Lining up the facts on eruvim

Lining up the facts on eruvim February 5, 2013

The New York Times  has a story about three lawsuits that have been filed over the erection of an eruv, or ritual boundary, for Orthodox Jews in the Westhampton Beach area of New York. It gets some important details wrong. Let’s look at the beginning:

Every Saturday, Eugene Milanaik, a nurse anesthetist, walks more than five miles back and forth between his Orthodox synagogue and his weekend house on Dune Road. When it rains, he gets soaked, because he cannot carry an umbrella. When his 3-year-old grandson is in town, as he was last weekend, his wife must stay home, because she cannot push his stroller.

Life would be much easier, in Mr. Milanaik’s view, if Westhampton Beach would finally permit a series of narrow plastic strips, known in Hebrew as lechis, to be placed on the village’s utility poles. The strips would create an eruv, a ritual boundary that would allow those Orthodox Jews who do not push or carry things outside the home on the Sabbath to do so when within the eruv’s perimeter.

Technically, the strips don’t create the boundary — there needs to be a string between them. Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that this passage leaves the impression that it would be permissible to carry an umbrella if the eruv were created. But is that Orthodox practice? Here’s Rabbi Ari Enkin:

It is well-known that one is forbidden to use an umbrella on Shabbat. This is because the use of an umbrella is considered to be a violation of the melacha of “boneh”, the prohibition of erecting any type of tent, structure, or protective covering.[1] In fact, the use of an umbrella might even be a violation of a number of other Shabbat prohibitions, as well.[2] An umbrella may not be used on Shabbat even if it was opened before the start of Shabbat. This is primarily due to the prohibition of ma’arit ayin (“the appearance of a sin”) lest onlookers be led to believe that one had opened the umbrella on Shabbat itself.[3]  ….

Even though there have been authorities in the past who supported the use of umbrellas on Shabbat, the familiar ban on using them is one which has been universally accepted.[6] In fact, the Chafetz Chaim writes that “one who is careful with his soul will refrain from using them”.[7] Not only is it forbidden to use an umbrella on Shabbat, but they are muktza and may not even be moved.[8] Furthermore, our sages decreed that one should avoid assembling all forms of tents and canopy-like structures on Shabbat, even permitted ones, lest it lead to handling forbidden ones.[9] Nevertheless, one need not overly rebuke those less-learned who use an umbrella which was opened before Shabbat.[10] One may open and close garden umbrellas on Shabbat which are permanently implanted into the ground or some other base.[11]

The next error is also striking.


Eruvim are an arcane matter to most people, but they are not unusual: much of Manhattan lies within the boundaries of an eruv, as do scores of Orthodox communities around the country.

“If other towns have it, we should have it,” Mr. Milanaik, 68, said on Friday, after stashing a backpack filled with his Sabbath essentials — two prayer books, a prayer shawl, and phylacteries — in a plastic bin at the Hampton Synagogue, so he would not need to carry them on the Sabbath. “I’m getting by without it, but it would be nice. It’s like being handicapped.”

Phylacteries are traditionally called tefillin. As Tablet magazine editor Yair Rosenberg writes, “They’re not worn on the Sabbath, and are in fact forbidden to be touched. So no one would carry them.” More here and here. I’m not sure it’s helpful to refer to eruvim as an arcane matter — secret, mysterious or obscure. They may not be simple, but the rules are spelled out fairly clearly.

Bethany Mandel, who brought all these problems (from just the first four paragraphs of the story!) to my attention, suggests that readers curious about this story instead view this Daily Show segment called “The Thin Jew Line” on the matter, if they’re looking for accurate information.

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16 responses to “Lining up the facts on eruvim”

  1. Is there precedent for residents’ contention that allowing the eruv on public property transgresses separation of church and state? I’d like to have seen legal precedents presented in the article.

    The concept of the eruv, that of creating a communal courtyard, should have been explained, as should have been the role of the lechis, which serve as the “doorposts” necessary to create the eruv. Basically, the creation of a communal eruv is a complicated issue which requires the input of many Rabbinic authorities before implementation, and constant supervision upon completion. Our eruv committee has been working on the problem for five years and has just recently concluded agreements with public, private, and municipal authorities.

    You are correct, mollie, that T’fillin are worn only on weekdays (Sun-Fri) and not worn on Shabbos and holidays. But if she were to use the more correct T’fillin, then she should also have used Tallis instead of prayer shawl. And why two prayer books, unless he’s bringing one for his wife? More likely he’s bringing his siddur (prayerbook) to daven (pray) and Chumash (Pentateuch), to follow along when the weekly Parashah (Torah reading) is read. A shul with insufficient siddurim will also lack adequate numbers of Chumashim. Most people in his situation, who walk such a long distance, often leave nice shoes at shul and wear sneakers to walk.

    Few rabbis allow umbrellas, but many folks we know carry ponchos in case of rain; maybe she got the two confused.

    Where is the history behind the eruv? Did the shul meet with other Jewish organizations to explain the eruv’s purpose and necessity? How have other mixed communities reacted to the creation of an eruv? In the Philly suburbs, the entire Jewish community provided support start to finish. The anti-eruv contingents’ comments suggest that they do not understand, particularly the person who suggested that one could pay a helper to push a stroller. Not. One cannot pay a person to break Shabbos or any holiday. I cannot, for instance, hire someone to cook meals that require a flame, turn lights on and off at my request, or carry for me. This presents particular problems for parents of young children, because carrying is forbidden, or those with mobility issues, who require a cane or wheelchair to move from one point to another. For those who are Shomer Shabbos (keepers of the Sabbath), an eruv opens the door to all kinds of activities, particularly for women, whose presence does not help form a minyan (quorum necessary for the recitation of certain prayers, including Kaddish) and who therefore stay home with their children.

      • Halakhah is complicated, Ray, but non-Jewish servants are allowed to perform their duties in any way they see fit. For instance, I cannot use a sponge to wash dishes on Shabbos or a holiday, and may only wash those dishes (with a Shabbos acceptable thing) that I will need for Shabbos/holiday. On Shabbos I may only use cold water and I cannot make a soapy solution to soak my dishes. Were I lucky enough to have live-in help, I could ask that person to wash the dishes and s/he could do it in whatever way s/he wished, including using a sponge and hot water. What I cannot do is issue instructions to use the sponge or hot water. Likewise, if the house feels too cold, hot, or dark, s/he can adjust temperature and turn on lights as s/he sees fit, but I cannot ask her.

        Do you see the difference? If I ask someone to break the Halakhah on my behalf, it is like I have broken it myself. At the same time, I cannot require a non-Jew to live by the Halakhah unless his or her actions directly impact me.

        • If I understand this right… then if someone paid a non-Jewish nanny on a regular basis, who pushed the baby in a stroller day-to-day, then in theory the nanny could push the baby in a stroller on Shabbos so long as they weren’t asked directly to use the stroller, just to transport the baby?

          (Not trying to be legalistic or make fun; just trying to understand the boundaries.)

          • No. She could not transport the baby to shul, since she herself has no reason to be at shul. Likewise, if the family wants to visit another family on Shabbos, the baby would have to stay home in the absence of an eruv. The nanny would be free to do whatever she wants with empty stroller. A lot of this is about intent. So you know, in life-threatening situations, we are instructed to do what needs doing; breaking the Halakhah is not an issue.

  2. I can’t help but think there must be more to the opposition than mere xenophobia, but the story doesn’t mention anything else beyond a reference to “church and state” issues that never gets expanded on. Surely the local residents have some other argument than “we don’t want more of their kind here.”

  3. Can there be a religious gated community? I mean more than a “compound” that you usually hear about in the news, but what are found in typical suburbs.

    • jettboy, are you asking if a physically enclosed neighborhood would negate the need for an eruv?. I believe the answer is no. A gated community consists of multiple individual domains. When one leaves one’s residence, one moves to a different domain; the eruv effectively melds a bunch of domains into one domain. As an example, one may stay in a hotel with enclosed halls and still be prohibited from carrying items out of the room, because one has moved from one domain (private) to another (the hall). It’s a complicated concept, because there is no equivalent in non-Jewish life (of which I am aware).

      The other problem is that a gated community that excluded people on the basis of their religion would be illegal according to American law 🙂

  4. I was going to make some snarky comment about how it’s fortunate that this came from a newspaper that doesn’t have many Jewish readers. But I guess the real problem is that on W. 40th St. in Manhattan you can find non-observant cultural Jews, but not Orthodox Jews.

  5. Considering how in our area telephone polls are almost community bulletin boards for things like advertising yard sales, I would have liked information on what the situation is in Westhampton Beach and other cities, towns, and areas with regard to allowing things to be posted on telephone poles. In a way all the information about Jewish religion is irrelevant because, as I understand it, courts have ruled that religions must be treated the same as secular groups (yard sale proprietors, etc) and in fact frequently, under the First Amendment, give more leeway to religion.

  6. see?!?!

    This kino of thing – and Sari’s post in particular, which is so interesting – is why this bog is great.

  7. Some years ago there was a fuss about an attempt to create an eruv in Palo Alto, CA. I remember at the time of reading complaints about it violating separation of church and state. I don’t recall how it all came out….[search ] … hah! took 8 years, but it was approved. Interesting that the city attorney said they were legally compelled to allow it:
    (from Palo Alto Online . com)

    When the eruv effort began in 1999, debate erupted in Palo Alto over whether an eruv would breach the U.S. Constitution’s required separation between church and state.

    City Attorney Gary Baum said Monday it did not. The city attorney’s report stated that Palo Alto is “legally compelled” to allow the eruv. Palo Alto was expected to issue a permit for its construction on Tuesday, after the Weekly’s press deadline.

    “It’s not like erecting a cross or a Star of David or any symbol of any religion because all it is is a fishing line,” he said.

    “It’s not symbolic in any way, which is why it’s not a mixture of church and state.”

    Cities such as Berkeley, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles already have eruvs, and “I know they’re quite common back east,” Baum said.

    FWIW, another look at the issue from the West Coast. Actually I think that particular article was reasonably decent.

  8. I would not advise people to turn to the Daily Show for “accurate information”. The snarky interviewer believes, or pretends to believe, that an eruv is a license to ignore ALL commandments, and his subjects do a poor job of correcting him. Possibly, with their talk of “breaking rules”, they don’t know what the point of an eruv is either.

    And, Sari, I have been asked to push an elevator button for a Jew on the Sabbath.

  9. I agree with both your comments, Will. The Daily Show did a better job than the article, but not by much. As to the elevator, (shrug)–some people don’t hold to the accepted practice. It does nicely illustrate how one person’s actions in the presence of outsiders can come to represent that of the entire community.

    • As John Galt would say, “accepted” by whom? Blank-out.
      You should appreciate the futility of trying to pin down “the” Jewish position on anything whatever.

  10. True Will,
    Observant Jews are taught to adhere to the community standard set by an agreed upon Rabbi or Rabbis. What that means is that some things are inviolate, like eating pork, and some up to the community Rabbi’s interpretation of the Halakhah. For instance, a very observant friend in Brooklyn sets her coffeepot on a timer before Shabbos and enjoys fresh coffee Shabbos morning; her Rabbi reviewed the facts and decided it was ok. My Rabbi researched the same topic for me and decided that while making Shabbos coffee on a timer broke no laws, in his opinion, it violated the spirit of Shabbos. Because he is this community’s authority, I forgo fresh coffee on the seventh day (very sad).

    The issue of asking a non-Jew to do work (whose definition is not synonymous with what secular culture understands to be work) was addressed centuries ago and continues to be addressed today. It is most simply and succinctly stated in the Shulhan Oruch, ch. 18. The person who makes a direct request transgresses the law, but s/he may simply be ignorant.