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Thought for the Day: עירוב חצירות -- How Does It Work?

The phrase "the עירוב is up" is understood to mean that there are none of the wires designated by the עירוב committee (and probably costing the community some money in fees to the city and/or power company) are broken.  Yet the word עירוב literally means "mixture"; as reflected by the word for evening (that time when day and night are mixed): ערב.  Even though night fall comes on the heels of the evening (implying that evening is "up" in some sense, I suppose), it's hard to really understand what might be the connection between the word "עירוב" and "wires".

The simple answer is: Nothing!  There is no connection at all and the whole thing is a misuse/abuse of the term.  That's a bit of a cheat, though, as people do use the term and it is more than a little arrogant too assert. "Heck!  What can I do about the fact that the whole world is wrong?"  Since even my arrogance knows some boundaries, I thought it worth clarifying why people use that term the way they do and what's really going on.

As mentioned, the Torah forbids carrying an object more than four cubits in a public domain and also moving it from a public domain to a private domain (and vice versa).  Our Chazal added carrying an object more than four cubits in some things that look like a public domain (such as  park or golf range) and also transporting an object across the boundary of any two domains that have different owners (such as adjoining condominiums or duplexes that have a door or window open between them in the shared wall).  Of course, Chazal can only permit something that they themselves forbad, not something that the Torah says is forbidden.  (That should go without saying, but is bears repetition.  We are not looking to exploit loopholes in the system; they system was designed to work this way.)

The game here is twofold: (1) Make that awfully public-domain-looking area look enough less public-domain-looking that people won't mistake one for the other.  (2) Arrange for those areas with different ownership to have a halachically uniform ownership.

(1) is accomplished by adding halachic walls.  For example, suppose you have several houses that open to one courtyard that is open on one side to the public domain.  (The Chesterfield on Touhy townhomes are a good example of this in Chicago.)  Since the courtyard (חצר) is open to the street, Chazal didn't want you carrying there without some sort of reminder.  The reminder could be to make a partial wall on the fourth side (the driveway side), or a small partition on both sides of the driveway, or a pole on one side/a pole on the other side/wire or plank across the top.  That last one is known as צורת הפתח/the form of a doorway.  And that's why you keep hearing about telephone/power poles and wires.

Once you have an areas that is a private domain (or a bunch of adjoining private domains), you are ready for (2).  (2) is accomplished by taking some shared food (often matzah, as that is permitted to be kept even through Passover) and placing it some place that is readily accessible to all of the residents.  By putting food owned by all the residents into a residence with open access to all of the residence, one has effectively "mixed" the domains/ownership -- ie, created and עירוב.

So the עירוב is not wires, but you need the wires as a precondition.  The wires are the most fragile part of the system, so that's why you hear about them.  You now know have all the basic information to understand even the most complex עירוב issues.  To put that in context, since you know the alphabet, you have all the basic information you need to understand even the most complex investment strategies and opportunities.  If you don't feel comfortable betting your retirement on playing the stock market yourself, you really shouldn't be betting your whole eternal life on "heck... there's and עירוב, what could go wrong?"


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