The Eruv: Entwining Public and Private Space

September 1, 2006
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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert

As we approach the High Holidays, once again we face the fruitful yet demanding tension between individual and collective, between private and public notions of religious life that pervade Jewish tradition. Teshuvah , a challenge for the individual all year round, intensifies when the community enters a collective path of repentance. The individual joins the transgenerational and global Jewish community with her reflections on the wrong committed and the wrong suffered, by herself and by all. Without the sincere involvement of the individual, the collective path is meaningless, although the collective path does not guarantee any transformative experience to the individual.

One area that models the complicated interplay between the one and the many, between private and public, is the dynamic set in motion by the concept and practice of the eruv . The rabbinic sources suggest that the eruv has something quite beautiful and deep to teach, something that is related to the paradox we encounter on the High Holidays.

On the surface, the eruv is primarily a tool of halakhic convenience. The Mishnah lists “carrying,” and specifically the act of transporting an object across the boundary between private and public realm, as one of the 39 prohibited “labors” on the Sabbath ( Shabbat 7:2). While to many of us this seems a rather obscure form of labor, as opposed to, say, cooking and baking, this was an important issue to the rabbis and many of their immediate predecessors in Second Temple times. It was the rabbis who devised a way to circumvent this prohibition, by means of the eruv . The purpose of the eruv is first and foremost to allow people to haul things out of their houses and into the homes of their neighbors. While the sages are known for their ingenious ways of making strict biblical prohibitions more practicable, an entire talmudic tractate is devoted to the problem of how to circumvent the prohibition of carrying. At the same time, the rabbis can hardly be accused of taking the Sabbath prohibitions lightly. What are we to make of this paradox? And what of the effort invested in conceiving of such an elaborate system as the eruv?

What does the eruv achieve symbolically? First and foremost, the eruv can be described as a symbolism of unification. The Mishnah requires a collection of food, primarily bread, from the Jewish neighbors participating in the formation of an eruv community. That collection is then deposited in one of the residences in the neighborhood. The Babylonian Talmud ( Eruvin 49a) suggests that this signifies that all those who contributed to the collection symbolically live in that household. The Talmud does not yet employ the conceptual language of merging all the individual domains in the neighborhood into one collective reshut ha-yahid , or private domain. But the spirit of this idea is certainly present in Maimonides’ effort to define the principle of the eruv: “And what is this eruv? It is the fact that all are commingled by means of one [kind of] food that they deposit before the onset of the Sabbath. That is, we are all commingled and there is one [kind of] food for all of us, and none of us divides his domain ( reshut ) from his fellow. Rather, just as all of us have equal stakes ( yad kulanu shavah ) in this place [where the designated food is kept], so all of us have equal stakes in all the places that everyone claims for himself and thus we are all one dominion ( reshut ‘ehad ).” (Mishnah Torah , Hilkhot Eruvin , 1:6) For the Rambam, oneness, becoming one for the purpose of the Sabbath, is the dominant theme of the principle of the eruv. By collecting food from everyone, which in rabbinic Hebrew is called the eruv, or merging and mingling, not only the food is “mingled,” but separate domains are, to form a unified domain that has the characteristics simultaneously of both an individual domain, reshut ha-yahid, and public domain. For Americans, who are accustomed to making strict distinctions between public and private, this conceptual mingling can be quite unnerving, and therefore all the more worthy of contemplation.

The lesson continues. For those who participate in the establishment of an eruv -community, it is not only the territorial boundaries between individual domains that are erased (at least symbolically), but in the end psychological and emotional boundaries between individuals are also crossed. This is beautifully encapsulated in a story from the Palestinian Talmud ( Eruvin 3:2, 20d): “Said R. Joshua ben Levi: ‘On what account do they prepare an eruv of courtyards? It is for the sake of peace.’ There was the case of a woman who was on bad terms with her neighbor. She sent her [contribution to the] eruv with her son. The neighbor took him and hugged and kissed him. He went and told his mother this. She said, ‘Is this how she loved me, and I did not know about it!’ They thus became friends once again.” If nothing else, the rabbis hoped that the effect of establishing an eruv on communal life would contribute to peace-making between neighbors, something that unfortunately eludes many of us today.

The symbolic work of the eruv demonstrates powerfully how entwined the notions of private and public, the individual and the collective, were to the rabbis for the purposes of our religious and spiritual lives. One’s own private realm becomes part of the collective realm for the purposes of Shabbat. The arrival of Shabbat brings with it the symbolic dissolution of boundaries that are normally marked quite distinctively even in rabbinic culture, namely, by attaching a mezuzah to one’s doorpost. The rabbis worked hard to secure the boundaries of private and public. And yet, in rabbinic Hebrew Yisrael , a Jew, is always two things at the same time: the individual Yisrael and Yisrael the people. This is the challenge that is put in front of us as we once again form a community of prayer and repentance on the High Holidays, the always elusive challenge of being and becoming Yisrael.

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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, where she teaches rabbinic literature and culture. She is interested in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and in the role of women in religion. She is the author of Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender and is currently working on a study of the eruv in Jewish culture.

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