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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The eruv, which lifts sin effortlessly

Harper's discusses the lines of cord that surround parts of New York City so that huge areas can qualify as an "eruv", a boundary that symbolizes a mixture between private and public areas for Jews. There are several types of eruv; this kind allows observant Jews to perform basic tasks outdoors on the Sabbath that would otherwise be allowed only inside their homes. The lines are strung alongside power lines and telephone lines. (Knowledge of this phenomenon has provided me with party banter for the last ten years.)

My stepbrother Daniel once tagged along on an inspection of one of the city's eruv borders. A team of volunteers constantly patrols its perimeter, checking the lines for wear; even a single break in one line renders the whole eruv null. The patrollers told him that the best part of having the eruv was that unobservant Jews like him, thanks to the eruv, would be living in line with a great commandment without even knowing.

See Wikipedia on eruvs, and take a look at the directory of eruvim at the bottom of the page. I used to live inside the Park Slope-Prospect Heights eruv, which includes a swath of Prospect Park for Saturday-morning picnics, but I moved out of it. I love the hand-drawn map, above, of the Forest Hills, Queens eruv boundaries.

In one sense, it's wonderful that an age-old tradition is being kept alive by a small group of the faithful. In another sense, it seems colossally pointless, a misguided waste of time in a world where people are dying needlessly. But then again, I write, and no fewer orphans perish. God knows religious fanatics could do worse than twist wires onto poles. So good citizens, you who patrol the perimeter and keep me from sin, I salute you.

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sun May 13, 04:46:00 PM:
If you have not yet, you must read Michael Chabon's new novel!
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun May 13, 10:03:00 PM:
It's interesting to me that the concept of the eruv creates such responses as yours. It really relates back to the concept of the Sabbath, to the idea of setting aside a "sanctuary in time" during which we withdraw somewhat from creative control of technology and enjoy the fruits of Gods and humans creativity. Is this really such a weird concept to you.
Blogger Ben on Sun May 13, 10:44:00 PM:
Purpose does not equal value.