When Daniel Hoffman ’08 goes out on Friday nights, he cannot simply follow his peers, for whom an evening adventure usually involves nothing more than finding some friends and somewhere to go. For observant Jews, Torah law forbids working on the Sabbath, and Talmudic scholars have interpreted that to include carrying an object between “public” and “private” domains — for example, bringing one’s keys from one’s dorm room out onto the streets.
“Right now, I can’t carry anything when walking on Shabbat,” Hoffman, co-president of Yale Hillel, said. “So I have to carry my keys on a belt that is specially fashioned.”
But soon Hoffman may not be buckled down by such a burden. On Sept. 5 the Board of Aldermen discussed a proposal to finalize the completion of an “Eruv”, a structure that extends the private domain throughout the city to allow observant Jews to carry necessities with them when they leave home on the Sabbath. For the two or three dozen observant Jewish students at Yale, this means fewer concerns and less need to plan their nights far in advance.
“The Eruv allows me the freedom to decide what I want to do on Shabbat, when I want to do it,” Hoffman said. “I’ll be able to read a book wherever I want, without deciding ahead of time and making sure it’s in the right place, either inside or outside.”
The completed Eruv, much of it made simply by a perimeter of clear fishing wire attached to utility poles, will connect with an Eruv already in place in the nearby Edgewood and Westville communities. Slifka Center Executive Director Amy Aaland said that although the Eruv was the culmination of a prolonged and concerted project, its presence in New Haven is unlikely to be felt by most.
“It’s been a huge communal effort, five years in the making,” Aaland said. “Even so, most students walking around will not notice it unless they are consciously looking.”
Even Yalies not directly affected by the new construction expressed support for the project.
Alexandra Charrow ’07, who identifies as a Conservative Jew, said she thinks the construction is a great asset to the University community.
“I’m not observant, but I have friends who are who haven’t been able to go out on Shabbat,” Charrow said. “It’s been a big hindrance to them, and now they will be able to move around more easily.”
But other students were more skeptical of the Eruv, questioning whether given the relatively small number of observant Jews at Yale the money might be better spent elsewhere.
“It seems like a big financial investment for something incongruous with the modern, technological age,” Elena Bryce ’09 said. “I attended a Conservative [Jewish] temple, and even there, I didn’t know anyone who followed those strict laws. It seems silly to me, but I realize that is because it is so far outside my belief system.”
The Slifka Center will be contracting the work necessary for construction and maintenance to various groups, Aaland said. But the cost of the project, which University Jewish Chaplain Jim Ponet estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars to maintain each year, is not a deterrent to those who have been involved.
“There is an understanding that money is going to be spent on the needs of observant students and also on the needs of non-observant students, and that it will balance out,” Hoffman said.
Some of the necessary capital will be obtained through extra efforts to reach alumni donors, specifically Orthodox Jews who were involved with Slifka as undergraduates, Ponet said.
Hoffman said huge strides in accommodating the needs of observant Jews on campus have been made in the past few years. Although Yale’s residential colleges have been equipped for years with key locks so that observant Jews — who cannot use an electronic key card to open doors on the Sabbath — can leave and return to their residences, Old Campus dorms did not have key locks until last year. Observant Jewish freshmen were forced to wait for a non-Jewish student to appear and open the door for them on the Sabbath.
Noam Greenberg ’07, coordinator of the Orthodox minyan, or prayer group, at Yale since December 2004 and the current vice president for Religious and Cultural Affairs at the Yale Hillel, said that despite the numerous steps observant Jews must take to follow their beliefs, it can be done without too much hassle.
“Not having an Eruv has had an impact on the entire community, but less so for the undergraduates,” Greenberg said. “For us undergrads, it is primarily an issue of finding ways to transport our keys around campus. Graduate students and community members with small children [will] be most affected, as the Eruv [will] allow them to use a stroller or carry the children.”
The Eruv itself is a classic expression of Talmudic legal creativity, Ponet said. He added that the Sabbath sought to end commerce between the public and private domains, but that the prohibition cannot be taken literally.
“If you [follow the laws] absolutely, you would render the world dysfunctional,” Ponet said. “What if a hungry person comes to your door begging for food? Do you say, ‘It is Shabbat; I cannot pass you a piece of bread?’ ”
Ponet said he admired the numerous ways students managed to deal with the Sabbath proscriptions. Since they cannot carry their keys, some tie them into a necklace, a belt, or stick them into their hat like a feather.
“By wearing their keys as jewelry, they are no longer carrying them, and so they are still following the letter of the law,” Ponet said. “As for the spirit of the law, that’s questionable.”
Still, the existence of the Eruv will not completely free Yale students from the prohibitions put in place by the Sabbath.
“I still can’t use my computer,” Hoffman said.
Despite seemingly inconvenient clashes between observance and technology on the Sabbath, there are ways in which modern amenities actually help Jews follow traditional beliefs, religious studies professor Steven D. Fraade said.
“If anything, technology is a service to the traditional observance of Shabbat, including the Eruv,” he said. “For example, community members wishing to ascertain that the Eruv is operational (not severed) can phone an Eruv hotline for a recorded announcement.”
The Sabbath is not the only time when observant students are forced to adapt. Fall semester can be especially harsh, due to the density of holidays. These include the upcoming High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — on which work is disallowed, and Sukkot, a harvest festival and commemoration of the time spent wandering the desert by the children of Israel, on which the first, second, eighth and ninth days of the holiday are reserved for rest.
“If a student chooses to take all those days off, it can be painful,” Ponet said. “I can tell it really costs some of them. Others do it with a smile.”