Along with notices about power outages, flooded subway tunnels, and gas shortages in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy came this dispatch from Long Island:
IMPORTANT POST-HURRICAINE INFORMATION
Carrying or causing any item to be moved (ex: pushing, pulling, kicking, throwing, etc...) a distance of approx. 6 feet in an unenclosed area (such as a street or non-fenced- in lawn/backyard) is prohibited.
This notice was part of an announcement that the eruv in the Five Towns area would be "down" for the Jewish Sabbath. Though peculiar (can't carry a book more than six feet?), this notice relates to one of the most important aspects of Judaism: resting on the Sabbath. An eruv is a conceptual and physical enclosure around a Jewish community that allows its members to accomplish certain activities that Jewish law otherwise restricts on the Sabbath.
Yeshiva University Museum is currently presenting an exhibition, "It's a Thin Line," which I curated, on the eruv -- a topic that continues to amaze and confound our visitors, and, not least of all, me. Though the concept manifests in nearly invisible structures surrounding our neighborhoods and us, the exhibition's artifacts illustrate how much this topic affects Jewish life.
Included in the show are dozens of printed books and manuscripts; photographs of Jewish life in 19th- and 20th-century New York; railroad maps, postcards and schematics; confidential rabbinic debates and decrees; flyers both extolling and decrying those who establish eruvs in Brooklyn; films on the political and communal dimensions of eruvs across the tri-state area; and contemporary art works exploring the concept of eruv and its implementation in New York.
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Though they frequently surround large geographic areas, eruvs are often indistinguishable from other parts of the local environment. It is likely that you live or work inside of an eruv, though you may never have seen or been aware of it. Eruv rope beside Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan New York, 2012 Private Collection
Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the New York region had implications for the Sabbath observance of millions of Jews by damaging many -- but not all -- community eruvs. The Five Towns Eruv Committee published this flyer after Hurricane Sandy knocked down segments of that eruv, to remind community members about activities to avoid without an intact eruv. Post-Hurricane Announcement for Five Towns Eruv The Five Towns Eruv Committee November 2012
Because of its importance in Jewish tradition, the Talmud tractate (book) on Eruvs was among the first Hebrew books ever printed. Daniel Bomberg published the first complete printed collection of the Babylonian Talmud (1520-1523). Bomberg’s pagination and the inclusion of commentaries by Rashi and medieval commentators remain the standard for most editions of the Talmud. Bomberg was active as a printer from 1516-1549. His press was distinguished by its scholarship, quality and output of more than 200 volumes. Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin Printed by Daniel Bomberg, b. Antwerp - 1549 Venice Venice, 1522 Collection of Michael Jesselson
Here, the 18th century Christian scholar Johan Bodenschatz depicts different types of eruvs and their construction. Bodenschatz’s Ecclesiastical Constitution of Contemporary Jews offers a rich and generally objective account and description of Jewish religious life in central Germany in the first half of the 18th century. He includes images of typical Jews' means for cooking on the Sabbath, a nod toward the links between food and the eruv. Images of Eruvs from Ecclesiastical Constitution of Contemporary Jews, Particularly Those in Germany Johann Christoph Georg Bodenschatz, 1717-1797 Frankfurt am Main, 1748/9 Collection of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Each of these images illustrates a type of architectural space where an eruv might be built -- a street, an alley, an intersection, etc. Similar images are common if not standard in contemporary discussions of eruvs. This compendium of images was created by Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, who was among the premier living rabbinic authorities in the first half of the 20th century. From Hazon Ish: The Laws of Eruvs Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (The Hazon Ish), 1878 - 1953 Vilna, 1929 Collection of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Special dishes are commonly served on the Sabbath and at holiday meals. One of the most common, cholent -- a stew of meat, potatoes, beans and barley -- was a key inspiration for the existence of eruvs in Jewish towns in Europe through the mid-20th century. Many households would cook their cholent overnight in a communal oven. Eruvs encircling the town made it possible for families to carry their pots of cholent home from the oven on the Sabbath, when it would have otherwise have been prohibited. Cholent House Israel, ca. 1934 Collection of Yeshiva University Museum
It takes three things to establish an eruv: the enclosure, a lease from all of the residents in that area, and a communal food store -- which is the actual eruv itself. The average person cannot design or build an eruv enclosure, which requires a combination of technical and legal expertise. Part of what makes the process so complex is that eruvs -- especially contemporary urban eruvs -- have to accommodate many different types of architecture and manner of landscape.
This map of Odessa’s Eruv was a guide for the thousands of Jews pouring into that city at the turn of the 20th century. It notes the different kind of structures that comprised the eruv enclosure. In medieval Europe, city walls constituted eruv boundaries. As these walls in many European cities were dismantled, primarily in the 19th century, rabbis utilized other structures. Eruv boundaries in fast-growing cities, such as Odessa, included telegraph and telephone poles with wires, as well as train trestles and other structures from the urban environment. Eruv Map for Odessa (1899) From Sefer Tikun Shabbat (in the case below) Chaim Tchernowitz, 1871 – 1949 New York, 1979 Mendel Gottesman Library, Yeshiva University
In 1905, Rabbi Joshua Seigel wrote Eruv Ve-Hoza’ah (Eruv and Carrying on the Sabbath), a Jewish legal explanation of the East-Side Manhattan eruv. He began the volume, “Religious Jews have approached me and suggested that maybe we have the possibility to allow carrying on the Sabbath at least on the east side of the city.” Seigel drew on the examples of European eruvs to created the first eruv in New York, utilizing the Third Avenue elevated train tracks in the west, and Manhattan’s sea walls in the north, east and south as boundaries. New York Eruv Map From Eruv ve-Hotsa’ah (Eruv and Carrying on the Sabbath) Rabbi Joshua Seigel, 1846–1910 New York, 1907 Collection of American Jewish Historical Society
The elevated train track on Third Avenue was the western border of Manhattan’s first eruv. Chatham Square (pictured here) was on the western edge of the Lower East Side, next to tenements filled with Jewish immigrants, near dozens of synagogues, and a block from the first Jewish cemetery in New York. Postcard of New York City Double Deck Elevated Railroad Train at Chatham Square New York, 1909 Collection of Yeshiva University Museum
In establishing the eruv, rabbis needed to take ownership -- symbolically -- of the entire island of Manhattan as the eruv would enclose millions of non-Jewish residents and their property. Although a handwritten lease was drafted in 1949 in anticipation of a whole-island eruv, it was not recognized by New York City until 1963 when Mayor Robert F. Wagner agreed to sign the document, leasing Manhattan to the Jewish community. Deed of Lease Between Rabbi Menachem Tzvi Eisenstadt and Mayor Robert F. Wagner New York, 1963 Yeshiva University Archives, Brooklyn Eruv Collection
Rabbi Theodore Adams worried that an eruv would lead orthodox Jews to emulate the less-stringent practices of Jews from other denominations. He was chief Rabbi of one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan in the 1960s. Adams’ concerns emerged from the mutli-denominational character of the American Jewish community. Some non-orthodox Jews interpreted Jewish law more leniently than their Orthodox neighbors, and carried certain items on the Sabbath regardless of the existence of an eruv. Refraining from establishing an eruv, he argued, would sustain their orthodox identity and community. From Ohav Zedek Shul Newsletter New York, 1962 Collection of Jeffrey S. Gurock
New York artist R. Justin Stewart created these plans for a monumental sculpture comprised of thousands of strings, installed in this exhibition. Extruded (an eruv project) presents a visual timeline of the evolution in the location of Manhattan's eruvs since 1907. A map of Manhattan projects down from the ceiling, with the thread graduated into increments each representing a year, spanning 105 years. Plans for extruded (an eruv project) Timeline and Map of Manhattan Eruvs from 1907-1912 Nylon upholstery thread thread, jewelry hardware, brass hooks in R. Justin Stewart New York, 2012
Pittsburgh artist Ben Schachter creates drawings and sculpture based on the boundaries of existing eruvs, such as this threaded painting of Manhattan’s eruv. “I am fascinated by the intricate yet logical systems that have been developed to assist Jews to live a religious life within contemporary society, he writes. “Like Sol LeWitt and Fred Sandbeck who created systems that determined the form of their art, I've adapted Jewish law and guidelines for Jewish living to contemporary art." Manhattan Three Times Ben Schachter Acrylic and thread on paper Pittsburg, 2007
YU Museum carried out a survey of hundreds of Jewish communities in the Tri-State area to find out how Jews understood the role of eruvs in their religious, social, and inter-communal lives. Excerpts from these surveys appear throughout the exhibition.
Today, most eruvs are built in suburban neighborhoods, utilizing utility poles and electrical wires as boundaries. Maintaining these structures requires close cooperation between representatives of the Jewish community, state and local officials, and utility companies. This image features Chairman of the Edison-Highland Park, N.J., eruv, Rabbi Israel Rivkin, the Edison Police Chief, his deputy and a lineman from the utility company. More than a dozen videos look at communities around the New York area have created and maintain their eruv enclosures. A feature that concentrates on Manhattan is available here: http://vimeo.com/yumuseum/eruv
New York artist Elliot Malkin installed an eruv enclosure that uses a laser instead of physical materials. This plan explains his idea that a “Laser Eruv is not susceptible to the kind of damage effecting traditional, physical eruvs. Rather than wire, each side of this eruv consists of a single laser shot directly into the lens of a small surveillance camera, a bloom of laser light. If a beam is interrupted, the surveillance camera registers the absence of its bloom, easily pinpointing the portion requiring maintenance.” Laser Eruv Elliott Malkin Digital video camera, laser, television New York, 2006
These objects and issues were the focus of a day-long symposium at Yeshiva University Museum this past October. The next day, Hurricane Sandy shuttered the museum for over two weeks, perhaps ironically leaving a slew of damaged eruvs in its wake.
Indeed, Hurricane Sandy disrupted many of our lives. For most of us, the storm was an inconvenience. For the Jewish communities who use the eruv, it was something else. Surely the absence of an eruv was a nuisance, one that abated in many communities within a few weeks following Sandy, though sometimes with small, temporary boundaries. In other places, the eruv will be down for months.
Some community leaders are taking this situation as an opportunity to remind themselves what life is like without an eruv. Others, however, are concerned about whether or not a generation of Orthodox Jews who have been brought up carrying on the Sabbath thanks to an eruv will remember to avoid carrying -- and thereby keep the Sabbath holy.
Of the varied forms of work that observant Jews avoid on the Sabbath, one of the most basic is carrying. Jewish law prohibits carrying any object outside of a private area to an open or public space. In other words, you can carry a glass of water around your living room, but not out of the front door.
This law poses obstacles to the fundamental ways we operate in the world, prohibiting the carrying of house keys, a cane or medication, or even an infant. Jews have developed ways around the law, such as belts and jewelry that incorporate keys. However, for many elderly and sick people, and especially for women and children, the proscription of carrying on the Sabbath symbolizes a virtual house arrest for 25 hours a week.
Rabbinic Judaism developed a solution about 1,800 years ago. Drawing from passages in Jeremiah and other parts of the Bible, Jewish sages in Roman Palestine came up with a the concept of an eruv, a symbolic border resembling a series of doorways (two uprights connected by a crossbeam), which mixes or fuses private spaces into one shared space by enclosing a neighborhood or a city.
Within an eruv enclosure observant Jews can carry keys, push a baby carriage or hold a baby, or bring food to someone's home. Moreover, an eruv makes it possible for observant Jews both to follow Sabbath laws and to enjoy the Sabbath, one of the requirements for correct Sabbath observance.
It can be easy to perceive the eruv as an eccentric, if not conceptually dubious, artifact of Judaism. A March 2011 story on "The Daily Show" about a proposed eruv in eastern Long Island defined the concept as coming from the Hebrew word for loophole, and as real (or imaginary) as Mr. Snuffleupagus. Yet, beyond that understandable reaction, the eruv embodies one of the most beautiful qualities of Judaism and Jewish history: how Jews have adapted the places in which they live to accommodate Sabbath practice.
The concept is central to Rabbinic Judaism, which dedicates one of the longest books in the Talmud to the topic. Eruv is one of the few concepts whose literature has its own visual culture. Printed discussions on eruvs feature dozens of distinct schematics that help the reader understand the complex descriptions of types of spaces appearing in the text.
Today, most Orthodox Jewish communities construct eruvs. These enclosures are usually made out of string or wire stretched on top of or on telephone or light poles. In the present, and historically, eruvs are virtually invisible, using existing structures in the landscape. From 1907-1952, the Third Avenue Elevated Train Tracks running the length of Manhattan, from South Ferry to Harlem, constituted the western border of the island's eruv.
In Roman Palestine, where most Jews lived around communal courtyards, an eruv made it possible to enjoy the Sabbath with their neighbors. Eruvs around Jewish neighborhoods in pre-modern towns in Europe allowed their residents to carry food from communal ovens, as well as spend the Sabbath together out of doors. As Jews migrated in the 19th and 20th centuries, they established eruvs that meshed with the emerging landscapes that they found in the increasingly complex cities in Europe and the United States. Like the 1907 Manhattan eruv, Jews in St. Louis and Odessa at the end of the 19th century "constructed" their eruv from new technological structures rising around them: telephone and telegraph wires.
Historically and presently, eruvs have revealed various religious, social and even economic schisms. Similar to Krakow in the 19th century, cities around the world have faced a series of challenges brought by municipalities around the right of a growing orthodox community to establish an eruv with public infrastructure.
Since the 1990s, a handful of non-Orthodox groups have fought the establishment of eruvs in Tenafly, N.J., and in the Hamptons based on worries that an influx of Orthodox Jews would change the local business landscape, skew the makeup of local schools and fuel a rise in real-estate prices by Jews seeking homes within an eruv.
I am personally not an eruv user, and, until this exhibition, knew little about the concept. A year after beginning work on this exhibition, a year spent immersed in the philosophical and social dimensions of eruvs, especially those in the Tri-State area, I find myself with a more nuanced regard of the centrality of the Sabbath for Orthodox Jews. More to the point, though, the eruv reveals something broader about Jewish tradition today: the Sabbath as an anchor for community; and the eruv vividly demonstrates the dynamism of Judaism through the Jews' steady re-interpretation and adaptation of their tradition in harmony with the world around them.
Zachary Paul Levine is Curator at Yeshiva University Museum, where he develops exhibitions and produces multimedia projects on Jewish culture and history.