The words "walled city" hardly bring to mind images of Los Angeles' 3.5 million people and the busiest freeways in the country. But for a wide segment of the Sabbath-observant community, much of Los Angeles' metro area can now be defined by those important words.
The designation comes thanks to a new eruv -- a halachic perimeter fence -- that is being erected under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). An eruv demarcates an area that can be considered a private domain, thus allowing observant Jews to carry or push items necessary for Shabbat, such as a stroller, a wheelchair or medication.
A temporary new eruv in the Pico-Robertson area has already freed many who were homebound on Shabbat, and work on a larger eruv encompassing more of the city is under way and may be completed as soon as Rosh Hashana.
"The difference is huge. There are many more women and children coming to shul now," said Rabbi Yitzchok Summers of Anshe Emes on Robertson. "My youth director is a lot busier."
While many Orthodox community members in Los Angeles have long relied on an eruv that has existed for 25 years, others do not consider that eruv kosher since it utilizes a lenient interpretation of halacha, Jewish law.
"The new eruv is halachically superior to whatever preexisted it, and as a result, this new eruv has allowed for a wider unity within the Orthodox rabbinate," said Rabbi Meyer May, president of the RCC, which is certifying the new eruv.
"I believe that an eruv is a unifying element within a community," May said, pointing out that the word "eruv" comes from a root meaning "to mix." "There is nothing more unifying than to have people of all shades and stripes of Orthodoxy being able to walk on the street on Shabbos and to greet each other or share a simcha," he said.
After a seven-year process, planners have just received all the permits and signatures necessary to begin construction on the citywide eruv, which will encompass an 80-square-mile area bordered by the 10 Freeway to the south, the 405 Freeway on the west, the 101 (Ventura and Hollywood freeways) on the north, connecting back to the 10 Freeway via Western Avenue.
Los Angeles currently has a separate eruv in North Hollywood/Valley Village. Other areas, such as the West Valley and Santa Monica/Venice, are exploring the possibility of erecting eruvs.
The new eruv, believed to be the largest eruv in the world, is unique among urban eruvs in that it is made up primarily of actual walls, not wire strung from pole to pole. The population density of Los Angeles and the number of people who might pass through the eruv made it imperative, some rabbis believed, to have the eruv made up of solid walls.
Howard Witkin and Elliot Katzovitz, members of Anshe Emes and Aish HaTorah in the Pico-Robertson area, conceived of the new eruv about seven years ago when they realized that Los Angeles had many walls already constructed -- the freeway sound-proofing walls, chain-link fences around the freeways or freeway embankments and mountains (which for halachic purposes are also considered walls).
Those walls will be connected using the standard eruv method of stringing heavy fishing line between poles -- either by modifying existing streetlights or constructing about 100 poles for the eruv. A rabbi from the Chasidic community will check the perimeter every week, to make sure the wires are all intact.
"This is really not a legal fiction," said Witkin, who runs an electronic commerce company. "The thing is a wall."
Witkin said the large eruv will cost about $250,000 to erect, and now that all the permits are in hand fundraising efforts will begin. The smaller Pico-Robertson eruv cost $35,000 to put up.
Witkin and Katzovitz, along with Howard Shapiro and Michael Rotenberg, spent countless hours on the bureaucracy and logistics of setting up the eruv. Lawyers had to assure city, state and federal authorities at each stage that church/state issues were not infringed. Individual owners had to assent to having wire strung across their property. Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration, the Bureau of Street Lighting and the departments of Public Works, Fire and Rescue, Building and Safety and others, all had to OK segments of the project.
Witkin expects the eruv to be completed by fall, although eruv timelines are notoriously fraught with delays.
The prohibition against carrying is part of the larger meaning of Shabbat, Witkin said.
"Human beings have an obligation to perfect the world, but ... one day a week we accept the world as it is," he said. "The Torah defines 39 categories through which humans have an impact on the world and have changed the nature of existence," Witkin said, giving writing, building and farming as examples. One of those categories involves commerce and shipping -- moving goods from one place to another -- which is how the prohibition against carrying arose, he said.
Summers cautioned against doing things that would impinge on the aura of Shabbat, such as going to the park to play ball.
"More than anything, the eruv was built to enhance the experience of Shabbos," he writes in an eruv handbook, available at www.laeruv.com. "Improper use of the eruv will desecrate the spirit and even the laws of Shabbos."