By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Yeshiva University Museum has a new exhibit on display entitled “It’s a Thin Line: The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond.” To publicize the new exhibit they had an event that coincided with the start of Eiruvin by daf yomi learners. They offered a curator’s tour followed by a shiur in the law of Eiruvin by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, shlita.
I rarely visit museums of any kind, and I wasn’t expecting much. After all, how interesting could an exhibit about eiruvim be? Everyone knows that an eiruv is just a magic boundary made of a string atop poles. However, if that is your notion of eiruv, this exhibit is for you.
The exhibit starts out with a picture of a cholent house taken in 1934 in Palestine. And no, a cholent house is not a house constructed with dried cholent. Everyone brought their cholent before Shabbos to the cholent house. It stayed warm there until it was needed. After davening on Shabbos morning, every family dispatched a member to bring their cholent home. The picture illustrates that an eiruv in those communities was perhaps more of a necessity than it is now. Without the eiruv there was no way of bringing their warm cholent home. Therefore all the families that lived on that moshav in 1934 had to use the eiruv.
The next few exhibits explained the basics of eiruv construction. Even a complete novice will be able to understand an eiruv after viewing the exhibits.
There are many interesting artifacts on display. One of the artifacts is a replica of a sign that was used in Prague that informed everyone that the eiruv was up. The museum attempted to borrow the original. There was correspondence back and forth between the museum and Prague officials. In the end, the museum received a terse letter that said unfortunately the item could not be given out on loan at that time because it was in use. A tour guide quipped, “The bad news is that we couldn’t borrow the sign. The good news is that the eiruv in Prague must be up!”
A major focus of the exhibit is the history of the eiruv in Manhattan. The original Manhattan eiruv authorized by Rabbi Seigel in 1905 relied on the Third Avenue elevated train tracks for the western boundary of the eiruv. Manhattan’s sea wall was used for the northern, western, and eastern boundaries. The train ran along the middle of the island; consequently one was only permitted to carry on the eastern half on Manhattan. This wasn’t a problem, as this is where most of the Jews resided. The exhibit also details the aftermath of the eventual removal of the elevated tracks.
There are two facets necessary to make a kosher eiruv. Besides having some type of enclosure, the entire area must be considered one domain. To this end, a lease agreement was drawn up with Mayor Robert Wagner as the signatory to lease New York City for 49 years for the sum of one dollar. A copy of the lease is on display.
They have original letters on display from various rabbis regarding the Manhattan eiruv. Perhaps the most famous is that of Rav Moshe Feinstein. His original handwritten teshuvah opposing the formation of an eiruv in Manhattan is on display.
There is an ingenious and stunning original work of art. It displays the boundaries of the various eiruvim in Manhattan from the original one until modern day. It is very hard to describe this breathtaking piece. Perhaps it is most similar to a ceiling-to-floor hologram. At first glance it appears to just be an abstract work of art. However, after reading the sign one can’t help but be amazed at the wealth of information contained in the structure.
One of the oldest artifacts they have on display is a tractate from the earliest complete set of Shas ever printed. Daniel Bomberg printed it between 1520 and 1523. At first glance this has no relevance to the exhibit. A closer inspection reveals that the particular tractate chosen to display was Mesechta Eiruvin. Eiruvin may very well be the tractate with the most illustrations found in Rashi’s commentary. It is fascinating that all the illustrations in the Bomberg edition were drawn by hand after any empty space was left beside the printing. This fact became readily apparent after it was pointed out. Another interesting fact that was pointed out is that although Daniel Bomberg is a nice Yiddishe-sounding name, he was in fact not Jewish.
They also have various odds and ends on display related to Eiruvin. For example, they have a pushka used by the Denver community to fundraise for their eiruv in 2011. Possibly the most recent artifact is a poster from the Five Towns community informing everyone that the eiruv was down after Hurricane Sandy.
The end of the exhibit yielded a nice surprise for daf yomi learners. There is a table set up with four comfortable chairs and two ArtScroll Eiruvin Gemaras attached to the table with string.
After the tour ended, the crowd assembled in the auditorium to hear Rav Herschel Schachter discuss various aspects of hilchos eiruvin. He mounted a strong defense of the eiruvim in Manhattan. It was quite unbelievable how he made a difficult subject seem relatively easy.
One point he made is sure to generate some controversy. The basic idea of most eiruvim is the construction of virtual doorways. There are two doorposts with a crossbeam on top. Usually string is used for the crossbeam. He did note that the Meiri was of the opinion that whatever rules applied to the strength of the doorposts applied to the top crossbeam as well. However, the accepted halachah is not that way. Still, everyone holds that the side doorposts cannot be flimsy. They have to be able to support a door that can withstand common wind. Yet the Gemara establishes a pretty low threshold for what type of door it has to support. It suffices if the doorpost could support a door made out of straw.
Rav Hershel Schachter raised the following point. What if one attached a string to a light pole and four blocks away he attached the other end. Seemingly he has a valid tzuras ha’pesach (doorway). There is no maximum recorded in halachah for how wide a doorway can be. Yet Rav Schachter said the aforementioned halachah is the limit. If the light pole is four blocks away, it must be able to support a four-block-long door that can withstand the wind. You would have to rewrite the laws of physics for that to be possible. Rav Schachter conceded that perhaps only a two-block-long door is necessary, because you could theoretically use double doors. Yet in his opinion many eiruvim in various cities are invalid because of the failure to meet this criterion.
After the speech, Rav Schachter related that he confronted one of the rabbanim ha’machshirim and asked how he could possibly say that the eiruv he constructed is valid when the doorposts cannot possibly support a wide door. The rav answered that the halachah only says it has to support a door. It doesn’t say that the door must be wide enough to fill the entire frame. As long as the doorpost can support a minimally sized door, it is acceptable. Rav Schachter disagrees and feels that many eiruvim nowadays are invalid for this very reason. If the eiruv you are relying on has a very large distance between doorposts, it runs afoul of Rav Schachter’s ruling.
I thoroughly enjoyed the museum and the derashah. The museum officers invite everyone to come visit the museum. In fact it was suggested that daf yomi shiurim avail themselves of one the adjoining rooms to conduct their daf yomi shiur and then tour the museum.
The museum has other interesting exhibits as well, which I unfortunately did not view but hopefully I will on a return visit. The museum is located inside the Center for Jewish History between Fifth and Sixth Avenues at 15 West 16th Street. They can be reached at 212-294-8330 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The exhibit runs through June 30. Museum hours are Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Monday, 5 p.m.–8 p.m.; Wednesday, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.; and Friday, 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Free on Monday, Wednesday 5–8 p.m., and Friday. v