Sabbath made 'freer' for Orthodox Jews Enclosure: The condition of an eruv is vital for those who observe the Sabbath.


The hot line telephone started ringing just after noon yesterday as concerned Orthodox Jews checked that the Baltimore County eruv is intact so they can enjoy a relaxed Sabbath.

Shmuel Siegel, 18, who spent more than two hours checking the boundaries, assured callers that all was well.

Since last spring, the eruv, a symbolic enclosure, has bounded a large area of northwestern Baltimore County. Created to help attract more Orthodox Jews to the county, the eruv establishes a "private domain" in which Sabbath restrictions against "work" from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday are relaxed -- very slightly.

For example, within the eruv, which is considered "private" and a symbolic expansion of the home, the Orthodox are permitted to carry keys, food or books for Sabbath use or to wheel baby strollers, all considered "work" and forbidden outside a private domain.

"It makes things freer for people. They're able to move about more freely, especially women with children," which makes the area attractive to observant Jewish families, said Rabbi Simcha Shafran, 72, of Adath Yeshurun-Mogen Abraham Congregation, off Old Court Road near Interstate 795.

The new eruv, established by four Orthodox congregations, basically competes for new residents with the Park Heights eruv, which was created in 1981 and covers northwestern Baltimore and part of the adjacent suburbs.

Orthodox leaders have discussed expanding the two eruvs until they connect but no decisions have been reached, said Shafran, a leader in the local movement.

Baltimore's eruv is one of the largest among about 20 North American Jewish communities that have them. The Park Heights eruv has attracted a significant number of new residents, and Shafran expects the same in the county zone, which embraces the area from the Beltway to McDonogh Road and from McDonogh Road and I-795 to Liberty Road.

Housing generally is more expensive in this area than in the city eruv, and that has attracted a growing number of out-of-staters, particularly from New York, the rabbi said.

Orthodox Jews frequently have large families and "we have very good [Jewish] schooling for boys and girls here. There are several choices for Orthodox education," he said. "We want to entice Orthodox Jews to move into our area. We are trying to revive the area for observant Jews. We are trying to advertise that the eruv is here."

Although some non-Jews might regard the eruv as a loophole, the Orthodox don't see it that way.

Jewish religious law defines 39 kinds of "work" that observant Jews are not permitted to do during the 25-hour Sabbath from evening Friday until evening Saturday, such as making fire, which includes turning on an electric light, Shafran said.

But the Orthodox apply modern technology, including using electric timers that turn on lights in the evening. The eruv is another example of that practical approach to dealing with the religious restrictions.

"This is to allow you to enjoy your Shabbat," said Arnold Cummins, 60, who with Siegel inspects the "fence line" every Thursday.

The "fence" -- utility poles and trees with wires strung between them -- is unnoticeable to the uninitiated, but vital to the Orthodox.

Utility companies agreed to allow them to mark the boundaries with upright sections of plastic telephone cable-cover stapled to utility poles and topped with red or white rubber crutch or walker tips to create "doorways."

The uprights, called lechis, are symbolic door jambs that reach from the ground to the lowest of the overhead electric or telephone wires that form the tops of the "doorways" and a "private domain" within the symbolic fence.

Fences along interstates constitute natural boundaries along their sections, Shafran said.

Shafran said planning for the eruv began more than 10 years ago but fell dormant for several years because a field and streams blocked placement of some lechis.

Eventually, landowners gave permission to string wires between trees and attach lechis below them to continue the "fence" extension around the field.

Storms and accidents are among the most common unpredictable causes of breaks in the eruv.

Breaks must be repaired by noon Fridays so the hot line message can assure callers that the eruv is intact for Shabbat.

"In Judaism there is the presumption that since we checked on Thursday, it's all right," Cummins said. But any unrepaired break that becomes known cancels the eruv's freedom, and the traditional restrictions apply until it is restored.

Yesterday, Siegel, a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, drove slowly along Liberty and McDonogh roads in the rain, his hazard lights blinking. Occasionally he stopped to check a lechi and, while he found a few that were slightly damaged, he decided repairs could wait a week and was able to pronounce the eruv intact.

An eruv inspector receives no training, said Siegel, who took on the task in July. "It's a matter of trust. They have to trust you to make the check."

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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