September 18, 2009

What is An Eruv

Time Out magazine has a weekly feature called "What's Up With That" where readers ask a question about some puzzlement of city life. This week's question deals with something I've wondered about myself for a while. Running down Bleecker Street and Houston Street, there are these lines of fishing wire strung up from lamposts. I thought it had something to do with the Christmas decorations that are hung across Bleecker every year. As it turns out, it does have some religious significance but not for Christianity.

The lines are marking an eruv, a boundary that runs from Houston to Harlem and marks the symbolic borders of the local Jewish community. There are 39 activities prohibited by Jewish law on the Sabbath and High Holidays (the highest of which, Rosh Hashanah starts today), one of which is carrying items outside the community. So with the erection of this community boundary Jews can carry things from the local deli or supermarket back to their apartment without breaking the law.

If you want to see the whole thing, it's here on Google maps. In 2007, the Manhattan eruv was
greatly expanded from midtown down to Houston Street. I thought it was odd that it wouldn't include the Lower East Side, historically one of the cities largest Jewish neighborhoods. But some more Orthodox forms of Judaism do not believe in the eruv boundaries and will not carrying anything outside their own community, which without an eruv means their apartment building and walled courtyard.