To Err(uv) Is Human…

You’re probably wondering why you haven’t seen another podcast materialize on our website this week.  I could come right out and tell you something outrageous. Like we decided that two episodes is as fine a place to stop as any.  But that wouldn’t be entirely true.

If you’re Jewish and you’re active on Facebook, it’s more than likely that you’ve seen the following “Daily Show” video on your friends’ (or your own) wall. (And if you’re not already Jewish, it’s more than likely that you’re already waist deep in the conversion process. After all, what would be a better way to watch Daily Show clips?)  This one falls into the category of “much funnier if you’re familiar with this Jewish tradition that most Jews in the United States have never heard of.”

Go ahead and watch it. I think you’ll find it funny — even if you’re not Jewish.

The thing is? The story is pretty spot on. The concept of an eruv (a “fence” around an area to enclose it as its own domain) has a long, rich history in traditional Judaism. There are many rules and laws that have been passed down in Judaism and have been studied, interpreted and argued by scholars through many generations as they attempted to wrestle with conserving the traditions with applying those to practical, modern-day use.

Take, for instance, the rules of observing the Sabbath. Deriving from the Fourth Commandment (of that epic film The Ten Commandments), it is commanded that one should “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (JPS translation, Exodus 20:7). The passage goes on to explain that “work” should not be done during the Sabbath. Simple enough, right?

But wait — what specifically is “work?” Scholars of Hebrew Scripture tasked themselves to figure out what this would mean in a practical application. And they found that, later on in the Book of Exodus, there were 39 categories of activities when building the Tabernacle (think Raiders of the Lost Ark)  which were, in a roundabout way, prohibited on the Sabbath. From this they inferred that these 39 activities were meant as the prohibited “work.”

One of those 39 activities is “carrying.” Which means that, according to many traditional Jews, even carrying one’s keys from place to place on the Sabbath is prohibited. Same goes with carrying your 18 month old to synagogue. Or pushing her in a stroller. End of discussion, right?

But wait — do we really want the Sabbath to be about sequestering people in their homes (within one’s home you can carry things; the prohibition is seen as going between locales on the outside)? Do we want people to be able to lock their doors as they take a nice, Saturday morning stroll? How does Judaism apply these laws towards practical, real-life issues?

That’s where the eruv comes in: those who hold by the custom will allow the eruv to enclose a larger area and treat it as one locale. So it’s as if you’re really carrying your keys (or your kid) within one place if you’re within the confines of an eruv. Is it cheating? I don’t think so. Is it a loophole? Arguably — yes.

Is it a hindrance to those who don’t even know (or care) that it’s there? No. As it’s mentioned in the clip above, it’s practically invisible. If you’re not looking for it, you likely wouldn’t know that it’s there.

But the implications of an eruv, as mentioned comically in the Daily Show piece, extend beyond a simple piece of string around the town. If there’s a large enough Jewish community wanting an eruv, it’ll likely push for an eruv. Which will likely ensure that an eruv is put up. Which will attract other traditional Jews who are looking for a place to live which has an eruv. Hence — a larger concentration of (mostly Orthodox) Jews looking for an eruv.

I think we see this in many different communities already. If there’s a large Spanish-speaking population in a certain part of town (in the USA), it’s likely that some businesses will cater to this population with bilingual signage. Which may attract other Spanish speakers to that part of town.  Same goes for other pockets of homogeneous people. Which is why you might find Arab neighborhoods. Gay neighborhoods. Neighborhoods rich with Kansas City Royals fans. Places where people feel comfortable with the familiarity of their communities.

Is this a good thing? Is this self-segregation harmful to the way we interact with out neighbors? Or is it an inevitable feature of what happens when people try to feel comfortable with their own identities? Although I quite enjoy living in a diverse neighborhood, I certainly have enjoyed the benefits of living in areas where my community was surrounding me a bit closer.

Perhaps there’s an eruv around communities — not necessarily Jewish ones — which unify them as one unit, too.

… and if you ask nicely, I’ll delve into the type of eruv that allows you to lump Thursday and Friday together with Wednesday for culinary purposes. Long story…



  1. JCMarch 29, 2011

    You know, they could use an augmented reality eruv. Just set up an online eruv broadcast over wifi but make it only visible to people with smartphone apps.

    But honestly this whole thing reminds me why I take my religion with a grain of salt. I mean really? I can’t do anything normally because of what day it is but this piece of string gives me an out? Man and I thought catholics were the religious lawyers (and I’m a half cath half prot Filipino so I can say that and not be a race traitor).

    1. FaiqaMarch 30, 2011

      I get what you’re saying, but did you ever consider that these “ways out” aren’t acts of exceptionalism but rather acts of mercy on the part of divine law? Just a thought. It seems random, but the point is, in this case, what if there’s an emergency and you really need to break the Sabbath law? If there’s a piece of string… you’re good with God AND you can take care of your emergency.

  2. FaiqaMarch 30, 2011

    It’s interesting how the people who seem to object to this the most are also Jewish. I suppose as a moderate, I can somewhat sympathize… for example, I found myself a little irritated with the woman who sued over not being given time off for Hajj. I felt like, MY parents waited until they were retired, and I thought she was being kind of extreme because she’s only 29, you know? Then again, I see her point about completing that obligation as soon as possible. My point being… sometimes individuals within a group fall into the trap of trying to change the monolithic way in which we’re perceived instead of actively trying to deconstruct the idea of monolithic assumptions themselves.

  3. RenMarch 30, 2011

    I think that without this sort of self-segregation, the world (or at least the US) would be a much less interesting place. If diversity isn’t allowed to clump, it disappears into grey. Can it go too far? Of course. When a community starts to enact rules (either formally or via peer pressure) that affect those with divergent views is when I think it becomes a problem.


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