Establishing the eruv, establishing unity

Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg is known by the title of his writings

Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg (1799-1866) is known by the title of his writings, Hiddushei Harim (the novellae of Harav Yitzhak Meir). He was the founder of the Gur dynasty – a hassidic sect that is still a major force in the hassidic world, and particularly in modern Israel politics. The Hiddushei Harim offered an innovative insight into a cryptic verse; a reading that suggests an important lesson about Jewish practice and the coveted goal of unity.
The Book of Deuteronomy – Moses’s parting speech to the Israelites – opens with the verse: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab” (Deut. 1:1). The introductory line is understood, but the meaning of the second half of the verse is unclear: Why are these specific places mentioned? Moreover, some of the places listed do not appear in parallel biblical passage that detail the journeys of the Israelites through the desert (Num 33:16-36). Where are these places? Commentators over the ages have grappled with this list. One approach has been to read this verse as innuendo of various episodes of delinquent behavior during the 40-year wilderness journey. As Rashi explained: “Because of the honor of Israel” it was preferable to hint at these events rather than spell them out. Thus, for instance, Rashi explains that Hazeroth – one of the places that is mentioned earlier in the biblical narrative (Numbers 11:35, 12:16, 33:17-18) – refers to the Korah rebellion.
But this explanation is surprising, for Hazeroth is not mentioned in connection with the Korah episode! The Hiddushei Harim explained why Hazeroth alludes to the Korah dispute.
The Talmud relates that King Solomon was responsible for two rabbinic institutions: Washing hands before eating bread and eruv (B. Shabbat 14b). Eruv is a legal mechanism that redefines a semi-public space as a private domain. Such a redefinition allows carrying within that redefined domain on Shabbat. Today, many Jewish communities (but not all) have such an eruv that allows people to bring a tallit or a baby, for instance, to the synagogue on Shabbat. An eruv can only be erected under certain preconditions, and through a number of prescribed actions.
The most visible requirement is the need for a fence or virtual fence to surround the area. The string between poles that encircles many Jewish communities is exactly that – a virtual fence constructed of series of doorways.
Another, less well-known requirement is a common kitchen. In cases of an eruv for a small number of families, each person would contribute some food to create the common kitchen. In a larger community where this is impractical, the common kitchen is set up in a different manner: community leaders legally acquire foodstuffs – generally matzot because of their shelf life – on behalf of all the community inhabitants. The joint-ownership – even if people are not aware of it – affects a communal kitchen.
The Talmud tells us that when King Solomon instituted these two innovations, a heavenly voice resounded: “My son, if your mind gets wisdom, my mind, too, will be gladdened” (Proverbs 23:15); “Get wisdom, my son, and gladden my heart, that I may have what to answer those who taunt me” (Prov. 27:11). What is the connection between wisdom and these innovations? The Hiddushei Harim explained the link between eruv and wisdom.
King Solomon demonstrated that the Jewish people has the power to join forces and be unified through a small amount of food contributed by each person or acquired on behalf of each person. This meager, seemingly insignificant contribution suffices to draw a common bond between the people and change the status of a semi-public domain.
Korah represents the exact opposite. The opening verse of the Korah narrative begins “And Korah took” (Num 16:1). The verse is strange for it does not say what Korah actually took! Onkelos translated the Hebrew not as the standard “took”; rather, he translated, “And Korah stirred an argument.” Korah instigated a fight and thus tore down the unity that should characterize the Jewish people.
Korah’s actions can therefore be viewed as the opposite of the eruv: An eruv binds the people; Korah sought to tear us apart. Korah’s intention was to disrupt unity; an eruv is built on a legal construct of unity, and may also further the goal of unity.
With no unity-based eruv, we have nothing more than individual courtyards – hazeroth in Hebrew. Thus – explained the Hiddushei Harim – Hazeroth, courtyards, alludes to Korah’s divisive attempts. ■
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.