Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Appreciation Wednesday: Carrying the Load so we can Carry the Loads

This week, I'm expressing my appreciation for those in Orthodox Jewish communities everywhere who spend their precious time every week checking their local eruvs.

For those not in the know yet, on the Sabbath, Jewish law prohibits carrying things around outside, or from inside to outside or outside to inside. More specifically, it's prohibited on the Sabbath to carry things from a "private domain" (eg, my house) to a "public domain" (eg, the street). I'm simplifying things, but basically it's OK for me to carry, say, my prayer book around within my house or within my synagogue, but not OK to carry it from my house to the synagogue. Therefore, under normal circumstances (that is, without an eruv), if I want my prayer book with me in synagogue to use on the Sabbath, I have to get it there before sundown on Friday. If I want to bring wine to a family who has invited me, I have to bring it before sundown and then come back again later.

In general, this prohibition against carrying stuff is a particular problem for families, since it includes a no-no against pushing strollers or carrying babies. People with little children have to coordinate their synagogue-going activities (often the mother ends up staying home and not praying in a synagogue for years, or else one parent goes to an ultra-early service so the other can go later, tag-team style). And people with little children also cannot usually "eat out" at the home of another family, since they have no way of transporting the babies.

Enter the magical loophole! I'm going to simplify this in a major, major way. If you want more details, there is plenty to be found at Google. Basically, the loophole is to make an entire neighborhood into one great big "private domain."

If I have a continuous fence around my house, then I can still carry things from my house to my yard, because the fence makes the yard part of my "private domain." So, some Orthodox communities have arranged with their local municipalities to create a "fence" around entire neighborhoods. Usually this "fence" consists of walls or natural phenomena that are there anyhow, combined with discreet ropes strung from telephone pole to telephone pole. This system of walls and ropes and other things that make a "fence" is called the "eruv" (ay-roov). And within the eruv, people can carry things and push baby strollers on Shabbat, making life easier for everyone.

The problem comes in when you consider that in order for people to use the eruv, the eruv has to be intact on Shabbat. That is, if any of the ropes have been taken down, or walls opened, or whatever, then it is not a continuous "fence" and that is not OK. American winters, in particular, can wreak havoc on eruvs, what with winds and falling trees, etc.

So, every Thursday and Friday, there are very kind and generous people in Jewish communities around the world, who travel the length and breadth of their local eruv and make sure it is all intact. If it is not intact, they either arrange to fix it quickly, or at least let their co-religionists know that the "eruv is down" and therefore this week they may not carry things around outdoors. Many communities have hotlines, where the eruv-checkers leave messages on Friday morning letting callers know the "status of the eruv." When an eruv is down, it is very disappointing for everyone, but it is so important for people who follow Jewish Law to know that the eruv has been checked and they can carry things without worrying about violating halacha.

So, to any eruv-checkers who are reading this, thank you very much for the time and effort you put in every week to help us observe Shabbat!

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