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Is there a wall around Squirrel Hill? I recall reading a few years ago that someone designated a series of landmarks a “"wall" so that Orthodox Jews could hold umbrellas and push baby carriages on the Sabbath. 

Question submitted by: Chris Griswold

In the chilly and patrician church I grew up in, the only invisible walls we built were between ourselves and the working class. But in Orthodox Judaism, says Rabbi Yisroel Miller of the Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill, a wall can help bring people together, rather than divide them.

As your question suggests, Orthodox Judaism prohibits carrying anything outdoors on the Sabbath — and that, says Miller, "is particularly difficult for people with baby carriages." But for Orthodox families with young children, or an aversion to rain, there's a useful loophole: "It is permitted to carry if there is a wall" … and that wall can be "either physical or ritual."

The ritual version of that wall is called an eruv, within whose boundaries believers are permitted to carry what they need. In Pittsburgh's East End neighborhoods, that wall's boundaries are delineated by telephone poles and power lines. Though the boundaries aren't marked in any way — the poles marking an eruv are indistinguishable from any other telephone pole — they are consecrated "through a couple of religious touches," Miller says.

(Why use telephone poles? Simple. In order to have a wall, Miller says, "You need crossbeams and upright poles.")

The Web site JewishPittsburgh.org includes a rough map indicating the eruv's boundaries, which include most of Squirrel Hill, portions of Greenfield and the portion of Frick Park bounded by Forbes and South Braddock avenues. (Much of Schenley Park and Homewood Cemetery are off limits; "You run out of wires there," Miller notes.)

Miller says the boundaries were set about 20 years ago, in an attempt to "include as much of the Jewish community as possible." And indeed, judging from the map, an Orthodox Jew could carry something within the eruv's boundaries all the way from the north end of the Hot Metal Bridge to the intersection of Wilkins and South Dallas in Point Breeze.

JewishPittsburgh.org also includes an "eruv hotline," for believers to call before the Sabbath begins, at sundown Friday night. The hotline is necessary in case the eruv is somehow damaged — by telephone lines being downed in a storm, for example. Such damage is rare, but if the wall is broken, believers are once again prohibited from carrying anything out of doors.

"We have inspections every week to make sure everything is still up," Miller adds.

To some, I suppose, it might sound quaint to worry about the upkeep of a ritual wall … like conducting a census of the angels on a head of a pin. But these rituals, says Miller, crystallize an entire spiritual outlook, one that has some very concrete implications for the world its adherents share.

Orthodox Jews are also prohibited from riding in motor vehicles on the Sabbath, for example: And because they must remain within walking distance of their synagogues, their neighborhoods retain both their intimacy and character. As you've probably heard, Orthodox Jews also don't watch TV during the Sabbath, so among other things, they are spared the horror of watching Vincent D'Onofrio chew up the scenery on that Law & Order knockoff. ("Imagine going without TV for 24 hours; you might like it," Miller contends. Though he counsels a "gradual withdrawal" process for those unaccustomed to the practice.)

"It's a bracing experience, to learn to be without things," Miller says. "It throws you back onto your own resources. One of the themes of the Sabbath is to savor the holiness of existence, of being. We're so busy doing and getting that we don't spend enough time savoring, breathing, and being with our families." For his own part, Miller says, "If it weren't for the Sabbath, I'd probably never get a chance to eat dinner with my own children.

"In medical training, it's now mandated that residents must take off one day a week, because hospitals believe it produces better doctors. We take off one day a week because we believe it produces better people."

Or to borrow from Robert Frost, ritual fences make good neighbors.

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