Mishnat Hashvua: Eruvin 4:2

What if you get caught outside the Shabbat boundary on Friday afternoon?

It happened once that [a group of Jews traveling by boat on Friday afternoon] did not reach port before dark. They asked Rabban Gamliel, “May we disembark?” He told them, “You may, for I have already calculated and seen that we were within the boundary before it grew dark.”

Comments

Rabbinic law permitted a Jew to walk up to two thousand cubits from the city on Shabbat. This distance could be extended by placing a meal at the limit before Shabbat, thereby extending one’s domain another two thousand cubits. However, if one wound up outside the Shabbat limits, he or she was supposed to stay put, moving no more than four cubits (about seven feet) until the end of Shabbat. Our Mishnah tells a story in which the travelers arrive in port after Shabbat begins. Are they considered within the city, and therefore permitted to disembark and move around, or must they stay put on the boat until Saturday night? Rabban Gamliel, who employed some sort of mechanical device for calculating distances (as recounted in the Talmud), gave a lenient answer—they had entered the two-thousand-cubit limit of the port before Shabbat began and could therefore disembark.

Questions

  1. What do you suppose is the purpose of the two-thousand-cubit restriction on Shabbat movement?
  2. Do the loopholes of Eruvin undermine this purpose, or do they allow greater freedom and enjoyment on Shabbat?
  3. In our day, do mechanical adaptations, such as using timers, undermine Shabbat or reinforce its legal significance and enjoyment?
  4. What does this story tell us about the relationship between Rabban Gamliel and his fellow voyagers? Do you think Rabban Gamliel made his decision based on his objective calculations, or was he motivated to find an avenue of exemption for his traveling companions?