Talmud pages

Eruvin 16

How to make a mistake.

Think back to the last time you heard an influential leader admit they made a mistake. Having trouble? It’s no surprise. Admitting you’re wrong isn’t easy, which is why celebrities and politicians often resort to the non-apology — saying not that they were sorry, but that they regret if anyone was offended.

On today’s daf, we get a very different model of an apology.

The context is a discussion about the ways a caravan of travelers sleeping in an open field can enclose its encampment with an eruv to permit carrying on Shabbat. A complicated discussion ensues about the manner of ropes and poles to be used, how they are to be arranged so as to allow for gaps that are neither too wide nor too narrow, and the number of people allowed to use such an eruv.

Eventually the debate comes around to the question of how large an encampment they are permitted to enclose. One possibility, shared by Rav Nahman on behalf of Rabbi Yosei ben Rabbi Yehudah, is quite specific:

With regard to an individual, the halakha provides him with an area of two beit se’a, in which he may carry by virtue of partitions of this kind. With regard to two individuals as well, the halakha provides them with an area of two beit se’a. Three individuals assume the legal status of a caravan, and the halakha provides each of them with an area of two beit se’a, for a total of six beit se’a. 

Here the Talmud lays out a highly precise series of measurements based on a beit se’a, a unit of measurement equivalent to 2,500 square amot, or about half the area of the Tabernacle courtyard. One or two people camping can enclose an area of two beit se’a, and three people can enclose an area of two beit se’a each, for a total of six beit se’a.

Against this, the rabbis posit a simpler standard:

The sages say: we allow both an individual and a caravan to enclose an area as wide as necessary for all their needs, provided there is no area of two beit se’a vacant in the enclosure. 

In other words, if there is an area of two beit se’a available, that should suffice for one or two people. But three or more constitute a caravan, and in that case they can make the eruv as large as they need for “all their needs.”

This is all pretty straightforward. But the Gemara objects: Why does Rav Nahman abandon the majority opinion and side with the minority opinion of Rabbi Yosei?

At which point, Rav Nahman does a curious thing:

Rav Naḥman then placed a speaker standing over him, and taught: The matters that I stated before you are an error on my part. 

Rav Nahman goes on to explain that, in the case of the three individuals who constitute a caravan, the rabbis are right: They can enclose as much space as they need. But Rav Nahman isn’t content merely to affirm the majority opinion of the rabbis. He states his mistake unequivocally, even enlisting a colleague to announce it to the assembly. Why does he do this?

Rav Nahman was the head of the academy at Nehardea, one of the most prominent yeshivas in Babylonia. He was a student of Rav and Shmuel, two of the most influential scholars of the time. And his father-in-law was the leader of the Jewish community of Babylonia.

In other words, Rav Nahman was a big deal. And as a big deal, his words came with weight.

Leaders are often reluctant to admit their mistakes because it’s seen as weakness. But Rav Nahman doesn’t see it that way. By owning his mistake, he exhibits not weakness, but strength. To Rav Nahman, the most important thing is not his image or power, but rather that the community understands the law. If that means accepting responsibility for an error, he is on board to do so.

So, the next time someone points out an error to you, be like Rav Nahman.

Read all of Eruvin 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 25, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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