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For the uninitiated, and for those who are unfamiliar with the advanced halachic concepts the knowledge of which is required in order to understand hilchot Eiruvin — how would you explain the purpose and function of an Eruv without making it the seem like an easy way for Jews to get away with violating halacha?

("Eruv" in the context of this question is the halachic device whereby used to permit carrying outside on Shabbat in a place where it would have been forbidden to carry in the absence of the Eruv.)

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the question should be more specific in order to exclude eruv tavshilin, you should be more clear on which eruv you are talking about –  Avraham May 14 '11 at 22:16
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@Avraham: when you get down to it, though, the same question could be applied to that (and eruv techumin) as well. –  Alex May 15 '11 at 6:09
    
Added clarification to question –  Yaakov Ellis May 15 '11 at 6:24

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I assume you are talking about the "string" that is commonly referred to as an eruv. At the expense of over-simplifying:

Generally, a reshus hayachid is an area which is mostly enclosed and contains no breaches. A breach is an opening larger than 10 cubits wide. However, an opening that is more than 10 cubits is not considered a breach if it is formed as an entrance way- which includes 2 "posts" and a crossbar.

The sages forbade carrying in an open area (breached), even when not classified as the biblically restricted public domain, because of it's similarity to public domains (no walls). An allowance was made for areas which indicated a similarity to a private domain through making it figuratively unbreached. This is done through a series of entrance ways around the area using "poles" (lechi) and "crossbars". Since there is no minimum thickness for these, a thin, but sturdy, wire is used.

Unless the area is private property, a separate issue still exists. The sages forbade carrying in an area with multiple families residences since it resembles a public domain even if there are walls (it is public). An allowance was made where there was an indication that this domain is not public- called Eruv. This is done by one head of a household acquiring bread (meal food) for everyone in the area. Based on the idea that a person's home is where his food is, everyone now "lives" in a single residence where the bread is. (Practically, this is done by the Rav, remains in the shul, and is done with matzos so they don't have to be replaced as bread stales quickly.)

There are stricter and more lenient opinions.

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Funny eruv clip from the Daily Show: thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-march-23-2011/the-thin-jew-line –  YDK May 15 '11 at 5:05
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This does not seem at all to me like a simple way to explain the concept of an 'Eruv to someone unfamiliar with it, nor does it sound to me like it gets out of the problem of sounding like a cheap loophole. But I could be alone in feeling that way. Obviously, this was chosen as the best answer. –  Seth J Mar 25 '12 at 2:38
    
I agree with your first point. My answer was intended for those who know about hotza'a and reshuyos, but not about how eruvin work. I don't think I can do justice to the subject on this site for those who don't. As for your second point, perhaps I didn't emphasize it enough, but the idea was that the prohibition of carrying was only a rabbinic institution based on reason X with an allowance if circumstances are formally structured where X won't apply (X being a mistaken assumption that carrying is permitted in a public domain). –  YDK Mar 25 '12 at 4:30

I think the first step to counter that assumption would be to point out that it's not easy. Erecting it and maintaining it, along with the constant inspections that are necessary, are hard work. I can't claim to be an expert in advanced halacha by any means, but it seems a practical solution to a difficult problem raised by modernity.

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Welcome to Judaism.SE, and thanks very much for this insight! –  Isaac Moses May 15 '11 at 2:17

Another point is to note that an eruv only allows us to circumvent a rabbinical safeguard, not the original Torah law.

The Torah prohibits carrying in a reshus harabbim (public domain); there are various criteria that define a place as such, but whatever it is, a reshus harabbim cannot be enclosed by an eruv.

The rabbis later extended the prohibition to areas similar to a reshus harabbim, which they called karmelis. Most city streets, squares, etc., fall into this category.

So just as (lehavdil) the same Congress that enacts, say, certain income-tax brackets also enacts various exceptions to them, and there is nothing wrong with structuring your business deals to take advantage of those exceptions - in much the same way, it is perfectly in order to use the rabbis' own device of an eruv in order to permit something that they themselves forbade.

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Alex, I didn't include the idea that an eruv cannot be placed in a reshus harabbim because this is not universal. My Rav (who has been machshir many eruvin in the US) holds that it can, based on historical usages. The reasoning is beyond the scope of this comment. –  YDK May 15 '11 at 5:22

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