For Observant Jews in Brooklyn, the Sabbath Expands

When he moved in 2014 from an apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights to a house he could afford in nearby Crown Heights, Naftali Hanau, a 37-year-old Orthodox Jewish businessman, suddenly found that, even in a secular and tolerant place like Brooklyn, the rigorous tenets of his faith now made it impossible for him to take his toddler son along to synagogue on the Sabbath.

Talmudic law derived from biblical commandments forbids doing 39 kinds of work on the Sabbath. In addition to plowing and harvesting, buying and selling, cooking by kindling a fire, writing and other obvious kinds of employment, carrying any object outside the home — keys, books, prayer shawls, canes or even babies — is forbidden. Pushing a stroller or wheelchair in public on the day of rest is also prohibited.

There is a significant loophole, however, that was developed millenniums ago by the Talmudic sages in Babylon as a way of making the biblical law compatible with the practical necessities of living and honoring the Sabbath as a day to delight in. It is known as an eruv — the Hebrew term for an artificial boundary enclosing an area and demarcated by existing walls, buildings and fencing with gaps filled in by wire, or, in modern times, translucent fishing line strung between lampposts and utility poles. According to the sages, an eruv extends the private domain of a home into the streets.

There were 10 distinct eruvim in Brooklyn at the time that Mr. Hanau moved to Crown Heights, but none of them embraced the block of his new home. He remembered that, as he left for synagogue, his son, who was not yet 2, would cry: “I want to go shul, I want to go to shul.”

“It was heartbreaking,” he said.

Naftali Hanau, 37, and his wife, Anna Hanau, 41, in their Crown Heights home.Credit…Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

Mr. Hanau came up with a slightly awkward arrangement: He paid a gentile neighbor to push the stroller to synagogue and to wheel his toddler back home when prayer services had concluded. Over the years, two new eruvim were established, allowing him to push the stroller himself to synagogue, though he was always aware of its idiosyncratic boundaries.

But now, nearly all of Brooklyn is available to him and other strictly observant Jews on the Sabbath. Mr. Hanau can take his small children or visit friends in almost any neighborhood in the borough on the Sabbath.

The new eruv, established in October, makes it easier for Orthodox families like Mr. Hanau’s to move into neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, which had never been included in the smaller patchwork eruvim. Of the 600,000 Jews living in Brooklyn, more than 300,000 are Orthodox, meaning large observant families will feel free to move beyond traditional Jewish neighborhoods like Borough Park.

The boroughwide eruv also allows Hasidim who live in Borough Park to make the trek to Williamsburg to sit, for instance, at a revered rabbi’s tische (literally table) and partake of his wisdom, singing and the symbolic “leftovers” from his meal. Younger families can now have their children spend time with grandparents in distant neighborhoods or even carry a container of, say, gefilte fish or stuffed cabbage for the grandparents to savor.

So significant was the opening of the eruv in the Orthodox community that a delegation of rabbis traveled to City Hall in November to pick up a proclamation personally signed by Mayor Eric Adams granting the Brooklyn Eruv Association “the rights to the domains” within the eruv boundaries “for the specific purpose of carrying on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.” For a symbolic fee of $1, the grant will last for 99 years. Officials of the city’s Department of Transportationallowed workers in a cherry-picker truck to string fishing line between poles high above the sidewalks.

A barely visible boundary around Brooklyn, strung with fishing line from telephone pole to streetlamp all around the borough, allows observant Jews to carry items — keys, prayer shawls, children — on the Sabbath.Credit…Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

There was, however, a significant exclusion to the boroughwide eruv: Williamsburg, the seat of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim, the world’s largest Hasidic sect, as well as several smaller sects. Though Williamsburg has its own eruv, the chief rabbis of some sects based there, including Grand Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, the head of a large Satmar faction, have suggested that their followers ignore the eruv and to not carry anything outside the home on the Sabbath at all.

The concept of an eruv has ancient roots and demonstrates both the rigor and the pragmatic flexibility of Orthodox Judaism. It was developed as an adaptation to the verse in Exodus 16:29, in which the Lord offered the Israelites manna but forbade them to gather and to carry any on the Sabbath. “Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day,” the verse commands.

The Talmudic sages dedicated an entire volume to the complicated subject. The impulse for constructing eruvim was to ease restrictions so Jews could honor another biblical mitzvah — delighting in the Sabbath.

But the ancient sages also had very particular restrictions; a busy roadway would be suitable for an eruv, but only one where no more than 600,000 people would pass in a day. (The number 600,000 was derived from the census of Israelite men after the Exodus from Egypt.)

Three ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish men crossing Grand Army Plaza on their way from Borough Park to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.Credit…Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

Some rabbis also worried that, once an eruv had been established, people would become lax in heeding the prohibition against carrying on the Sabbath and wander into places that were not encircled by an eruv, inadvertently violating the Jewish law.

One Satmar rabbi suggested that allowing an eruv in some parts of the area would inevitably lead to transgressions. “So,” he added, “better not to carry at all.”

But Moishe Indig, the executive director of the Williamsburg Jewish Community Council and a spokesman for an opposing Satmar faction, relied on an 18-year-old ruling from an esteemed Williamsburg arbiter of Jewish law that allowed an eruv so as not to render the Sabbath a hardship for families with young children.

It took two years to assemble Brooklyn’s boroughwide eruv. Buildings had to be designated as symbolic walls, and fishing line had to be strung.

The project cost an estimated $250,000, funds that were raised from private donations, said Eli Uminer, a Hasid of the Lubavitch sect who is a member of the eruv association board. He said the association was raising money to expand into the uncovered areas of Brooklyn, including Williamsburg, and to allow weekly inspections that would assure the eruv boundary remained unbroken.

Eli Uminer, 36, of the Brooklyn Eruv Association, near the eruv he helped create in Coney Island.Credit…Jonah Markowitz for The New York Times

None of the features of the eruv seemed to make much of an impression on a desolate and diversely populated stretch of Coney Island last week, as Mr. Uminer pointed out a small section of his group’s creation. No one seemed to notice the fishing line strung roughly 20 feet above their heads, the barely perceptible boundary that will allow Orthodox Jews to push a stroller on the day of rest.

“Before, on a hot day, they couldn’t take a bottle of water with them on a long walk or take a jacket off,” Mr. Uminer said. “They can now.”

More important, he said, mothers of young children who were formerly trapped at home on the Sabbath can take their toddlers for a walk, or to the park. Or even to synagogue.

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