Photo Credit: eruv.nyc
The Manhattan eruv

The Downtown Va’ad, an Orthodox rabbinic network established in 2013 as a “unifying platform for Orthodox rabbis to advance the welfare and flourishing of our now surging downtown Jewish community,” on Thursday announced the establishment of an eruv, a legal fiction allowing Jews to carry objects on Shabbat.

“As of today, all of Lower Manhattan has been joined to the larger Manhattan Eruv,” declared the group’s announcement, defying a generation of Orthodox scholars, most notably the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was the halakhic authority for North America’s Orthodox community until his death in 1986. In the 1950s, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher proposed the establishment of an eruv in Manhattan, but the Lithuanian yeshiva deans, including Rabbis Aharon Kotler and Moshe Feinstein, objected to the idea. The major controversy that ensued was resolved by a statement from Agudas Horabonim (Rabbis’ Association) which quashed the Manhattan eruv for the next fifty years.

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The Downtown Va’ad’s press release recalls the process that brought the new Manhattan eruv to life: “In 1999, a new eruv was constructed on the Upper West Side under the advisement and supervision of the Machon L’Hora’ah of Monsey. In 2003, this Eruv was extended to include the Upper East Side community, and then in 2007 — with the assistance of Yeshiva University (Stern College), local congregations, and several individuals and families — the eruv was expanded to include a portion of the downtown community. … Recently, the Manhattan eruv was further extended to include the entire southern portion of Manhattan, specifically the region below 14th Street. This project was initiated by the Downtown Va’ad in conjunction with the Manhattan Eruv leadership. … The extension was facilitated and supervised by the Machon L’Hora’ah and continues to be checked and maintained by them. All halakhic (legal) matters are deferred to the Machon.”

According to the press release, “this eruv development is simply the expansion of the pre-existing eruv; one that most Manhattan rabbis have publicly supported. We understand that the halakhic institution of eruv is complex and we honor and respect all rabbinic and communal perspectives on the matter. We encourage our constituencies to pursue guidance from its own rabbinic authorities and to continue the spirit of mutual respect and dignity that Jewish practice demands and engenders.”

The new initiative is likely to raise an objection from the traditional Orthodox leadership of the Lower East Side community, led by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s sons, Rabbis Dovid and Reuven Feinstein. These legal scholars follow their father’s view that in densely populated Manhattan it is impossible to ever erect a legitimate eruv. Hopefully, the Lower East Side community, which is one of the most benign Jewish communities in America, will weather this storm, especially in light of the fact that we’re entering the Days of Awe.

The simplest possible explanation regarding the halakhic dispute over the eruv goes as follows:

Jewish law recognizes three domains: private domain, where one may carry on Shabbat; public domain, where one may never carry on Shabbat; and an in-between domain nicknamed K’Armelit, meaning “like a widow,” who is not married and not a virgin. A Karmelit domain can be converted into private domain using a symbolic wall and doorway, usually represented by a fishing line attached to poles all around the converted area.

No one disputes that part. What is being contested is the definition of a public domain which cannot be considered a karmelit and therefore cannot ever be converted into a private domain, no matter how much fishing line you’ll tie around it.

The late Rabbi Feinstein followed the view cited in the Shlchan Arukh (OH 345:7), based on a Babylonian scholar cited by Rashi, that since the laws of Shabbat domains are delineated from the configuration of the Israelite’s camp in the wilderness, which was considered an irredeemable public domain, and since there were 600,000 males over the age of 20 in that camp, we should view any area populated by 600,000 people or more as public domain.

Many disagree with this view, because it isn’t mentioned explicitly in the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud, nor by Maimonides and other key medieval scholars. Also, does the rule mean there should be 600,000 people moving through the place or living there for it to qualify as public domain, and should they all be males older than 20?

The opposing view, which the new rabbinic group seems to uphold, is based on an explicit Talmudic citation (Shabbat 6a), defining public domain as a main road, 20 feet wide, going through a city from one end to the other, connecting to other cities in either direction. Imagine the cities of antiquity as an aspirin pill, with the line going through the middle. That’s the road, and the fact that it is connected to the wilderness on either end makes it a Mavo Mefulash, a passageway that’s open on both ends. Since Manhattan does not have such a road leading to the wilderness, goes this view, it can be turned into one big private domain via the eruv. Alternatively, if one were to consider the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan a problem in that context, then each local community, such as the Lower East Side, can erect its own eruv — meaning one cannot carry into neighboring communities on Shabbat, but one is permitted to carry in one’s own neighborhood – see the accompanying image above.

One is reminded of the story of two study partners who have been poring over the Talmud together for years, and one of them invites the other to his son’s wedding and wants to honor him with one of the blessings to the couple under the canopy. His partner says he is, indeed, honored, but, alas, he isn’t Jewish.

– What do you mean you’re not Jewish? We’ve been learning together all these years…

– I’m interested in it intellectually, but it doesn’t make me a Jew.

– Wait a minute, I see you on the street on Shabbat in your suit and tie — you know a goy gets the death penalty for observing Shabbat! (It’s actually the law, look it up)

– I take care of that by always carrying something in my pocket.

– Yes, but we have an eruv!

– Huh! You call this an eruv?

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