An eruv [air-oov] is a ritual enclosure that orthodox Jewish communities construct in their neighborhoods as a way to permit carrying objects outdoors on Shabbat, which they would otherwise understand to be prohibited by Jewish law (Halakha). There are 39 categories of activity prohibited on Shabbat including moving an object from one domain to another, no matter its weight or purpose. The prohibition is not found in the Torah, but in the Talmud (Rabbinical law and commentary).

The eruv permits traditionally observant Jews to, among other things, carry keys, tissues, medicines, or babies with them, and to use strollers and canes. According to tradition, the eruv must be made of walls or doorways at least one meter in height. In public areas where it is impractical to put up walls, doorways are constructed out of wire and posts. It is these doorways, which often serve no practical purpose, that are what is usually referred to as an eruv.

If the properties enclosed are owned by more than one person, then all the properties must be combined by the acquisition or rental of some right to the properties, and the designation of a meal that is shared by all property owners. The designation of the meal is called an eruv chatzeiros (combining of courtyards) and it is from this that the term eruv is derived. A community eruv 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 Shabbat to carry children and belongings anywhere within the jointly held property without transgressing the prohibition against carrying a burden across a property line on Jewish Sabbath. The legal aggregation is set up to have effect on Shabbat and Yom Kippur only; on all other days, including Yom Tov, ordinary property ownership applies. A valid aggregation has a number of requirements including an agreement among the property-holders and an aggregation ritual.

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. In contemporary Jewish discourse, ‘an eruv’ frequently refers to this symbolic ‘fence’ that creates and denotes the boundaries of a symbolic ‘walled courtyard’ in which property aggregation can take place.

No rabbis dispute the existence of the concept of eruv. However, in practice, some rabbis do disagree about the technical requirements of a valid eruv, and might therefore instruct their followers that certain eruvin are not valid and should not be used. In general, authorities agree that eruvin are subject to certain restrictions: they can only be located in certain places and may not be of indefinite size. For example, a prohibition against walking too far outside city boundaries limits the possible size of an eruv. In similar manner, a prohibition against carrying in a ‘public’ area has traditionally been interpreted narrowly to cover only the busiest of thoroughfares. The sensitivity of utility and public works crews about disturbing eruv-related attachments when making repairs can vary widely.

Many of those living in areas without an eruv are accustomed to life without one and have adapted their Shabbat practices accordingly. However, those that live in a place that has an eruv and are visiting a place without one, or if the eruv is temporarily out of service (perhaps due to wind or snow damage), may have difficulty making adjustments. Equally, those with young children, certain medical complaints and certain disabilities often feel trapped during Shabbat.

Rabbinic authorities historically have differed about the use of a cane, wheelchair, or other similar devices by the disabled. Some have allowed their use even without an eruv and others have not. In recent years, however, the majority have leaned toward allowing these devices, since, if they were prohibited, disabled individuals might attempt to leave their homes on Shabbat without them and therefore risk serious injury.

Loose medicines may not be carried; most authorities have agreed that it is preferable that one who constantly needs medication remain at home rather than transgressing Shabbat by carrying medication. But, if such a person leaves home, then comes in need of medication, it is permissible under the laws to break Shabbat and bring the medication to the person.

Most authorities also allow the wearing of jewelry by women. There are differing customs regarding the wearing of jewelry watches by men. As men’s jewelry for the purpose of adornment has become more common in recent generations, the wearing of a watch by a man is accepted, provided that the watch is visible to others and is not covered by a sleeve.

In communities without an eruv, it is customary to create belts, bracelets, necklaces, or similar wearable objects incorporating housekeys so that the keys can be worn rather than carried when going outdoors. To be validly ‘worn’ rather than ‘carried,’ the key needs to be an integral part of the belt, bracelet, or other item rather than simply attached to it. It may be either an adornment if worn in a manner visible to others or a component needed to keep the wearable object fastened. Special ‘shabbos belts’ and similar items that incorporate this property are sold in religious stores.

The boundaries of an eruv must be checked regularly. If the boundary is not complete and contiguous in every element (i.e., one of the elements of the boundary is missing or broken), no valid eruv can exist that shabbat, and carrying remains prohibited. Eruv associations, in general, maintain hotlines or web sites informing communities of the status of the eruv on Friday afternoon.

Though a valid eruv enables people to carry or move most items outdoors on Shabbat, all other Shabbat restrictions still apply.

Reform, Reconstructionist, and other more liberal branches of Judaism do not call for observance of the underlying traditional rules against carrying, and hence the issue of an eruv is not relevant.

The installation of eruvin has been a matter of contention in many neighbourhoods around the world, with notable examples such as the London Borough of Barnet; Outremont, Quebec; Tenafly, New Jersey, and Westhampton Beach, New York. As the property-owner is the owner of the public streets, sidewalks and the utility poles on which symbolic boundaries are to be strung, some authorities have interpreted Jewish law as requiring the local government to participate in the process as one of the property owners by agreeing to creation of the eruv, and to give permission for the construction of a symbolic boundary on its property. In addition, because municipal law and the rules of utility companies, in general, prohibit third parties from stringing attachments to utility poles and wires, the creation of an eruv has often necessitated obtaining permissions, easements, and exceptions to various local ordinances. These requirements that government give active permission for an eruv have given rise to both political and legal controversy.

In the United States, legal controversies about an eruv in a community often focus on provisions of the First Amendment, which addresses relations between government and religion. Opponents of an eruv typically take the view that the government participation in the eruv process necessary to approve the construction of the eruv violates the First Amendment’s prohibition of governmental establishment of religion. Proponents take the view that it constitutes a constitutionally permissible accommodation of religion rather than an establishment. Proponents have also argued that the Free Exercise Clause affirmatively requires government acceptance, on the grounds that government interference with or failure to accommodate an eruv constitutes discrimination against or inhibition of the constitutional right of free exercise of religion.

In Tenafly Eruv Association v. Borough of Tenafly, Judge Ambro, writing for the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals, held that Eruv Association members had no intrinsic right to add attachments to telephone poles on Borough property and that the Borough, if it wished, could enact a general, neutral ordinance against all attachments to utility poles that could be enforced against the eruv. However, Judge Ambro held that in this case the Borough had not enacted a genuinely general or neutral ordinance because it permitted a wide variety of attachments to utility poles for non-religious purposes, including posting signs and other items. Because it permitted attachments to utility poles for secular purposes, the court held, it could not selectively exclude attachments for religious purposes. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. It was subsequently cited as precedent by a number of other federal courts deciding disputes between an eruv association and a local government.

In general, secular law has dealt with whether and to what extent government can permit or assist the erection and maintenance of boundary demarcations on public property. It has not dealt with the nature of the aggregation agreement or recognized an eruv as having legal effect or as implementing a meaningful change in real property ownership or tenancy with respect to secular law. For purposes of accident liability, trespass, insurance, and other secular matters occurring on Shabbat, secular law, treats the properties within an eruv as continuing to be separate parcels.

One of the oldest halakhic disputes in the United States revolves around the issue of an eruv in Manhattan. Some opinions refer to an island’s reinforced walls against an ocean as contributing to and forming a ‘natural’ eruv, and this view had been relied upon by rabbis in the early part of the twentieth century to permit their followers to carry on shabbat in Manhattan. In the 1950s, a proposal by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher to establish an eruv in Manhattan gained the support of many prominent rabbis. In 2007, the East Side portion of the internal Manhattan Eruv was completed, offering an eruv within Manhattan to Orthodox Jews living on the East, Upper East, and Upper West Sides. There are also two eruvin in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, one covering the Yeshiva University area, and another that is part of Mount Sinai Jewish Center and covers the Fort Washington area.

Another ongoing dispute is the status of two inter-connected eruvin in Brooklyn: The Flatbush eruv and the Boro Park eruv. The Boro Park eruv, from its initial construction, was not accepted by some of the Hasidic community and was rejected by most of the non-Hasidic ‘Lithuanian yeshiva’ communities. The Flatbush eruv was originally built with the support of the Modern Orthodox community and was later enhanced with the support of some local non-Modern Orthodox yeshiva families. It was totally rejected by the many ‘Lithuanian yeshiva’ communities based in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

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