One of the main themes of this chapter is the special dispensation that Chazal gave to allow travelers to Yerushalayim for the chagim to draw water from wells for their animals.
The sides of these water-pits or wells were usually too steep for livestock to walk down to and drink, in contrast to people who were nimble enough to do so.
Seeing as the pit or well was surrounded by walls and more than 10 אמות wide, it was defined as a private domain, and carrying the water from it to the public domain outside was thus forbidden.
To include an area around the well large enough for the animal to stand inside and drink in this private domain, Chazal made do with 4 double posts on each corner.
Each post was 6 handbreadths wide in each of its 2 perpendicular directions, forming a half square or widened L shape.
Although usually a private domain needs to be enclosed by proper partitions, with more closed space than open space, or at least a צורת הפתח, in the case of the special public mitzva of aliya laregel (going up to Yerushalayim for the festivals,) Chazal were lenient.
It seems clear from Daf 20a that this leniency is based on the fact that this method is already an acceptable form of enclosure on a biblical level, otherwise Chazal would not be able to create such a method on their own to change the status of a רשות הרבים דאורייתא. This goes so far as to make someone who throws someone from a רשות הרבים into this enclosure liable to the biblical penalties prescribed for desecrating the Shabbos.
The implication of this is that the area around the wells is considered a fully-fledged public domain.
We have mentioned a few times already the view of Rashi (Eruvin 6a) that to be considered a public domain, a city needs to have at least 600000 people in it.
It is hard to imagine that the rural villages or city-outskirts where these wells were situated met this definition, which raises considerable difficulty with Rashi’s view.
It is possible that we are referring to the wells outside large population centers which were extremely crowded and busy, but even then, it seems a little far-fetched to imagine 600000 people frequenting them- Even during the busy period of aliya laregel, the population was unlikely to be concentrated in one such location at any time- further analysis is thus needed.
In the earlier dapim of the Masechta, we spent time examining the differences between biblical and rabbinical laws, and where they are found in the hierarchy.
We saw that on the one hand, we are usually stricter with biblical mitzvos, something we see all over through various halachik principles, but on the other hand, sometimes Chazal were more stringent with rabbinical laws in order to strengthen their authority.
On daf 21b, we see the incredible drasha of Rava, based on Koheles, that one should be even more careful with דברי סופרים ( “the words of the scribes”- a term usually used for laws made after the time of Moshe, but itself requiring its own discussion) than with the words of the Torah.
This is because there is a range of positive and negative commandments in Torah, with a range of punishments, but when it comes to דברי סופרים , they are all treated equally severely to the point that העובר על דברי סופרים חייב מיתה – one who goes against the words of the sofrim is liable to death.
Given that the maximum punishment carried out in court for one who transgresses rabbinical laws was generally מכת מרדות (lashes for rebellion,) lower on the hierarchy of punishments than the 39 lashes given for biblical prohibitions under the correct strict conditions, this statement seems rather exaggerated, to put it mildly.
We see a similar phrase elsewhere, regarding one who intentionally puts off saying the evening shema till after midnight, and the attack on Rabbi Tarfon by robbers while sitting to say shema was attributed to his failure to follow the authoritative ruling of Beis Hillel who hold that this is not necessary. )See also the Mishna Sanhedrin 88b regarding Zakein Mamrei, and the Mishna in A.Z. 29b)
Furthermore, on our daf, we are told the incredible story of Rabbi Akiva who used this principle to justify his risking dehydration in captivity to use the little water he had for the rabbinical mitzva of נטילת ידים!
This extreme example might be the key to how to understand this entire concept- after all, we all know that one is only liable to given up one’s life for 3 of the worst biblical transgressions. We also know that one is often permitted to transgress rabbinical prohibitions even for curative purposes where danger to life is not involved.
This makes it virtually undisputable that this is not a normative halachik concept, but rather an idea, which might occasionally be applied halachically, but whose main purpose is to teach us the pivotal role of rabbinic law in Torah life. Specifically because of the many leniencies Chazal themselves applied to their decrees, it is necessary for them to remind us both in general and in certain specific cases how rabbinical law, routed in Torah law as it is (we will hopefully have future opportunity to discuss in what way this is the case ,) essentially stems from the same divine authority.
Why Chazal choose to highlight this in certain cases specifically requires careful study, but we will leave that for another time.
Coming back to the issue we raised with Rashi’s view that a true public domain on a biblical level must have 600,000 people at a minimum, perhaps we can relook at the פסי ביראות and why they need to be already validated as a partition on a biblical level.
Our assumption was that this must be because otherwise, chazal would not have the ability to treat them leniently in the case of the wells.
Perhaps, however, this assumption is not fully necessary?
There are times when Chazal do treat rabbinical laws as strictly or even more strictly than biblical ones. As we have seen above, and even times when the usual rule of אין גוזרין גזירה לגזירה does not apply ( see גזירה שמט יעלה הים שירטון as a possible example as well as recently on daf 20a “גזירה שמא יאמרו עירוב מועיל לבין הפסין” )
Perhaps, when it comes to something as novel as creating a new type of partition, Chazal were unwilling to do this even in an area which is only rabbinically treated like a public domain, out of concern that this would become a generally accepted type of partition even in cases they did not intend it to be relied on, maybe even in a real public domain?
This opens the possibility that the typical area around a well might indeed not be a true רשות הרבים according to Rashi!
The problem is that Rashi himself seems to say explicitly that we are dealing with a true רשות הרבים and true רשות היחיד-there are also numerous sugyos that imply that we are dealing with a true רשות הרבים , including on our daf itself- I think that we might be able to work It out, but that’s is for today!
These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.