In its attempts to figure out the contours of halacha, the Talmud loves wildly imaginative hypothetical situations. On today’s daf, a thought experiment involves fluctuating sea levels and a public garbage dump.
The occasion is the the continuing discussion of what features of an alley render it in need of an eruv to permit carrying on Shabbat. Ravin bar Rav Adda, in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak, brings the case of an alleyway in which one end terminates at the sea and the other end at a large pile of garbage. Does such an alleyway require an eruv to carry objects within the alley on Shabbat?
Technically, the alley is closed-off at both ends, so we might think not. But the Gemara tells us that when the case was presented to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, he was silent and said nothing about it. What made the scenario so intractable?
The Gemara clarifies: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did not state a ruling indicating a prohibition to carry in the alleyway, for the partitions, i.e., the sea and the refuse heap, indeed stand, and the alleyway is closed off on both sides. However, he also did not state a ruling granting permission to carry in the alleyway, for we are concerned that perhaps the refuse heap will be removed from its present spot, leaving one side of the alleyway open. And, alternatively, perhaps the sea will raise up sand, and the sandbank will intervene between the end of the alleyway and the sea, so that the sea can no longer be considered a partition for the alleyway.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi declined to issue a blanket prohibition on carrying in the alleyway because, in fact, both sides are closed off. But the sea, the Gemara imagines, might “raise up sand,” thus creating a traversable path at one end of the alley such that the passage would no longer be closed off. At the other end, someone might conceivably come along and clean up the garbage dump, again rendering the alleyway open at one end. Both of these hypotheticals would ultimately require the alley to have an eruv. And so we’re left with silence, without a definitive ruling one way or the other.
So much of the particulars of Shabbat are about establishing certainties about what is and is not permitted on Shabbat. But in this case, the Gemara reflects a fundamental reality of the human condition: As much as we might want to be always in control, some things are inevitably out of our hands.
Nature might have its way and the sea might shift the sand — an act of God, if you will. Or someone might come along and decide to move the garbage. For Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the alley is both closed and not definitively closed enough.
What’s remarkable about this gemara is that it doesn’t resist this reality. While later, the Gemara will suggest that some of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s colleagues disagreed with him, here we have a subtle model of acceptance of human limitations.
Some of us devote great amounts of mental energy to providing structure and definition to our observance of Shabbat. But sometimes, we hit the ceiling of our human reach. Though we like to pretend otherwise, we’re just not always in control. At such times, we might choose not to say anything at all and to emulate Yehuda HaNasi’s humble silence.