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Why Do Jews Carry in an Eruv on Shabbat?

Why Do Jews Carry in an Eruv on Shabbat?

How does an eruv work?

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Question:

I recently read an article about how a Jewish community wants to create an eruv, a network of strings that will allow them to carry on Shabbat in an entire neighborhood. It was briefly described as a “legal loophole” constructed by the rabbis of the Talmud.

I’m confused. If the Torah says that carrying outside is forbidden on Shabbat, how can a few barely visible wires make a difference?

Reply:

Your question is a good one—and an old one. Almost 900 years ago, the great medieval philosopher and poet Rabbi Judah ha-Levi (1080–1141) wrote about an exchange between a Jewish sage and a king who asked the same question.1

Before we can understand why an eruv is not a loophole in a law prohibiting carrying, let’s first understand why and where carrying is forbidden in the first place.

The Prohibition

On Shabbat, one of the 39 forbidden activities is to carry anything four cubits (approximately six feet) within a public domain. This also includes transporting things from a private domain into a public one, or vice versa.2 In this context, “private” and “public” has little to do with who holds the deed and everything to do with the physical properties and function of the area.

A “private domain” is an enclosed area. A “public domain” is generally defined as an unenclosed major thoroughfare that is used regularly by the public, and is at least 16 cubits wide (about 24 feet). Some are of the opinion that it also needs to have 600,000 people passing through it on a daily basis.3

Now, if it would be permitted to carry in open areas that are shared by many people but are not public domains per se, confusion would be likely to follow. So, to err on the side of caution, the rabbis expanded the carrying ban to extend to any area, unless it is both fenced in and owned privately. This rabbinic law provides a clearcut distinction that avoids confusion and prevents violation of Torah law. This pseudo-public area is called a karmelit.4

The Exceptions

In order for carrying to be allowed, you’ll need both an eruv and a tzurat ha-petach. The word eruv (which we will explain later) actually refers to food that serves to symbolically transform the shared area into an area owned by a single household. The tzurat ha-petach is a series of structures that transform the area into a closed area. Together, the two mark the area as private. Although not technically correct, the term eruv has come to refer to the tzurat ha-petach structure as well. The eruv is often large enough to include entire neighborhoods with homes, apartments and synagogues, making it possible to carry on Shabbat, since one is never leaving the private domain.

But what kind of enclosure do you need?

If the area contains a proper public domain (as defined above), then it needs to be surrounded by real walls or natural barriers. For a rabbinically ordained karmelit, under which category many neighborhoods fall, a technical enclosure may suffice.5

In that case the wall may have many doorways, leaving large open spaces. Essentially, this is the kind of “wall” we are creating with wires and poles; the poles are the doorposts, and the cables strung above them are the lintels.

In addition to providing Jewish people with more freedom to enjoy their Shabbat, Rabbi Judah ha-Levi explains that the relatively simple route to privatizing a karmelit is deliberate, in order that a distinction be made between the the rabbinic enactment and the biblical prohibition of carrying in a proper public domain.6

The Real Eruv

But walls alone are not enough. In order for an area to be private, it needs to belong to a single household or entity.

This stipulation originated with King Solomon, who foresaw that if people were allowed to carry in public, albeit enclosed, areas, this would result in confusion, and the entire law would be forgotten or distorted. Indeed, the Talmud records that after King Solomon made this enactment, a divine voice from heaven proclaimed the profound wisdom of this enactment.7

In order to symbolically join multiple families into a single household, King Solomon and his court established the concept of eruvei chatzeirot, whereby everyone in the area contributes food (or, as is usually done, one person can gift the food to everyone) to be kept in one of the houses. Since they all share food, they are now one household. The word eruv means “blending,” as the purpose of this food is to mix the entire community together into one.8

Don’t Try This at Home

It is important to keep in mind that the construction of an eruv is one of the more complex areas of Jewish law. Just because a particular area is enclosed by poles and wires does not necessarily allow carrying within that area. Many poles and strings do not qualify as doorways, and many areas are bona fide public domains and cannot be included in an eruv. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that an expert rabbi oversee the construction of a municipal eruv.

Among all the other technical details of the construction that the rabbi will need to work out, he will also ascertain whether the area in question is a karmelit. Such an eruv is not only not a loophole, it is part and parcel of the original rabbinic enactment.

Note:

1) An eruv allows one to carry only items which are permitted to be used on Shabbat and are actually needed on Shabbat.

2) According to many authorities, it is not possible to create a kosher eruv for many urban areas, even if there are fewer than 600,000 that walk the streets. Generally speaking, enclosures that surround entire cities rely on many lenient halachic opinions that are not accepted by all. Halachah encourages a devout Jew to be cautious about this.

3) The Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—taught that an eruv should be built only in a community where the local rabbis feel that it would enhance the careful observance of Shabbat, rather than cause people to be more lax. He also cautioned that an eruv should not enclose an entire city, so that people will know that there are places where it is forbidden to carry. Conversely, if carrying would be permitted in the entire city, people will grow accustomed to carrying on Shabbat, and continue to do so even where there is no eruv.

Footnotes
1.
Kuzari 3:50.
2.
See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 346:1.
3.
Ibid. 345:7.
4.
Ibid. 345:14.
5.
See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 364:2, and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 364:4.
6.
See Kuzari 3:51.
7.
Talmud, Shabbat 14b.
8.
It should be noted that the procedure of eruv chatzeirot is effective only for Jews who believe in the efficacy of an eruv. Therefore, in order to carry in any joint private domain, one must rent the area from all non-Jews and nonbelieving Jews who reside in the private domain. This can, however, be done through a top local government official such as the mayor or county executive (how exactly this all works is beyond the scope of this article). See Shulchan Aruch and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 382:1 and 385:1–4.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous Brooklyn ny January 11, 2016

We are not allowed to work on Shabbat I agree. As far as carrying items that are not work in which we are paid for It is not forbidden. Talmud does not carry the same weight of authority as Torah. Reply

Sarah Houston, Tx January 7, 2016

Without the eruv, mothers of small children cannot go to services at all. She cannot carry anything, not even a child. She also cannot push a stroller. With the Eruv, she can put two children into a twin stroller and carry a third on her back and a fourth in her arms.

An eruv is one way to manage carrying a key to our home.

Also, when it rains, an eruv permits an umbrella to be carried, according to some opinions. Reply

joe August 19, 2017
in response to Sarah:

You can't use umbrellas on Shabbat Reply

Yakov January 5, 2016

What about the contractual part? I understand that, in order to have a proper eruv, something has to be enacted by the community. Reply

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