Boundaries and Shabbat
Of the 39 labors forbidden on Shabbat, one important one to traditional Jews is the prohibition against “carrying in a public place.” The concept is that it’s “kosher” to carry anything within your own home, but outside you cannot carry ANYTHING . . . not a key, not a book, not even a baby! The rabbis two thousand years ago developed a way of allowing people to carry outside of their homes on Shabbat by constructing an “Eruv.” An Eruv is essentially a fence around a larger area which transforms the area from a “public” place to a “private” place. Many Orthodox communities have an eruv surrounding the area where they live which includes the synagogue, allowing them to carry things to schul (the synagogue) or to each other’s homes. It usually is a wire that is attached to the top of poles which define the boundaries of the Eruv. There is no Eruv in Shorewood, for example, because there are no electric telephone poles or electrical poles in Shorewood (everything is underground), and the Village will not permit the construction of an independent Eruv. In Bayside here in the North Shore, however, DOES have an eruv. The entire city of Jerusalem is surrounded by a high tension electrical wire which serves as the Eruv! Every Friday during the day, the Eruv must be checked to make sure that it is unbroken, otherwise it is forbidden to carry outside the home.
Winter in snowy places (like Milwaukee) poses particular problems with the eruv. When it snows heavily, and snow piles up on the poles and wiring that serve as the eruv, there’s a particular problem that the eruv wire might break or collapse due to the weight of the snow! Every Friday afternoon, the eruv is examined all along the its route and repaired if necessary before the Shabbat. In the winter, there’s always the potential problem that the eruv wire might break on the Sabbath which means that according to Jewish law, it cannot be repaired. When that happens, observant Jews can’t carry anything outside of their homes.
The most hilarious (if not the only) description of the Eruv in all of literature is in Michael Chabon’s brilliant novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Landsman, the detective, visits Zimbalist the “Boundary Maven” who is responsible for the Eruv in Sitka Alaska:
. . . it seemed to him that until he walked into Zimbalist the boundary maven’s shop, he hadn’t given enough attention to string. String, twine, rope, cord, tape, filament, lanyard, hawser, and cable; polypropylene, hemp, rubber, rubberized copper, Kevlar, steel, silk, flax, braided velvet. The Boundary Maven has vast stretches of the Talmud by heart. Topography, geography, geodesy, geometry, trigonometry, they’re a reflex . . . . But the Boundary Maven lives and dies by the quality of his string.