Sunday, November 09, 2008

Eruvin in Pre-War Europe: An Eyewitness Account

Minhagei Lita

Customs of Lithuanian Jewry

By Rabbi Menachem Mendel Poliakoff


It is a mitzvah to establish an eruv, and Chazal even instituted a brachah for setting one up. Additionally, the local Rabbi is obligated to establish an eruv for his community. There was hardly a community in pre-war Lithuanian, Poland, or Russia without an eruv. I surmise the same was true regarding Rumania, Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. There were also eruvin in Vienna and Paris.

Today many American communities have an eruv, which is as it appropriate, and in consonance with the halachah. Whoever instituted them deserves commendation. However, in keeping with the spirit of extremism in vogue these days, some people think they are demonstrating great piety by publicly refusing to rely on the eruv. Those who ostentatiously refuse to use the eruv cause the uninformed to feel guilty for using it. They are also violating halachah (Shulchan Aruch, 366:13). Even worse, the Talmudic Sages and later authorities would have accused them of being apikorsim [heretics] (Eruvin 31b, Mishnah and Rashi, 61b, Rabbeinu Yehonasan, and Shulchan Aruch 385:1). The Sages of the Talmud highly praise King Solomon, and expressed their gratitude to him for instituting the laws of eruv, hailing it as one of the most important rabbinic regulations ever enacted. Consequently, they frowned upon people who impeded those who sought to install and use an eruv.

The knowledgeable dissenters base their objection on the Chafetz Chaim’s ruling in his Mishnah Berurah.

I am well aware of the Mishnah Berurah’s strong objection to the eruvin we have installed during the 20th century all over the world, and I am shocked. His objection is not new. It has been a point of contention for hundreds of years, and it is evident the overwhelming majority of the great scholars disagreed with this objection. Proof of this is there was no community large or small without an eruv, despite the objection of the Mishnah Berurah and those who preceded him.

The point of contention hinges upon the definition of a public thoroughfare, because an eruv is not effective upon one. The Shulchan Aruch cites “there are those who hold (in addition to other qualifications) if the traffic is thoroughfare is less than 600,000 people passing through daily, it is not a public thoroughfare.” He does not cite a contrary opinion even though there are highly respected authorities who sharply disagree with this view. Surprisingly, not even the Rema challenges this opinion. The Chafetz Chaim himself writes it is impossible to reverse the halachah because it is universally accepted, but one who is exceedingly pious should not rely on it. However, the Chafetz Chaim must admit that even one who agrees with his ruling may not demonstrate this stringency publicly (Mishnah Berurah 345:7 {23}, be stringent for himself; ibid, 364:8 do not prevent others from using).

Likewise, those who may be justified in heeding the advice of the Chafetz Chaim should know a public refusal to use an eruv is sheer vanity and certainly against halachah.

The Yeshivah students in the towns of Telshe and Slabodka before the Holocaust availed themselves of the benefit of the eruv, and I assume the same was true in all Litvishe Yeshivos. I base this assumption on the fact that we did not hear any of the Yeshivos following a different custom. In fact, the Rabbonim and Roshei Hayesheva were so circumspect about this matter that I cannot be sure whether they availed themselves of the benefit of the eruv.

I use the eruv in Baltimore, just as I used the eruv in Telshe and Slabodka. While I am not so vain as to claim to be a great scholar and very pious, at the same time I can say, without conceit, I am much more a scholar and more pious than many people in Baltimore who denigrate the eruv. (Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry, 2008, Page 72.)

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