Friday, March 12, 2010

One of the more obscure municipal systems knocked out of commission by late February's blizzards along the Atlantic seaboard were eruvim. These, as the New York Times explained, are networks of poles and wires that construct symbolic boundaries around Jewish communities, thus enabling the observant to carry objects through outdoor public spaces on the Sabbath.

The prohibition against carrying is of ancient vintage, attested in the book of Jeremiah (17:21-22): ". . . and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; neither carry forth a burden out of your houses." The Talmud (Shabbat 96b) finds it implicit in Moses' command in Exodus (36:6) not to bring donations to the Tabernacle on the Sabbath. The prohibitions are also squarely laid out in the Dead Sea Scrolls, from where, according to the talmudic scholar Charlotte Fonrobert, the term eruv itself, literally "mixing," or sharing of property, entered the rabbinic lexicon. Expanding on the communal idea, the rabbis taught that erecting symbolic boundaries effectively created a neighborhood, a group house with many rooms, or what the late humorist Calvin Trillin termed "a magic schlepping circle." 

Recourse to eruvim grew in response to the shift from the largely pastoral settings of ancient Judaism to the increasingly urban milieu of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. In today's metropolises, the recent surge in eruv-building is a further sign of Orthdoxy's mounting self-assurance and, not least, of the desire of Orthodox women not to spend their Sabbaths confined indoors with stroller-age children. Eruvim have also been flashpoints, arousing sometimes bitter opposition both from those fearing an influx of large Orthodox families and from the more stringently Orthodox who see promiscuous eruv-building as yet another falling-away from rigorous observance.

What is certain is that today's eruv-builders have stretched the boundaries of communal living—and of the halakhic imagination. Eruv is, of course, a legal fiction—not, however, a trick to obviate God's command but an effort to retain the form, principle, and abiding authority of the law while adapting it to dramatically changed circumstances. Eruv shapes an imagined community, one whose spiritual and moral power, it is hoped, will be more than a match to its textual richness and legal creativity. 

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