Eruv at Sodom: Honoring Human Diversity

Excerpt from The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2011). pp. 216-220.

Mel Alexenberg

Two Talmud tractates relate that at the time King Solomon simultaneously established laws relating to carrying on the Sabbath (eruv) and washing one’s hands (n’tilat yadayim), a heavenly voice proclaimed great joy at King Solomon’s wise action.  What is so significant about laws relating to carrying on the Sabbath and washing one’s hands that taken together elicit the highest level of Divine rejoicing?  If one were to choose two laws to express the central values of Judaism, it would seem that others would have been singled out.  Most people, even non-observant Jews, know nothing about eruv and n’tilat yadayim.  An eruv demarcates the boundary around a community within which observant Jews can carry things between their homes and the street on the Sabbath day. N’tilat yadaim, meaning “raising of hands,” is a hand-washing ceremony performed on waking in the morning to celebrate the wonder of wakefulness.  It is the first religious act of the day that is repeated throughout the day before meals and after using the toilet to sanctify one’s everyday actions.  The hand-washing ceremony is a private act after which our two hands are raised revealing the uniqueness of our fingerprints while reciting a blessing linking this mundane act to divine infinitude.  Fingerprints symbolize individual differences; no two people have the same fingerprint patterns.  Building an eruv is a communal act that creates community while n’tilat yadaim is the private act that highlights individuality.  

The prohibition of carrying on the Sabbath is found in two biblical passages.  The Israelites are told that they were given two portions of manna on Friday so they would not go out to the desert to gather the food and carry it home on Saturday.  Some people ignored what they were told and went out to find food and found none.  “Then God said to Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to observe my commandments? See that God has given you the Sabbath and that is why He gives you on the sixth day a two-day portion of bread.  Let every man remain in his place; let no man leave his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:25-29). In addition, it is deemed a capital offense to gather sticks on the Sabbath and carry them home (Numbers 32-36).

In his wisdom, King Solomon created the concept of eruv as an easement that makes life more pleasant on the Sabbath. An eruv permits a Jew to observe the law with comfort by expanding the boundaries of one’s place.  If the yard around a house is fenced in, it is considered to be an extension of the house.  Therefore, people are permitted to carry between the house and its private yard on the Sabbath day.  If two neighbors surround both their houses with a single fence then they can carry into their joint yard and into each other’s houses.  King Solomon proposed continuing the same process until all houses in a village are surrounded by a single extensive fence that transforms the space within it from public space to a one large private space belonging to the entire community.  Minimum fencing is series of poles connected on the top by a string in a post and lintel form known as tzurat hapetah, “the form of the opening.” It is instructive that the open-ended thought patterns of Jewish consciousness are reflected in the structure of the eruv, a fence built of open forms. Today, most villages, towns, and cities in Israel have constructed an eruv as have some 200 communities in the Diaspora.  Entering the word “eruv” in the Google search engine yields 171,000 websites (June 12, 2006):  Greater Boston Eruv, NW London Eruv, Sydney Eruv, Los Angeles Community Eruv, East Denver Eruv, Chicago Eruv, Eruv of Cambridge and Somerville (MA), Milwaukee Beth Juhudah Eruv, Tenafly (NJ) Eruv, Aventura (FL) Eruv, Baltimore Eruv, etc. 

I showed photographs of the Miami Beach Eruv to illustrate my presentation on “The Future of Art” at the National Art Education Association convention in Miami Beach.  I explained that the Miami Beach Eruv is the largest environmental sculpture in America that can be perceived as both a kinetic and a conceptual artwork.  The Miami Beach Eruv is a fence that runs for twenty miles around all of Miami Beach.  It carries a spiritual message while meandering through the gross material world, passing between the colorfully painted Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive and the beautiful topless models sunning themselves on the beach.  It is mainly made of poles connected by a string attached to the top of each pole in “the form of the opening.”  The poles are attached to palm trees and to the sides of buildings and some are free standing like telephone poles.  Traffic even passes under its string lintel hovering from pole to pole over the causeways to the mainland of North America. The eruv changes in seven-day cycles. To observant Jews who are carrying, it gains the properties of a stone wall from sunset on Friday until stars appear in the sky on Saturday night.  Although the eruv is visually transparent, it becomes conceptually opaque, impassable by a Jew carrying a book in his hand.  However, it serves no halakhic purpose during the other six days of the week.  It is as if it disappears.  Indeed, it remains invisible all week to those who are not looking for it.  None of my audience at the NAEA convention, even those living in Miami, had ever noticed the strings running from pole to pole.  Although the eruv actually exists in space and defines it, its significance is in time.  Like the Sabbath itself, the eruv is architecture in time.

In his poetic book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasizes the sanctification of time in Jewish consciousness:

"Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture in time…. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space.  Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.  It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from results of creation to mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world."

After creating heaven and earth, “God blessed the seventh day, and He declared it to be holy” (Genesis 2:3).  Of all the things that God had created, only time was divinely sanctified.  In the Ten Commandments, the term “holy” (kadosh) is applied to one word only – the Sabbath.  “God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11).  The Sabbaths are the great cathedrals of the Jewish people that it has been able to create in the lands of its dispersion.  During the two-millennia exile of the Jewish people from its homeland, all of its enemies have been unable to destroy its great architecture built in time.  The eruv gains its significance marking time for those who live within it and who recognize its influence in unifying community on the seventh day of the weekly cycle.

I recognized the powerful significance of King Solomon’s wisdom linking eruv to the hand-washing ritual of n’tilat yadamim while I was standing in the heat of the day at the lowest spot on Planet Earth, at Sodom, the desolate site of the notorious biblical city of ill fame that brought down God’s great wrath.  Ten artists were invited to participate in creating environmental artworks at the southern end of the Dead Sea, a lunar landscape where the city of Sodom once stood.  It was expedient to schedule the event marking the completion of the artworks on the holiday of Purim.  People from throughout Israel would be free to visit there when schools were closed and most people do not work. 

Six weeks before “Sodom/Purim 5744/1984,” Ezra Orion, an environmental artist from the Negev community of Sde Boker who had organized the environmental art event, arranged for the ten artists to meet at Sodom and stake out sites for their artworks.  The high concentration of oxygen in the Dead Sea air amplified our sensitivities to the potent landscape as we walked about in an overpowering sauna. The artists surveyed the scene to find a site that responded to each one’s intentions, thoughts, and feelings.  What I needed to do came to me in a flash as I stood before a hill from which two distant purple mountain ranges emerged in a haze like two wings.  Reading the Bible’s account gave me no clue as to what I would find actually standing there at the place where wicked Sodom once stood.   The mountain range emerging in the background to the south of my Sodom hill is Edom, the biblical home of Amalek who attacked and murdered the straggling Israelites, weak from their slavery, as they trekked through the desert.  Amalek is considered to be ancestor of Haman, the villain of the Purim story, who in one guise or another endures as the permanent enemy of the Jews.  The range to the north is Moav, the birthplace of Ruth, progenitor of kings David and Solomon, the matriarch of the messianic line.  The two mountain ranges look alike on the surface, mirror images masking differences between evil and goodness.  Contemplating links between the two biblical books named for women, Ruth and Esther (the Purim story), made it overwhelmingly clear to me that my artwork should bring together Sodom and Purim by linking eruv and n’tilat yadayim.  Solomon’s wisdom can teach us that community symbolized by eruv coupled with individuality symbolized by n’tilat yadayim leads to the highest good when human beings create community that honors what is unique in each individual.

Sodom and Purim are linked by the bureaucratic idol of standardization that denies individuality.  The Midrash tells us that when a traveler was unfortunate enough to seek hospitality among the Sodomites, official policy forbid turning him away to spend the night in a forbidding wasteland.  That would have been patently unforgivable.  He was invited instead to enter the city and spend the night in a bed – a standard bed.  If the guest chanced to be taller than average, his obliging hosts resolved the dilemma of dangling legs by cutting them off to fit the length of the bed.  If he were too short, his arms and legs would be tied to a torturous mechanism that would stretch him until he fit.  What was intolerable to the Dead Sea denizens was deviation from their arbitrary norm.  In addition, whenever a poor, hungry man arrived in Sodom, he was never denied charity.  The Sodomites gave him bricks of non-negotiable gold rather than something as pedestrian as bread.  When the newly rich man, hands full gold, died of starvation, his generous hosts would retrieve their charity.  It is this behavior in which the letter of the law is fulfilled while ignoring its true intentions and spiritual worth that the Talmud refers to as “acting in the manner of Sodom.”

The lethal threats that erode human society converge in the stories of Sodom and Purim.  Both are stories about official evil promoting intolerance of human diversity coupled with authoritarian mentality and bureaucratic rigidity.  The story of Purim told in the biblical book of Esther records a failed attempt at government-sponsored genocide promulgated by the mighty Persian Empire nearly 2,500 years ago.

"Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the entire kingdom of Ahasuerus…. And Haman said to King Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their ways are different from all the other peoples…. If it pleases the king, let it be recorded that they be destroyed.'… Letters were sent by courier to all the provinces of the king, to destroy, to slay and to exterminate all the Jews in one day, from young to old, children and women, and to plunder their possessions" (Esther 3:6, 8, 9, 13).

The king set the wheels of his bureaucracy spinning by sealing his letter with his official signet ring, therefore, irreversibly sealing the doom of all his Empire’s Jews, including unknowingly his beloved Queen Esther.   When Esther rises to the occasion, reveals herself as a Jew and pleads the case of her people, it is too late for the king to reverse the damage “for an edict written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked” (Esther 8:8).  The best he could do was to issue a new edict granting the Jews of every city permission to organize and defend themselves.  In his acquiesce to Haman’s hatred for those who are different from the official norms and in his mindlessly issuing irrevocable edicts to destroy what is dear to him, King Ahasuerus joins the Sodomites in evil ways that remain, unfortunately, all too common in our day.

I surrounded the hill at Sodom with an eruv constructed from seven telephone poles connected by rope lintels and ten sawed-down poles emerging from the ridge of the hill.  The short poles served as pedestals for ten one of a kind ceramic vessels filled with water for hand washing.  The telephone company provided the poles and special hole-digging equipment to set them around the hill and connect them at their tops with rope in the open form, tzurat hapetah.  Miriam Benjamin worked with her art students in Yeroham to make the hand-washing vessels from clay dug from Negev mountains rising to the west of Sodom.  Each vessel was different in design from the others reflecting the unique vision of each student.  Each of the ten short poles following the natural ridgeline of the hill to its crest was crowned with one of the ceramic vessels.  From a distance, the vessel-topped poles looked like a minyan of people, the quorum needed to create a community of worshippers.  Walking up the hill in the heat of the day, the Purim visitors looked down at the blue sky shimmering on the surface of the water in the vessels.   They were pleasantly surprised when they dipped their fingers into the water and found that the water had been kept cool by its evaporation through the semi-porous unglazed pottery.  I felt that my artwork on that scorching day at Sodom had created a symbolic field of energy that would reveal the inner essence concealed by the surface deception of the twin mountain ranges of Edom and Moav.  Perhaps it could disarm Amalek and Haman in all their reincarnations by teaching that the highest good is reached when we create community that honors what is unique about each person.  Creating community that pays tribute to the emergence of individuality and facilitates its free expression invites God’s greatest joy.