How (not) to explain an eruv

By Miriam Shaviv
August 26, 2010

The BBC is reporting on the planning application for an eruv in Bury, Manchester, prompting one friend of mine to ponder on Facebook why this might be of national interest.

As I recall, the Golders Green, Edgware and Borehamwood eruvim certainly sparked national interest when they were first announced (and, for GG and Edgware, put up), and perhaps the August silly season has prompted the BBC to revisit the topic yet again (in fact, they have missed a good angle about how, in the space of just a few years, eruvs have become completely normal in England, with planning applications moving along for almost every 'Jewish' neighbourhood in London, despite wrangling and resistance both internal and external).

What interests me, though, is the explanation given by Rabbi Guttentag for the eruv at the bottom of the short piece:

Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag said that the eruv would enable Jewish people to push their children and disabled relatives to the synagogue on the Sabbath and to live with "less restriction and difficulty".

He said: "The rules are that I'm allowed to carry in my own house and own garden with walls and a fence around it and therefore if we can designate an area out in the street that likewise has a devoted boundary around it, then that too is a house in a larger sense - and a private domain.

"It's not bending the rules, it's merely an understanding of them and an application of them."

This is, of course, the explanation always given - and, as far as I am concerned, one of the reasons that so many of our eruvs have encountered opposition. Accurate as the explanation may be, it makes Jews sound like crazy people, who discriminate against disabled people and their own children, are rule/law-obsessed (one of the traditional Christian complaints about Jews) - and the law we are talking about must sound very bizarre to those not familiar with Jewish traditions, as well. (I recall in particular talking to some random woman on the train about the GG eruv - long story - and having her ask me whether the eruv was something 'only Jews could see'.)

A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak on television about the Borehamwood eruv, and consulted widely about how to explain it in terms that anyone could understand. Finally I decided to explain that it was a form of 'parish boundary'. It may not be completely accurate, but it makes sense to the wider community and I think diffuses many of the objections the more legalistic explanation is bound to raise.

I hope that as the Manchester eruv progresses, those in charge of getting it approved adopt some kind of similar explanation, because in London, the public relations battle has been a difficult hurdle - partially, I think, because of our inability to explain in layman's terms what it actually is.

UPDATE: This is how the eruv was explained in Sydney, Australia - as a 'fence' and 'private area'.



Mon, 09/13/2010 - 14:52

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Some non-Jewish friends of mine asked me how the Jewish community here in Cambridge could possibly expect to establish a eruv in the city "when having fences all over the place would prevent other people going about their business." I'd have had a much easier time explaining what constitutes an eruv had I too have thought of describing it as being a bit like a parish boundary (though in today's secular society, we might need to explain that, too!)

I do wonder how much opposition stems from people with a similar misunderstanding - and how many non-Jewish people live in eruvim without even realising it?

Jonathan Hoffman

Mon, 09/13/2010 - 19:43

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On Guardian 'Comment Is Free' I saw someone saying in all seriousness that an eruv is an area of land which Jews annex for themselves and which they forbid non-Jews to enter.

It is not that hard a concept to explain, surely....


Mon, 09/13/2010 - 20:51

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Not long ago there were antisemitic comments re a proposed eruv in Sydney - saying something along the lines of "these are the people who stole the Palestinians' land, we won't let them steal ours".


Wed, 09/15/2010 - 10:29

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Jonathan - sounds like yet another example of the Guardian - a once very fine newspaper that strived to prevent itself showing bias, despite its left-wing editorial leanings - allowing itself to become taken over by so-called pro-Palestinians with a not-so-hidden antisemitic agenda. Much the same sort of people as mentioned by Yvetta, in fact.


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