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Keep Calm and Carry On

Shabbat is designed to be a day of rest, relaxation, and communal prayer.  Due to halakhic restrictions on their carrying items from one place to another, however, observant Jews can become prisoners in their own homes.  The rabbis, therefore, wherever they could, came up with a way to circumvent this issue: the eruv.  The word literally means “mixture”; and views on the eruv are themselves mixed and hotly debated.  The Yeshiva University Museum now has an exhibition devoted to the eruv called, “It’s a Thin Line: The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond.”  The museum launched the exhibition with a day-long symposium reflecting the debates that the eruv has occasioned. 

Relevant Links
Eruv  Jewish Ideas Daily. Today’s eruv-builders have stretched the boundaries of communal living—and of the halakhic imagination.
Lower East Lines  Stephanie Butnick, Tablet. Can observant Jews be coaxed into a neighborhood without an eruv? 
Enemies of the Eruv  Gil Student, Torah Musings. The theory of an eruv is that it joins homes together into a communal area. There is a problem, however, when the community includes Jews who do not wish to be a part of the eruv.

Among the Sabbath laws is an injunction against transferring an object from a private to a public space or moving it within the public space itself.  The prohibited activity is often simply called "carrying."  The activity is heavily regulated, and the rules are complex.  Halakhic literatures are occupied by questions of how to define a public or private space and what constitutes a transfer.

For purposes of this idea of “carrying,” the rabbinic discussions generally identify four types of space: reshut harabim, or public space; reshut hayahid, or private space; makom patur, an exempt area; and karmelit, related to the word for “garden,” which is legislatively treated as a kind of limbo, a public space that nevertheless has some characteristics of private space.  The karmelit is the only space around which the construction of an eruv is permitted.  The eruv’s artificial architecture—often consisting merely of poles and wires—defines the confines of the space as private and, thus, allows carrying within its bounds.

Nowadays, it is not unusual for an area with a large Jewish population have an eruv.  Manhattan's eruv covers over half of the island, stretching from Harlem in the north to Greenwich Village in the south.  In recent years eruvim have sprung up in cities across the globe, from San Diego to Vienna.  But the halakhic legality of the contemporary eruv is not universally accepted.  Though many observant Jews embrace the eruv, a large swathe of Orthodox Jewry will not use it. 

Yeshiva University Museum’s inaugural symposium, titled “The Mystery and History of the Eruv,” covered the history of the eruv fairly quickly.  In a presentation on the theoretical basis of the eruv, Lawrence Schiffman described the fierce debate over the device between ancient Jewish sects—the Sadducees, who rejected the entire eruv project, and the Pharisees who promoted the eruv’s use.  Charlotte Fonrobert addressed the practical application of the eruv in a more recent context, describing its use, championed by Rabbi Selig Bamberger, in 19th century Würzburg, Germany. 

Jeffrey Gurock brought the discussion rapidly into the present time, analyzing controversies over the eruv in 20th century Manhattan.  The demographic that now depends on the eruv, he said, consists of what may be called "eruv moms"—because mothers with young children are often the primary victims of an area with no eruv.  While their husbands attend synagogue on the Sabbath, they are stuck indoors.  Forbidden from transferring their children outside their private homes or shouldering their weight in the streets, they suffer from the inevitable result: Sabbath cabin-fever.  The eruv allows mothers and their young children to join the congregation.    

In the afternoon, the symposium turned to the future. There were pragmatic projections of eruv building, in which Elliot Malkin proposed replacing wires with lasers and weekly checkers with cameras.  Isaac Cohen made sociological observations about the ways of making Jewish space.  The final speaker, author and law professor Thane Rosenbaum, examined the philosophical implications of the different notions of Jewish private and public spaces, touching on the question of what it means, as a Jew, to be an insider or an outsider.

The new exhibition itself builds on Rosenbaum's theme, exploring the role the eruv plays within American Jewish culture and the ways in which that role differs from the eruv’s historical function.  At the entry to the exhibit, one is greeted by a wall of images and biblical quotes that express and emphasize the restriction on Sabbath “carrying.”  Then, before visitors are presented with any details of the ways in which the rabbis circumvented this restriction, they are offered the primary Jewish proof of the necessity of such circumvention—not mothers with babies but hot cholent.  In pre-modern Europe, Jews did not have private ovens.  Individual families warmed their Sabbath lunches in a common place: the premises of the local baker.  The eruv provided the mechanism that allowed them to carry their cholent home.  

Breaking from the historical background, the exhibit, escorting visitors with a vertical wire tied taut above their heads, introduces the subject of the Manhattan eruv.  The exhibit begins with some of the oldest disagreements and earliest designs, then proceeds through the evolution of the eruv to date.  Where the exhibition excels is in giving a sense of the social impact of an eruv, running televised interviews with rabbis and builders and including Wyatt Cenac's wry segment on the Daily Show describing the effort to prevent the construction of an eruv in the Hamptons—an effort led by secular Jews seeking to keep the Orthodox out.

At the exhibit’s end, visitors are met by a wall of different quotes that attempt to make them confront the profound implications of the boundaries of private space.  The quotes are not talmudic or rabbinic, neither biblical nor historic.  Instead, they represent the voices of current residents of Teaneck and Great Neck, Passaic, and Queens, all remarking on the ways in which an eruv has changed their lives—by freeing the otherwise fastened, allowing the infirm and elderly, as well as mothers and children, to experience the Sabbath world outside their homes.  When an eruv is built, they say, synagogues become accessible and friends closer.  Perhaps not so ironically, an eruv, by enclosing a space, unchains the immobile and breaks down walls. 

Dov Lerner is a Tikvah Fellow.  For the past two years he has been a rabbinic intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue.  He is in his final year of studies toward rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University. 

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Hadassah on November 13, 2012 at 6:08 am (Reply)
Prof. Lawrence Schiffman's talk at the opening of the exhibit is being serialized on his blog. The first post is at
Carl on November 13, 2012 at 6:14 am (Reply)
A classic example of how a minor interpretable point can destroy the idea behind the Sabbath.
DF on November 13, 2012 at 9:12 am (Reply)
Well-written review
Eitan on November 13, 2012 at 9:24 am (Reply)
I think the laws of Eruv are a perfect example of how elastic Halakha can be when rabbinic leaders decide there is a pressing problem that demands a solution.

What is an eruv? A wall made out of gates! That is very cool.
Margaret Olin on November 13, 2012 at 10:19 am (Reply)
Be sure to come up to New Haven and see the exhibition, Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv, taking place in three (3!) venues on the Yale University campus. Interpretations of the eruv by ten artists. Until December.
Steve Brizel on November 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm (Reply)
Just curious-any discussion of the role of the Chazon Ish ZL with respect to the development of eruvin in Europe and post war Orthodoxy? Like it or not, the work of the CI was a huge factor in the building of eruvin all over the world.
hana blume on November 13, 2012 at 6:36 pm (Reply)
An eruv that covers half of Manhatten obliterates the concept of the distinction between private and public spaces and invites contempt for rules that are maintained at the same time that they seem to be cynically evaded. Wouldn't it be more honest to hold that this is a halachic injunction that can no longer be maintained? Surely there's a halachic way of doing that.
Sylvia herskowitz on November 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm (Reply)
The symposium was excellent and the exhibition should be seen by every Jewish. Comm.unity in NY. This coming Thursday at 6 the curators are leading a free tour. It will be a highly worthwhile experience.
Dovid on November 14, 2012 at 5:00 am (Reply)
Sure I know that there are halachic issues and those are interesting. However saying that the lack of an eruv makes one a prisoner is silly and insulting. It is like saying that Shabbat makes one a prisoner.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof on November 14, 2012 at 9:54 am (Reply)
Jews observed the laws of the Torah for millenia without the need to circumvent them. It is clear that during Talmudic times no one carried in the public domain on Shabbat. It is a shame that a Biblical commandment has been declared "impossible to keep" and effectively undermined by a series of leniencies and loopholes that, in the final analysis, are extraordinarily tenuous and questionable.
Reb Yid on November 14, 2012 at 12:10 pm (Reply)
As Rabbi Maroof is well aware, an eruv does not circumvent the Biblical injunction against carrying. It "circumvents" a rabbinic injunction which adds to the Biblical injunction. The Torah prohibits carrying on major streets and intercity thoroughfares. The sages extended this prohibition to all unenclosed areas. The eruv, a legal device created by the sages themselves, permits carrying in these latter areas. In other words, the same sages who prohibited carrying in regular streets permitted carrying with the use of the eruv. No Biblical prohibition is circumvented. Disputes about the halachic legitimacy of the eruv center around the proper use of the various types of partitions, as well as whether the area in question qualifies as Biblically prohibited (i.e. eruv ineffective) or Rabbinically prohibited (eruv effective).
David Levavi on November 25, 2012 at 1:52 pm (Reply)
Underlying the discussion of eruv is the assumption of an urban or suburban environment and Sabbath synagogue attendance. Our family did a great deal of camping and hiking when the kids were growing up and Shabbat often found us at a wilderness campsite, sometimes quite remote.

We allowed the kids to swim but not to canoe or fish. We hiked longer distances on shabbat than the rabbis allow but we avoided serious overland treks and didn't carry water. Mostly we lay around and read our various books just as we would if we were at home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Are millions of acres of lakes, mountains and trees designated "forever wild" reshut rabim? Reshut yakhid? Something in-between? Do our learned rabbis distinguish between state forest and federal forest?

Car-camping downstate or in the Jersey hill country, we ran a string around the campsite for an eruv. We disconnected the battery in the car where we stored food so the light didn’t go on when we opened the doors or the trunk. In the Adirondacks, where we brought ourselves and our gear in by canoe and by horse-drawn wagon over old logging roads and food and garbage had to be bagged and hoisted by rope into the air out of bears' reach between meals, the matter of eruv never came up.

Is a camping shabbos a goishe shabbos? Recall that the obligation to keep the Sabbath day holy requires not only that we rest but that we enliven (ensoul? enspirit?) ourselves. (“ u’b’yom ha’shvii Shabbat v’yinofash.”) Our spiritual uplift at home derived of three hours of morning davening followed by a gala hot kiddush in the synagogue ballroom. In the wilderness, we were enlivened and uplifted by the pristine and entirely natural surroundings.

If eruv was low on our lists of concerns when we were camping, so were modern artifacts, especially electric lights. The bulb in the fridge did not need to be removed; the lights in the bathrooms did not need to be left on and the shabbos clocks did not need to be set. The last hours of Shabbat were not spent in eager and impatient anticipation of the holy day’s passing so we could turn on the TV and the computer and scramble to get showered and dressed and made-up in preparation for parties, dates, dinners and movies.

Sabbath in the wilderness began when a dying and bloody sun sank behind the mountains; it ended under a sky thick with stars. It was not Shabbat b’tsibur and we mostly skipped davening, but it celebrated the Creators day of rest and refreshment restfully and refreshingly amid His creation. We felt nature intenswly and were uplifted by the air, sun, wind and rain as we never were in the city. Isolated at the edge of a clean mountain lake, in the bowl of thickly forested mountains, we joined in a frugal kiddush over a thimbleful of wine and dry matzoh and cold food. But we never enjoyed Shabbat more.
    David Z on January 3, 2013 at 5:48 pm (Reply)
    Well you ask a lot of questions but seem to know the answers, just in case... Any area not contained in a fence will be a karm'lit ("something in-between" in your parlance). That is, an area that you can't carry in rabbinically. This excludes islands with less than 600,000 people and canyons and mesas with very steep walls. Perhaps some other natural objects I'm forgetting. Otherwise, you need to make an eruv. As mentioned you can make a real fence, but if you want to use the string solution, it's not just tying some string around, but a tsurat hapetakh (which means the string will need to sit on top of a pole, not just tied to a tree or something. G-d knows why camping should cause you to stop davening rather than to excite your davening, but there's no reason for that. Additionally, most people camping on shabat do look forward to when shabat ends even more than at home because they build a fire, turn on flashlights, etc. I know some people leave on 24-hour lamps and that's fantastic, of course. But shabat in every locale is different and has its pluses and minuses like everything in life.
David Z on January 3, 2013 at 5:04 pm (Reply)
"Shabbat is designed to be a day of rest, relaxation, and communal prayer. Due to halakhic restrictions on their carrying items from one place to another, however, observant Jews can become prisoners in their own homes. The rabbis, therefore, wherever they could, came up with a way to circumvent this issue: the eruv."

Of course the rabbis created the problem in the first place because eruvin only work where the injunction against carrying is rabbinic... Be nice if he explained that somewhere so it doesn't sound like we're inventing legalisms to get around biblical law rather than using built-in loopholes to balance our remembering the biblical laws of shabat and still enjoying the day.

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