On yesterday’s daf, we learn that two of the Talmud’s great sages, Rabba and Abaye, lived in houses joined by an alley but had not made an eruv, and so could not carry things — in this case, warm water for a baby’s circumcision — between their homes on Shabbat. The two rabbis discuss the pros and cons of possible workarounds, including employing a gentile for the task. But while yesterday’s page offered an intellectual exercise in Sabbath law, today’s addresses the more basic question that is likely on many readers’ minds.
Rabba bar Rav Hanan challenges Abaye:
“How could an alleyway that houses two sages as great as my rabbis (i.e., you and Rabba) not have an eruv or a merging of alleyways?!”
Indeed, why would two great sages, living as neighbors, not make an eruv to join their habitations?
Abaye is quick with an answer:
“What should we do? It is not the Master’s (i.e. Rabba’s) way, and I am busy with my learning. The other residents can’t be bothered.”
Abaye’s explanation is that he and Rabba, sages committed to the laws of eruv, are too important or too busy to engage in the physical labor of constructing one. Their neighbors, on the other hand, who are unencumbered by great status or hours of study, have time for such labors — but simply don’t care. The disdain for the less learned neighbors is palpable. It’s not a great look for a rabbi. But as is often the case, disdain turns out to be a cover for something else.
Almost as quickly as it emerges from his mouth, Abaye retracts his initial answer and offers a more honest one:
“And if I transferred the bread in my basket to the other residents (to allow them to merge the alleyways and create an eruv), since I would not be able to afford to give it to them if they asked me for it, the merging would be invalid.”
Abaye’s blustery initial response to Rabba bar Hanan obscures a more personal and painful truth: he is so poor that he cannot contribute food to the eruv and still be able to eat on Shabbat. Though his initial instinct was to be ashamed of his poverty and cast aspersions on his neighbors, Abaye quickly realizes his mistake. This ability to recognize and correct an error, even at the cost of his own pride, is part of what makes Abaye a great sage.
Abaye’s admission that he cannot afford to contribute to an eruv also implicitly suggests that his neighbors may be in a similar situation. What he initially presented, or interpreted, as apathy toward Jewish law might have actually been economic inability to engage in Jewish ritual practice.
We, too, can follow Abaye’s example by asking not why Jews don’t want to do Jewish things, but rather what barriers might be holding them back from being able to participate, and what it might look like to create communities in which everyone can take part. And we can try to notice when our unkindness toward others might really be a way of covering over a painful truth about ourselves.
See you tomorrow!