Between City and Desert: The Eruv

“Two main models of space are implicit in the Talmud and earlier in the Bible: the City and the Desert. They represent the two poles of existence that define the geographical matrix of Jewish history: kingdom and placelessness. Mediating between the two, the eruv* creates a system that gives them a shared urban form and condition. The desert, the ultimate state of placelessness, becomes a unifying condition which leads to the pursuit of a place and stability. An aggregate of tribes, fleeing from slavery in Egypt and on their way tohe ‘promised land’, is transformed into a nation by a set of laws and commandments, the Torah. Placelessness was seen as a temporary and preparatory state in the process of transforming the nomadic tribes into a nation of settlers. The laws of the Torah were formed in the desert but aspired to a different condition – settlement and stability. Paradoxically, it is in the description of the exodus from Egypt and the flight through the desert of Sinai that the question of what defines a place arises for the first time in the Bible. Within the Jewish legal system laws were always tied to places; in the desert thay had to relate to places that were as yet unattainable.

The nomad’s space – ‘his place’ – is not tied to a specific location. Thus the notion of place had to be divorced from a fixed geographical definition, and became a portable entity. The eruv is a means of creating such an abstract notion of space, space which can be deployed wherever it is needed – portable, dynamic and private space. After the settlement, the temple that was built in Jerusalem became the focal point of the Jewish nation, around which their entire religious life revolved. The Temple epitomizes the significance of architecture as a means of unifying a nation. It became the Jewish symbol of settlement and urban life.

By the year AD70, after four years of Jewish uprising against the Roman empire, the Temple had been razed and Jerusalem burnt down. In AD135 Jews were denied access to the city. The primary ‘place’ had been annihilated and the nation found itself again in the placelessness of the desert. The Diaspora had begun: the ‘world [was] at the end of an old and long established order and at the beginning of an age lacking all precedent, all points of reference and orentation … In the age beyond catastrophe the problem is to reorder a world off couse and adrift.’
Their material culture in ruins, Jewish thinkers formulated a new, updated set of laws, in an attempt to revive the practice of Judaism centred on an idealistic vision of the future – the reappropriation of the ‘place’. The first part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, is a code of laws, a circa AD200, made up from legal traditions extending back two centuries. Again, the condition of placelessness had produced a set of laws that were incompatible with the needs of the people – the rabbis of the Mishna were advocating stability and settlement to a people who lacked the means of achieving it….

Because the word ‘place’ had not been previously defined, a set of rules had to be formulated to determine what constitutes places and domains. ‘Masechet Eruvin’, the volume of the Talmud which is devoted to the eruv, constitutes a vast treatise on a single word in the Bible – ‘place’. It defines and distinguishes between different domains, and states the laws pertaining to each. The domains are defined in terms of signifiers relating to the two conditions ‘city’ and ‘desert’. These definitions disregard the use of the spaces and their ownership, and rely completely on their representational aspects – their shapes, sizes and the elements which constitute their boundaries…
The eruv uses a chain of signifiers to turn the city into a private space. The ultimate private spaces is the Devir. Thus it is necessary to ‘build’ the Temple over the city. Because of the ‘technical’ difficulties of doing so, the Temple was reduced, in the Talmud, to its roof, as a sign representing the Temple. The method used to signify a roof over the city is to make a wall around it. Thus the eruv proceeds from the absurd act of making a roof over the city by building a wall. Every walled space has openings in it. In the representation of the roof, doorways are therefore equivalent to walls: a series of doorways represents a continuous solid wall. The city is circumscribed and delimited by a ‘wall’ made in ‘the shape of the door’, with its measurements taken from those of the Gate of the Devir – ten cubits hight and at least three wide. In this way each door signifies the Gate, and entering teh eruv becomes a holy act. The shapes of the doors are made according to the techniques used to build the Temple, namely, two posts and a cross beam. The posts and the beams can be made of any material of any thickness, as long as they are capable of withstanding an ordinary wind – a light cord stretched over thin poles is adequate. What becomes evident is that the construction of the boundary approximates to an infinite chain of symbols that function independently of material support: from a private place to the Temple, from the Temple to a roof, from a roof to a wall, from a wall to gates, from gates to the shape of a door, from a door to a post and beam, from a post and beam to a cord….
Jewish law forbids a whole range of work on the Sabbath, formal employment as well as travel, the spending of money, and the carrying of objects outside the home. Movement in public spaces on the Sabbath is severly restricted by laws stated in both the Bible and the Talmud. Movement and the carrying of objects are not restricted within the private domain. Law is bound to space, and when the definition of a space changes, so too does its programme. If an urban space is designated as private, movement and carrying become permissible within that space. By redefining the space, the eruv redefines the behaviour which is permissible within it, earning it the nickname of ‘the magic schlepping circle’.
The eruv shifts the current notion and meaning of the private and the public in the urban landscape. Public space is not the space of exchange and activity but a restrictive space of limitation. Private space, expanded to include to public domain, becomes the space of liberation and interaction. In the case of the eruv it does not, however, entail ownership. The space is symbolically private in terms of Jewish law, but in terms of civil law it remains public….
The eruv is the ritual reconstitution of a lost place, framed as law and embodied as a book. Within the Diaspora, therefore, it was never a particular urban site, but a means of siting. It links, as a proposal, the daily life and public policy of a group of north London suburbs with concerns which are particular to Jewish life and identity. The London eruv offers a sign system which revalues and indeed sanctifies street furniture and other mundane elements of the area, making them intelligible in terms of the lost Temple of Jerusalem. By eliminating the difference between the public and the private domain on the Sabbath, the eruv brings about, for the Jewish community, social liberation and an increase in the use of and interaction within the public sphere.
The eruv proposes interventions in the city which are small-scale, strategic and for the most part non-material. It intervenes by means of decisions about readings of the city, rather than reconstructing it so that it may be reread. Thus it provides a model for pluralist uses of the city which do not exclude other readings of the same object. It opposes the idea of the fundamental equivalence of one function and one object, or of one meaning and one object. As such, it represents a contribution to contemporary urbanism, Leaving behind its religious origins in Talmudic interpretation, the eruv has lessons to teach the Western city in terms of the economy if significations, boundaries, and the distinction between inside and outside, on the one hand, and the scarcity of buildings and land on the other.
The eruv creates a modern urban form and condition out of the opposition that was set in the Talmud between the Temple and the desert, and temporarily defines the territories relating to them. The conception of the temple appropriates a symbolic urban ‘private’ space within the homogeneity of the urban desert, which lacks all signification. Such a reading is made possible by the way the Talmud defines the city: it assumes that the city does not exist in its physical embodiment alone, and that its material elements are always pointing towards something else. Thus the eruv bridges two cities – one that is perceived and tangible, the other aesthetically ideal. The urban dweller appropriates the city he lives in. He deciphers but must also write each new interpretative framework. A second metaphorical or ‘mobile’ city is overlaid upon the existing one by the practice of moving through the city.
The eruv’s effectiveness lies in its economy of construction, for it relies on the abundance of elements already existing in the city. The intervention occurs mainly between the physical elements and their signification, the space and its laws and programme.
The eruv, in temporarily resurrecting the Temple out of the desert of the modern city, whether stretched as a line or built in stone, exhibits the limit and the use by which the material and the metaphoric encounter each other in cities. It registers in the visible world the outcome of an encounter that would otherwise remain intangible.”
From Manuel Herz and Eyal Weizman “Between City and Desert”. The full text is available on-line at:
* “An eruv (Hebrew: עירוב‎, “mixture”, also transliterated as eiruv or erub, plural: eruvin) is a ritual enclosure that some communities construct in their neighborhoods as a way to permit Jewish residents or visitors to carry certain objects outside their own homes on Sabbath and Yom Kippur. An eruv accomplishes this by integrating a number of private and public properties into one larger private domain, thereby countermanding restrictions on carrying objects from the private to the public domain on Sabbath and holidays… According to tradition, the eruv must be made of walls or doorways at least ten tefachim in height, or approximately 1 m (40 inches). In public areas where it is impractical to put up walls, doorways are constructed out of wire and posts… In modern times, when housing is not typically organized into walled courtyards, rabbinic interpretation has permitted this requirement to be met by creating a continuous wall or fence, real or symbolic, surrounding the area to be aggregated. The fence is required to have certain properties and consist of structural elements such as walls or doorframes. When the fence is symbolic, the structural elements are often symbolic “doorframes” made of wire, with two vertical wires (often connected to utility poles) and one horizontal wire on top connecting them (often using utility wires). The use of symbolic elements permits an eruv to make use of utility poles and the like to enclose an entire neighborhood of a modern city within the legal aggregation. In contemporary Jewish discourse, “an eruv” frequently refers to this symbolic “fence” that creates and denotes the boundaries of a symbolic “walled courtyard” in which a halakhicly (from “halakha,” meaning the body of Jewish law) valid property aggregation can take place, rather than to the aggregation or legal status of the properties.”


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