Jewish Studies Eruv
Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0176


Eruv is a term coined in the rabbinic Hebrew of the Mishnah (late second century CE). It refers to a rabbinic ritual construct, mostly for urban Jewish dwelling, that emerged at a particular moment in Jewish cultural history and was subsequently developed and adapted to different historical circumstances all the way to the 21st century. Difficult to translate, it refers first and foremost to a rabbinic ritual construct having to do with rabbinic Sabbath law and the prohibitions of weekday activities associated with it. The verbal root for the nominal form eruv in rabbinic Hebrew suggests mingling, mixing, or merging. Either food, or the residential community of neighbors and their residential domains, or even halakhic prohibition and permissibility suggest themselves as possible referents for the intended ritual act of “merging.” The fact is that in its earliest rabbinic use the term refers specifically to food in two different but related contexts. First, eruv refers to the food collected from neighbors before the onset of the Sabbath. In the most concise formulation in the Mishnah, a loaf of bread, whole and unbroken, is referred to as eruv (Mishnah Eruvin 7:10). The collection of food from all the neighbors involved constitutes a symbolic collective meal, and its deposit in one of the residences allows the neighbors to consider their individual residences as one collective individual domain and thus to act in such a collective individual residence as in an individual one. Alternately, in the Mishnah eruv refers to the meal deposited on the boundary of the outskirts of a residential community, marking the distance one is permitted by biblical law to walk on the Sabbath, but which can be extended by the deposit of the ritual food on that boundary. Such an extension enables, for instance, the social mingling with residents of the neighboring town. This dual use of the term for both the “neighborhood eruv” (in Mishnaic Hebrew eruv hatzerot, more precisely the eruv of courtyards) and the eruv of distance (eruv tehumim) is invoked by the plural form Eruvin as the title for the Mishnaic and Talmudic tractate. Elsewhere, Talmudic law also articulates a third kind of eruv meal, called the eruv of meal preparation or eruv tavshilin, which however receives only marginal attention, confined to the interior of household practice as it is. In modern times eruv has come to denote the boundary markers erected by Jewish orthodox communities in cities the world over, both for the eruv of distance and the eruv of neighborhood. Such boundaries typically consist of pre-existing markers in the urban landscape, as for instance fences, walls, or creeks, symbolically repurposed for the goal of identifying a circumference of the Jewish residential community. They are meant to invoke the walled streets, neighborhoods, and towns of urban late antiquity that enabled the rabbinic construal of virtual private domains to begin with. In the case of the “neighborhood eruv,” such pre-existing boundaries are supplemented by symbolic doorways where gaps occur, as they inevitably do in the modern urban landscape, such as in the case with street crossings. In the latter half of the 20th century, the symbolic doorways have been constructed with posts and nylon fishing lines. The boundary markers of the “eruv of distance” had enjoyed some prominence especially amongst Jewish maskilim in the 19th and early 20th century in their various projects to discuss and critique Jewish traditionalism. With the growth of cities beyond walkability, this type of eruv lost much of its visibility and significance, both culturally and halakhically. The “eruv of neighborhood,” on the other hand, attracted a different kind of scrutiny, as it came into public view in cities where it was and continues to be instituted, and requires approval by municipal authorities of various sorts. Especially in the later part of the 20th and early 21st centuries, these public installations have provoked a number of urban controversies around the world. Finally, beyond its nature as a technical term referring to a specific rabbinic ritual, the eruv presents the articulation of an implied Jewish theory of social and specifically urban space. Since the last decade of the 20th century the multidimensionality of social space that the eruv suggests has sparked the interest of people beyond religious studies, such as conceptual architects, artists, and literary scholars.


The interdisciplinary interest in the eruv as a ritual institution finds expression in the cluster of anthologies published in the last two decades putting scholars and artists into conversation with each other. Olin 2011 and Mintz 2014 are focused exclusively on the eruv, combining a wide range of textual and historical scholarship with artistic projects inspired by the eruv. Another set of anthologies in which discussions of the eruv play a prominent role are devoted more broadly to conceptions and practices of Jewish space(s) and place(s).

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