On Wednesday, Jews all over the world, both men and women, completed the study of tractate Eruvin as part of the daily project known as Daf Yomi. The next day, true to form, they started the next tractate, Pesahim. (Personally, I finished Eruvin on Erev Shabbat and only caught up to every one else today.) This particular act of tractate completion was marked by a collective sense of accomplishment (and a sigh of relief) by almost everyone I know. In fact, one of the Israeli Daf Yomi organizations threw a huge celebration last Sunday night, in anticipation of completing Eruvin.
With literally dozens of tractates making up the Babylonian Talmud, and over 2700 folio pages to learn over the course of seven years, one might wonder why the fuss over a single tractate. I think that there are a number of answers. First, at least for those of us who are numerically challenged, Eruvin is a very hard massekhta. It’s very technical, and requires a lot of thought and visual aides, just to get a basic grasp of the discussion. [I was constantly reminded, over the past three and a half months, of something someone told me when I was a yeshiva student. If you see that Rashi feels the need to provides diagrams, I was told, it means your sunk. Rashi, needless to say, provides more drawings in Eruvin then any where else that I know.] Indeed, Eruvin is grouped together with Yevamot and Niddah, as the hardest sections of the Talmud. They are known as AN”I (‘the poor one.”) Truth be told, however, I have learned Yevamot and Niddah and did not find either to be as frustrating as Eruvin.
That, however, is not the real issue.
Eruvin is challenging, it is gripping. Prima facie, Eruvin addresses the reality of the unseen. Eruvin maps out the parameters of invisibly, or minimally, determined spaces. These spaces (‘public domain,’ ‘private domain,’ ‘urban jurisdiction’) are not physically perceived, but they are no less real for their invisibility. In terms of the Laws of Shabbat, they can mean the difference between Life and Death, both physically and spiritually. The questions that the rabbis address throughout Eruvin are a mix of geometry and human nature, of the points where the sacred and the profane meet.
On a deeper level, though, this tractate grapples with the most basic issue of Jewish existence. That is because, in a world where God hides His face (Hester Panim), Jews too grapple with the unseen. We inhabit a world that apparently runs according to materialist-historical rules, yet we firmly believe that these are a façade behind which God is the Master. We live in a world of soundbites and superficiality, and run our lives with the conviction that life is grounded on meaning, values and purpose. We encounter the profane all around us, and constantly work to cultivate and heighten our awareness of the sacred (and the not yet sacred). To the outside observer we must seem mad, out of touch. Yet the unseen, the eternal is for us far more real than the tangible, though transient, reality that transfixes those who surround us.
It is not an easy life, determining the limits and extent of a world unseen. Feeling our way through the unseen, the rabbis differed sharply as to how to negotiate it. It is, however, the only way we know how to live. Eruvin exemplifies how God, through the Torah, demanded that we live; simultaneously in the transient and the eternal (which, millennia before Descartes, we knew to represent the ultimate reality).
The ability to study, apprehend and implement tractate Eruvin is the secret of Jewish survival as rooted in its covenant with the Giver of the Torah.
What more appropriate reason could there be for a celebration.
[I don’t want to digress and discuss the merits and demerits of the Daf Yomi project. Suffice it to say that I think it’s a valuable tool in setting time for regular learning, living in a modality of Talmud Torah, gaining broad knowledge, redeeming lost tractates (cf. Sefer Hasidim (Parma) par. 1(end), and as a supplement to intensive, analytic study (iyyun).]