In his classic poem “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer describes: “A tree that looks at God all day / And lifts her leafy arms to pray.” Kilmer might have appreciated the discussion on today’s daf, which continues an earlier conversation about the permissibility of establishing a specific tree (or other pinpoint location) as one’s residence for the sake of demarcating an eruv.
The mishnah on Eruvin 49 that discusses this possibility notes two situations — one in which a person is traveling and can’t get home before Shabbat and one in which a person is impoverished and has no permanent home. In the latter case, the mishnah declares that the poor person may establish an eruv “with his feet” — that is, merely by standing in a specific location, and not as is typically done, by placing food there.
On today’s daf, we come to a lovely story describing how this might play out in actuality.
Rabbi Yehuda said: There was an incident involving the members of the household of the Memel family and members of the household of Guryon family in the village of Aroma, who were distributing dried figs and raisins to the paupers in years of famine, and the paupers of the village of Siḥin and the paupers of the village of Ḥananya would come to the edge of the Shabbat limit at nightfall, which was also within the Shabbat limit of Aroma, and then go home. The following day they would rise early and go to receive their figs and raisins. Apparently, one can establish an eruv by foot, if he says: My residence is in my present location.
The presumably homeless paupers of these two villages in the Galilee learned that food was available from benefactors in an adjacent town. But there was a problem – it was too far away. The solution? On Friday they would walk 2,000 cubits to the edge of the Shabbat boundary, establish a new eruv there with their feet, and then go back to where they started. This had the effect of extending the distance they could walk on Shabbat to 4,000 cubits, enabling them to walk to the Memels and the Guryons and benefit from their generosity.
The Gemara’s attention to the realities of poverty is notable here. Being able to call anyplace home – even a tree trunk – meant that the poor could feel confident that they were observing Shabbat while getting needed sustenance.
This sensitivity is reminiscent of a passage we encountered earlier in Tractate Eruvin, which discussed the permissibility of overstepping the Shabbat limit in order to relieve oneself in privacy. In that case, Rabba told us that human dignity is so important that it can even supersede a negative commandment. Treating the poor with dignity surely includes taking into consideration not only their bodily needs, but their spiritual need to observe Shabbat. By making sure that paupers could avoid feeling “less than” even as they were begging, the Gemara raises an important issue for consideration: How do we ensure that our communities are accessible to those without means?
One way is to meet the basic needs of our impoverished brothers and sisters in a respectful manner. While only God can make a tree, feeding the poor is up to us — and we should fulfill this mitzvah in a way that allows the recipient to feel as dignified and included as possible.