Following the Letter of the Law

I recently read this year’s Hugo-winning novel, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. (Getting it sent to my local branch library from Malmö cost me one euro!) It’s a hard-boiled detective story set in an alternative present where Israel was squashed by irate Arab neighbours in 1948 and much of the world’s surviving Jewry ended up in a small reservation in south-west Alaska. An exciting read, and very lyrically written. Full of badass Hasidic gangstas.

One detail in the story was so silly that I had to look it up. And whaddya know — eruvin are real.

There are a lot of things orthodox Jews are not allowed to do outside their homes on the Sabbath. This is inconvenient, and so they have come up with a way of temporarily re-defining “home”. Explains Wikipedia:

A community eruv (Hebrew: ערוב‎, “mixture”, also transliterated as eiruv or erub, plural: eruvin) refers to the legal aggregation or “mixture” under Jewish religious property law of separate parcels of property meeting certain requirements into a single parcel held in common by all the holders of the original parcels, which enables Jews who observe the traditional rules concerning sabbath to carry children and belongings anywhere within the jointly held property without transgressing the prohibition against carrying a burden across a property line on the Jewish sabbath. The legal aggregation is set up to have effect on the sabbath day only; on other days of the week ordinary property ownership applies. A valid aggregation has a number of requirements including an agreement among the property-holders and an aggregation ritual.

One of the requirements of a valid aggregation is that all the parcels must lie within a chatzer, or walled courtyard. For this reason, this type of aggregation is more properly known as an eruv chatzerot (Hebrew: ערוב חצרות‎), an “aggregation of courtyards,” to distinguish it from other types of rabbinically-ordained mixture procedures which also have the name eruv.

In modern times, when housing is not typically organized into walled courtyards, rabbinic interpretation has permitted this requirement to be met by creating a continuous wall or fence, real or symbolic, surrounding the area to be aggregated. The fence is required to have certain properties and consist of structural elements such as walls or doorframes. When the fence is symbolic, the structural elements are often symbolic “doorframes” made of wire, with two vertical wires (often connected to utility poles) and one horizontal wire on top connecting them (often using utility wires). The use of symbolic elements permits an eruv to make use of utility poles and the like to enclose an entire neighborhood of a modern city within the legal aggregation.

Comments

  1. #1 owlfarmer
    September 11, 2008

    Well, we’re also supposed to put a sock over the Mezuzah on the doorpost when we make love . . .

    When you take a bunch of Jews away from their usual studies (as happened during the Babylonian exile), they tend to take interpretation to minute levels. And once they’ve got tired of interpreting, they figure out ways to keep the rule in fact if not in spirit. Hence the eruv, the Shabbos Goy (the Gentile friend who’ll come over and turn your lights on and off for you) or the tape over the light sensor in the fridge. Although I was never truly orthodox (although once quite observant, especially in regard to food because the history and practice of kashrut is fascinating), I did revel in learning about all this stuff. Some of it sounds profoundly silly, but when you look at it as a means of maintaining community and tradition, it comes off a bit better.

    I still have to read the Chabon book, and now with the Palin nomination for VP, I think there’s a bit of an added twist for lovers of speculative fiction.

  2. #2 Martin R
    September 11, 2008

    Maintaining community and tradition… Well, from a Darwinian perspective, that doesn’t seem to have been the best survival strategy for the Children of Israel. Mongrelise and prosper!

  3. #3 DDeden
    September 11, 2008

    Jewish rituals are just as silly as everybody else’s, no more, no less. Just ask any out-group.

  4. #4 Ethan
    September 12, 2008

    DDeden and owlfarmer have it exactly right, in my humble opinion of course.

    On the other hand, your response is….odd.

    There’s no simple way to test whether or not Jewish community solidarity has increased the Darwinian success of Jews, since the descendants of the children of Israel are only recognizable when they are culturally distinct. However, since the Jews of Europe are an immigrant group, still genetically recognizable as a Mediterranean population, and since for most of the time between the annihilation of the Jewish kingdom and the present they have been urban dwellers in a time when cities and towns were population sinks, their persistence suggests that they have been quite successful (the European predilection for slaughtering large numbers of Jews notwithstanding).

    This strategy may not make sense any longer. Cities are not demographic sinks these days. Also community solidarity, as opposed to family solidarity, is less significant in a modern welfare state. However, to confuse the current optimum Darwinian strategy with the long term optimum strategy is very odd mistake for an archaeologist.

    I did like Chabon’s book, including the alternate universe version of the clowns currently running the US.

  5. #5 Martin R
    September 12, 2008

    I was referring to the historical tendency for persistent culturally distinct minorities to get singled out, rounded up and sent by cattle train to Poland.

  6. #6 Ethan
    September 12, 2008

    I was referring to the historical tendency for persistent culturally distinct minorities to get singled out, rounded up and sent by cattle train to Poland.< \b>

    I thought you might be. My point was that even after including such interludes, and restricting our attention to people who are both culturally Jews and clearly descended principally from ancient Jewish communities, the Jews of Europe have done rather better than one might have guessed from their immigrant status.

    I also find that such comments slightly irritating in a “blame the victim” kind of way, although I accept that you didn’t mean it that way.

  7. #7 owlfarmer
    September 12, 2008

    Well, although cultural identity (and associated rituals) can get one into survival trouble on occasion, it seems to have adaptive benefits as well. Dietary laws, for example (although the reverent pooh-pooh this notion), may have once mitigated environmental factors that could cause health problems (like the ones that occur today when food residue isn’t properly cleaned from prep surfaces); or sexual abstinence during menses brings couples together during ovulation (and mikvahs can be really lovely–the original spas). So some of these things may represent early adaptive strategies. The eruv, not so much–although the original idea did keep one inside city walls with the young’ns on the Sabbath.

  8. #8 Jonathan Jarrett
    September 12, 2008

    This has hit straight through to the large category of `things I should know more about’. Earlier this year I was briefly in Girona and was disappointed by its famous Jewish quarter, which is little more than a block of houses eight by eight. But if they’re all set round a courtyard or otherwise linked up, of course it’s an eruv chatzerot par excellence. Thanks for the perspective, Martin…

  9. #9 Kaleberg
    September 12, 2008

    Yeah, the book was a lot of fun. I just read it myself. As usual, Chabon tells a great yarn. Have you read his Gentlemen of the Road yet? His original title was Jews With Swords.

    The issue of eruvs comes up every so often in the US press, when defining an eruv requires some government intervention. For example, they might want to run a string from telephone pole to telephone pole to complete some part of the boundary. This is frequently disallowed, since the government in the US isn’t supposed to be in the religion business.

  10. #10 Martin R
    September 13, 2008

    Ethan, I tend to scoff at all varieties of ethnic essentialism, particularly when religious orthodoxy and right-wing political parties are involved. Nevertheless, my own family’s heritage is such that we would be sent straight to Poland if the bad old days returned.

    Kaleberg, I look forward to reading more Chabon! The US government (Under God) is of course only in the batshit fundie Christian religion business.

  11. #11 Kaleberg
    September 14, 2008

    Speak of the devil. In today’s (14/9/08) New York Times City section:

    “Q. All over Manhattan, I’ve noticed small, thin wires, like fishing line, that connect several street lights together through an eyebolt at the top of each light. What purpose do they serve?

    A. Jewish law.

    It seems you are looking at part of an eruv, the ritual boundary of an enclosure where Orthodox Jews are allowed to perform certain activities on the Sabbath that would otherwise be forbidden as work, like carrying prayer shawls, house keys or children in public.

    Eruvim are not everywhere in Manhattan; they have long been opposed by some Orthodox Jews on the Lower East Side, for instance, and have drawn opposition in some other neighborhoods, as well. But as the city’s Orthodox population has grown in recent years, eruvim have become more common and presumably more noticeable.

    The city has permitted utility poles to be used in erecting the symbolic walls. The Department of Transportation requires that the eruv consist of an unadorned string about one-quarter-inch thick, and that it hang at least 15 feet above the sidewalk and 18 feet above the roadway.

    Installers of an eruv must submit detailed plans and drawings to the department for approval, and the applicant is responsible for installation and maintenance. The permit does not bar the city from removing utility poles.”

    I wonder who keeps the eruv map of the city? I know Mayor Bloomberg has been putting everything online, so it’s probably all computerized now. Did you know that NYC has it’s own wireless network for city use? It’s actually quite useful.

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