Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

After 13 Years of Struggle, London Gets a Sabbath Boundary

March 3, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A rather proper, restrained, British — but clearly audible — gasp of delight went up from the standing-room-only crowd at London’s Finchley United Synagogue when the announcement was made:

London’s eruv, or Sabbath boundary, would be operating as of Friday, Feb. 28.

“It is hard to believe it is about to become a reality,” said Peter Sheldon, the president of Britain’s mainstream Orthodox movement, the United Synagogue.

Another case of classic British understatement — since the United Synagogue organization had worked for 13 years to get the eruv up.

London finally has an eruv, a boundary that allows Orthodox Jews to carry some items and push carriages and wheelchairs on the Sabbath.

The 11-mile enclosure in northwest London covers some of the city’s most Jewish neighborhoods, including Golders Green and Hendon, plus much of Hampstead Garden Suburb and some of Finchley.

Addressing an audience estimated at more than 1,200 on the Monday night before the eruv “went live,” Sheldon described the campaign to erect it as “the stuff of which TV sitcoms are made.”

On the face of it, creating an eruv appears to be a simple task.

The idea is to symbolically enclose a public space, making it into “private” space — like one’s home — where prohibitions against carrying on the Sabbath do not apply.

Dozens of cities across the United States have them, as do communities in Israel, Europe, and as far away as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.

So what took so long in London?

Eruv campaigners faced difficulties from all sides, observers say: from property owners and town planning authorities, from less observant Jews who said the eruv would attract fervently Orthodox Jews to their neighborhood and from fervently Orthodox Jews who said it did not meet the standards of halachah, or Jewish law.

Rudi Vis, a local member of Parliament campaigning for re-election in 2001, criticized it as a form of social engineering.

“Nobody ever thought, including ourselves, that this would be up and running,” said Rabbi Jeremy Conway, who supervises inspections of the eruv.

Actually drawing the boundaries of the eruv proved surprisingly easy, however, he told JTA while on an inspection two days before the eruv went live.

Two long artificial boundaries the M1 highway and London Underground’s Northern Line already border the area with the highest concentration of Jews in north London.

The fences along the two transport corridors make up the eastern and western boundaries of the eruv, he said.

“Joining the two sides was the trick,” he said.

Shimon Eider, a New Jersey-based rabbi who is one of the world’s foremost experts on eruvim, helped design London’s, Conway said.

Jewish law requires that eruv boundaries be unbroken, at least symbolically, and that is where the eruv plan ran into serious difficulties.

There are 34 gaps in the 11-mile boundary, mostly due to roads crossing it.

The normal solution is to build a symbolic door across the gaps so that it is theoretically possible to close them.

Such doors, known as tzures hapesach, generally consist of poles with a wire strung between them.

The London eruv design required the erection of 82 poles — which in turn required planning permission from local councils and residents.

Many people with philosophical objections to the eruv used planning regulations to try to stop it, said Oliver Valins of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a London think tank.

But patience and perseverance — and a measure of flexibility — won out, Conway said.

“The placement of the poles had to be agreed with householders and councils. We tried to accommodate everyone,” he said.

Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, the head of the London Beit Din, or rabbinic court, explained why eruv planners put so much effort into the project.

“It is incumbent on rabbis to construct eruvim to prevent the desecration of the Sabbath intentionally or accidentally,” he said.

Additionally, he said, an eruv brings communities together.

“The essence of an eruv is to unite, to amalgamate. It is about inclusivism, even for those who are not as observant as we are,” he said.

Attendees of a lesson Ehrentreu gave on the eruv said it would add to their enjoyment of the Sabbath.

“It means we’ll be able to go to my parents for Shabbat,” said a young mother of three, who declined to give her name.

But not all Jews support the eruv. A fervently Orthodox group, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, has banned its members from using the eruv.

“We’re not happy with the eruv,” a spokesman told JTA. “We’re not satisfied with the way the boundaries are set up and we’re not satisfied with the way it’s being checked.”

Conway says his four inspectors will examine the eruv twice a week to make sure it is unbroken.

Eruv organizers will send e-mails and text messages to subscribers every week to let them know the status of the boundary. They will also post information on the eruv Web site by noon each Friday.

Ehrentreu acknowledged that some fervently Orthodox rabbis were not satisfied with the eruv — and he admitted that there are legitimate reasons to have doubts.

“Someone who is consistently scrupulous about fulfilling mitzvot should not use the eruv — but they must not criticize those who do,” he said.

Recommended from JTA