on the outside of the courtyard.

The Gemara here describes two possible locations for a gatehouse. The Talmud states that the mishnah describes a gatehouse built inside the courtyard, in which case the poor can at least reach the entrance where their pleas can be heard and residents who wish to do so can give them tzedakah. The gatehouse described in the story of Elijah and the pious man, however, is located on the outside of the courtyard, which would prevent the residents from hearing their cries at all. 

The Gemara now provides a number of alternate explanations as to why the gatehouse described in the mishnah is permitted but that in the story of Elijah is not: 

And if you wish, say instead that in both cases the gatehouse was built outside the courtyard, and yet this is not difficult: In the one case, there is a door to the gatehouse, while in the other case there is no door. Or if you wish, say that in both cases there is a door, and still this is not difficult: In the one case, there is a key needed to open the door, and in the other case, there is no key needed. Or if you wish, say that in both cases there is a key needed, and even so this is not difficult: In the one case the key is on the inside, and in the other, the key is on the outside.

What is the Talmud getting at here? It seems that there are competing values at play. On the one hand, a gatehouse is meant to keep the residents of the courtyard safe from thieves. On the other hand, the mitzvah of giving tzedakah is so essential that blocking out the poor completely is going too far. How can the residents keep their staffed gatehouse, while adhering to the value of taking care of the poor? The Gemara offers several possibilities, including building a gate with no door or having a door that residents can lock, but which is still porous enough to allow for beggars’ cries to penetrate.

Read all of Bava Batra 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 2, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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