Several hours before an historic blizzard hit Connecticut and most of the Northeast earlier this month, Rabbi Brahm Weinberg issued a warning on his Young Israel's Orthodox congregation’s website. It read:
“‘Will check #eruv. If power outage on Shabbat, consider down from that point forward, avoid carrying outside the home.” The warning was followed by a Twitter post.
The eruv Weinberg referred to is a symbolic enclosure made up of more than 200 utility poles in West Hartford that allow Orthodox Jews to carry objects in a public place on the Shabbat without breaking Jewish law.
The Talmud is clear on the prohibition of Jews carrying objects outside their homes on the Shabbat. The ancient law restricts observant Jewish mothers from pushing baby strollers to the synagogue and even prohibits something as prosaic as bringing a bundt cake over to a neighbor’s house for dinner.
“The eruv turns a public space into an imaginary private domain,” said Weinberg, whose job is to inspect every pole along a 14-mile boundary surrounding his Young Israel Synagogue and several other temples.
Weinberg was not alone in posting his eruv warning on Friday (Feb.8 ).Orthodox synagogues in the Northeast issued alerts on their Facebook, Twitter accounts, and websites that the powerful storm with warnings of drifting snow, high winds and power outages, could damage their eruv.
In Merrick, N.Y. Congregation Ohav Sholom’s Facebook said its eruv was operational for Feb. 9, but warned that the storm might damage it.
“We ask that you plan accordingly. Shabbat Shalom,” wrote Rabbi Ira Ebbin.
Ebbin said he feared a repeat of Hurricane Sandy. The storm toppled so many power lines on Long Island that his congregation’s eruv was destroyed. It had to be completed rerouted using fences in people’s yards, trees and telephone poles.
“We’ve been seeing a lot powerful storms that challenge Jewish law, but we find ways to get around them and abide by our traditions,” Ebbin said.
The writer Calvin Trillin once likened an eruv to a “magic schlepping circle.” Invisible to most non Orthodox Jews, an eruv is made of materials easily found at Home Depot. PVC strips affixed to utility poles usually act as the vertical part of a door post in a wall. Fishing wire strung between the poles act as the top of the doorframe.
Most synagogues can repair minor breaks in an eruv. Weinberg's synagogue keeps an electrical company with a bucket truck on retainer. But Mother Nature always proves a formidable force. When last year's freak October snowstorm knocked down utility poles across the state, the West Hartford and Norwalk eruv were rendered invalid.
On Friday morning, Art Smith tweeted that the Stamford-based Congregation Agudath Sholom’s eruv was up. He’d spent Friday morning inspecting utility poles where trucks routinely crash into.
“Back in Europe you didn’t an eruv. Everyone knew where the boundary was. But today it’s important because more and more women are coming to synagogue and they want to take their children to shul in a carriage,” Smith said.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler, whose Beth David Synagogue falls within the West Hartford eruv, said there are plans to expand the eruv’s boundary as the Orthodox community continues to grow.
But expanding or building an eruv within a community is not without controversy. In Westhampton, N.Y., Orthodox Jews are heading to trial after the Village of Quogue denied an application by the East End Eruv Association to build a eruv.
Margaret Olin, a Jew and a Yale Divinity School research scholar, had never heard of an eruv until she became fascinated by French conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s work, “Public Spaces – Private Places,” which examines the eruv in Jerusalem.
Olin’s interest in Calle's work inspired her to organize three exhibits at Yale University last year. “Shaping Community: Poetics and Politics of the Eruv,” which explored issues of immigration, property, and human rights within eruv boundaries.
Olin said she came away with mixed emotions on the concept of creating a private space in a public domain.
“At first I idealized the eruv because it’s an instrument that facilitates a community,” she said. “But as I got deeper into it, I saw that it could encourage tribalism, and can be used in a hostile fashion like sticking these eruv poles into someone’s former olive orchard.”
By Friday afternoon (Feb. 8) as snow began to fall on Connecticut, Weinberg had checked all of the utility poles.
His last post before sundown read:
” Eruv is UP, consider suspect if power outage. Candles 4:56 p.m.”