The Atlas of Legal Fictions: Jewish Eruv

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Article published in The Funambulist 18 (July-August 2018) Cartography & Power. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

The Atlas of Legal Fictions plays a unique role in the world of map making — depicting a unique condition that is both a physical reality and symbolic space within our urban realms — the Jewish Eruv.

Bernbaum Funambulist (6)

Unknown to most, the Eruv (literally “mixing/mingling”) is a defined physical area symbolically extending the “home” beyond its walls into the community. Acknowledged as a “legal-fiction,” the Eruv transforms space, providing leniencies to Orthodox Jewish communities by creating symbolic private realms within public urban space, allowing the performance of daily activities otherwise forbidden on the Sabbath. Laws written into the Talmud forbid any type of work on the Sabbath, including carrying, transferring, or pushing objects, such as a baby carriages or wheelchairs within the public domain. Limiting in many ways for the community, especially women who care for their children, the Eruv loop hole was established as a kosher practice to allow people to carry books of prayer, or push baby carriages outside the home without breaking religious law. How? Through the construction of a boundary in the public domain, a defining edge of community that symbolically acts as a communal wall for a shared privatized space — an extension of the home into the city.

Jewish communities build these boundaries themselves, establishing them through proposals, negotiations, and a lease signed with the city. It is a privilege given by the city and a physical space designed by people, not architects. The boundaries are designated by elements such as existing walls, natural boundaries — rivers, roadways, etc or made of commonplace materials like fishing line combined with telephone and lamp posts, fences, gateways, etc. The Eruv blends into its surroundings, attaching to the existing fabric of the city, encompassing portions, or even entire cities, yet remaining virtually invisible to those unaware of its symbols. Although established as a religious practice, the Eruv is urban in every way.

Although it is intended to facilitate Orthodox Jews specifically, it does not eliminate others from being part of the designated space. The consequence is an open, permeable boundary that establishes community, maintains tradition, and yet allows interaction with new environments and other cultures. It is both spatial and social in its existence, a true place of “mingling” between public and private, old and new, the traditional religious practices of one culture, and the modern urban fabric of contemporary cities.