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Eruv: The Ultimate Loophole?

There’s a dispute brewing over whether a community in Long Island can build themselves an eruv. An eruv is an enclosed space in which it’s permissible for observant Jews to carry items (such as books, keys, and food) from place to place on Shabbat. MyJewishLearning has a great explanation of what exactly an eruv is supposed to be:

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.

It sounds strange, but not hugely problematic, right? Wrong. Over the years, there have been a number of political controversies centered around the construction of eruvs (or, more accurately, eruvin). Major and minor disputes over eruvin have unfolded in New Jersey, London, Chicago, Washington Heights, and Venice Beach. Meanwhile, even within the observant communities, there are those who don’t believe that eruvin are legitimate ways of getting around the prohibition of carrying. Chabad, for instance, doesn’t generally hold by any eruv. For those who know about and use an eruv, the idea of it being controversial is absurd. In some cases, it can be as noninvasive as already existing train tracks, or highway barriers. At its most invasive, an eruv is a wire, or a piece of string. There is no holy gravitational pull inside an eruv, no religious force field, no magical powers. An eruv is literally a loophole, a way that the rabbis devised to get around the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat. The only way a non-Jew or non-observant Jew would be affected by the construction of an eruv is if the eruv caused a glut of observant Jews to move to the neighborhood. While one may have objections to living in a neighborhood full of frummies, it’s hard to cast those objections as anything but anti-Semitism. The world has no shortage of genuine religious controversies. Why waste time on something as relatively petty as an eruv?

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