Today’s daf continues to address the laws of carrying in the public sphere on Shabbat. Recall that one may carry in a private domain on Shabbat, but carrying an object four cubits or more in the public sphere constitutes impermissible carrying. On our daf, the rabbis take up the question of how we define a space as public or private.
Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda says that if one carries an object four cubits in a covered area of a public domain, that person has not broken the law against carrying on Shabbat. But Rav, speaking in the name of Rabbi Hiyya, disagrees. He brings an example of the wagons that the children of Israel used to transport the beams of the tabernacle through their wanderings in the desert. The space under the wagons, he says, was still considered public domain even though it was covered by the beams.
The rabbis understand that by covering a space in the public sphere, we are demarcating it in some way. But does that change the space from public to private? When a family sets up a sun cover on the beach, it is presumed that they’ve delineated that space as private just for them. No one else on the beach would consider going to sit under that cover, even though the beach itself is public property.
On the other hand, consider the huppah, the wedding canopy. Like the sun cover, the wedding canopy is closed overhead and open on all sides, and demarcates a special space for the bride and groom. But unlike the sun cover, we are meant to “invade” the space under the huppah. We focus closely on what is taking place beneath it and allow family and friends to enter to offer blessings as part of the wedding service. Indeed, we say that the huppah represents the openness of the Jewish home to guests. While the sun canopy seems to delineate the space beneath it as private, the huppah, though it looks almost exactly like a sun canopy, is harder to define.
The complexity of distinguishing between public and private space is particularly resonant for us in the modern era. Most of us are lucky enough to live in clearly defined private structures that offer walls, window coverings, and plenty of physical privacy. On the other hand, through technology, we can ironically be more present in each other’s private spaces than we have ever been. We can (and do) video conference from our homes — our private spaces on display for the wider world. And social media allows us to share details of our lives with scads of strangers at the click of a button. In some ways, boundaries between the public and private spheres have never been harder to delineate.
The rabbis’ conversation in the Talmud acknowledges this complexity. They note that the tabernacle beams did not totally cover the public space under the wagons. Transported in stacks, the beams had spaces between them that were three handbreadths wide. They hint that perhaps this is the reason that the space beneath the wagons was deemed public: it wasn’t totally covered. Today as technology complicates our notions of public and private, the rabbis’ debate over what makes a space public seems more relevant than ever before. As we move ever faster into a world where distinctions between public and private space are blurred, perhaps we would do well to engage in a similar debate.