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ISRAEL: Shabbat, sabotage and municipal elections

September 15, 2008 |  8:28 am

A new front is emerging in the constant tug of war between Jerusalem's religious and secular residents: the Eruv (explanation follows).

According to one of 39 labor prototypes, Jews may not carry things outside their private domain on the Sabbath. The private domain was defined as four 'amah', a standard biblical measurement unit believed to represent a modest stride of around 22 inches. Carrying anything requires a special extension of the private domain into the public one; this is done by the Eruv (literally 'to mix' the domains), a length of thin wire stretched between poles and encircling the community, courtyard-like, to connote a walled area (this is very simplified; the actual math is surprisingly complicated).

Eruvborders_2A most obscure matter to the non-observant, to religious people the Eruv is of utmost importance, making the difference between being able to leave the house on Shabbat and essentially being under house arrest. Often walking long distances across the hilly town, religious Jerusalemites take only what's necessary like house keys, prayer books and baby carriages -- the last being indispensable for the typically large religious families.

Israel's national religious authorities provide for the religious needs of the Jewish population in Israel. Every city, town and community in Israel (Jewish communities abroad, too) is encircled by an Eruv, the Shabbat lifeline for many.

Often, the religiously stricter ultra-Orthodox community does not suffice with the common standard and its institutions provide alternative services to meet more exacting demands. Recently, ultra-Orthodox circles have been installing new Eruv lines in different parts of Jerusalem.

The lines are being stretched in areas not overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox. The secular residents of Kiryat Yovel claim the new metal poles around the neighborhood are an eyesore and a harbinger of a Haredi 'takeover' of their neighborhood. The ultra-Orthodox say they can't trust the general Eruv, breached by disrepair and falling short of their standards anyway. Either way, secular activists have snipped the wires on several occasions in recent months, causing dismay among thousands of devout Jews unwittingly tripped into mass desecration of Shabbat.

This localized friction reflects the standing tensions between the religious and secular residents of Jerusalem, which like most Israeli cities will be electing its mayor in November. The incumbent, mild-mannered ultra-Orthodox Uri Lupolianski, is not running but Meir Porush, more conservative and less affable, is. The secular population is getting nervous and polls suggest that secular councilman Nir Barkat could win. But just as things were looking up for the second-time candidate, back from the politically-dead came Aryeh Deri, a star in Israeli politics who fell from grace and into jail after a bribery conviction. Deri has yet to find out if his post-conviction cooling period is over before announcing his final decision. Some speculate Barkat could gain from his candidacy anyway, as it might divide and conquer the religious vote.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Map shows LA Community Eruv boundaries,from the LA Community Eruv Society website. Click to enlarge.

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.