When I studied in Israel, our instructor in practical Jewish law had a rather quirky approach to the subject. In general, he held that the Talmud was authoritative and that any rabbinical codes, commentary, and responsa that followed could not be relied upon. As a result, even a figure of such stature as Maimonides would not be a source for deciding a question of Jewish law.
One day we were discussing the subject of eruv, a boundary around different domains that allows people to carry objects on Shabbat. There is a whole tractate of Talmud on the subject, but for complex reasons, our instructor would not accept the eruv in Jerusalem. The practical implication was that he could go to synagogue on Shabbat but would not bring anything with him. In addition, since he had small children, he would not be able to carry them or push them in a stroller. We all wondered how he got along with his wife as he left her all alone with the kids each Saturday as he went off for services.
The prohibition against carrying on Shabbat is one of the least understandable commandments for modern, liberal Jews. They understand that Shabbat is supposed to be a day off from work, but how does carrying a pair of keys fall into that definition? In fact, carrying (along with making fires) has a more direct basis in the Torah that any other prohibition on Shabbat.
In Exodus 16:29, God commands the Israelites: “everyone remain in place: let no one leave the vicinity on the seventh day.” This instruction comes in the context of the manna. The Israelites collect it every day in the desert except on Saturday. Instead, on Friday they got a double portion to tide them over. Staying at home means not collecting and carrying things in the public domain. According to the Torah, one should stay home, not use fire and cease from work on the Sabbath. Only later did the rabbis define 39 categories of work since the Torah itself leaves the question vague, but leaving one’s domain and, by extension, carrying objects is explicitly forbidden.
While staying at home may have been the Biblical practice of Shabbat, the Jewish community evolved in the post-Temple world. People would go to services at synagogue and visit with friends who might be at some distance. To accommodate these actions, the rabbis of the Talmud established the eruv as a way around the original prohibition. If different domains could be joined together by walls or other structures, people would be able to move between them and carry objects.
Today an eruv is created with string or translucent fishing wire attached high up on poles. Various communities, including Lawrenceville, have eruvin which allow people to carry on Shabbat. This past October, Brooklyn finally received a unified eruv throughout much of the borough. Before that time, there were multiple smaller eruvin in different neighborhoods that left gaps in coverage and didn’t allow for carrying between the boundaries. Now more people, especially families with young children and the disabled, can enjoy the full experience of a modern Shabbat.
The eruv is still a controversial subject. There are those, like my instructor from Israel, who find them to be problematic. Other authorities question the eruvin created by other communities. One Satmar rebbe has told his followers to not make use of the new eruv and therefore refrain from taking anything out of the home on Shabbat.
In addition, the politics of the eruv has prevented some localities from growing their Jewish communities. Because observant Jews highly value an eruv for their neighborhood, some cities and towns have prevented their construction as a way of limiting the number of Orthodox Jews in their boundaries. Unfortunately, sometimes secular Jews have been the leaders of these eruv opposition movements.
While most Conservative Jews pay little attention to whether there is an eruv in a neighborhood, this concept actually represents our movement’s approach to Jewish tradition. We believe in the authority of Jewish law, but we also believe that it has and continues to evolve as our community encounters new realities. The ancient rabbis knew that for Shabbat to survive, they needed to find a way for us to carry outside the home. As we confront an ever-changing world, the same open attitude will help us save Shabbat for the next generation.