Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Lesson from Masechet Eruvin: Balancing Leniencies in Jewish Law with Insuring Our Children Do Not Forget How to Practice their Judaism

One of the Jewish areas of law that has often puzzled me is that of Eiruv, that set of rules and regulations that govern movement and transporting of things on Shabbat. For many Jewish practitioners, this is not something that is often on the radar screen. Yet, for those of us who do worry about this defining element of domain in which we can walk our strollers, carry food, or just hold onto our house key, this is a factor of our lives every week on Shabbat. Let’s begin with the fact that moving our selves or things that we may wish or need to use in an unfettered manner is one of the 39 defined areas of WORK that are proscribed on Shabbat according to Jewish Law. We are not the only ones who have difficulty finding a category into which Transportation and Transporting should properly be placed. Even in the United States Government, the history of this department and what comes under it and what does not as well as who supervises it has shown interesting developments through the history of our government, leading to questions of its status not unlike those in Jewish law.

So what is the big deal in moving one self or something in one’s possession from place to place? After all, you are not changing its status, creating anything, destroying anything, improving it (generally, unless it is plants for example, that need sunlight), or in any way truly altering its substance, as IS the case in the other 38 forms of Melacha (work) as defined by Shabbat observance guidelines. It is clear that this was puzzling as well to the Rabbis and authorities of the Mishnah and Gemara as indicated in the rather long and detailed discussions dedicated to this issue. And further, how can placing a string with posts (what is called an Eruv, and is actually one of three types of categories in declaring such domain) around a community to define it as such override so many proscribed actions associated with moving things or people?

Within the laws of Eiruv, those actions or intentional initiatives that effect movement of objects on Shabbat are described in great detail and often, there are NOT clear conclusions reached, or alternatively, the discussion ends with one practice being accepted by some authorities while another one is the custom of yet others. This tells me something – namely that the sanctity of Shabbat is so important that every change one makes, including movement, is to be a conscious affair – and yet, we are not supposed to get so lost in the details and proscriptions that we lose the joy and richness of Shabbat. Therefore, the deliberations are valid, while we are to be careful in terms of not observing every possible level of strict adherence excessively. The point is NOT to limit our lives to the point of discomfort, but rather to adhere to the nature and the different domain of time that is Shabbat by thinking about and making pointed differences in our domain of movement on Shabbat.

Within the laws of Eiruv, I found the expression of the following three elements that are present within the context of many detailed discussions about what may or may not be moved from this type of domain to another specified area:

a) The use of Eiruv is to enhance and increase one’s joy and not create a burden;

b) When leniencies can be used, they should be implemented; and

c) We should maintain laws of Eiruv so our children do not forget its use and purpose.

Within the many stringencies that are presented, there are also a great deal of practical details that is needed and appropriate for the reality of the time and the way in which people lived. Access to bodies of water (remembering that this is BIP – Before Indoor Plumbing), placement of food (in this age of BR, Before Refrigeration), movement of utensils, walking to a designated location and so many other aspects of daily life will look different on Shabbat because the essence of Shabbat itself is so different.

Yet within this framework, it is often determined who can use what area for transporting of things that are used according to who benefits the most. In other words, if one has to climb a high wall to get to something, this is difficult and therefore its being allowed is a great source of discussion. Will the acquisition of said object take away from the rest and re-creation of Shabbat? Therefore, judgments offered by the Rabbis of the Talmud are based on “who gets comfort and enjoyment through the use of X” in many cases.

As a ritualistically observant Jew, I am very aware that movement of items and their use, so taken for granted on weekdays, IS INDEED a conscious and intentional matter on Shabbat. Further, I do not think that this is not a good thing. What many people may look at as inconveniences is actually one of the things that make Shabbat so special. If Shabbat is, as has been suggested, G-d’s weekly STOP SIGN, then using that to think about our selves and our movement makes sense to me in the context of intentional living.

Another teaching that often peppers the discussions and deliberations of Masechet Eiruv is that when one can use a leniency, one should do so. I am often so amazed at how individuals in our community will in fact go for the most restrictive understanding of Jewish Law when in fact there are often such warnings to not use too many stringencies. This is to make our lives comfortable and meaningful (as indicated in topic #1 above), not be an obstacle course. I think we would do well to remember this aspect of Jewish Law – it is NOT a matter of who can be the most strict in all cases, but rather how we achieve meaningful observance!

Finally, we are to teach and use the laws of Eiruv intentionally so that our children will not forget them. What a lovely idea! We should observe and live in a way that our children will remember and utilize in their lives. Now where have I heard that before?!? It is also important to remember that our children will observe not just what we practice but how we do so and how we accept the observances and practices of others, as did the Rabbis of the Talmud. No, our children should not forget the practices that have tied generations one to the other, nor should they forget the humility and questions, some of which are still not resolved, about those practices.

After this intensive study, I know I will never look at this string that wraps and defines my community in the same way again, and will feel differently about preparing my Eiruv Tavshilin for Hagim/Shabbat observances. Yes, the details of the observances are important, but even more so is the notion of how this limitation of movement better facilitates the joy, rest and remembrance of so much that is important on the Shabbat day.

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