Rabbi Shimon Silver knows he is annoying the motorists that trail him as he drives below the speed limit on Forbes Avenue near the Carnegie Mellon University soccer field.
“That’s just too bad,” he sighs, squinting out the driver’s side window of his car, scrutinizing each telephone and utility pole for the slightest sign of damage as he passes.
It is the Thursday morning prior to the commencement of Passover and Shabbat, and Silver has a job to do, one with which he has been entrusted for more than 10 years: Silver is checking half of the eruv.
The sun is shining brightly this day, making Silver’s job a tad more difficult. The glare can veil imperfections.
“It’s easier to see when it’s overcast,” says Silver, the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Pittsburgh and supervisor of the community eruv. “And it’s harder to see when there are cars parked in front of the poles.”
But Silver has this down. A slight break in a casing on one of the pipe-like strips running along a pole on Forbes has caught his attention. He parks his car on the side of the road and gets out to examine it more closely. A vehicle likely has hit the pole sometime in the past seven days — since Silver last ran a check — and the crack will have to be repaired before sundown Friday.
The Pittsburgh eruv, the perimeter of which covers about seven miles — all of Squirrel Hill, half of Greenfield and parts of Regent Square — allows Jews to carry items within its borders on Shabbat, a day on which those following Orthodox tradition are prohibited from toting anything from a private domain to a public domain. Even pushing a baby stroller is forbidden.
If, however, there is an enclosure that surrounds both private and public domains, one large private domain essentially is created, and within its bounds carrying is permitted on Shabbat.
That construct is known as an eruv and can incorporate whole neighborhoods. The idea is that one is permitted to carry within the eruv because the eruv creates a single, private shared space.
Because the entire enclosure needs to be considered as part of one single private domain — and because we are talking about Jews — food needs to be involved as well.
“We put a box of matzah in a shul,” Silver says. “Because there is food there, it is a home. We rotate it between shuls each year. Then everyone is considered a houseguest at that shul, and the rabbi of that shul is considered the homeowner of the domain.”
The laws of what constitute a kosher eruv are intricate, but the concept is that by incorporating some natural topography, along with a system of utility poles, cables and string, a series of “doorways” is created, thus constituting a “wall.” The pipes attached to trees or utility poles — called lechi — serve as the vertical components of the doorposts, with cables or twine strung between the lechi serving as the lintels of the doorframes.
“We follow the view that you can use fences as well,” Silver says, noting that those surrounding Riverview Towers and Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are incorporated into the eruv. “But fences are rare.”
A steep hillside is considered a wall, Silver continues, adding that sometimes a riverbank is used as well, such as the Monongahela’s, running from Duck Hollow to Commercial Street.
But a riverbank can only be used if it is visible, Silver cautions. If the Mon floods and backs up to the creek, there’s a problem.
“We have quite a creative eruv,” says Rabbi Yaacov Rosenstein, who has been checking the other half of the eruv each week since 1996. “Some places are obscure to get to, with trees connecting water canals and all sorts of things.”
The inspection of the eruv is divided between two rabbis because it is too much work for just one person, says Silver, who has been involved with the eruv in one way or another since he moved to Pittsburgh from England 25 years ago. He estimates that there are a few hundred lechis and a few hundred strings that have to be checked every week.
After noting the crack in the casing on the pole on Forbes, Silver makes a mental note to telephone Steve Kashmer, the owner of Valley Electric, who is on call for any needed eruv repairs. Because much of the eruv is attached to utility poles, only a licensed electrician is permitted to handle those repairs.
Kashmer is Roman Catholic, but, after being tasked for the last 15 years with mending the eruv, he can talk the talk. He is “reliable and conscientious,” according to Rosenstein.
“I have to get any repair done before Shabbos,” Kashmer says. “The biggest challenges come with large snowfalls, or major winds; we can lose a lot of it.”
From time to time, Silver or Rosenstein let him know that Duquesne Light has taken out an entire pole.
“That’s always a surprise,” Kashmer says. “But we make it kosher. We may put up a temporary pole or a jumper around it to make it work.”
Kashmer knows the rules. The rabbis, he says, tell him that he knows a lot more about the eruv than most Jews. “Over time you learn all these things, like how wide an opening is allowed to be or how steep a slope needs to be.”
Kashmer prefers incorporating slopes and other existing topography into the eruv whenever possible, he explains. Relying on manmade constructs can pose greater challenges.
“We have had situations where Homewood Cemetery took out its fencing, and we had to go in and modify [the eruv],” he says. “You can’t have a cemetery open within an eruv.”
Because the eruv has to surround an area where people live, the space within a cemetery of certain dimensions cannot be included in that eruv, Silver confirms.
Thanks to Silver, Rosenstein and Kashmer, the eruv is operational every Shabbat, almost without exception.
“I don’t think it’s ever been down in the time Valley Electric has been maintaining it,” Kashmer says. “That’s my claim to fame.”
But Joshua Sunshine, a volunteer who heads the community eruv committee, does remember a single time when the eruv was down.
“It was Shabbat night, after Simchat Torah in 2007,” Sunshine recalls. “The problem was found during yom tov, so it couldn’t be fixed on time.”
Sunshine keeps a website updated, so that people can check the status of the eruv. If it is operational, “The eruv is up” is printed in green lettering on the site.
It takes each rabbi an hour or more to check his portion of the eruv. Besides driving by and checking lechi from their cars, they have to walk part of their respective territories to view portions of the eruv not visible from the street. Then, following any repairs by Valley Electric, Silver and Rosenstein have to recheck the eruv to make sure it is, in fact, kosher before Shabbat.
On this particular Thursday before Passover, Silver phones in several repairs to Kashmer: The third pole outside CMU’s playing field is smashed; going up the hill, on the “first rusty steel pole” the lechi is not quite under its string; on Bartlett Street, there is a pole where the lechi is intact but bent.
“Overall, it’s an efficient operation,” says Sunshine. “It’s a pretty good deal for the community.”
Community members who use the eruv are asked to donate $90 a year per family, Sunshine says, which covers the modest salaries of Silver and Rosenstein and the work of Valley Electric. Last year, maintaining the eruv cost about $17,000.
Sunshine suspects about 500 families use the eruv in Pittsburgh — based on membership tallies from the Orthodox shuls in the area — but only about 200 of those families contribute to its operational costs.
“There are lots of families who are using the eruv but who don’t pay for it,” Sunshine says. “Certain people are not paying because they just don’t think about it.”
To check the status of the eruv, go to sites.google.com/site/Pittsburgheruv/.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.