Eruvin 86

Breaking the rules.

A dilemma: You are a member of a Shabbat observant independent minyan that rents a room in a community center to use for Shabbat services. The center does not have storage space, so you store your Torah in a building across the street and because there is no eruv, a volunteer brings the Torah over on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat begins.

One Shabbat morning, you arrive before services to check on the room and discover that the Torah scroll is not there. What do you do? Do you skip reading Torah that week? Do you go and get the Torah, even though there is no eruv allowing you to carry it from one domain to another?

As it happens, a similar case appears on our daf:

When Rav Dimi arrived in Babylonia from Israel, he said: One time, they forgot and did not bring a Torah scroll to the synagogue on Friday while it was still day. On Shabbat, they spread a sheet over the pillars and brought the Torah scroll to the synagogue and read from it.

Commentator Adin Steinsaltz explains that in talmudic times synagogues were sometimes located on the outskirts of town and Torah scrolls were stored in nearby locations for safekeeping. As Rav Dimi reports, faced with the possibility of not being able to read Torah, the synagogue members find a way to transport the Torah by spreading a sheet over some pillars that were positioned between the synagogue and the place where the Torah was stored, creating a corridor between the two locations.

At first, this sounds like a great solution that allows the congregation to move the Torah as the sheet serves as a partition that separates the corridor from the public domain. But not so fast, objects the Gemara:

Did they really spread out a sheet? Is this permitted!? Doesn’t everyone agree that it is prohibited to erect a temporary tent on Shabbat? Rather, they found sheets spread over the pillars and they brought the Torah scroll to the synagogue and read from it. 

Because of its discomfort with the idea that people built a temporary structure on Shabbat (violating one of the melakhot, or forbidden labors of Shabbat) in order to move the Torah, the Gemara rewrites the story. The revised version suggests that the sheet which was spread over the pillars was in place before Shabbat began.

It seems likely the Gemara’s retelling is not based on what happened (what are the chances a sheet happened to be coincidentally draped over the right pillars to facilitate an emergency Torah transfer?) but a desire to avoid any appearance that the actors in the story violated any rules of Shabbat.

It seems likely that in fact the congregation was motivated by their desire to read Torah and willing to bend some rules of Shabbat in order to do so. They seem to have calculated that violating the prohibition to make a temporary tent was preferable to carrying the Torah scroll in the public domain — maybe so that their violation of Shabbat would not be so visibly blatant.

Rav Dimi’s unselfconscious recounting of this incident suggests that, at least for some rabbis, Shabbat is not only about strictly following prohibitions. It is also about creating certain experiences and, in the service of that, the rules are not always absolute.

Read all of Eruvin 86 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 3rd, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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