It took Rabbi Ariel Asa several months to get the hang of it: driving while carefully checking each utility pole he passed to make sure that none were damaged.
At first glance, one might mistake Asa—in his small orange reflective vest—for a Georgia Power employee as he occasionally stepped out of his car to check that the silver metal medallion was still screwed into the pole and the wires were intact.
In fact, he was checking the boundary markers for an eruv—an area within a Jewish community in which those practicing the faith are permitted to carry objects that Jewish law would otherwise forbid them to carry on the Sabbath.
The metro Atlanta area is home to approximately 119,800 Jewish people and has the 11th largest Jewish population in the United States, many of them Orthodox and Conservative Jews who practice strict adherence to scriptural law.
“There were 39 acts of labor that were involved in building the tabernacle and those 39 acts are what specifically the Bible says, when it comes to the Sabbath, you can’t do,” Asa said.
One of these areas is carrying, which can make it particularly difficult to get around on a Saturday especially for Jewish families with small children.
“Carrying in a public domain is one of those [forbidden] acts. So, streets like this, even though they’re not technically a public domain, certainly they can be confused as one,” Asa said as he pulled his car onto a side street.
“Therefore, [the rabbi] said, “If you are going to carry in these areas you need to set up something to remind yourself, to encircle this area and make it a private domain.”
So, many Jewish communities throughout the United States built eruvs to allow them to carry on the Sabbath. The eruv, meaning “to combine” in Hebrew, is an idea that, according to Asa, has been around thousands of years. It is mentioned in The Talmud, a nearly 2,000-year-old document.
Asa has been waking up early once a week for the past 10 years to drive, hike through the woods and ride his bicycle around the Toco Hills area in DeKalb, to make sure that symbolic circle of the eruv remains intact.
The medallion that Asa is checking says that “this pole has a special ground-system neutral arrangement. Please report any movement or attachment to the pole.” Below the message is a telephone number for the linemen who work on the poles to call, which Asa said they don’t always do.
The eruv throughout the Toco Hills area, officially called the Atlanta Eruv, was first developed in the early 1980s and was engineered by Dr. Joseph Tate. There are five synagogues located within the eruv and it stretches nearly 6.8 miles in a circle.
“I think the Atlanta Scholars Kollel was the impetus behind it. It’s a group of rabbis that study and teach; they felt it would be a way of expanding the community and attracting people,” Asa said.
When the eruv was first developed, the engineers approached Georgia Power Co. and the company agreed to let them use the utility poles and the wires to be part of their symbolic circle.
Now, in the past 10 years, eruvim (the plural for eruv) have also been built in the Virginia-Highlands area, Dunwoody and Savannah.
However, the eruv is not only made up of utility poles. In certain areas, the eruv is marked by pieces of black string strung through trees lining the side of the road.
“I think today in any Jewish community, if they want to attract young families with children or anything like that, an eruv is sort of essential,” Asa said.
Asa, who has been working as a mohel for the past 21 years, said that the job to check the eruv just fell into his lap one day when his predecessor’s schedule changed.
“I had done a few backups for him when he was on vacation and my schedule changed a bit and his schedule changed so I had more time to do it,” Asa said.
Most weeks, the inspection is relatively smooth going and Asa said he can manage to finish in around four hours unless a pole is down or a string is broken.
Part of the eruv in the Emory area goes through the forest for nearly a mile, and for this Asa dons work gloves and a baseball cap. Underneath his orange vest one can just barely make out the tassels of his tzitzit, a traditional four-cornered Jewish garment Asa wears daily.
“Several weeks ago I got to see a water moccasin. Those guys are scary,” Asa said.
As Asa walked he followed the string, which was several feet above his head, winding its way through the trees. At one point, the string dipped down and was attached to a large fallen branch overlooking a creek.
“The tree fell so we had to attach it to this branch temporarily; it looks like it held. We’ll put something more stable in place soon but this works for now,” Asa said.
The boundary of the eruv then became the stone wall running along the creek for several hundred feet. Then, a bit of string came up from the wall, ran through the tree tops and was tied to a fence.
Asa explained that, technically, the eruv only needs to be approximately 40 inches so they didn’t always have to use tall utility poles. In some cases the eruv even uses a riverbank as a boundary marker.
Eruvs have enabled the Jewish community in Atlanta to expand and now people can carry things on the Sabbath that will also enhance their social life and the growing community, such as a dish to a dinner party.
Asa, who gets a small stipend for inspecting the eruv once a week, said that he would do it even if he didn’t get paid, just maybe a bit less frequently. He also said that if there is a problem, they can usually get it fixed before the Sabbath.
“Other times we rely on the fact that it was good up to now so it should continue to be good; if we don’t know, then we don’t know. We’re not held liable for something we don’t know about,” Asa said.
In the Atlanta Eruv’s history, there have not been any sure signs of vandalism. Asa said that when the eruv is disturbed it is usually just a downed tree or broken pieces of string. Sometimes, especially in the forest, Asa thinks that people might take a piece of string to use it, not knowing what it is there for.
One time, Asa said that they thought someone was vandalizing the eruv because each week the string would be broken in the same area.
“It was funny because they had the police do a stakeout and they caught the guy. His story was that he thought that the strings were being set up as bird traps or something. They agreed not to press charges as long as he agreed to pay for all the weeks it took to repair,” Asa said as he emerged from the woods.
Asa said that he would continue to inspect the eruv for as long as he could and eventually, as it did with him, the responsibility will most likely fall into someone else’s lap, he is just happy to be serving his community.
“There has definitely been a lot of growth,” Asa said.