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Broadening Boundaries

Eruvin Exhibition and Lecture Add Context and Insight to Daf Yomi Study

What purpose do eruvin [ritual enclosures] serve? Where can they be constructed? What makes them kosher?

As Jews around the world delve into the subject of eruvin for daf yomi, the daily cycle of Talmud study, Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union sought to shed light on an ancient practice that is still very relevant to Jewish life today. An evening of programming on March 13 fused the historical, cultural and practical dimensions of eruvin showcased in a new Yeshiva University Museum exhibition with rich halakhic grounding provided by RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter. A leading halakhic authority, Schachter delivered a shiur [lecture] titled, “Eruvin: The Streets, the Strings and the Shabbat.”

“Seeing the issues faced by Manhattan and other Jewish communities in completing an eruv­—when a train track goes up and when it goes down, is the sea wall kosher or not—and hearing from such a wide range of people who struggled to bring klal Yisroel out of their homes on Shabbat takes Torah learning to a unique and different level,” said Edward Stelzer ’90YC, a member of the YU Museum’s board of directors. “Many of us don’t have an opportunity to check an eruv on any given Friday, but this museum has the power to help us internalize the issues of eruvin and experience them almost firsthand by bringing the topic home to us in an immersive, powerful way.”

More than 240 visitors began the night with special curator tours of “It’s a Thin Line: The Eruv and the Jewish Community in New York and Beyond,” an exhibition that brings to life the process through which the rabbinic precept of the eruv has been dynamically interpreted and applied, as well as challenged, in New York and its surrounding communities. Drawing on artifacts that range from tie clips and belts designed to make keys wearable to a replica of the elaborate, decorative eruv holders of 19th-century Central Europe, the exhibition illustrates the complex development of eruvin throughout history and around the world. Modern elements, including light poles and an aluminum gate from the current Manhattan eruv and an intricate string sculpture by R. Justin Stewart depicting in the evolving form of the eruv in Manhattan over time, highlight the changing Jewish American culture that has made eruvin a staple of Jewish communities all over the United States.

After the tour, Schachter delivered a detailed shiur that took listeners on a tour of intellectual Jewish history, explaining how philosophies about everything from what constituted a public space to what kinds of structures could be used in an eruv had developed in multiple veins of Jewish thought. He also discussed the process for setting up an eruv such as the YU eruv and noted popular misconceptions about eruvin.

“People now feel as if when Rav Moshe Feinstein said that you could not make an eruv in Manhattan, he was the major position and the Chazon Ish came along afterward with his unusual position that you could,” said Schachter. “It was not so. Feinstein writes himself that he had original opinions about this subject which were contrary to Tosfot and the Shulchan Orech, whereas the Chazon Ish was repeating the traditional opinions offered by poskim [halakhic decisors] before he was born.” He added, “The Chazon Ish was the one who really made Masechet Eruvin understandable to the public. Before his time, many people really didn’t know much about it.”

For Rabbi Eitan Rubin, it was an eye-opening and personal evening. The exhibition features a comprehensive guide to the Five Towns’ eruv compiled using satellite imagery, a blend of age-old practice and modern technology, which Rubin helped to develop. “It was a tremendous accomplishment and a bit tiring,” he said. “It took us three months of walking and many long nights by the computer on Google Maps.”

Now responsible for maintaining the eruv in Great Neck, Rubin was fascinated by the history and diverse traditions behind the tasks he has been carrying out for years. “It’s fascinating to see all the different periods eruvin have gone through over such a span of time,” he said. “I feel like Masechet Eruvin is what we see in this room.”

The night was hosted by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future and the YU Musuem in cooperation with the Orthodox Union.

“What sustains us in many ways as a people is the notion of our constructing boundaries, and the beauty of an eruv is that it does not lock us in and does not lock us out,” said YU President Richard M. Joel. “It’s a reminder that we’re a community, and based on that community, we can take on the world.”

To learn more about It’s a Thin Line, on view through June 30, visit the Yeshiva University Museum website at www.yumuseum.org or www.yumuseum.tumblr.com/ItsAThinLine.