Carmageddon, Eruvs, and Working for Salvation

First appeared at The Cripplegate in 2011.

Carmageddon came and went, with no serious delays or deaths attributed to the temporary pause on LA’s car-craved culture. But of special note, Carmageddon did not even disrupt LA’s elaborate eruv network.

There is perhaps no contemporary illustration of the folly of man-made religion as absurd as the eruv, and if you are unfamiliar with an eruv, you are missing out. Because God forbid the Israelites from working on the Sabbath, the Talmud—not content to simply leave the concept of work up to the conscience—created an elaborate system to protect people from accidentally working on the seventh day.

This system essentially forbids carrying anything on the Sabbath. Of course, like all things Talmudian, this is an over simplification, and they have changed throughout the years. At one point or another, people were forbidden from wearing sandals with two straps (one strap is fine; flips in, Tevos out), carrying enough ink to write a sentence, or transporting more food than would normally fit on a spoon. In addition to weight restrictions there are travel limitations. On the Sabbath, you are not allowed to drive (along with a myriad of restrictions on distance traveled and the like). Essentially, the restrictions are so fastidious and elaborate, that Jesus rightly described them as “heavy burdens which are hard to bear.” MacArthur wrote, “With all of the regulations, keeping the Sabbath required more work than the other six days.”

Life under the strict Talmudic Sabbath restrictions is practically unbearable and functionally impossible. But there is a way out: The Talmud allows that if you share a meal somewhere, the location of the meal becomes a Sabbatarian extension of the house. This loop hole gradually grew and grew, and eventually gave way to the eruv system.

The original idea behind the eruv was this: if you take string or rope and tie your house your neighbor’s, for the purpose of the Sabbath the two become one. If you lasso a group of houses together, then you have a communal area, where the people inside can move freely. If you circle an entire village with cords, then you have created zip code that as far as the Rabbis are concerned is one “house.” Thus you can drive freely inside of the communal area, aka the eruv.

Well, Angelinos love their cars, and Californians have never met a fad that we can’t take to an extreme. The Jewish communities are no exception to this SoCal trend. Thus Los Angeles has what certainly must be the largest eruv in the US. New York is pock-marked by tiny eruvs which string together small bands of houses. But in Los Angeles, our eruv is massive. It covers nearly 40 square miles. All that is required for an eruv is an unbroken barrier, and most of the world simply uses fishing line or rope. But in LA, our eruv is a system of Kevlar cables and—this gets us back to our car culture—freeway medians.

That’s right. In LA the eruv consists of the median of the 101, 10, and 405 freeways. In some areas it drifts away from the freeway and dodges through, above, and around neighborhoods. But for the most part, the eruv simply borrows the barrier of the freeway.
Now, if an eruv gets broken—say a car crashes through a median or into one of the poles holding up the cable—then the entire eruv is null and void. This creates a dilemma for Angelinos. How do you know if you are able to drive on the Sabbath?

The answer is the Rabbis in the sky program. Every Friday afternoon a designated Rabbi takes to the air in a bright yellow helicopter, and flies around the perimeter of the eruv. If the eruv is intact, a system of text messages/emails conveys the news to subscribers. But if an 18-wheeler broke through one portion of it, the information tree spreads the word that the eruv is down, and all plans for Saturday are off.

Which brings us to Carmageddon. The 405 is the most traveled freeway in LA, and the stretch between the 10 and the 101 is not only its most congested section, but is also the West side of the eruv. When it was announced that the freeway would be closed for the weekend, engineers also announced that they were going to rig a contiguous cable around the construction zone to maintain the eruv. The freeway closure may disrupt our car culture, but it would not disrupt the eruv.

The eruv system highlights the strange nature of manmade religion. While the fourth commandment has a lot to say about who created the world, it has zero to say about eruvs and Kevlar. It tells us to remember that the Lord of the Sabbath created the world, but says nothing about how much you can carry or how far you can walk on that day.

But instead of seeking the Lord of the Sabbath, a system of works has grown up. If a person—any person, whether Jew, Catholic, Mormon, or any one—thinks that salvation is obtained by works, what will inevitably follow is a system of boundaries. They may not be literal eruvs, but they will be invented rules that supposedly describe what kind of conduct is acceptable to God (you should check out the website for some of the modern eruv rules; no umbrellas inside of an eruv, for that would undo the concept that you are inside of a house, for example).

Good old-fashioned American moralism has a lot in common with the eruv system. If you think that God is pleased with you based on your ability to generally keep certain rules—rules which more than likely are man-made—you are living inside of an eruv. It might not be patrolled by a rabbi in a helicopter, but it falls far short of God’s standard nonetheless.

Real religion does not consist in what you carry, where you walk, or how you drive. The truth is that the Lord of the Sabbath became a man, and offers rest from the folly and work of keeping rules which are impotent to sanctify. Jesus, as the Lord of the Sabbath, is not so much concerned about our conduct on Saturday. He wants us to experience rest from working for our salvation. He offers rest to those who can no longer bear the burden of man-made regulations.

Jesse Johnson bio

Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master’s Seminary Washington DC location.

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