For those of us who don’t have the strongest spatial imagination skills, Tractate Eruvin is a doozy. Take, for example, today’s discussion about whether residents of two homes that overlook a water source may draw water from their balconies on Shabbat. Starting with the Mishnah, the page reads:
If two balconies extend over a body of water, one above the other, and the residents erected a partition for the upper balcony (a partition in the water effectively changes the status of the stream below from karmelit to private domain) but they did not erect a partition for the lower one, residents of both balconies are prohibited to draw water, unless they established an eruv together.
The Gemara continues:
And Rav Huna said that Rav said: They taught that the residents of one balcony render it prohibited for the residents of the other balcony to draw water only when one balcony is near the other, i.e., horizontally within four handbreadths. But if each balcony is four handbreadths removed from the other, so that each can use the other only by means of the air, the upper balcony is permitted to draw water, while the lower one is prohibited to do so. This teaching indicates that one person does not render it prohibited for use by another by way of the air.
Imagine an apartment building next to a stream. In the absence of running water, the architect thoughtfully designed the apartments to have balconies extending out over the stream. Each balcony has a hole in the floor and a bucket that can be raised and lowered to bring water to the apartment without having to leave the building. In essence, then, there are three physical areas with differing property rights: the top balcony, owned by the upper tenant; the lower balcony, owned by the lower tenant, but through whose air space the upper tenant has easement rights to pass the bucket; and the stream below.
Based on more lenient interpretation of airspace rights, the Gemara holds that the upper tenant can access the water without an eruv that would combine their property with that of the lower tenant — so long as the balconies are sufficiently far apart.
This ruling encourages communal cooperation, requiring not only that an individual be conscious of their own conduct; they also have to be aware of their neighbors, where they are, and what they’re doing. If you’re not mindful of how far your balcony is from your neighbor’s, your water access on Shabbat is going to be limited. In addition, there’s a benefit to neighbors who collaborate and devise a common solution.
Frankly, I love the perspective on Tractate Eruvin that sees these rules of joined properties not as a byzantine series of barriers, but as tools of communal unity and cooperation. In this vein, one last bit of text from today’s page:
Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: If there were a group of people who were dining together on Friday afternoon, and the day became sanctified for them (i.e., Shabbat began while they were eating) they may rely upon the bread on the table for an eruv of courtyards, so that they are all permitted to carry in the courtyard. And some say they may rely on the bread for a merging of the alleyway.
May we all have meals where the fellowship we share is so strong that it can distract us even from the arrival of Shabbat!