Eruvin 87

What did they mean by that?

Today we’re going to get technical and mess around with eruvim and legal theory. The question at hand: what is the Talmud’s take on authorial intent? Are later interpreters beholden to what the original authors of a law meant — to the extent that it can even be determined? Today’s daf offers a fascinating case study.

We start with a beraita, an early rabbinic source, in which the sages and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (also known by his acronym, RaShBaG) argue about drawing water from a channel passing between the windows of two houses:

The sages: If it is less than three handbreadths, one may lower a bucket from the window and draw water.

Rashbag: If it is less than four handbreadths, one may lower a bucket and draw water.

This teaching does not specify what exactly must measure less than three or four handbreadths. The vertical distance from the window down to the stream? The horizontal distance from the base of the home under the window to the stream?

The Gemara suggests that the beraita refers not to the distance from the window to the channel, but to the width of the channel itself. If the stream is narrow enough, it is too small to be deemed a karmelit (essentially, a not-quite-public-but-also-not-private domain) and may be used. In this case, the debate between the sages and Rashbag boils down to a question of the minimum size of a karmelit: either three or four handbreadths.

But now we have a problem, because it turns out that the minimal size of a karmelit is in fact four handbreadths, a ruling which we have seen elsewhere in Tractate Eruvin and which seems to be widely accepted. So the sages’ ruling about three handbreadths makes little sense if the debate is actually about the size of a karmelit. Plus, if you were going to argue about the size of a karmelit, wouldn’t you just say that outright?

The Gemara has the same concern:

Let us say that the teaching cited was actually the subject of a dispute of tannaim.

In other words: we thought that Rabbi Yohanan’s definition of a karmelit was universally accepted! If it was subject to such a fundamental debate, surely we would have encountered it sooner!

Nonetheless, the Talmud sticks with the idea that the debate is about the size of a karmelit. This explanation of the beraita is not the simplest reading, but it does have the advantage of supporting the sages over Rabbi Yehuda in regard to an earlier debate (which we do not have the space to fully explain here).

Now, toward the end of the sugya, the Talmud considers that there is a known debate between the sages and Rashbag regarding lavud (the general principle which allows us to consider two objects continuous as long as they are divided by only a small space). According to the sages, if there is less than three handbreadths between two objects they may be considered one unit while Rashbag allows up to four handbreadths. Perhaps this debate between them in the beraita is in fact about lavud — (it gets very technical here and has to do with placing partitions in the channel and then cutting holes in them to allow water to flow, and what size those holes can be, but we won’t get into it all here) — and not about whether or not the stream is a karmelit.

This is the reading suggested by Ravina in the last line of the sugya, and it likely represents the original intent behind the beraita. Ravina was a late talmudic rabbi, one of the last of the amoraim, and often his statements come at the end of a sugya as footnotes or tangents.

What’s interesting on this page is that the Talmud has relegated the original intention (a debate about lavud) to a footnote, preferring instead the karmelit reading which is very unlikely to represent the original intent. Its reason for this more “difficult” reading seems to be that it generates support for the sages against Rabbi Yehuda.

On today’s daf, the innovative reading of the beraita prevails over the originalist interpretation, proving once again that the sages were deeply wedded to text, but neither literalism nor originalism. For the rabbis, flexible interpretation made text remarkably pliable, and endlessly meaningful.

Read all of Eruvin 87 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 4th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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