By Dovber Schwartz
I have received many vague answers to this question. “The Rebbe was against it” is a favorite. Another common claim is that according to the Alter Rebbe it’s impossible to have an Eruv here. Yet another claim I heard was that according to Reb Moshe’s chumra regarding the status of the 600,000 commuter rule (see below), Crown Heights would be classified as a Reshus Harabim and therefore walls or doors would be required. While all of these are true in some ways, in other critical ways they are not.
I therefore am writing this essay to clear up the Eruv situation. Because the laws concerning the Eruv are extraordinarily dense and complex, even by Talmudic standards, I won’t go into the nuances of the law as I will bore most of you to tears.
Two excellent resources to study the halachic problems and solutions for the Eruv are “The Laws of an Eruv; A comprehensive review of the laws of Eruvin and their practical applications” by Rabbi Shlomo Francis and Yonasan Glenner, and “The Contemporary Eruv: Eruvin in Modern Metropolitan Areas” Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer. If you want a simple short and concise overview of the halachot, I highly suggest Rabbi Krasniansky’s excellent essay –here
For a fascinating essay on the history and evolution of the Manhattan, Boro Park and Flatbush Eruvin see Adam Mintz’s essay here.
A how-to guideline for communities was published by the Rabbinical Council of America and can be accessed here
Let’s begin by looking at the various claims people make.
Isn’t the Eruv a loophole that twists Halacha?
Many people think that an Eruv is a loophole in the law and not lechatchila. This is false on its face.
The Talmud Yerushalmi, Masechet Eruvin, Chapter 7, Halacha 9, states: “Why did Shlomo Hamelech prescribe the laws of Eruvin?” The Talmud replies, “To bring peace.” The Korban Haeida comments that “an Eruv brings people together, and they will proceed to talk to one another.”
The Talmud Bavli in Eruvin (68a) describes an encounter between Rabbah bar Chonon and Abaye. Rabbah bar Chonon rebuked Abaye for not having constructed an Eruv in his neighborhood. Abaye attempted to vindicate himself by saying, “I am too preoccupied with my studies.”
The Mordechai, commenting on the above Gemara, states that from here it can be derived that there is a mitzvah to build an Eruv to ensure people do not violate the Shabbos by carrying inadvertently.
The Ritva as well in Eruvin 68a writes, “A Rabbi should not reside in a city without an Eruv (if it is possible to erect one).”
Building an Eruv may even have the status of a mitzvah which requires a bracha. See the Mogen Avraham O.C. 261-6 for more on this.
The Chasam Sofer was asked his opinion regarding an Eruv. His reply (1) was that one does not need to cite any permitting sources as its construction is logical. Carrying on Shabbos is one of the severest transgressions in the Torah and one who carries on the Shabbos is classified as an atheist and heretic. It is difficult to ensure one does not carry in error, and it is especially difficult not being able to bring one’s own siddurim and taleisim to Shul. The Chasam Sofer stresses the requirement for a community to erect an Eruv to avoid such dangers.
Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolis, appears to be in agreement. He states (2), “I feel we should exercise leniency towards Eruvin to prevent the transgression of the Shabbos by people who carry.”
The Nefesh Chaya concludes (3) one of his responses dealing with an Eruv by stating that practically speaking, people today flagrantly violate the Shabbos by carrying. It is incumbent upon us therefore, to utilize all the possible leniencies.
The Avnei Nezer concludes (4) one of his responses regarding an Eruv, stating, “The reason I am so lenient is because of this urgent consideration that otherwise people may openly desecrate the Shabbos”.
This is very simple logic. If one could insure that only kosher meat is sold in all grocery stores in New York thus causing all non-observant Jews to not transgress the issur of eating treifos and neveilos wouldn’t that be a positive thing? The same concept applies to the Eruv.
The conclusion of all this is that an Eruv is strongly recommended for both social and halachic reasons, beginning with both Talmuds and proceeding all the way through the era of the later Achronim. If this sounds surprising to you, you’re not alone.
Wasn’t the Rebbe/Chabad against it?
The Rebbe writes about this issue in several places. The first is Igros Kodesh Volume 16 p. 307, the second is Volume 22 page 265 and 131 and the third is in Shaarei Halacha Uminhag O.C. Volume 2 Siman 171.
There is also a letter of the Rebbe in which he states his opinion regarding the Eruv. Although there are claims that the letter is not from the Rebbe or wasn’t translated properly from the Hebrew (there are clear spelling and syntax errors and the format of the letter is different from the Rebbe’s usual style) I think we can take the letter at face value (5).
Let’s look at the position of the Rebbe point by point (the Rebbe’s words are in italics):
First the Rebbe strongly supports the eruv.
“Firstly, as a matter of principle, my opinion is that where according the din an eiruv can be instituted , it should be instituted. This is based on the opinion of many poskim, including that of Admor HaZaken in his Shulchan Aruch.”
While this sounds simple, it is useful to pause here for a moment. The Rebbe just said that if you can make an eruv you should. Period. And that is his starting point. Not a P.S., not a by the way. No, this is his starting foundational point. In other words, the Rebbe is quite explicitly in favor of building an Eruv. He encouraged it strongly in this letter and other places, and supported Rabbi Tziner in building an Eruv. His opposition is to using the Eruv.Why is this important? It’s critical because we first need to acknowledge something. Crown Heights does not have an eruv and is thus in opposition to the Rebbe’s foundational stance on eruv.
Next the Rebbe outlines a concern that the modern state of affairs in America causes:
“in the olden days, when there was a close contact between the Jewish community (“the man in the street”) and the Beth Din or Rav, the invalidation of the eiruv and the consequent resumption of the pre-eiruv state of the prohibition of carrying on Shabbos, could be fairly easily communicated to the “man in the street” and no harm was done. Nowadays, unfortunately the position is different. While the institution of the eiruv would quickly become common knowledge, not only through various media of communication, but also by word of mouth, the suspension and temporary rescinding of it in case of its invalidation, would only reach those who are in contact with the Rabbinical authorities, or who attend the synagogue regularly, whereas many would remain in ignorance of the changed situation.”
The bottom line is that the Rebbe says that in the olden times, the “man on the street” had quick and direct access to the Rav and therefore would know before Shabbas if something happened to the Eruv which is not the case now (when the letter was written in 1964).
What do we do with this? Does this mean we should not have an eruv in crown heights?
I don’t know. But some points to consider are:
a) The Rebbe is talking about the Eruv in Manhattan which would cover a vastly larger area than the CH eruv which would be about 15 blocks by 15 blocks.
b) The concern that the “man on the street” won’t have access to a Rav or other source of information regarding the status of the Eruv has been weakened and mitigated. Between Twitter, Facebook, email chains, text chains and Shul websites, people would know if there was a problem with the Eruv. Additionally a special siren could be sounded before Shabbas alerting the community if the Eruv is operational or not. Crown Heights is a much more controlled space and information could be disseminated in an effective and quick way. I have even heard that we can make the eruv out of low voltage wire and keep a small current in the wire. Thus the eruv would have lights on every other corner. If the wire would to rip somewhere it would break the current and the lights would go out. The point is, if there’s a will there’s a way. If you think the Rebbe’s position on anything never changes regardless of how much it was based on facts on the ground, then maybe this means nothing to you. Whether that position is valid or even corroborated by the Rebbe’s own behavior and statements (6) is beyond the scope of this article. But if that is a possibility then perhaps things have changed in the last 62 years since the letter was written.
Many people, myself included, are very hesitant to say that the Rebbe’s opinion on something has changed. However I think that this is a situation where it may be legitimate to state that the Rebbe’s hesitancy on the Eruv no longer applies. Why? For the simple reason that the Rebbe’s own position was clearly based on changing facts on the ground. As he writes, “unfortunately nowadays…” i.e. this is not a shita based on klalim that don’t change. The Rebbe is basing it entirely on the facts on the ground which may mean that shinui facts = shunui shita.
In Europe every town and even major cities had an Eruv. The fact that the Rebbe was hesitant about the Eruv in Manhattan reflected the fact that the appropriateness of an Eruv is entirely based on the temporary and changing circumstances of the time and place.
c) The next concern the Rebbe has:
” Moreover, many of those who might get into the habit of carrying on Shabbos on the strength of the eiruv, might not so readily discontinue to do so even if they became aware of the breakdown in the eiruv; and this contingency is particularly to be considered in relation to the Jewish youth in this country”
This line of reasoning was also allegedly the answer the Rebbe gave regarding the Melbourne Eruv. I think however that nowadays the facts are inverted and point in the opposite direction. Almost all Jewish communities have an Eruv and therefore the stronger concern is that people who come to Crown Heights will carry either because they don’t realize there is no Eruv or because they can’t stop themselves. The Rebbe was also speaking about the community of Manhattan which contained all sorts of Jews. If we are speaking about kan tziva, the Rebbe’s own daled amos, are we really saying that if the eruv is down one shabbas, chabad chassidim won’t be able to stop themself from carrying on shabbas?
Additionally, this concern that frum people won’t be able to stop themselves from carrying is somewhat mitigated. Keep in mind that the Rebbe wrote this in 1964. The frum world was a different universe. There were large amounts of people that were frum yet worked on Shabbas. The Teshuva movement had not really begun and Orthodoxy was on the defensive. In this day and age the landscape has changed and Orthodoxy is on the offensive and is flourishing (7).
The Rebbe’s last two points are basically that the eruv should be done al pi din, properly and without shortcuts. I’m no rav but there are rabbanim who can consider this in the process of enacting an eruv here.
Debunking the Alter-Rebbe-myth that you can’t put up an Eruv in Crown Heights.
[Please note: I’m not a rav and this section is simply intended as a starting point for a halachic discussion, NOT to be relied upon by ANYONE.]
The general concern with an Eruv is whether our streets are a Reshus Harabim in which case a tzuras hapesach is invalid and instead only doors or walls would help. The Alter Rebbe writes quite clearly in O.C. 345-11:
“There are those who hold that as long as there are not 600,000 traveling on it [the street] every day like the encampments in the desert – this is not a Reshus Harabim but rather a karmelis. And according to their words, the widespread custom in these lands is to be lenient and say that we do not have anymore a real Reshus Harabim [and therefore rely on a tzuras hapesach]. And one should not protest against them for they have on whom to rely (and one who fears heaven will be stringent to himself).
These words speak quite clearly for themselves. (Notice that the wording “traveling on it every day” is clearly not like others who say that the requirement is not every day but rather even once a year etc. which makes it much easier to claim that Eastern Parkway is not a reshus harabim min hatorah).
The simple fact is that almost every town and city in Ashkenaz, Poland, Lithuania, Russia Hungary and others had an Eruv, even cities whose population exceeded 600,000. Most famously, Warsaw had a population of several times 600,000 and had a Jewish population of over half a million. There was an Eruv there with no one objecting or creating a ruckus about it. Paris as well was about to implement an Eruv under the auspices of Rabbi Chaim Ozer before the war came.
I am not going into the possible leniencies of mefulesh mishar leshar, the comparison to Yerushalayim, the principle of Halacha ke’divrei hemaikal be’eruvin which according to some Rishonim apples to any disputes regarding mechitzas since I believe they are peripheral. The bottom line is that the Alter Rebbe rules that one should not protest against those who use the 600,000 commuter rule to be lenient and allow tzuras hapesach to create an Eruv.
Reb Moshe Feinstein famously ruled stringently about the “600,000 commuter rule”. (8)
He said that in fact, one does not need 600,000 to travel the same street to be classified as a Reshus Harabim. Instead it is enough if the total traffic of all the streets of the city reaches 600,000 commuters. If that is the case then all the streets of the city are considered Reshus Harabim.
The truth is though that Reb Moshe does not reach a definitive answer to the following question: Is it sufficient that the population of the city be six hundred thousand, or is it required that the 600,000 be commuting on the streets. This is a very important distinction. Even though the population does exceed 600,000 there are certainly not 600,000 commuters in Brooklyn every day. Either way as we are not followers of Reb Moshe but rather rely on the Alter Rebbe for halachic guidance I don’t think this is conclusive. (9)
It would appear then that an Eruv could be put up in Crown Heights using tzuras hapesach. Furthermore since one could use the houses and buildings which are on the perimeter of the boundary as mechitzas habatim, one would not even need to place a tzuras hapesach every 10 amos and it would be sufficient to merely place them in the gaps.
Here is a map showing the proposed Eruv for Crown Heights:
Fine, so we could have an Eruv according to Halacha and Hashkafa but what’s the benefit?
The advantages of an Eruv are many. The main ones listed by Reb Moshe and other poskim are the following:
1. Women can go to Shul and pray.
2. Men and women can take children out for walks, to the park etc…i.e. Shabbas won’t be dreaded and resented. Not to mention the more wholesome shalom bayis which will prevail as this causes tension for many couples.
3. There are situations where couples refuse to have more kids since they don’t want to be stuck at home for the next couple years on Shabbas.
4. Women can visit each friends allowing the men to learn or Daven if they so desire.
5. Many people carry their children a couple feet, carry a key, carry by mistake etc.
6. On Sukkos many people carry to a Sukkah, which is outside and is quite problematic.
8. In general when people can walk around, visit friends and families can go to Shul, a much more peaceful and oneg Shabbas is had by all.
9. Not having an Eruv is a huge obstruction for baalei teshuva and prevents some of them from becoming shomrei Shabbas.
We live in a difficult world where there are rarely perfect choices. Having an Eruv and not having one both have their advantages and drawbacks. The question is a) which path has the greatest benefit to the community and b) even assuming that all this is wrong and the Rebbe would be against an eruv in Crown Heights just as in Manhatan 62 years ago, we still don’t know what the Rebbe’s opinion would be if faced with a choice between no Eruv or a public Eruv as is the situation in Crown Heights. Would the benefit of the Eruv outweight the drawback of it being public? We simply don’t know. The Rebbe preferred a secret eruv. What would he say if the choice is either public eruv or no eruv?
Lastly, I have heard people say, “Well, if the Rebbe lived here for so many decades and there was no eruv doesn’t that mean he didn’t want one in Crown Heights?”
To this I can only say: I don’t know. There are a great many things that happened and were accepted in our community for decades that the Rebbe didn’t approve of. There were even some things that the Rebbe stopped speaking about because people were not receptive. There were also some things that kept happening about which the Rebbe was upset and yet didn’t make it his mission to eradicate. Pointing to the Rebbe’s silence on an issue and interpreting it as a definitive stance is problematic for all sorts of reasons.
I don’t have answers. I don’t know what the Rebbe would want here. But stopping all discussion with a curt “the Rebbe was against it” is simply not intellectually honest in my opinion.
I end with the Alter Rebbe’s poignant ruling stated above: one should not protest against them for they have on whom to rely and one who fears heaven will be stringent to himself.
1. O.C. #99.
2. Resp. Beis Ephraim #26; see also Avnei Nezer O.C. #266.
3. Nefesh Chayoh O.C. #25.
4. O.C. # 265,293, chidushei horim O.C. #4.
5. The Rebbe’s position is corroborated from another source: in 1954 Rabbi Yosef Moskowitz, the Shatzer Rebbe, wrote an article in the rabbinic journal Hamaor in which he outlined his reasoning for allowing an Eruv to be created in Manhattan. See “Tikkun Eruvin Be-Manhattan New York,”Hamaor October,1954 (5:8):11-14.
In the middle of this article he included several comments that he received from the Rebbe. The Rebbe ended his comments with:
“When Rabbi Eisenstadt [one of the Rabbanim in favor of the Eruv in Manhattan] asked my opinion, I praised him and all those involved in this project for the sake of the community. However this endeavor should be done without any publicity in order to avoid several concerns.”
6. There are many stories to this effect, one of them having occurred in 1991. Several people wanted to put together different halachic and hashkafic instructions of the Rebbe over the years and the Rebbe refused saying, “Who will take achrayus that the situation won’t have changed and therefore my opinion would be different but because it’s in a book people will think that it still applies?
7. The other issue that some have is that people who grow up with an Eruv will forget the whole concept of issur hotza’ah. This has some merit and Crown Heights should consider adopting the practice of the Elizabeth, New Jersey Jewish community, initiated by Rav Pinchas Teitz, to declare the Eruv not to be in operation once a year to educate the community that carrying is forbidden on Shabbas. This Shabbas would be an opportunity for Rabbanim in a community to discuss the basic rules of the Eruv and the precise borders of the Eruv.
8. O.C. # 139; O.C. IV # 87.
9. Reb Moshe based his opposition on the idea that are more than 600,000 people living in Brooklyn and that more than a million people enter Brooklyn every day on their way to work (Igros Moshe O.H. IV: 87-88 and V:28:5. ). However the fact is the number of commuters is 235,918 (2000 US Census Bureau Summary File 1) though it is true that the population of Brooklyn exceeds 600,000 people.