By Rabbi Eliezer Langer Special to The Jewish Outlook
Allow me to introduce you to the concept of eruv, an Austin project moving from Friday-night table discussion to actuality. Our Jewish community has undertaken a new project, called an eruv, which will alleviate the restriction of carrying objects outside one’s home on the Sabbath. Ah, but I see you are scratching your head in confusion. A few introductions are necessary.
First, let’s go over what it means to be Shomer Shabbat, or traditionally Sabbath observant. This entails abiding by the laws set forth in the Talmud for Sabbath observance. These laws involve both positive and negative commandments.
Some examples of the positive commandments are: lighting Shabbat candles, making kiddush on wine, and eating three special Shabbat meals. The negative commandments encompass the type of work called “melacha” in the Torah. Melacha refers not just to one’s employment or level of exertion, but rather to creative work, something through which you make a creative difference in your life or to the object that you are trying to affect. The Talmud states that any type of melacha that was utilized to construct the Tabernacle in the desert is a type of creative work that is forbidden on the Shabbat. Thus, for example, igniting a fire is prohibited (this is why strictly observant Jews do not drive cars on Shabbat) because involved in the construction of the Tabernacle was the cooking of dyes — requiring the burning of a fire — to make the beautiful tapestries. Planting and harvesting is forbidden because this, too, was work done to construct the Tabernacle.
One of the least intuitive forms of “work” enumerated in the Talmud is the melacha of carrying from a private domain to a public domain, or vice versa. This is derived from the fact that the Jews had to bring the items used in the construction from their homes (a private domain) to the Levite camp in the desert where Moses lived. There are 39 types of melacha that constitute the restrictions set forth according to the Talmud’s understanding of the biblical directive to “rest” on the Sabbath.
The rabbis of the Talmud also discuss a way to alleviate the restriction of carrying on the Sabbath. They state that if an enclosure is created around a public area, and then all the inhabitants of the area share some item of food — such as a loaf of bread — with each other, then this is enough to convert the “public” domain to a “private” one, and thus carrying from one’s home to this surrogate private domain now becomes permitted. This is the essence of the principle of an eruv. Using existent lines around a neighborhood, and then having all those in that community who will use the eruv partners in a box of matzahs (it could be any food, but matzahs stay fresh the longest!), the area now becomes a halachic (Jewish legal) private domain for the sake of carrying on Shabbat. This is what is called an “eruv.” While an eruv may enclose many public areas, it still cannot permit carrying in all public areas. A large metropolitan area and major population centers still cannot be enclosed by means of an eruv.
For those of who are strictly Shomer Shabbat, the eruv is a great benefit. Without it, we cannot carry our house keys and tallit, or push strollers and wheelchairs to synagogue. The eruv also gives families with small children as well as people with disabilities the ability to get around more freely on Shabbat.
One other provision is needed for a neighborhood to be considered a private domain, and that is to receive permission from the leadership of the city government (e.g., the mayor, city council, chief of police, etc.) to have the right to carry on the Sabbath. And so, the community will be asking for permission to symbolically lease the right to carry within a certain area from the city in exchange for a consideration. The experience across much of the United States, including San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, has been that civic government has been most gracious and accommodating despite the foreign ring to the whole thing.
An interesting thing happened in Allentown, Pa. The city government was extremely gracious, respectful and willing to help. After the request for a lease was approved at a township meeting, one member of the township board asked a simple question. “How is it,” he respectfully asked, “that the rabbis of the Talmud could permit doing something that the Bible prohibits?”
“What a great question!” declared Rabbi Doniel Korobkin, then Orthodox leader of Allentown. “For once in my life, someone is challenging the rabbis as being too lenient.”
This is quite a departure from some of the challenges that come from our own religionists who have declared rabbinic Judaism too constricting. But, as King Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. This challenge to the device of an eruv was presented by the Karaites, a sect of anti-rabbinic Jews, over a millennium ago. The answer is provided in Judah HaLevi’s explanation of Judaism, The Kuzari. He explains that when we study the Talmud more carefully, we discover that there are certain domains that are technically not public domains, but which the rabbis declared to be public because of their striking similarity to the public domains described in the Bible. This being the case, the eruv is only meant to allow one to carry from one’s house into an area that is rabbinically labeled a public domain. Thus, the rabbis banned this domain, and the very same rabbis lifted their ban via the instrument of the eruv.
For the eruv to allow one to carry, it must be checked, once a week, to assure that the lines used as the enclosure have not been downed for any reason. We will have an “eruv hotline” for people to call before the Shabbat to make sure that the eruv is “up.” In larger cities where the strictly observant presence is more substantial, the eruv system is well organized and has been operational for decades. The good news for our community is that the eruv will make Austin an even more attractive area for Jewish families who are looking for a nice place to settle. The eruv will open up our area in desirability for a whole segment of the Jewish world.
That’s the concept of an eruv in a nutshell. It is much more involved than this, and the details are carefully delineated in the Talmudic and post-Talmudic texts. If you’re still confused about the whole thing, don’t worry; you’re not alone. But the bottom line is this: If you are not yet fully Shomer Shabbat, the eruv will have no impact on your life. If you are Shomer Shabbat, are contemplating becoming Shomer Shabbat, or host family or friends who are Shomer Shabbat, you will find that the eruv will make your life much easier — at least one out every seven days.
With appreciation to Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, Rosh Kehilla (spiritual community leader) of Yavneh, a modern Orthodox community and yeshiva day school campus in Los Angeles, and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast offices. ——-- Rabbi Eliezer Langer is with Congregation Tiferet Israel in Austin.