Lechi, Korah, and Tagelet: Constructing Ei-Ruv of One’s Own

I began learning Masekhet Eiruvin in the first few weeks of our twins’ lives. Given their positions in the womb, Daniel and I even joked that we might name the girls Lechi and Korah, the terms used in the Talmud for the vertical and horizontal posts that must be affixed to an alleyway to symbolically close it off from the public domain in order to permit a person to carry there on Shabbat. The tractate as a whole deals with the rabbinic decrees enacted to legally permit carrying from one domain to another. The laws of Shabbat speak in terms of four domains: public, private, a Carmelit (neither public nor private) and a Makom Petur (“free space”), which is not really a domain at all. The rabbis teach that it is forbidden to carry from one domain to another, and it is also forbidden to carry more than a minimal distance within the public domain.

I thought about the distinctions between these domains during the three days I spent in the maternity ward at Shaare Tzedek hospital following the birth. I was in a small room which I shared with two other women. Like me, they were immediately post-partum; unlike me, they were Haredi and each had at least six other kids at home. We were separated from one another by colorful curtains that hung from tracks on the ceiling; the tracks surrounded the perimeters of each of our beds, with room for just the beds, a small bassinet (or two), and a nightstand. When all the curtains were drawn open, as they were when the cleaner came on Friday morning, the illusion of three separate “private domains” was shattered, and it became clear just how close we all were to one another. Even with the curtains drawn, I could hear everything they said to their visitors, and they could overhear each of my transatlantic phone conversations in which I gushed to my family and closest friends about the miraculous birth of our daughters.

            I spent many hours on the phone during those few days in the hospital, except Shabbat of course, when the entire ward was on a pre-set Shabbat clock. Every two hours, both night and day, all the overhead fluorescent lights would suddenly flash on, and a pre-recorded voice over the loudspeaker would tell all the women to come to the nursery to fetch and feed their babies. Given that I was nursing not one baby but two, I could rarely finish feeding them both before the lights went off again, and so I was hopelessly out of sync with the Shabbat lights. Whenever I managed to time it right and the lights were on while I was nursing, I would read aloud from the daf, conscious of the Haredi women who could overhear every word and who surely regarded me as a curiosity, if not a freak. <

In those early pages of Eiruvin, I was struck by the Talmud’s discussion of the term Dyumdin, which refers to the double pillars that were placed around public wells in order to make them into private domains in which it would be permissible to draw and carry water on Shabbat. At the beginning of the second chapter (18a), the Talmud records a discussion in which the rabbis try to determine the etymology of this word, which they assert comes from the conjoining of the Greek prefix Dyu, meaning two, with the Hebrew word Amud, meaning pillar.  They then consider concepts that relate to the prefix “Dyu,” including Dyufra — trees that yield fruit two times a year. They also discuss the two faces (Dyu Partsufin) of Adam, who was created with one face in front and one face in back, and was then split down the middle to become male and female. I thought about our twin daughters, created not from one egg but from two. They look as different from one another as night from day: Liav has blonde hair and an egg-shaped head and looks just like her older brother; her sister Tagel has dark skin and dark hair and big blue eyes. When I first held a naked and squirming Tagel, I said to the obstetrician, “Are you sure she’s mine?” “Geveret,” he responded, “She’s still attached at the umbilical cord.” As indeed she was. The miracle of two—or Dyu—continues to astonish me each time I look at them lying side by side.

            Thus far I have learned four and a half chapters of Eiruvin aloud with the two girls, generally while nursing. (In fact, this is the reason I refuse to “double nurse” both girls at once even though I spend about eight hours a day feeding them; I always need a hand free for my Gemara or my iphone.) Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that it is in Eiruvin (54b) that we find a midrash on the verse, “A loving doe, a gracrful mountain goat. Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be infatuated with love of her always” (Proverbs 5:19). As they often do when confronted with the Bible’s erotic imagery, the rabbis interpret this verse as referring to Torah. Just as a doe (Ayelet in Hebrew) has a narrow womb and is beloved unto its mate each time like the very first time, so too are words of Torah equally special the first time they are studied and on every subsequent encounter. (This midrash is the reason I could not name one of our girls Ayelet, even though it’s one of my favorite names.) Moreover, the rabbis go on to explain, just as a breast is available with delicious milk every time the baby wants to suckle, so too is Torah always available for those who want to savor its rich insights. I take comfort in the fact that my daughters not just learned Torah “with their mother’s milk,” but that the milk they imbibed was in fact Torah.

            This midrash on the verse from Proverbs is part of a longer discussion about the value of learning Torah and how one should do so. These are among my two favorite pages in the entire Talmud, but they were particularly resonant when I re-encountered them again this week in my daf yomi study. The Talmud speaks of the importance of studying Torah aloud: “Rabbi Eliezer had a student who used to learn Torah in a whisper. After three years, he forgot everything he had learned” (54a). The same passage teaches that “one who walks along the way and has no company should preoccupy himself with Torah” (53a). These passages guided me when I sought a way to incorporate daf yomi study into the busy life of a nursing mother of twins. I decided that I would read the entire daf aloud to the girls while nursing them in the morning. Instead of proceeding to read Steinsaltz’ commentary, as I used to do when I had more time, I now put the girls in their double stroller and go out for a walk while listening to a recorded shiur on my iphone. Each shiur lasts 45 minutes, which is exactly the time it takes me to walk back and forth for the entire length of the Tayelet, the beautiful promenade overlooking the Old City (and the source of Tagel’s new nickname, Tagelet). This combination of reading the daf aloud while nursing, and learning Torah while pushing the stroller along the way, seems like a fitting way to follow the guidelines for learning set forth in tractate Eiruvin.<

            In addition to learning the daf aloud with the girls, I also spend many  hours leyning aloud to them. Just a few weeks after they were born I leyned much of the longer double parsha of Vayakhel Pekudei, a review of parshat Teruma which they had heard in the hospital. Generally considered one of the most boring sections of the Torah, the vast tracts of Mishkan material in the book of Shmot pose an exciting challenge to anyone who tries to leyn them because the same words recur again and again with different cantillations, and it is difficult to keep it all straight. At the same time, it seems to me that more than any other section of the Torah, the description of the Mishkan must be leyned with the utmost precision. After all, the Mishkan is described in the most specific of dimensional detail, dictated from God on high: "And on the front side, to the east, fifty cubits: fifteen cubits of hangings on the one flank, with their three posts and their three sockets, and fifteen cubits of hangings on the other flank–on each side of the gate of the enclosure–with their three posts and their three sockets" (Exodus 38: 13-15). In reading these verses, we symbolically re-enact the building of this structure in accordance with God’s precise commands. We are constructing in words the Mishkan that the Isrealites built in the desert. As I practiced parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei with the twins at the breast, I was reminded that words construct verbal edifices. Torah is the blueprint God used in creating the world, as we learn in Breishit Rabbah, and so the way we read Torah determines the way we construct the world. If we mispronounce even one syllable of Vayakhel-Pekudei, or if we read, say, forty cubits instead of fifty, then the entire edifice could come tumbling down.

            The critical importance of precision in language is a topic discussed in tractate Eiruvin. The Talmud contrasts the people of Judea, who used language precisely, with their counterparts in the Galilee, who did not (53a-b). If a man in Judea wished to sell a cloak, for instance, he would describe the color as being “like beets on the ground.” A wool-seller in the Galilee, however, would pronounce the word for wool (amar) so imprecisely that it was impossible to know whether he was referring to wool, a donkey (hamar),wine (hamra), or a sheep (eymar). It stands to reason that the leyning in Judea surpassed that of the Galilee, though the Talmud does not say so explicitly.

            As I was trying to master the Torah’s complicated and repetitious description of the Mishkan’s construction, our son Matan received the gift of a toolkit from his visiting grandmother. His favorite tools are the screwdriver and drill, which he insists on carrying with him at all times. He refuses to eat meals without the screwdriver in hand. Often he attempts to screw in his food, thereby driving us crazy. And to our further consternation, the battery-operated drill makes a noise whenever the trigger is pulled. A delighted Matan walks around the house saying, “Push the button! Push the button! Drill on. Drill off. Drill makes noise. Too loud!” Often it seems that the one who is too loud is not the drill but Matan, who now has a habit of repeating everything he hears, presumably in a typical toddler’s attempt to hone his own language skills so that he might speak as precisely as his parents, or as the Talmud’s Judeans. His language drills amuse us to no end. Last week he said to his Ganenet, “Don’t drill the babies,” which is what we told him one Shabbat afternoon when we turned around to find him aiming his favorite toy at Tagel’s forehead.

The parshiot of the Mishkan and Matan’s obsession with his drill coincided with our move to a new home last month. Daniel, to his credit, was responsible for everything relating to the renovation of our new apartment. I do not handle transitions well under the best of circumstances, but we’ve had a particularly rough time with our new neighbors, who are upset about the disturbances caused by the renovation (even louder drilling noises) and who seem to seek out every opportunity to pick a fight with us. It is hard to imagine ever having the kind of neighborly relations that we had in our previous apartment, where our upstairs neighbor babysat for us when I had to run out to the store, and our downstairs neighbor lent us eggs and milk when the store was closed. It was even more difficult to imagine the kind of relationship between neighbors described in the opening chapters of tractate Eiruvin, where all the houses that open up into a given courtyard collectively set aside a loaf of bread in one common container stored in one of the houses, thereby showing that they all have a common share in each of the houses and can carry freely in and out of the courtyard. Such neighborly cooperation seems a far cry from our current situation — though we remain hopeful that matters will improve before the daf yomi cycle returns to these issues in Bava Batra.

In the meantime, Liav, Tagel, and I are eager to see what lies in store for us in the second half of tractate Eiruvin, which we will surely learn to the accompaniment of Matan’s drill. I also just signed up to leyn all of parshat Naso, so soon the Mishkan will be not just built but dedicated, as I hope our home will be as well. May the words we speak within its walls be words of Torah, and may we encounter serenity and understanding in the days and years and pages that lie ahead. 

3 thoughts on “Lechi, Korah, and Tagelet: Constructing Ei-Ruv of One’s Own

  1. Avi says:

    Great post. It would be great if you could one time post your understanding of why we learn torah, what purpose does the study of talmud serve. I would be very interested in reading your perspective.


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