Private Eruvin and Emergency Keys

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by R. Gil Student

Many people have their own private eruvin, structures that allow them to carry on Shabbos. They do this with one or more neighbors by ensuring the area is closed, whether by gates, walls or doorway-like structures — a complicated matter that requires rabbinic oversight or approval. Additionally, they keep food for two communal meals, usually matzah, in a central location. This will be the focus of our discussion. (We will be discussing eruvei chatzeiros, which permit carrying that is otherwise rabbinically forbidden, although the same applies to eruvei techumin, which permit walking beyond the rabbinically limited range.)

I. Access to Eruv Matzah

The Mishnah and Gemara in Eruvin (26b-36b) discuss the need for the eruv food to be accessible at the beginning of Shabbos, during the few minutes of bein ha-shmashos after sunset. For example, if the eruv is placed in a tree, we are not allowed to climb a tree on Shabbos. However, since the requirement is that the food be accessible during bein ha-shmashos, and generally speaking rabbinic prohibitions do not apply bein ha-shmashos (with some exceptions), you have to be able to access the food only without violating biblical prohibitions of Shabbos. Climbing a tree is only rabbinically forbidden, so the eruv would be good for you even if the food is in a tree (setting aside reshus ha-rabbim issues, as discussed in Eruvin 32b).

As a rule, if you cannot access the eruv matzah without violating a biblical prohibition, you cannot carry within that eruv. The Gemara (Eruvin 32b-33a) discusses cases in which the key to the box or house containing the eruv matzah is lost. If the food is kept inside a wooden box, then you can carry because breaking the box is only rabbinically prohibited. But if the food is inside a house, you cannot carry because breaking down the wall is biblically forbidden.

Presumably, this means that you must have keys to your neighbor’s house, if that is where you keep the eruv matzah. If your neighbor goes away for Shabbos, you must be able to access the matzah in their home without violating a biblical prohibition. Otherwise, you cannot carry within the eruv.

II. Breaking Into Your Neighbor’s House

Perhaps it is sufficient to be able to break into your neighbor’s house, whether by breaking the door’s lock or a window. Since you can do that in theory, you have access to the eruv matzah and do not have to actually break into the house. But is this rabbinically or biblically prohibited? If it is biblically prohibited, then it is insufficient to permit carrying in the eruv.

The general rule is that it is biblically forbidden to destroy a building (even partially) in order to rebuild it; just to destroy it without intent to rebuild is rabbinically prohibited. If you destroy a door or lock in order to get into the room, is that biblically or rabbinically forbidden? Rav Yitzchak Halevi Segal (brother of the Taz, 17th cen., Poland; Responsa Mahari Halevi, no. 30) discusses whether you are allowed to ask a gentile to pick a lock on your door on Shabbos, or are we concerned that he might break it? He says that at most breaking the lock is only rabbinically forbidden and therefore you are allowed to ask a gentile to pick the lock, even if it might break.

Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (18th cen., Israel; Machazik Berakhah, Orach Chaim 314:2) quotes the Zera Emes who disagrees and forbids asking a gentile to pick a locked door. Chida doesn’t quote the details of the case but Rav Chaim Mordechai Margoliyos (19th cen., Poland; Sha’arei Teshuvah 314:2) does. A synagogue’s ark was locked shut on Shabbos. The Zera Emes permits asking a gentile locksmith to open the door but only if he does not break the lock. If he has to break the lock, they should instead leave the ark closed and bring a Torah scroll from another synagogue. The Zera Emes seems to consider breaking a lock to be biblically prohibited.

The same would seem to apply to breaking into a house any other way — you are destroying (partially) a house in a way that you will rebuild. According to Mahari Halevi, this is rabbinically forbidden and therefore does not pose an eruv problem. According to the Zera Emes, it is biblically forbidden and an eruv problem.

III. Possible Solutions

Rav Avraham Danzig (19th cen., Lithuania; Nishmas Adam 72:1) asks why the Gemara concerns itself with the distinction between rabbinic and biblical prohibitions. This can all be alleviated very simply. The whole concern is the brief time after sunset of bein ha-shmashos. During bein ha-shmashos, you are allowed to ask a gentile to perform for you even biblically prohibited labors (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 261:1). Therefore, whether the eruv matzah is up a tree or in a locked house or anywhere, since you can ask a gentile to get it for you, the eruv must be good. Why doesn’t the Gemara give this answer? Rav Danzig struggles with this and suggests that the Sages made a special exception of asking a gentile regarding an eruv. His answer seems a bit forced.

Perhaps we can answer with an explanation of Rav Gershon Ashkenazi (17th cen., Poland; Avodas Ha-Gershuni, no. 104). He addresses a case in which the eruv is placed beyond the reach of where you are allowed to walk. Why, he asks, can you not have different people pass (in theory) the matzah hand to hand, person to person, so it will be in your reach? He explains that the rule is that you must be able to access the eruv food. If you need someone to bring it to you, then you do not really have access to it. He proves it by pointing the case of eruv food in a cemetery for a kohen. The Gemara (Eruvin 30b) has to find creative ways for a kohen to enter a cemetery (in a portable box that somehow prevents him for becoming impure). Why can’t he just ask a Yisrael to get him the eruv food from the cemetery? Rather, if he cannot access the food himself, he does not have access and therefore cannot carry in the eruv. Similarly, we can say, if you need a gentile to access the food, you do not have access yourself and cannot carry in the eruv.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun (20th cen., US; She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, Eruvin 35a) deduces from the Ritva’s commentary (Eruvin 35a s.v. ba-sadeh) that while you must have access to the eruv food yourself, you can have help accessing the key. Therefore, he allows an eruv if you can ask a gentile to bring you the key from someone’s house. Even in a place where carrying is biblically prohibited, asking a gentile to carry it is only rabbinically forbidden.

According to our (tentative) conclusion, if your neighbor has the eruv matzah and goes away for Shabbos, someone nearby must have an emergency key to their house. It can be you or anyone else. Since you can ask a gentile to carry the key from that other person’s house and then use the key to open your neighbor’s door to access the eruv matzah, you may carry in that eruv. (As always, don’t rely on articles and ask your rabbi for guidance.)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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