restricted access The Political Symbolism of the Eruv
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The Political Symbolism of the Eruv

Said R. Joshua ben Levi: "On what account do they prepare an eruv of courtyards? It is for the sake of peace." There was the case of a woman who was on bad terms with her neighbor. She sent her [contribution to the] eruv with her son. The neighbor took him and hugged and kissed him. He went and told his mother this. She said, "Is this how she loved me, and I did not know about it!" They thus became friends once again.

—yEruvin 3:2, 20d

The true path leads across a rope that is not suspended on high, but close to the ground. It seems more intended to make people stumble than to be walked upon.

—Franz Kafka, Aphorismen, 1917

The eruv is perhaps one of the most peculiar ritual systems that the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud instituted, one that has very little basis, if any, in biblical law. The term itself is a rabbinic neologism, and the first textual evidence that we have of anything resembling the practice of the eruv is the Mishnah itself.1 Although the Babylonian Talmud attributes the institution of this ritual [End Page 9] to King Solomon early in the tractate devoted to the topic, this can hardly be read as a historical fact, particularly because it is attributed to an amora (talmudic as opposed to mishnaic sage) of the first generation and transmitted by a second generation amora (first half of the third century C.E.). Given that its hermeneutic dimension with respect to biblical law is minute in comparison to other ritual practices such as the dietary laws and menstrual impurity or sexual prohibitions, the institution of the eruv shows the rabbis at their most creative ritual thinking and law making. Indeed, the oft-quoted mishnaic statement applies quite saliently to thinking about the eruv: "The rules about the Sabbath [which include the eruv] are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [about these] are scanty and the rules many; the [rules about] property cases, the Temple Service, purity and impurity and the forbidden sexual relations have that which support them" (mHagigah 1:8).

Nonetheless, there is surprisingly little literature on this practice and its role in rabbinic thinking about the Sabbath. The literature that exists, mostly in the form of passing reference, assumes that the eruv derives primarily from the halakhic impulse toward leniency among the rabbis and is therefore designed to make the observance of the Sabbath prohibitions easier by circumventing their most stringent legal articulations.2 Accordingly, joining an eruv community permits Jews to carry any kind of object out of and into their houses on the Sabbath, and this is indeed the halakhic function of the eruv.3 In contemporary controversies, it is often strollers and wheelchairs that play a prominent role in arguments promoting the establishment of an eruv.

However, as I will demonstrate below, these arguments are hardly sufficient to warrant the creative legal energies devoted to the articulation of this ritual system. Indeed, I will show that the significance of the eruv points beyond the specific context of the Sabbath and its prohibitions of certain kinds of labor. Since the eruv as a ritual system entails forming an eruv community, it also operates as a tool to structure the relationship between insiders and outsiders, and it does so in relationship to residential space. In other words, it operates as a boundary- making device, quite concretely in relationship to the residential space of the neighborhood that the eruv community inhabits. As such, the ritual system raises the question of whether it is designed to function as a mechanism of exclusion and separatism or of integration. Clearly, these dynamics are prominently at play in the contemporary eruv controversies,4 just as they are in the rabbinic texts, albeit in different ways. It can be useful, therefore, to investigate the political symbolism of the eruv as conceived by the rabbis. [End Page 10]

For purposes of conceptual and linguistic clarification, I would like to make a few introductory remarks as to the nature of this ritual system. There are...