I began to become religious when I was in high school, and shortly after I become shomer Shabbat, the local rabbi invited me — drafted me, perhaps — to get involved in several aspects of the synagogue. While there were several functions he recruited me for, perhaps the most daunting and intimidating was working on the local eruv. I was newly religious, still overwhelmed by the intricate laws of the Sabbath, but a dearth of volunteers meant that I was being asked to be involved in this highly complex area of Jewish observance.
It started by understanding the basics of eruv: we were bringing the entire community into one big house, so to speak. Technically, one private domain, enclosed by walls and doors on all sides. These barriers were symbolic but consequential. People who lived outside of the eruv were not in the community and therefore were prohibited from carrying. Those inside were permitted to carry, since they were, so to speak, inside. To create these walls and doors, we could rely on fences and other physical structures where available, but much more commonly we needed to create our own doors and walls, by erecting two jambes and a lintel, words that I knew before learning the halakhic terms lechi and koreh.
After learning the basics of eruv in abstraction, we then transitioned to reviewing every spot of the eruv — every lamppost, electrical pole, fence, railing, and sea wall — with the rabbi, assistant rabbi, and other volunteers. We had an “eruv kit,” which included measuring tape, rulers, a hammer, a screwdriver, color-coded electrical tape, plastic piping, pliers (to cut the piping), u-shaped nails, and lots of duct tape.
I learned that the jambe — the lechi — only need to ascend ten handbreadths from the ground to be valid, which conveniently corresponded exactly to the top of my belt buckle. We of course would try to build the lechi up higher when we could, but ten handbreadths from the ground represented the bare minimum.
I learned about lavud, the halakhic concept — legal fiction, if you like — that if the lechi descended within three handbreadths of the ground, approximately ten inches, it was considered “connected” to the ground, but for good measure it was advisable to hammer a u-shaped nail over an added piece of plastic, so that ideally we wouldn’t rely on lavud.
Shortly thereafter, I became the main eruv checker, and I even created a separate synagogue email address designated purely to the status of the eruv. At the time, I didn’t have a car, so I would ride shotgun with a friend or another volunteer as we inspected the eruv. As the enthusiasm of other volunteers wore off, it became harder for me to find willing drivers, which meant I started to walk the eruv. I didn’t carry the full eruv kit with me, but would carry some extra plastic piping, tape, and ruler with me, just in case a car had smashed one of the jambes or some inclemency had dislodged a necessary feature of the eruv.
The walk would take about two hours, spanning about five and three quarter trapezoidal miles, but I believed that the community had entrusted me with this responsibility and relied on a faithful weekly inspection. There were times on these walks when I felt “pretty sure” I had seen the lechi between two bumpers and should keep walking, but then reminded myself that my word would be relied on, so I had to be sure. I would cross the street to take a closer look, and more than once found problems that had gone unseen at first inspection.
I even remember walking the eruv after one particularly bad snowfall, digging out each lechi so I could still see within lavud of the ground, because the snowfall was in excess of ten inches. During that walk, I kept thinking that the community was relying on me, and more importantly, that the community’s Sabbath observance would be dependent on what I said. If I was derelict and didn’t dig out every lechi, nobody would know. But that risked the possibility that the community would desecrate the Sabbath because of my unreliable assurance. I remember thinking how my word would impact those around me, and even if they might not be halakhically liable, they would have been dismayed to learn that my report had led them to commit a forbidden act. So I walked the eruv in the snow. There was barely anybody outside that day. Just me, the jambes, and a tape measure.
I could not help but think about my experience as an eruv-checker when I read a recent article arguing that the entire institution of eruv should be ignored. And I thought about how much responsibility I felt as checker, contrasted with the wistful hope that one day the eruv should be pushed into oblivion. Such an opinion is not mainstream, and Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jews will not carry without an eruv that meets their specifications.
With the recent controversy about local jurisdictions being reluctant to grant eruv permissions, more towns might pressure traditionally-minded Jews to say they should rely on this minority opinion. It would be tragic if the government, misled by such an argument, were to recommend how we as Jews observe our Sabbath and refuse to grant permissions for new eruvin to go up on the grounds that they aren’t really necessary.
I make no airs of being a halakhic authority on eruvin, but I know the Shulchan Arukh says carrying in a karmelit is still a rabbinic prohibition, and as Orthodox Jews we are supposed to heed the words of our predecessors. True, we are on a case-by-case basis permitted to set aside a rabbinic enactment, when we have discussed the facts and circumstances with a competent halakhic authority. But a limited personal dispensation should never be confused with normative law.
The Rabbis see two verses that prohibit carrying: al yeitzei ish mi-m’komo ba-yom ha-shevi’i, “A man should not go out on the seventh day,” which is understood as meaning that a man should not leave his home while carrying. The second verse is va-yikkale’ ha-am me-havi, “and the people stopped bringing” donations for the tabernacle, which tradition says occurred because people were not supposed to carry on the Sabbath. Rabbinic interpretation might not be the minimal or literal understanding of the verse, but as rabbinic Jews we accept such interpretation when it impacts our religious praxis. Hence these rabbinic exegeses and enactments cannot be wantonly set aside.
It is also telling that the argument is to disregard the issur hotza’ah, which Tosafot describe as a melakhah geru’ah, a “lesser form of forbidden labor.” All other forms of forbidden labor alter the nature or composition of the object, while carrying does not. Hence its supposed inferiority makes it susceptible to confusion and disregard, as has been noted for at least the past seven hundred years.
Sometimes not having an eruv is terribly inconvenient, especially for young parents and the elderly. That is why we should fight so vehemently to have the eruv available. My father has difficulty attending synagogue without a walking stick, so when the eruv goes down he stays home. Some parts of our religion are inconvenient, other parts are remarkably rewarding and fulfilling. While the current argument is that religion should be viewed only through the lens of convenience, we should not be ignoring rabbinic, and possibly biblical, law merely because it can be inconvenient at times.
The traditional Jewish approach has been to develop a mechanism that is consonant with law but also able to respond to new challenges. Such examples include the eruv, pruzbul, and hetter iska. In all of these cases, the leaders of the generation remained unswervingly faithful to the law while finding technical grounds to ease its restrictiveness. In these cases, they didn’t merely say that the law is too inconvenient to be observed, because such a claim is not a halakhic argument. The eruv is part of the solution, allowing communities to grow without violating religious demands.