Throughout this tractate, we’ve seen repeated exhortations from rabbis to be lenient. For example, on Eruvin 46 the rabbis lay out the general principle of leniency in matters of both eruvim and the laws of mourning.
Today’s daf brings these debates to life with a story that offers a poignant and living example of how rabbinic decisions affect people’s lives — it serves as a strong and vivid argument for the leniency the Talmud has been advocating throughout this tractate:
Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: There was an incident involving the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Oshaya, who went before Shabbat to the bathhouse, which was located beyond the Shabbat boundary, and it grew dark before she was able to return, and her mother-in-law established a joining of Shabbat boundaries for her so that she could return home.
And the incident came before Rabbi Hiyya for a ruling as to whether the eruv is valid, and he ruled that it was not valid and prohibited her return. Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yosei, said to him: Babylonian, are you so stringent with regard to an eruv? This is what my father said: Any case where you have the ability to be lenient with regard to an eruv, be lenient.
The case of Rabbi Oshaya’s wife and daughter-in-law brings our discussion to life, allowing us to glimpse the consequences of stringency. Rabbi Oshaya’s wife tried to establish an eruv so her daughter-in-law would not find herself stranded for the duration of Shabbat but her eruv was declared invalid by Rabbi Hiyya (who was known for his conservatism). As a result, the daughter-in-law was isolated from her family and home over the holy day of rest. A rabbinic colleague rebuked Rabbi Hiyya for an unnecessarily strict ruling, but we do not hear that he was overridden.
I can envision the panic of Rabbi Oshaya’s daughter-in-law as she suddenly realizes how late the day has become; the pain of a divided household forced to pass the day of rest apart; and the anguish of two women separated by a rabbinic decree which, by virtue of their gender, they could have no role in articulating or debating. Living examples like the story of Rabbi Oshaya’s wife and daughter-in-law can do far more to teach and instill underlying principles and to encourage us to appreciate Torah as real, vibrant, and consequential.