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Thought for the Day: Moving Stuff in a Public Domain on Shabbos

There are lots of jokes like this: Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, an honest lawyer, and an old drunk were walking along when they simultaneously spotted a hundred-dollar bill laying in the street. Who gets it?  The old drunk, of course, the other three are mythological creatures.  (My apologies to all of the honest lawyers... hello... anyone there?)

Imagine you live in a community where there is no machlokes about the eiruv and so everyone agrees where the public domain (רשות הרבים) is.  The halacha is that one may -- לכתחילה -- move stuff within a perimeter of four אמות/cubits.  (I looked for a better word than "stuff".  The only word that even came close was "paraphernalia", and no one my age who went to college can keep a straight face when using that word.  I'm sticking with "stuff".)  There are a few interesting issues regarding just that simple halacha.  First, just how big is that cubit?  Second, we have a general principle of חצי שיעור אסור מדאורייתא, so why is one allowed to carry even two cubits, let alone up to four?

The source of this halacha is a verse in the Torah (Shmos 16:29), שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו/each person should remain in his place.  This was said on Shabbos and we learn from here that a person has his own space (not just a 60s pop-psychology term).  Our sages determined that a person needs a perimeter of three cubits in which to sit, and he needs another cubit to stretch out his arms and legs; bottom line: the Torah prescribes that each person has a four cubit space that is deemed "his".  (Mishna Brura 34791, sk 1)

How big is that four cubits?  If you do a Google search, you will find that a cubit is 45.72 centimeters/18 inches.  Of course, there is no one universally accept number, but they all fall between about 16 and 22 inches.  No matter how you slice it, though, very few of us are three of those cubits tall.  I, for example, am taller than three times even that largest cubit.  In reality, though, when our sages made that estimation, they were making it for an average person and according to his cubit.  That is, his forearm, from elbow to end of middle finger; hence the name אַמָה, which is also the name of the middle finger in Hebrew.)  That being the case, the space of each person is really according his size.  Interestingly, that is only for moving things around.  To be culpable for transporting something further that four cubits in a public domain, one would have to move that object more than four regular cubits (not sized to him).  So Tom Thumb would only be allowed to move things a few inches or less (depending on which fairy tale you read), Hagrid could move stuff several feet more than you or I, but all of us would only be culpable if we through (or otherwise transported) stuff more than six to eight feet.

What about the problem of חצי שיעור אסור מדאורייתא?  There are a couple of approaches to that.  The Chavos Yair says that this is explicitly exempt from that rule.  The whole business is a גזירת הכתוב/decree of the text; you are given four cubits and that's that.  The Pri M'gaden, on the other hand, says that moving something less that four cubits just doesn't have the name "transporting".  The halacha of חצי שיעור אסור מדאורייתא is only applicable when you can actually do part of a malacha (or eat part of a forbidden substance).  The malacha of "transporting", however, is all or nothing.

Can you tell I started learning the fourth volume of Mishna Brura?


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