A Fishing Line Encircles Manhattan, Protecting Sanctity Of Sabbath

May 13, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 10:22 am

A clear fishing wire is tied around the island of Manhattan. It's attached to posts around the perimeter of the city, from First Street to 126th. This string is part of an eruv, a Jewish symbolic enclosure. Most people walking on the streets of Manhattan do not notice it at all. But many observant Jews in Manhattan rely on this string to leave the house on the Sabbath.

The concept of the eruv was first established almost 2,000 years ago to allow Jews to more realistically follow the laws of Sabbath rest, particularly one — no carrying on the Sabbath.

According to the laws of Sabbath rest, nothing can be carried from the domestic zone into the public zone on Saturday. That means no carrying house keys or a wallet. It also means no pushing a baby stroller. For parents of young children, no carrying would mean not leaving the house on Saturday.

The eruv symbolically extends the domestic zone into the public zone, permitting activities within it that would normally be forbidden to observant Jews on the Sabbath.

Imagine a whole day cooped up in a Manhattan apartment with a toddler and no electricity. "You might be going a little bonkers because your apartment is so small," says Dina Mann. "But you don't realize it's so small until you're stuck in there and you can't go anywhere."

The Jewish Center in Manhattan maintains an interactive Google Map marking the boundary of the eruv.
The Jewish Center

Mann lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with her husband and two young children. They observe Sabbath rest, including refraining from carrying. She says, "If you're really really really strict, then you would not even pick up your child."

Dina Mann and her son walk in Riverside Park. The eruv boundary runs directly behind her.
Monique LaBorde for NPR

Mann and many others rely on the eruv every Saturday to leave the apartment with their children. Luckily, Manhattan's eruv has never been down. Rabbi Mintz, co-president of the Manhattan eruv, says: "It has never been down for a Sabbath. Never. We always save it at the last minute." Mintz noted that the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is always a particularly trying time.

More than 200 cities around the world are partially encircled by an eruv. Manhattan's certainly isn't the largest, but according to Mintz, it's the most expensive eruv in the world. It costs between $125,000 and $150,000 a year to maintain. Mintz helps raise the funds every year from synagogues and private donations.

Every Thursday before dawn, a rabbi drives the perimeter, checking to see if wind or a fallen branch has broken the line. There are usually a few breaks, so a construction company is called and the rabbi gets in a cherry picker with fishing line in hand to repair the eruv. That's the part that costs so much.

As it turns out, resting on the Sabbath takes a lot of preparation. Dina Mann says the eruv does more than just help her enjoy a Saturday walk in Central Park — it lets her enjoy the Sabbath. "There'a a warmth in the house the minute you light the candles," she says, "because you're rushing, rushing, rushing, making sure all the lights are on, making sure the candles are in there, making sure all the food is cooked. ... Then you just light the candles and just like let go of everything."

Most important of all, the eruv allows her to rest from worry.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A nearly invisible religious boundary surrounds much of Manhattan. It's an eruv, a symbolic enclosure that allows observant Jews to move around town on the Sabbath and rest from worry. Monique Laborde has this postcard.

MONIQUE LABORDE, BYLINE: Dina Mann and her 1-year-old son are stepping out of their Upper West Side apartment. They're headed to a nearby playground.

DINA MANN: Morning. Say good morning, Murray (ph). Can you say good morning?

LABORDE: Dina is wearing athleisure and pushing a deluxe baby stroller. She describes herself as orthodoxish. She observes Sabbath rest. That means no using electricity, no cooking, no carrying anything from the house into the street, no keys, no wallet.

MANN: If you're really, really, really strict, then you would not even pick up your child, which is, like, sad (laughter).

LABORDE: And parents carry a lot of things.

MANN: Diaper bag and all the accoutrements that go in there, a ball, boogie wipes, very important, a kippah, cookies.

LABORDE: So no carrying would mean not leaving the apartment on a Saturday.

MANN: And you might be going a little bonkers because your apartment's so small. But you don't realize it's so small until you're stuck in there and you can't go anywhere.

ADAM MINTZ: This issue that not being able to carry diminishes from the enjoyment of the Sabbath is actually something that goes back a little less than 2,000 years.

LABORDE: This is Rabbi Adam Mintz, co-president of the Manhattan Eruv.

MINTZ: I actually wrote my doctoral dissertation on the history the eruv in America.

LABORDE: An eruv is a boundary made of string and poles where inside, carrying on the Sabbath is allowed. It basically extends the house - in this case, extends it to most of Manhattan Island, from First Street to 126th. Many cities around the world have an eruv. Manhattan's certainly isn't the largest, but according to Rabbi Mintz...

MINTZ: It's, of course, the most expensive eruv in the world. It costs between $125,000 and $150,000 a year.

LABORDE: The Manhattan eruv is paid for by synagogues and private donations. Every Thursday before dawn, a rabbi drives the perimeter, checking to see if wind or a fallen branch has broken the line. And there usually are a few breaks, so a construction company is called. The rabbi gets in a cherry picker, fishing line in hand, and the eruv is backup. That's the part that costs so much.

MINTZ: It has never been down for a Sabbath - never. It's always - we always save it at the last minute. After hurricanes and snow storms and Thanksgiving Day parades, we always save it.

LABORDE: Turns out resting on the Sabbath takes a lot of preparation. Many observant Jews in Manhattan rely on the eruv every Saturday. Dina Mann says the eruv does more than just help her enjoy a Saturday walk in Central Park.

MANN: For me as a parent, I think about my kids all the time. And I'm always thinking about what they need. If you're not able to carry on Shabbat what they need, then it's like, how do you celebrate what could be a beautiful day?

LABORDE: It allows her to enjoy her favorite part of the Sabbath.

MANN: There's a warmth in the house, like, the minute you light the candles 'cause you're rushing, rushing, rushing. Like, you're making sure all the lights are on. You're making sure the candles are in there. You're making sure all the food is cooked. Like, rush, rush, rush, rush, rush - and then you light the candles, and you just, like, let go of everything.

LABORDE: Most important of all, the eruv lets her rest from worry. For NPR News, I'm Monique Laborde in Manhattan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.