Shabbat 7

Galilee and Babylonia.

As we have discussed on previous pages, the rabbis prohibit carrying an object between public and private domains (and also carrying an object four cubits in a public domain). On today’s page, we learn that while some properties are obviously private or public, like a personal home or a town square, there is also a kind of intermediate space — not quite private or public — called a karmelit (כרמלית).

Various rabbis offer different opinions about the status of carrying in the karmelit. A number of these teachings are quoted in the name of Rav Dimi, using the formula “when Rav Dimi came.” For example:

When Rav Dimi came, he said that Rabbi Yohanan said: The karmelit was only necessary in order to teach the case of a corner adjacent to the public domain, where, although at times the multitudes push their way in and enter it, since its use is inconvenient it is considered a karmelit.

In a dense argument, Rabbi Yohanan argues that the karmelit is an intermediary space which the public chooses to use sometimes; but its inconvenience is such that it is not used very often. (One commentator gives the example of a deep river that is rarely entered.) Since it is not used often, it is not truly “public.”

Most rabbinic teachings so far are not quoted using this formula. Generally, we see “Rabbi So-and-so said…” or “Rabbi So-and-so taught…” — why does the Gemara here say that Rav Dimi came? And where on earth did he come from?

The rabbis lived in two major community centers — the Galilee and Babylonia — at the heart of two empires, Rome and the Sasanian Empire. Traveling between the two would have been difficult at any point, with all kinds of normal dangers — deserts, mountain ranges, bandits, disease, and food shortages. In addition, these empires were often at war with each other, making international travel especially difficult.

And yet these rabbinic communities did not develop in isolation from each other. Many centuries after the Talmud was written, Rav Sherira Gaon, one of the most prominent rabbis of the 10th century and a prolific author, describes a group of rabbis called the nahotei (travelers) who were responsible for traveling from the Galilee to Babylonia to transmit rabbinic teachings and strengthen the rabbinic network.

According to Sherira Gaon, Rav Dimi was one of these nahotei, tasked with bringing teachings from the rabbis of the land of Israel to Babylonia. On today’s page, he does not speak on his own behalf, but as an intermediary between two rabbinic communities.

Scholars don’t know whether the nahotei really did function in this way historically; Sherira Gaon was writing five hundred years after these events are supposed to have taken place. And even if they did transmit these teachings, scholars aren’t sure whether the nahotei were able to faithfully memorize and transmit teachings, or whether, as in a game of telephone, teachings sometimes got garbled a bit.

But whatever the historical truth, the Talmud sees these communities as connected. The discussion of the karmelit doesn’t just build up a hyper-specific definition of public property; like the halachic bridge it builds between public and private domains, it also forges a connection between two communities separated by circumstance but united in purpose. Defining public property is a truly communal activity.

Read all of Shabbat 7 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 13, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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