“The source of blessings is You, Hashem, our A’Mighty, King of the Universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as I contemplated these words and their appropriateness while witnessing the culmination of a project that took over a decade to complete. I vividly remember riding in my car down a busy Dallas street many years ago and sadly repeating to myself, “This will never happenthis will never happen.” “This” was the building of an eruv to surround the community where I am the rabbi of a shul/Torah center. Truth be told, I was overwhelmed by this daunting task. In order to erect an eruv there are numerous factors that must be addressed, weighed, analyzed and correctly executed. The logistics that had to dovetail during this process appeared unreachable. Yet the knowledge that there are communities who overcame similar hurdles and now enjoy the benefits of their eruvim served as a source of inspiration and helped us persevere when we were faced with what we perceived to be insurmountable obstacles.
An eruv permits one to carry objects within its confines on Shabbos. Though many of you enjoy the benefits of living within an eruv, I think that you will find it fascinating to learn what goes on behind the scenes in its construction. The following is a cursory overview of the steps and challenges involved in building and maintaining one.
Step I: DETERMINING THE BOUNDARIES OF THE ERUV. The initial step is to identify where the Jewish people live. Sometimes it is prudent to initially include the highest concentration of Jewish families and later on to expand its boundaries.
Next one must consider that the walls or the doorframes have to contiguously connect the perimeter of the area. Therefore, the use of existing telephone poles has great practical and financial advantages. Since some streets have their telephone and electric wires placed underground, the route of the eruv is greatly influenced by the path of the above ground poles. In addition, if within the proposed site there is an uninterrupted area of 2,000 amos (approx 16,000 sq. ft.) that is not suitable for use – for example, thick underbrush or certain types of streams or ponds – the eruv is invalid. In our case we have a stream that weaves its way behind our shul, flowing through a significant area of our eruv and we had to determine if its presence was a problem.
In one of our initial surveying forays through the stream, our expeditionary committee of three trudged gallantly through the waters that flowed behind a police station, reminiscent of a Lewis and Clark expedition. We three, two rabbis and a scientist, were intently looking down at the water, marching one behind the other in full dress uniform that consisted of tall rubber boots, hard hats and our ever-present walking sticks. Suddenly, a police sergeant who appeared out of nowhere stopped us. In a suspicious tone he asked, “What are you doing?” I identified myself as the rabbi of the nearby synagogue and I continued by briefly explaining that we were on a “spiritual journey” that would enable the Jewish residents to carry on our Sabbath. The officer relaxed, smiled, and said, “Rabbi, a number of my fellow officers and I were observing you and your group wading through the stream. We agreed that you were too old to be playing Cowboys and Indians, so we took bets as to what you were searching for. But nobody even came close to guessing the real reason for your mission. Now that you’ve explained what you’re doing, I still don’t get it!”
One area of the stream did prove to be a significant problem that warranted its exclusion as part of our eruv. One method of deleting it was to place a “mini-eruv” around that part of the waterway. To proceed with this plan we had to secure permission from some of the neighbors to enable us to place poles and wires on their property, which contained the stream. We met with reasonable success until we explained our proposal to one homeowner who must have stereotyped us as wealthy Jews. She boldly said, “I’ll be happy to allow you to put your strings up in my backyard. However I want you to know that I am in need of a circular driveway and a sprinkler system!” We “thanked” her for her “kindness” and quickly opted to find another solution. I assume she is still looking for a free driveway and sprinkler system.
We asked another owner but he told us that he was afraid that a bird would be decapitated by the wire. I consulted with a Dallas Zoo ornithologist who told me that blue tinted twine would pose no danger. Yet the man remained unconvinced and rejected our request.
Step Two: CONSTRUCTION OF THE ERUV. After the area is mapped out, one contacts the appropriate authorities, such as the electric company, to secure permission to use the designated poles. To simulate a doorframe the Rabbis require that the wire of the eruv cross directly over the pole. If the existing wire is on the side of the pole, lechayayim (doorframes) are created by affixing rubber strips to the pole, and positioning them directly underneath the wire. The wire serves as the mashkof (lintel). The appropriate agency, in our case Oncore Electric, worked out a schedule to send out a crew in a cherry picker to nail in the rubber runners on the posts. A rabbinic supervisor must be on site throughout the process to insure that the rubber runners are positioned correctly.
Step 3: LEGAL PERMITS. One must secure written permission from the appropriate city official (e.g. mayor, chief of police, city manager) who has the legal authority to contractually rent out the area within the eruv to the Jewish community.
Step 4: ERUV CHATZERUS, THE BLENDING OF DOMAINS. One takes matzahs on behalf of the community and places them in a centrally located spot which is accessible to all. On every erev Pesach the eruv chatzerus is renewed.
Step 5: CHECKING THE ERUV. After the eruv is up it must be checked weekly to insure that it is halachically functional. Our eruv can be the victim of severe Dallas weather conditions. The soaring summer temperatures can cause the rubber runners to expand and pop out of the metal bolts that hold them to the poles. Hail that can accompany Texas thunderstorms has knocked down a section of wooden fence that was part of our eruv perimeter. On other occasions vehicles have hit a pole knocking out the runners. One time one of the wires that we strung across a pond was knocked down. It was fixed by having a person paddle a sturdy pool raft under the dangling wire and reconnecting it. Baruch Hashem the mission was accomplished 45 minutes before Shabbos began! Most of the time minor repairs will take care of the problem. To publicize that the eruv is operational for any given Shabbos we raise a green flag in front of the shul bearing the words “ERUV UP.” Baruch Hashem we have not yet encountered the situation where the flag that says “ERUV DOWN” had to be displayed, emails sent, and phone calls made.
The advantages of an eruv are many. It enables families to wheel baby carriages to attend shul and visit each other on Shabbos. This promotes a tighter knit community that can enjoy Shabbos to a fuller capacity. It also can be used to assist individuals who have difficulty walking. Shortly after our eruv became functional a woman who uses a wheelchair to travel distances told me that because of our eruv she was able to participate in a Friday night meal at the table of friends. After dinner she was wheeled home by her hosts, something that heretofore she was unable to do.
Another very important benefit is that it minimizes chillul Shabbos (the desecration of Shabbos) by those Jews who will carry with or without an eruv intact.
Every community eruv requires a skilled rabbinic advisor who is an expert in this field. Our deepest gratitude is extended to Rabbi Nota Greenblatt, shlita, from Memphis, Tennessee for serving in this capacity for us. Rabbi Greenblatt literally walked the extra mile as he helped us survey the layout of the poles and the contours of the forests, lakes and ponds that fell within the confines of our eruv. He takes time from his extremely busy schedule to answer questions that continue to arise and he personifies a true Torah scholar and posek.
Just before we completed our eruv a tragedy was averted. During the course of its construction I would meet the Oncore crew at my shul. Oncore would send a cherry picker, manned by a two-man crew, and a small truck equipped with flashing lights, driven by a supervisor. We would all proceed as a caravan to the site to be worked on that day. The cherry picker parked next to the selected pole and the technician hoisted himself into the bucket and maneuvered it upwards close to the pole. Then he would affix the rubber runner under the wire that was to be used. The small truck, with lights flashing, was positioned behind the cherry picker as a safety measure. I would stand next to the pole and motion to the man in the cherry picker exactly where to position the rubber runners. One of those times, I was working with Bill and his supervisor Tom. As the cherry picker sidled up next to the pole and Bill prepared to enter the bucket, I felt the need to use the facilities. But first I showed Bill the wire that I wanted him to use and explained how he was to snake the rubber runners up the pole. I then told him that I would return in just a few minutes. Bill said, “Rabbi, no problem! Take your time.”
Yet when I returned I saw that there had been a major problem. There were two additional Oncore trucks on the scene and the supervisor in charge of Oncore crews was carefully surveying the damage. I went over to Bill who was standing next to his truck and asked what happened. In a shaky voice Bill stammered, “Rabbi, shortly after you left I climbed into my bucket. As I was maneuvering it to get close to the bottom wire that you wanted me to use, my bucket inadvertently made contact with the top “hot wire,” causing the wire to snap. Rabbi there are over 7,000 volts of electricity conducted through that top wire! Seven thousand volts is more than twice the amount of voltage used to execute a person in the electric chair. This wire narrowly missed hitting me and when it did hit the ground it started a grass fire and caused a power outage in the neighborhood. Rabbi, you are looking at one lucky man!”
I found myself agreeing with Bill but when I saw the burned grass that he pointed to I suddenly realized that it was I who was truly the “lucky” one. For you see, that “hot wire” hit the spot that I would have been standing on had I not left the premises when I did. Needless to say, we suspended work on the eruv for the rest of that day.
Our eruv has a nine-mile perimeter and incorporates 250 poles, sections of wooden fences and concrete walls. Its presence has contributed to more and more observant families moving into our area as well as unifying and strengthening the camaraderie of the families already in our community. The efforts of the many individuals who helped build and continue to maintain the eruv are prodigious. But after everything is said and done it is clear that it is so well worth it!
My dear reader, as we journey through life we are given opportunities that, with the help of Hashem, can be transformed into magnificent achievements. Yet, inevitably, Hashem tests us to determine how sincere our desire is in the achievement of our goal – the greater the accomplishment, the greater the obstacles that are strewn in our path. Our attitude should be one of strength and resolve as we focus on the ultimate benefit of the project, while anticipating that we will encounter difficulties along the way. This will help galvanize us to persevere. Let us pray to Hashem that if our goal is meant to be, that we may merit to be His messengers, and that our efforts will be crowned with success.
Rabbi Aryeh Rodin is the founding rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom. He is also the founding chaplain at Medical City Hospital, Dallas, Texas. Periodically he writes a column for The Jewish Press entitled Southern Hospital-ity. He is a rebbi at the Texas Torah Institute, a boys’ yeshiva high school in Dallas, which attracts students from around the country. He has lectured throughout the United States, and his articles have appeared in both Judaic and secular publications. Rabbi Rodin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.