It’s a Thin Line: Eruv From Talmudic To Modern Culture, Seven Years Later — a Review

By: Adina Bruce  |  November 25, 2020

By Adina Bruce, Website Manager

As the daf yomi (one page of Talmud studies daily) cycle nears the end of Masechet Tractate Eruvin, it is impressive to see the range of topics and messages writers for the YU Observer have extracted from the Masechet in the “Daf Yomi” column. All these articles have added to a legacy at Yeshiva University of engaging in a dialogue of finding meaning from the idea of an Eruv (an enclosure permitting items to be carried on the Sabbath according to Jewish Law). 

Looking back seven and a half years ago to the last daf yomi cycle, the Yeshiva University Museum curated an exhibit titled “It’s a Thin Line: The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond,” which ran from October 2012 to October 2013. In conjunction to this exhibition, a companion book titled “It’s a Thin Line- Eruv From Talmudic To Modern Culture” was published. This publication offers a summary and reflection on the exhibitions, as well as a forum for a continuation of the discussion around the idea of eruv, and how it impacts and is impacted by the world we live in. 

In his introduction to the book, Adam Mintz — editor of the book who wrote his dissertation on the history of eruvin (enclosures permitting items to be carried on the Sabbath according to Jewish Law) in America — cites a segment of The Daily Show, titled The Thin Jew Line, on eruvin in the Hamptons as exemplary of the core issue of an eruv as a concept: “It’s real but it’s imaginary in a metaphorical way.” This question of how to think about an eruv is a theme that is explored throughout the book. 

Starting off the book is a textual and pictographic tour of the original exhibition by Zachary Paul Levine, curator at the Yeshiva University Museum. The exhibition itself focused on the history as well as associated controversies of the New York eruv. It was particularly interesting to read about the history of the two eruvin that encompass both the Beren and Wilf Campuses, as well as the historic contributions members of the YU legacy such as Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi JJ Shachter and Rabbi Saul Berman had, in creating eruvin that have been so ubiquitous to my own campus Shabbat experience. 

As those who are learning Masechet Eruvin may tell you, the technical and halachic concepts that make up the laws of eruvin are not easy to wrap one’s head around. The particular definitions of ideas such as Tzurat ha petah (symbolic doorways), Reshut ha-yahid (private domain), reshut ha-rabbim (public domain) and makom patur (an exempt area) are all halachic ideas that are essential in creating a halachic (Jewish Law) eruv. In his chapter of the book, Rabbi Hershel Schachter takes the reader on a fast-paced tour of the sources that are the basis of the halachic canon in respect to eruvin. From the concepts as presented in the Talmud, to the different interpretations from Rishonim (early commentaries) such as Rashi and Tosfot, through to modern applications that directly led to the creation such as we experience, by Achronim (later commentaries) such as Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Hazon Ish. In a book that sometimes explores the idea of eruv in more conceptual and artistic ways, Rav Shachter anchors the conversation in a halachic reality, and ancient tradition. 

In their respective sections, Lawrence H. Schiffman and Jeffrey S. Gurock take a historical perspective, bookmarking the story of eruvin. Schiffman examines the eruv as a Pharisaic-rabbinic construct, contrasting the Sectarian reading of the Torah, which rejected rabbinic interpretation and relied only on literal interpretations. Gurock describes the creation of the New York eruv arising as a reaction to the spiritual crisis at the phenomenon of religiously apathetic Jews. The hope for building the Manhattan eruv was to decrease the transgressions of New York Jews on Shabbat. Both articles highlight the social context that creates a need for an eruv within a community. The tension of both rabbinic interpretation and halachic obligation is navigated through the concept of an eruv

In her article on the sociological impact of the eruv, Blu Greenberg surveys the relationship between the Orthodox feminist movement and the establishment of eruvim. With the creation of early eruvin, women were no longer confined to their homes looking after their children all Shabbat. With this new ability came a shift in role that allowed women to push for an expanded role within the community. The concept of an eruv is cited by Greenberg as an example of her notorious idiom, “rabbinic will finding a halachic way,” and contrasted with the current inadequate halachic response to the agguna (women stuck in their marriage according to Jewish Law) crisis. Her personal experience of personally benefiting from eruvin, and linking it to her own feminist story is fascinating. As a modern day feminist, it was eye-opening to see the role eruvim have had on the Orthodox feminist legacy, but sobering to be reminded of issues that are not yet solved. 

Architectural students Isaac Cohen, Isaac Hametz and Rachel Vassar, offer a unique perspective on the role eruvin have in different communities around North America. Taking us along for the ride, the three students took a road trip passing through different eruvin around America and examining the different ways Jewish communities use and change the spaces they live in — from the Toco Hills eruv in Atlanta, Georgia, which has the specific challenge of maintaining an eruv in a largely wooded area, to the spralling eruv of Los Angeles, measuring 80 square miles, to the resourceful Manhattan eruv, which takes advantage of many of the cities features, including railways, the seawall, highways, parks and walls. Through these different descriptions of eruvin in different communities the reach of Jewish communities in the North American community is highlighted. 

Each article in this collection offers a unique perspective on the topic of eruvin, proving that there is still what to say on this often ignored boundary, that plays such a central role in many of our communities’ lives. As the cycle moves on to Masechet Pesachim, may the conversations prompted from the study of Masechet Eruvin on the interactions and tensions between people and space continue.