The Contemporary Metropolis and Reshut HaRabbim – The Jewish Press –

Posted By on April 9, 2022

How a Contentious Halachic Principle Has Shaped the Nature of Eruv

Jewish communities past and present have striven to erect an eruv to permit carrying outdoors on Shabbat. The familiar type of eruv involves surrounding the area with a series of rudimentary doorframes (tzurat hapetach, often taking the form of poles with wire running across the tops). This type of enclosure, however, is only effective in a karmelit an area where hotzaah is only rabbinically forbidden.(1)

In a reshut harabbim, a true public domain where hotzaah is biblically proscribed, only actual doors permit carrying (Eruvin 6; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 364:2).(2) It is usually highly impractical to install doors to block off streets; indeed, the vast majority of eruvin nowadays are comprised of tzurat hapetach. Obviously, the assumption behind these eruvin is that the streets they enclose only have the status of karmelit.

But is this truly the case?

The Tosefta defines a reshut harabbim simply as a main street, large plaza, or alleyways that are open on both sides (Shabbat 1:2); the Gemara adds that it must be at least 16 cubits (roughly 25 feet) wide and unroofed (Shabbat 98a, 99a). Based on a simple reading of the Talmudic sources, nearly all contemporary streets should be considered reshut harabbim!

The Geonim, however, mention an additional criterion for a true reshut harabbim: the area must have a population of 600,000 (Halachot Gedolot Aspamya, Hilchot Eruvin; Geonic Responsa Shaarei Teshuvah 209). Although this principle is not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, it does follow the general Talmudic model that the parameters of forbidden labor of Shabbat are to be derived from the construction of the Tabernacle. In the case of hotzaah, the materials for the Mishkan were transported through the pathways of the desert encampment, which were not only 16 cubits wide and unroofed as noted in the Gemara, but also served a population of 600,000.(3)

Numerous Rishonim, notably Rashi throughout his commentary on the Talmud, accept this Geonic tradition. In fact, Tosafot finds a hint to the criterion of 600,000 in the Talmud itself (Shabbat 6b s.v. kan). The Gemara states that the desert was a reshut harabbim only when the Jewish people traversed it following the Exodus. According to Tosafot, the fact that the desert lost its status as a reshut harabbim as soon as it no longer housed the Jewish people which numbered 600,000 at the time

somewhat implies that an area requires a population of that size in order to be considered a reshut harabbim. This deduction is clearly not ironclad; in any event, this passage is the only possible allusion to the Geonims opinion within Talmudic literature.

Unlike Tosafot, the Ramban finds it unconscionable that Chazal could have neglected to mention such a fundamental rule explicitly (Shabbat 57a, Eruvin 59a). Indeed, the Rif and Rambam make no mention of the Geonic tradition, and several Rishonim follow the Ramban in rejecting it outright. These Rishonim rule that any public thoroughfare that is uncovered and 16 cubits wide is a reshut harabbim regardless of population.

The demographics of ancient cities also pose a challenge to the idea that only a place with 600,000 people is a reshut harabbim. The Talmud states that Jerusalem and Machoza (a Babylonian city) would have been considered reshut harabbim if not for the fact that the city gates were closed at night (Eruvin 6b). Is it plausible that these cities had populations of 600,000 in the Talmudic era?

According to some traditional sources, the answer seems to be yes. The Midrash states there were over 1.2 billion people celebrating Passover in Jerusalem when the second Temple stood (Eichah Rabbah 1:1). Furthermore, Josephus (lehavdil) writes that the Romans killed 1.1 million Jews during their conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (The Wars of the Jews 6:9:3). (See also Gittin 57b-58a regarding Beitar.)

These figures, however, were probably not intended to be factually precise. Even today, when the area of Jerusalem is many times greater than in the second Temple era, and the apartment houses are much larger, the population stands at less than 1 million. Historians estimate that the population of Jerusalem just prior to the destruction of the Temple was about 80,000 (see Even if this assessment is too low (especially given the fact that many pilgrims who were not regular residents flocked to Jerusalem [cf. Ritva, Shabbat 6a]), the population could not have been anywhere near that of Rome, which was by far the largest city in antiquity, perhaps reaching 1,000,000 inhabitants. No city was as large until the Industrial Revolution (

Many, of course, will argue that halacha discounts academic findings. It is the tradition of the Jewish people that matters, and the fact that the Geonim and many (probably most) Rishonim endorse the 600,000 standard demonstrates that divine providence has orchestrated its inclusion in the halachic canon.

Even within halacha, however, it is unclear whether the Geonic tradition should be considered normative. The Shulchan Aruch mentions both opinions (Orach Chayim 303:18, 354:7), and the commentators debate which opinion he considers primary. Although several Acharonim have argued forcefully for the stringent opinion (most famously, Mishkenot Yaakov, Orach Chayim 119-122), the clearly accepted tradition, at least among European Jewry, was to rely on the criterion of 600,000 (see Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat 63:44). Indeed, a common refrain amongst the poskim is we have no reshut harabbim nowadays.(4)

Today, however, that statement may no longer be operative. In the 19th century, urban areas began to grow rapidly, and the population of many cities sprouted past 600,000 (see Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 303:21, 345:18). Nowadays, numerous metropolises easily meet the criterion of 600,000 people and would be considered reshut harabbim even according to the lenient opinion, obviating the possibility of a doorframe eruv.(5)

Although we are dealing here with the possibility of Shabbat violation on a biblical level one of the most severe sins the extreme hardship that the absence of an eruv causes has motivated many city-dwelling Jews to seek halachic justification for eruvin of tzurat hapetach even in contemporary metropolises. In order to permit a doorframe eruv even in large cities, some authorities have interpreted the Geonims opinion as maintaining that a thoroughfare is only a reshut harabbim if 600,000 people traverse that particular street daily.(6)

Superficially, this interpretation can be supported by the language of such prestigious sources as Halachot Gedolot Aspamya and Shulchan Aruch (op. cit., see also Tosafot Rabbeinu Peretz, Eruvin 6a s.v. keitzad). Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily difficult to accept. The vast majority of sources state clearly that the figure of 600,000 refers to the number of people in the city or area, not to the number of travelers on one road (cf. Mishnah Berurah 345:24).

Similarly, the notion that only a thoroughfare with daily traffic of 600,000 is a reshut harabbim only compounds the historical difficulty with the Geonic tradition (see Responsa Achiezer 4:8; Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 345:18). In ancient times, it was at least theoretically possible for a citys population to reach 600,000 (as was apparently the case in Rome). No ancient street, however, accommodated such a burden of traffic in one day. Even today, there is virtually no street in the world that meets this criterion (see Responsa Shulchan HaLevi 11:1).

In a novel approach, Rav Moshe Feinstein adopts a compromise view that allows for a doorframe eruv in most contemporary cities (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:139, 4:87-88). R. Moshe writes that the figure of 600,000 refers neither to the population of the city as a whole nor to a single road; it refers to the number of people who are out and about on all the citys streets. For this to be the case, R. Moshe estimates that the total population of the city (including visitors) must be about 3 million. Furthermore, R. Moshe maintains that this population must be within a 12 mil by 12 mil area, which was the size of the Jewish encampment in the desert.

Based on his original ruling, R. Moshe opposed an eruv in the extremely densely populated boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn;(7) those who oppose an eruv in London maintain that R. Moshes opinion would forbid an eruv there as well. Indeed, tensions about eruvin seem to run highest in these three locations despite the fact that R. Moshe himself writes that one should not protest those who erect an eruv in locations that he forbids (Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:89; although see Mayan Beit HaShoeva p. 234).

Due to the role his opinion plays in the fierce eruv controversies in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and London, people tend to perceive R. Moshe as a machmir in eruvin. In truth, R. Moshes opinion is a leniency, as the simple reading of the normative poskim indicates that 600,000 refers to the total population of the city, not merely those out on the streets. By the classical definition, many modern metropolises qualify as reshut harabbim.

Similarly, R. Moshes limiting the physical area in which the 600,000 must be located to 12 square mil has no support in the classical sources. One gets the impression from the early poskim that however large a city is, its streets are a reshut harabbim if its population is 600,000. Unlike R. Moshes approach, however, the classical opinion is very difficult to apply to the contemporary world.

Defining a city was not difficult in ancient times. Cities were often walled; if not, the buildings of the city ended abruptly and gave way to empty land until the next city. In the United States and elsewhere, metropolitan areas often consist of vast swaths of uninterrupted settlement subdivided into various municipalities.(8) What is considered a halachic city in which the population of 600,000 must be located?

Suggesting that the 600,000 must be located within municipal boundaries leads to a bizarre conclusion. Consider the following example: There is no physical demarcation whatsoever between the New York City borough of the Bronx (pop. 1.4 million) and the separate municipality of Yonkers (pop. 200,000). It seems absurd to suggest that by merely crossing the street from the Bronx into Yonkers, one exits reshut harabbim territory and enters karmelit territory.

It is much more palatable to assume that municipal borders are halachically irrelevant and that the defining characteristic of a city is contiguous settlement (as it is for techum Shabbat). However, this approach is also difficult. New Yorks suburbs in northern New Jersey are physically disconnected from New York City by the Hudson River, and thus could reasonably be a karmelit even if New York is a reshut harabbim. These suburbs consist of many adjacent municipalities, none of which has a population of 600,000 on its own; the contiguous settlement, however, has a population which easily exceeds 600,000.

If municipal boundaries are halachically insignificant, one could argue that the streets of a relatively small town such as Teaneck should be viewed as serving the entire interconnected metropolitan area of northern New Jersey. According to this approach, a doorframe eruv would be completely forbidden in the Teaneck even according to the lenient definition of reshut harabbim. This approach is counterintuitive, though. When the Rishonim referred to a city of 600,000, they probably had in mind a densely populated metropolis, not a vast suburban expanse (cf. Ran on the Rif, Shabbat 26a s.v. aval; Piskei Riaz, Eruvin 1:5).

The formulation of R. Efraim Zalman Margaliot could potentially set us on the right track to solve this dilemma: A reshut harabbim must be prepared as a path for 600,000 people located nearby, who come and go in the area regularly to the extent that it would be possible for all of them to traverse in one day (Responsa Beit Efraim, Orach Chayim 26). Nevertheless, a satisfying, precise way to apply the standard of 600,000 to the layout of contemporary metropolitan areas remains elusive.

Even if suburban areas do not fulfill the criterion of 600,000, it would still be preferable not to rely on an eruv of tzurat hapetach there, since the Mishnah Berurah urges a halachically punctilious individual (baal nefesh) to follow the opinion that any 16-cubit-wide thoroughfare is a reshut harabbim regardless of population (345:23, 364:8). It seems clear, though, that densely populated urban areas do fulfill the criterion of 600,000 people according to the classic understanding. As such, one should not carry in such a place even if one is not particularly halachically scrupulous.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that several great halachic authorities have permitted eruvin even in urban areas, based on the novel interpretations of the 600,000 principle mentioned above, as well as other halachic considerations that are beyond our present purview.(9) While it is debatable whether it is proper to build an eruv in such a locale, one should not forcefully protest and rebuke those who rely on it once it has been erected.


Continued here:

The Contemporary Metropolis and Reshut HaRabbim - The Jewish Press -

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