High-strung Sabbath loopholes

High-strung Sabbath loopholes
Manhattan eruv. Flickr/Sebastian Delmont

Did you know that the few block radius in Lakeview circumscribed by Irving Park, just east of Lake Shore Drive, Fullerton, and the Metra tracks is considered, according to Orthodox Jewish law (or halakha, to be a private rather than a public domain?

Manhattan eruv

Manhattan eruv. Flickr/Sebastian Delmont

If it sounds counter-intuitive for several public streets and sidewalks to add up to a single, private domain, that's not because the Chicago political machine has sold off streets to private investors. It's because Jewish law, particularly when it comes to the Sabbath, is fairly complicated.

The short version is that Orthodox Jews -- who adhere fully to the 613 commandments in the Five Books of Moses, in addition to countless other rabbinic rules -- believe that it is forbidden to carry any objects from public to private domains (or vice-versa) during the Sabbath. An eruv, which is Hebrew for "mixture," is essentially a rabbinic trick that helps everyone from parents hoping to push their children to synagogue in strollers to those who wants to carry tissues in their pockets on the Sabbath.

Here's how it works: Essentially, the rabbis say that a wire strung around a certain area sort-of makes it like the contained space is surrounded by a wall. That means that the space kind of is one private, walled-in domain, and thus one can carry whatever one wants (except for certain exceptions, called muktzah) inside that area without violating any of the laws of the Sabbath.

If you're scratching your head wondering why white-haired sages engage in such trickery, you're not alone; many Orthodox Jews do not rely on this rabbinic loophole at all, or only accept it in certain limited situations. However fierce the debates surrounding eruvim (plural) might be, the larger public is usually oblivious to the fact that they might even be passing in and out of the eruv -- except perhaps when the construction of an eruv divides neighbors.

Next time you're walking Chicago-area streets on Saturday, you might consider keeping an eye out for the Lakeview eruv (which has its own Twitter handle, @lakefronteruv), the Skokie eruv, or Chicago's other eruvim.

And while one considers the ways that eruvim create religious space within secular space -- and how those two interact -- a new exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum in Manhattan is designed to encourage viewers to consider the artistic implications of the rabbinic high wire. It's a Thin Line: The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond, on view through June 30, examines "one of the most fascinating, though little understood and sometimes controversial concepts in Jewish life," according to the museum.

Late in 2012, Margaret Olin, a professor at Yale University and a former faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, curated another exhibit on the eruv at Yale titled Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv, which was described as "an eruv within an eruv."

One often thinks of art and artists as transcending -- or even thwarting -- boundaries, so it may be informative to consider what happens when religious borders collide with artistic visions.

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