Wire that lets Jews break some rules?

Let me say from the start that I have only a vague remembrance of this and don’t mean offense if I get the details wrong. But what’s the deal with the wire that is strung around some communities to allow Jewish residents to forgo compliance with some religious rules?
An orthodox Jewish friend mentioned this to me years ago and said there is one surrounding the metro Atlanta area. The way I remember it is this: The wire (it has a name but I don’t remember it) is strung up on utility poles and looks like any other utility wire. But it forms an unbroken perimeter, and inside that perimeter a religious jew is considered to be “at home” or something similar and can therefore do some things that otherwise would be forbidden. Apparently the Jewish community takes it very seriously and has their own crew to go out and check that the wire is unbroken and repair it if necessary.
So do I have the gist of the story right? What’s the thing called? And at the risk of being contentious, isn’t that sort of cheating? You’re not exactly obeying the spirit of the law, are you?

I had never heard of this before in my life (and half my family’s Jewish and so are many of my friends), but such a structure is apparently called an eruv in Hebrew.

Whether the use of an eruv is “cheating” probably falls in Great Debates territory.

That’s exactly what I was thinking of. Fascinating link.

We have discussed this a couple times, I will try to find it for you.

It is indeed called an “eruv” (literally, mixture), but its presence does not give observant Jews carte blanche to “break” whatever rules one wanted (for lack of a better term). Its primary intent is to alleviate hardships that the strict rules on carrying objects usually create. For example, one may carry things within the eruv that would be incidental to going back and forth to synagogue, like prayer books, tallit, reading glasses, and pushing things like strollers. However, you still may not carry items that are normally forbidden on Shabbat, like pens, or annoyingly enough when it rains, umbrellas.

I realize you cannot search since you are a guest, but here is one of the threads on the topic.


I’ll give you the short version of what an eruv is.

There are 39 categories of prohibited “labor” on the Sabbath. One of these categories is carrying from a public place to a private place.

The definition of a public place, by Biblical Law, is very limited. It must be an open street, at least 16 cubits wide, unroofed, and have a large amount of traffic during the day.

There are many areas that are “public” but do not conform to the strict definition of a “public place” by biblical law. Under Biblical Law, carrying in these areas on the Sabbath is permitted.

The Rabbis were afraid that most people would not necessarily know the difference between the two types of areas and, as such, might end up carrying in a true “public place.” As a result, they outlawed carrying in places that resemble public places, such as small streets, fields, etc. However, they also added another stipulation - if the area was demarcated by boundaries, then one would know the difference and realize that they cannot carry beyond the boundary. That boundary is known as a tzuras hapesach (the shape of a doorway) and is formed by two poles and a wire or string across it. If you encircle an area in such a set of “doorways” one can carry within it. This is what is commonly known as an eruv today.

However, it should be pointed out that an eruv will not allow the user to carry in a place where it is Biblically forbidden to carry (a true “Public Place”), nor will it allow a Jew to perform any other forbidden category of labor within it.

Please note that this is a highly simplified version. The laws in this field are very complex.

Zev Steinhardt

Thanks for the post, zev, that was quite interesting. I’d heard of the practice somewhere vaguely before, and its nice to know a bit more about it.

Sounds like the white line outside the Pentagon that lets soldiers know they don’t have to salute past that point.

From what I recall, the concept goes back to rules about customs insiude a walled city vs. outside a walled city.

When I was working in Palo Alto, CA, several years ago, there was a big controversy about the possibility of having an eruv. I don’t think it got the green light from the city.

Now I think I understand.

An eruv doesn’t change the status of an area (public vs. private); it clarifies that status.

Not quite. Let me try it this way:

There are three types of areas (four actually, but the fourth one is beyond the scope of our discussion):

  1. “Private areas” - enclosed by walls or roofed
  2. “Public areas” - streets open at both ends, at least 16 cubits wide, large volume of traffic
  3. Areas that don’t fall into either of the above categories.

(I put “public” and “private” in quotations because the actual issue of ownership (whether privately owned or publicly owned is not relevant to the discussion.)

A Jew can carry in a “private” area on Shabbos. A Jew cannot carry in a “public” area (nor can something be carried from a “private” to a “public” place or vice-versa.

These activities are prohibited by Torah law. Erecting an eruv around a true “public area” will not allow a Jew to carry there on Shabbos.

As you might imagine, most places fall into category #3. However, there was concern that if unrestricted carrying were allowed in areas that fall into category #3 (which covers most of the “outside world”) then one might come to carry in true “public” areas. As such, they prohibited carrying in areas that fall into category #3. However, they also reasoned that if a person has a reminder or if a physical difference is in place, one will not come to confuse the two types of areas. As such, if an area is enclosed in “virtual walls” (so to speak) then one can carry in such an area. However, as stated above, it will not allow carrying in a true “public” place.

Zev Steinhardt

I read both of your posts and I still don’t get it.

You state that carrying is still forbidden in true public places, despite the eruv, if I understand correctly. In this case, wht’s the point? You still have do decide whether a given street, for instance, is a public place or not, and you’re still at risk of making a mistake.

The idea is that no one is going to construct an eruv in an area where there is a true “public place,” as it would be ineffective anyway.

Zev Steinhardt

If there’s an eruv there, it will stop at the “public area”. So once you’ve reached the border of the eruv, you know you can’t go any further without crossing into a public area. The only time you’d have to decide whether a given street is a public place or not is when the eruv is first constructed, which is why, when first constructing or expanding an eruv, the builders err on the side of caution.

Zev, you’re from New York, so you might know this. Has the Flatbush eruv controversy been cleared up yet?

No. Nor will it be.

It really boils down to whether certain streets in Brooklyn (Ocean Parkway, for one) meet the definition of a true “public place.” If you are of the opinion that it does, then the eruv is ineffective. If not, you can use it.

Zev Steinhardt

OK, thanks. Since apparently they’re installed around urban areas, I had assumed they would necessarily include a street large enough to qualify as a public space.