Sunday, December 18, 2005

Eruvin: The "Constellation of the Calf"

The area of a city is squared for the purposes of calculating the zone in which carrying is permitted on Shabbos. On 55a we learn that the square of the city is aligned north to south with "the constellation of the calf" (Taurus). The association of the calf with an astrological sign suggests that the worship of the golden calf may itself have been an attempt by a lost people who felt abandoned by their leader to find a true direction (i.e., north). It is an imaginative leap; perhaps more reckless than bold, but there it is. It is hard to imagine that the rabbis would use an astrological symbol (an idolotrous touchstone!) to align the boundaries of their cities. But perhaps their choice was between providing directions that might be misunderstood or using (profane) references that were commonly known, and they did what they had to do.

The rabbis are certainly concerned lest their leniencies lead to anarchy. Leniencies are permitted if the origin of a law is Rabbinic, but there are several instances when the rabbis chose a stringent approach "lest children come to think that" the absence of a mark here would lead to an absence of the same mark in other places (e.g., 59a).

In these pages, concern for the authority of the teacher continues (and I'll come back to that), but another element has entered the equation: the nature of the unlearned. Drunkenness is more common on Shabbas (61a). Brash and irreligious people are worried over, so that the Gemara even asks at one point, "Is a brash person in the same class as an irreligious person?" (69a). And the occasional idolater moves next door, compromising the sanctity of common courtyards but nevertheless convenient to have around when someone is needed to tote some hot water on Shabbas to minister to a freshly circumcised infant. One might rub shoulders with all sorts, and these rabbis might well have preferred a ghetto (or their own State), if it were only an option in their time. When one reads "If the idolater [who shared a residence with a Jewish person] died on the Sabbath . . ." (69a) does one suppress a smile, or perhaps wink, or does one tastelessly relish the notion?

Yet the twin foci of this tractate remain eruvin and the authority of the teacher. There is the question of whether a disciple may render a legal decision in his teacher's vicinity (62b), which leads to the question of whether the disciple may render a decision in the lifetime of his teacher (63a). [ArtScroll notes that "the distance required for a talmid chaveir to be permitted to render decisions is three parsaos, the area of the Israelites' encampment during the time of Moses (which is equivalent to 24,000 amos or between 6.8 and 9 miles)."] Thus concerns of both distance and time continue to relate to both eruvin and teachers.

A comic calculation of distance occurs in a discussion of the distance an intoxicated Torah scholar must travel before rendering a verdict (64b). Rabban Gamliel had consumed a reviis of Italian wine before being approached by a fellow who needed to have a vow annulled and he had the poor fellow walk behind him for three mils while Gamliel rode his donkey. ("Travel dissipates the effects of wine.") Rami bar Abba taught that "Someone who walks need only travel one mil." But humor aside, the serious point of the story is that a scholar must have clear head to find "grounds for regret" in order to annul a vow.