Eruvin 77

Dig it out.

Today’s daf is quite technical, giving us the opportunity to dive into some delightfully minute rabbinic argumentation and review an important rabbinic legal tool.

This daf continues yesterday’s discussion of conditions under which two courtyards that share a wall can make one combined eruv. Whereas yesterday we discussed a wall with a window in it, today’s discussion focuses on a wall with at least one section that is less than ten handbreadths high. That section is considered to be an entrance or opening in the wall, which would allow the courtyards on either side of it to share a single eruv.

This shortened wall can be created by removing some stones from the top of a taller wall, or alternately by diminishing it from the bottom. For example,

Rav Yehiel said: If one overturned a basin (and placed it next to the wall), this effectively diminishes the height of the wall.

In other words, a stepstool next to the wall effectively shortens that part of it, so it would legally be considered an opening in the wall.

The Talmud then raises a technical problem with this statement: a basin can be moved on Shabbat, so its presence should not affect the legal height of the wall, since someone could simply come along and move it aside.

The Talmud clarifies: 

It is a case where it was attached to the ground,

perhaps by partially burying it. It would then not be permissible to move it on Shabbat because it would require moving soil, which is forbidden.

A further objection is raised: Why would moving soil be forbidden if it was merely an unintended consequence of lifting the basin, part of which is still visible above the soil? The Talmud clarifies further:

It is a basin with a rim,

such that lifting it would be too similar to the forbidden labor of digging.

The Talmud brings one more objection, comparing the buried basin to a buried turnip or radish, which one may lift out of the ground on Shabbat. If such an action is permitted, should it not be permitted to remove this basin? In response, the Talmud offers a final piece of clarification: It is buried so firmly that one would need a hoe or a spade to dig it out, which surely would be prohibited on Shabbat. In this case, the overturned basin would surely diminish the height of the wall.

It seems unlikely that when Rav Yehiel mentioned an overturned basin, he actually meant a basin that is so firmly buried in the ground it would need to be dug out with a shovel. Rather, the Talmud’s “clarifications” here are actually what lawyers today would call “cabining,” and Rashi would call an “okimta”: the process of limiting the case to which a law applies in order to resolve apparent problems or contradictions in its application. This is an important tool that the rabbis use in their role as legal interpreters, one which allows them to preserve earlier rulings while also adapting them to fit with new understandings of how the law should be carried out.

Read all of Eruvin 77 on Sefaria.

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

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