Massekhet Eiruvin - An Introduction to the Tractate

March 10, 2013



See that God has given you the Shabbat, therefore He has given you on the sixth day the bread of two days; remain every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.
If you turn away your foot because of the Shabbat, from pursuing your business on My holy day; and call the Shabbat a delight, and the holy of God honorable; and shall honor it by not doing your usual ways, nor pursuing your business, nor speakingof it;then you shall delight yourself in God, and I will make you ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father; for the mouth of God has spoken it.
Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the Shabbat day, nor do any work; but make the Shabbat day holy, as I commanded your fathers.
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Tractate Eiruvin, in its entirety, is an elaboration and conclusion of the subject matter discussed in tractate Shabbat, as it focuses on one aspect of the halakhot of Shabbat that was not comprehensively elucidated.  Tractate Shabbat opened with a discussion of the prohibited labor of carrying out on Shabbat. Tractate Eiruvin analyzes the details of the rabbinic laws that apply to this act. This prohibited labor is unique in that it is not an inherently creative act; rather, it is merely the act of transferring an object from one domain to another.
In essence, the labor of carrying out highlights the significance of Shabbat as a day of rest; not only a day during which specific activities are prohibited, but also a day on which a premium is placed on quiet, rest and a sense of relaxation. Shabbat demands that one take a break from the everyday hustle-and-bustle of moving and carrying from the public to the private domain and vice versa. Similarly, the public thoroughfare calms down from its weekday business and trade. This is accomplished by the creation of domains that are unique to Shabbat. That is, they do not correspond to the domains in force with regard to the rules of commerce, nor those of ritual purity. Transference between different domains is forbidden, as is carrying in the public domain.
The laws of Shabbat recognize four basic domains:
·         A private domain
·         A public domain
·         A karmelit, which is an intermediate domain, neither public nor private
·         An exempt domain, which is not really a domain at all
In effect, there are only three domains on Shabbat: the private and the public, both of which are domains by Torah law, and the karmelit, which is a domain by rabbinic law. All other areas fall into the category of exempt domain.
The private domain is an area of four handbreadths by four handbreadths; a handbreadth is the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger, or slightly more. A private domain is separated from the area around it by walls that are at least ten handbreadths high. In terms of the halakhot of Shabbat, an area is a private domain even if it is open to the public and available for its use.
The public domain is a thoroughfare at least sixteen cubits wide; a cubit is the distance from the elbow to the end of the index finger. According to some opinions, for an area to be defined as a public domain it must also be frequented by more than 600,000 people daily. The halakhot of the public domain apply only up to a height of ten handbreadths.
According to Torah law, these are the two primary domains. The Sages added a third, the karmelit, whose legal status by rabbinic law is that of a public domain. The karmelit is at least four handbreadths by four handbreadths and not surrounded by walls. Examples of this domain are fields, lakes, etc.
An exempt domain is an area of less than four handbreadths by four handbreadths. In addition, the airspace above ten handbreadths in a public domain or a karmelit is an exempt domain, where the halakhot of carrying do not apply.
For many years, these domains constituted the only restrictions with regard to carrying out and movement on Shabbat. After the Jewish people settled and began to develop their land, the rabbinic leadership grew concerned that in the course of mundane living in towns and villages, Shabbat was not accorded its due. In particular, the distinctions between the domains of Shabbat were obfuscated; their theoretical parameters did not correspond to the actual utilization of those areas, and the domains and their halakhot were interchanged. After all, a private domain full of people and activity could appear, at least superficially, indistinguishable from a public domain. Moreover, people were able to engage in most of their typical weekday activities without actually violating any of the Torah prohibitions. Consequently, the idea of Shabbat as a day of rest was not realized.
Already in the First Temple era, the rabbinic Sages began to issue decrees intended to raise the general level of consciousness concerning Shabbat observance. These decrees fall into the category of shevut, prohibitions by rabbinic law designed to enhance the character of Shabbat as a day of rest. Such decrees severely limited the permitted uses of the private domains and placed renewed emphasis on the plain meaning of the passage in Exodus that is the source for all of the Shabbat domains: “Let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” The Sages’ decrees limited the designation of private domains to those places that actually belong to an individual and his family. Private domains utilized by more than one individual, e.g., a courtyard shared by several households, as well as the alleyways and paths into which courtyards open, were rendered public domains by rabbinic law.
The decrees issued by the Sages are the starting point for tractate Eiruvin. The tractate attempts to arrive at practical solutions for the problems created by these restrictions. The objective is not to abrogate the decrees, but rather to discover alternative methods to underscore the differences between the public and private domains. Similarly, the tractate attempts to discover how one could go beyond the Shabbat limits while maintaining the framework that requires limiting travel on Shabbat. The myriad ordinances that constitute the bulk of tractate Eiruvin work within the framework of the established principles of the halakhot of Shabbat. Within the halakhic framework, there is extensive use of a series of abstract concepts, e.g., domain, limit, partition, and space. Although these principles are often the basis for stringencies and restrictions, they can also serve as the basis for far-reaching leniencies. The two primary concepts analyzed in the framework of tractate Eiruvin are the essence of a partition and the essence of a residence.
The partition is a fundamental component of domains, alleyways, courtyards, houses, and more. Clearly a solid wall with no openings is a partition; however, in most cases the demarcation is less clear cut. At times, the wall is not sturdy enough to serve as a partition. At times, there are windows, doorways, and other spaces in the wall. At times, the wall does not cover the entire opening. It was therefore necessary to create broader criteria that apply to all forms of partitions, despite their quantitative and qualitative differences: Concepts like lavud, which determines that objects less than three handbreadths apart are considered joined; gode, through which an incomplete partition can be extended upward or downward; havot, through which a cross beam is lowered, and others that broaden the parameters of the concept of partition to include incomplete partitions, e.g., cross beam, side post, form of a doorway, and upright boards.
In a similar vein, it must be established what is considered one’s fixed residence. Here too, there are clear-cut examples with regard to which there is no uncertainty. One who eats and sleeps and remains in a house that is his alone, certainly has a residence that is exclusively his. However, reality is a bit more complex, as in practice most people do not live alone and do not spend all their lives in one place. Therefore, it was necessary to create a broader abstract definition of the concept of fixed residence and establish when it is that several people have the legal status of one person, where family relations and dependence unify them, and to what degree must one be tied to or be present at a certain place in order to be considered a resident. Once these definitions are determined, the simplistic distinction between resident and guest is no longer necessarily significant. The concept of one’s residence can, on the one hand, be restricted to the individual alone, while on the other hand it can be expanded to include others. Based on the expansive interpretation of the concept of residence, the possibility of establishing the joining of the courtyards, the merging of the alleyways, and the joining of the Shabbat boundaries becomes feasible.
While some of these solutions might appear to be a disingenuous attempt to circumvent the fundamental halakhah, in fact, life in accordance with halakhic principles requires their formulation and definition in an abstract and expansive manner. Especially in the case of eiruv, where the original prohibitions are rabbinic in nature, there is room for far-reaching leniency in implementing these halakhic principles.
The halakhot in this tractate are not merely theoretical. Hundreds of eiruvin have been established in cities and towns throughout the United States and around the world based on real-world application of the principles found in this tractate.
[Some additional online resources that may be of help while studying Massekhet Eiruvin, particularly with the definitions of the technical terms, include:]

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.
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