Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Weirdest Eruv on the Block


I. The Background

I spent much of Sunday afternoon putting up an eruv in my driveway. I live in Flatbush, in which there is an eruv that is a matter of great controversy. In all likelihood, were it not for the social stigma I would use the "old" Flatbush eruv, which I believe my rabbe'im would approve but they refuse to take a stance on a controversial matter in a community in which they do not reside. When I first started davening at my current shul, the Flatbush eruv came up in conversation with the rabbi and when I asked him whether he liked it or not, he said that it depends who asks him. "What if I ask you?" "No, it's not for you." I can respect that answer. The "new" Flatbush eruv is not better than the old one in any meaningful way. Plus, it does not reach my block. So, sof kol sof, I need an eruv for my driveway/backyard so that we can carry there on Shabbos.

I live in a semi-attached house, with a shared driveway on one side. When I first moved to my house, both of my neighbors were non-Jewish so I made an eruv just in my part of the backyard (which connects without barrier -- except for my eruv -- to my neighbor's). However, my neighbor with whom I shared the driveway moved and a frum family moved in. Our wives have been on our case to build a shared eruv and this past Sunday I was forced to overcome my procrastination and build it. My neighbor's wife had already bought 2 very tall, maybe 10 feet, pieces of wood for it.

II. The Expert

I figured it would take at most half an hour. I took these 2 pieces of wood and start tying them to the front of the house, at the point in the driveway we want to start/end the eruv ("a" in the table below). The wood has to be tall so that the string overhead can allow a minivan's antenna to go underneath without any trouble. After tying the wood loosely, I look to make sure that it is in a good place before screwing the wood into the brick with masonry screws. This is when a helpful neighbor comes running down the block to tell me that I'm doing it wrong and I need to put the wood on the inside of the driveway ("b" in the table). I may have learned hilkhos eruvin but I can't claim to know it. So I let him talk, even though he isn't making much sense to me. Eventually, I get convinced that what I'm doing is wrong for a different reason. Then the helpful neighbor calls his friend, the so-called expert in these matters, who says he can come over in a few minutes. It takes him more than a few minutes, so in the meantime I run inside and grab my Mishnah Berurah (the under-utilized fourth volume) and R. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer's The Contemporary Eruv. The knowledgeable friend comes and starts looking around with a tape measure, making sure that the backyard/driveway is fully enclosed (it is) and that the only opening, the driveway, is less than ten amos wide (it is).

This knowledgeable friend clearly knows what he's talking about and has invaluable practical experience in building eruvin. He is typically Brooklyn in his speech and mannerisms. I even guessed correctly which yeshiva he is connected with. I just wish he would stop saying the word "Goy" so much. I know that he doesn't mean it in any derogatory manner, and is just talking about the situation of a Jew building an eruv with non-Jews, but my neighbors don't know that. All they hear is "Blah blah blah GOY blah blah blah GOY." I try emphasizing the word "nokhri" but to no avail.

The knowledgeable friend looks at the entrance to my house and walkway, which is fully gated but shared with my attached (non-Jewish) neighbor. He measures the gates to make sure that the gates are high enough (and raises one possible problem), and concludes that we can carry in there once we pay our non-Jewish neighbor for the right to do so (sokher reshus). Like I wrote above, I don't know hilkhos eruvin, so I ask if that is necessary if there are no other Jewish residents within that enclosure -- no tenants or owners. He insists that I do and I take out my Mishnah Berurah and ask him if I'm misreading Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 382:1. He reads it a few times and says he'll have to look it up and get back to me (I give him my business card). Meanwhile, he sees my copy of Rabbi Bechhofer's book and mentions that he knows him.

We then explore a few options in how to build the eruv in my shared driveway. I want to be clever and utilize various pipes or lining pieces that are already there, but it gets too complicated. So we go back to the pieces of wood and he says that there is nothing wrong with what I was doing but that I don't need an overhead string. What? No string? That's right. As long as I keep it far enough in the driveway, I don't need a string.

III. The Weird Eruv

There are two ways to enclose an area for an eruv (aside from an actual wall): a tzuras ha-pesah, which is a doorframe that has two poles and an overhead beam (or string); a lehi, which is a marker on the side of the opening. For a hatzer, a gathering of houses and an open area (backyard/driveway), in which the opening (driveway) is less than ten amos wide, one can use either a tzuras ha-pesah or a lehi (which the Gemara calls passei he-hatzer). Since we qualify, instead of using the familiar tzuras ha-pesah, we have the option of using a lehi (see Eruvin 12a and Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 363:2). A lehi can be done two ways: either one thick lehi on one side of the opening, or two small ones on either side. Since our pieces of wood were not thick enough, we had to put a piece on each side. But we put them on the front of the house ("a"). I ask him specifically if there is any problem with it. He says no, but there is "epis a shitah" (we were speaking Yeshivish, a dialect in which I am fluent and which I greatly enjoy, the whole time). I say that I'm "not hoshesh for epis a shitah." It seems that I had been doing it right the whole time, except that I don't even need an overhead string.

The expert says something about how, according to R. Moshe Feinstein (and the only reason we need an eruv is R. Moshe Feinstein), a reshus ha-rabim (public domain) extends a few feet from the street into a driveway, so we need to build the eruv far up into the driveway where it is no longer a reshus ha-rabim. Which is what we were doing anyway. But he seemed to imply that this is only for the lehi but not the tzuras ha-pesah, which I don't understand. If anyone can explain this to me, please do so.

The expert leaves, and I start to get concerned that the pieces of wood are too wobbly. Our masonry screws are not doing the trick. That's when I get the idea that the lehi does not have to be ten feet tall. Since there is no string to get stuck in a minivan's antenna, the lehi can be ten tefahim high, which at the most conservative is 40 inches. I look it up and it seems legitimate, but my neighbor's wife (and the whole crowd of neighbors and kids who have gathered around by now) don't think it's right. So I go inside and call Rabbi Bechhofer for a quick phone consultation. Since his book is sitting outside, his expertise convinces everyone. First, he was very surprised that we could get a widely famous eruv expert to come and look at my personal eruv. It seems the knowledgeable friend is not just knowledgeable (which was quite clear) but is a top expert. R. Bechhofer confirmed on the phone that a lehi only needs to be ten tefahim tall. So I get out my saw and cut the wood down to size. That's when my neighbor's cute little daughter (age 6 going on 40, and probably my favorite neighborhood child) asks how we're going to put a string on such a low piece of wood. "We don't need a string." "So we're not going to have an eruv?" "This is our eruv. We don't need a string." She gives me a look like I'm a pitiable lunatic and walks away.

I then bring matzahs to my neighbor's house and we recite the eruv formulation without the blessing (I insist on omitting the blessing because of the "old" Flatbush eruv, and that is what the rabbi of my old shul -- before I moved -- told me to do).

My neighbor and I now have little pieces of wood tied to the fronts of our houses next to our driveways. That's our eruv. No large pieces of wood. No overhead string. No one who believes that it's a real eruv. My wife told me last night that she and her female counterpart next door don't think that anyone else will carry in our eruv.

PS The expert called back and said that I was right and I don't need to rent permission from my attached, non-Jewish neighbor to carry in the walkway.

PPS Later that afternoon, I went to pick my daughter up from a friend's house and saw that they had their eruv on the front of their house. They told me that one of their neighbors had given them problems with it so they had our rabbi (who I could not reach all day on Sunday) look at it and he said that it was OK.



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