The Mishna in today’s daf (Eruvin 5:6, 59a) discusses the case of towns that change ownership from public to private or vice versa, and whether Eruvin need to be reconfigured in response to such changes:
‘[In the case of] a town belonging to an individual that subsequently became owned by many people, one Eruv can [be established to] effectively cover the whole [town]. [But in the case of] a town belonging to many people that subsequently became owned by an individual, one Eruv cannot [be established to] effectively cover the whole [town]’.
The question I would like to consider is what situation is being described here?
According to the Mishnat Eretz Yisrael commentary* (produced by Professor Ze’ev Safrai, along with his father Shmuel and his sister Chana), the case of a town belonging to an individual which was then owned by many people refers to a situation where a wealthy individual owned an estate where their workers and servants lived and where, at a later stage, those workers and servants became independent owners of their homes and no longer tenants of the landowner.
As mentioned, in such a case, since the Eruv was established while the estate was privately owned, the law is that the Eruv remains valid once ownership is transferred to the individual residents of the estate. Though no explicit reason is given, I would like to suggest that notwithstanding the fact that the homes are now privately owned, the residents of the estate have a memory of a unifying force that bound the estate as one space and place.
Contrasting this, the case of a town belonging to many people that subsequently became owned by an individual occurred when farmers gave their land to a wealthy individual who would provide their needs and pay them a salary. However, in such a situation the residents had a memory of how things were when they were private land owners, and this memory likely impeded the possibility of establishing one Eruv for the whole town.
Interestingly, when I started exploring this topic, I thought it was merely in response to my intellectual curiosity. However, upon reflection it dawned on me that I grew up in a neighbourhood very similar to the first scenario.
In 1713, James Brydges – later to become the first Duke of Chandos – acquired a piece of land in the Parish of Little Stanmore which was known as ‘The Canons Estate’. Soon afterwards, he built a beautiful mansion on the estate, as well as a stunning park and some lakes (nb. George Frideric Handel was his house composer for two years!). However, he lost his fortune and the mansion was then sold to other rich aristocrats who lived there in the 18th & 19th century until it was eventually sold in 1929 to the North London Collegiate School – around which time other houses were built on the Estate including the home where I grew up.
Unlike the case described in the Mishna where private workers of the estate owner became independent owners of their homes, the home where I grew up in was built after the period when the estate was privately owned. Nevertheless, the history of those surroundings meant that my neighbourhood had a memory – and one that bound the estate as one space and place.
Admittedly, it is hard to know how much communal psychology plays into the construction of communal Eruvin. However, what I do know is that places have history and memory, and that the history and memory of a place affects how people who live there relate to each other – and interact with one another.
* I am indebted to Rabbi Dr. Adam Mintz for pointing out this source in his fascinating dissertation on the history of Eruvin.