Two days ago, we encountered a debate over whether a traveler who fell asleep on the outskirts of a town on a Friday afternoon could make the final journey home on Shabbat. On today’s daf, the rabbis debate another situation in which a traveler finds herself away from home as Shabbat begins. The basics of the case are related in the mishnah on yesterday’s daf:
With regard to one who was coming along the way on Shabbat eve, and it grew dark while he was traveling, and he was familiar with a tree or a fence located 2,000 cubits from his current location and 2,000 cubits from his house and he said: My residence is beneath that tree, rather than in his present location, he has not said anything, as he did not establish a fixed location as his residence.
If, however, he said: My residence is at the tree’s trunk, (he acquired residence there, and) he may therefore walk from the place he is standing to the trunk of the tree 2,000 cubits away, and from the trunk of the tree to his house, an additional 2,000 cubits. Consequently, he walks after nightfall a total of 4,000 cubits.
According to the mishnah, by noting a specific location where you plan to rest on Shabbat, you acquire a temporary home there and thereby also earn the right to travel 2,000 cubits from that point. This is significant to this particular traveler, because it may enable them to get all the way to their home 4,000 cubits away.
This leniency for travelers comes with a big caveat. Rav explains the first part of the mishnah to say that if you don’t specify a precise part of the tree as the resting spot, you are restricted by default to a four-by-four cubit area along the road. The imprecision of the designation failed to establish the new location as your residence, and because your intent was clearly not to reside at your current location, that is not your Shabbat residence either. An imprecise designation is like no designation at all.
Shmuel is more lenient, saying that if you don’t specify which part of the tree you intended, your residence begins from the point of the tree that is the farthest from home. In the case of a very large tree whose canopy stretches quite a bit from its base, you will get your 2,000 cubit right of travel from the point farthest from home. That might get you tantalizingly close, but not close enough to actually finish your journey.
The standard of specificity demanded by the rabbis may seem a bit extreme. But these rules also highlight the radical power of words to change reality. The difference between a traveler stuck by the side of the road and a person resting comfortably for the night in a temporary Shabbat home depends entirely on the choice of words.
This leniency for travelers is also dramatic when we compare it to the other laws of eruv. The rabbis spent page after page in the early part of Tractate Eruvin detailing the complex laws of beams, strings, money, and food in establishing an eruv. But in the case of a traveler, words alone have the power to change a random spot on the map into a little piece of civilization and earn enough mileage to turn the last leg of a journey into a permissible Shabbat stroll.
The daf goes on to explore both the limits and the power of words to change an object’s status, such as sanctifying an animal as a sacrifice or declaring food set aside for a tithe. These corollaries suggest that language is at the root of sanctity. Just as words can change stranded into home, they can turn an object from secular to holy. Language is a powerful tool, to be used very carefully and precisely.