Shabbat is a day set apart from all others, differentiating between the sacred (kodesh) and the mundane (hol), between the work week and the day designated for rest, family, and spirituality. On Shabbat all activities associated with work are prohibited, and according to traditional Jewish law include formal employment as well as traveling, spending money, and carrying items outside the home, in the public domain.
The prohibition against carrying includes house keys, prayer books, canes or walkers, and even children who cannot walk on their own. Recognizing the difficulties this rule imposes, the sages of the Talmud devised a way to allow for carrying in public without breaking the rule. Through this means, called an eruv, communities are able to turn a large area into one that is considered, for Jewish law purposes, a large private domain, in which items may be carried.
What It Is
The term eruv refers to the act of mixing or combining, and is shorthand for eruv hazerot–the mixing of domains, in this case, the private (rashut hayahid) and the public (rashut harabim). An eruv does not allow for carrying items otherwise prohibited by Jewish law on Shabbat, such as money or cell phones.
Having an eruv does not mean that a city or neighborhood is enclosed entirely by a wall. Rather, the eruv can be comprised of a series of pre-existing structures (walls, fences, electrical poles and wires) and/or structures created expressly for the eruv, often a wire mounted on poles. In practice, then, the eruv is a symbolic demarcation of the private sphere, one that communities come together to create.
To many people, the eruv sounds like a legal fiction, a way to circumvent the spirit and possibly letter of the law against carrying. To them, the eruv risks making the entire Jewish legal process seem absurd to non-Jews and non-observant Jews.
The talmudic Rabbis, however, were concerned with maintaining the integrity of the halakhic (Jewish legal) system while ensuring that the law is livable. Though the eruv makes use of a legal technicality, the fact that it is used–rather than allowing people to just carry anything, anywhere–is itself considered a form of respect for and submission to a legal system that is central and indispensable to traditionalist Jewish life.
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