Snow in Jerusalem: Down to the Wire for Sabbath-observers

The halakhic parameter around the Holy City was compromised in the snowstorm, challenging Jerusalemites who keep Shabbat.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Expecting the snow of snows, we stocked up on enough food to sustain us through a nuclear winter. We spent Thursday night and Friday cooking, and suddenly realized we had enough to feed several families over Shabbat. But who was going out in the snow? Only someone who lives very close. So we invited our upstairs neighbors for dinner, and friends who live around the block for lunch.

The friends around the block had to politely decline. Besides the fact that they didn’t really want to go out in the snow, they realized that they couldn’t: the eruv was down, presenting a problem. The eruv is a designated parameter – in Israel usually marked by wires - within which observant Jews may carry objects during the Sabbath. According to Jewish law, they couldn’t go out with their ten-month-old baby because that would constitute carrying, an act forbidden to the Shabbat observant.

Perplexed? It works like this. Carrying is one of 39 categories of work that rabbis have deemed forbidden over thousands of years of interpreting the Biblical command to rest on the seventh day. That means nothing can be carried outside one’s house, beyond the private domain. This not only forbids you from bringing a bottle of wine to your host’s home, but even carrying your baby, whether in your arms or in a stroller.

Unless, that is, there is an eruv, a legal loophole created to make Shabbat more manageable. It involves making a symbolic fence around an area, usually consisting of poles and wires or strings, so that the entire domain inside it has the status of a walled courtyard – a space where one is permitted to carry. As odd as it sounds, it makes it possible for the observant to carry the most basic things on Shabbat – whether a baby, a box of cookies, or the key to one’s front door.

Indeed, when spending Shabbat in an area without an eruv, some Orthodox Jews wear a key on a string around their neck, as if they’re literally “wearing” it and therefore not breaking Shabbat by carrying it. And when I lived in Tokyo, for example, I noticed that the Orthodox Jewish women with tiny children never left the house on Shabbat, because there was no eruv – underlining the importance of having one in major Jewish communities.

But couldn’t my friend just “wear” her baby and come on over? Apparently not an acceptable solution, unless she were planning to wear her almost one-year-old child the whole afternoon.

“People were updating about this on Facebook, otherwise we wouldn't have known,” explained my friend, Deborah Meghnagi Bailey. “There was an update that went out on a shul list I'm on literally minutes before Shabbat that said it was back up, but we didn't know how to trust that it wouldn't just go down again over Shabbat,” said Meghnagi Bailey, a book editor originally from London. “With a 10-month-old we didn't really want to leave the house in those weather conditions anyway, but it was quite odd to realize we didn't have the option.”

Social networking sites in Jerusalem were abuzz on Friday afternoon over this issue, adding that there was a makhloket – a debate over what to do. The rabbinate in Jerusalem had said the eruv was damaged, and then said at about 2 p.m. that it was intact. But with another 20 centimeters of snow to come, it was hard to know if it would hold up. The rabbi of Har Homa in south Jerusalem suggested that even though the eruv was still found to be intact and it remained permissible to carry, anyone more strictly observant “would have a blessing coming their way,” one of his congregants announced on Facebook.

One woman said she decided not to carry anything just in case. “I just left my key behind and also left some wet socks at my host's house,” she said sheepishly. She couldn’t carry them, and certainly wasn’t about to wear them on the snowy and blowy walk home. “We managed this many times when we lived outside of Israel, so having to avoid carrying this one Shabbat isn’t such a big deal.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks on a snow covered sidewalk near Jerusalem's Old City Credit: Reuters
Jerusalem covered in Snow, December 14, 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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