Kraków: Boundary Rules

From the moment that Beth and I decided to visit Poland, I began to think about the Sabbath that we would be spending there, to plan for it. I remembered to bring my tallit, my prayerbook, and my reading glasses, of course. But there was one thing that I forgot. And it made all the difference. I forgot about the eruv.

Remuh Synagogue, Women’s Section, viewed from the front of the shul, Kraków, Poland

Friday, October 19, 2018. Since we would be in Poland for ten days, and seven of those days were to be spent in Kraków, we decided to spend the Sabbath there rather than in Warsaw. We learned that, in Kraków, services could be held in both the Remuh Synagogue and the Isaac Synagogue. We checked with the JCC to ask which of the two places we should attend. They suggested that we try them both. We opted for the Remuh on Friday night, and the Isaac for morning and afternoon services on Saturday.

After visiting and photographing several of the synagogues in Kazimierz Friday morning, we ate lunch at Szalom Falafel. Then I returned to our room to rest some and get ready for the Sabbath; Beth had a few more places she wanted to visit before joining me.

In our room, I turned on the lights we would want for the Sabbath and turned off all the others. I checked the water level in the kumkum to ensure we would have sufficient hot water to make coffee and tea. When Beth returned, she disconnected the light bulb in the refrigerator so it wouldn’t go on when we opened the refrigerator door. And she assured me that we had reservations for the meal at the JCC after the evening service.

I carefully laid out my Sabbath clothes, my tallit, and my prayerbook, then I showered. While I was getting dressed, Beth turned to me and said, “Don’t forget there’s no eruv here.” !אױ װײ

On Shabbat, a Jew is not permitted to transfer objects from a private place, like a home, for instance, into a public place, the street, for example. And in an open area, one is not permitted to carry any object for more than six feet. So, what did that mean for my first Polish Sabbath?

In most of the places where I spend the Sabbath, there exists something called an eruv. An eruv is a boundary–usually artificial, though it can be natural–that encloses an area, and by doing so allows Jews to carry things within its border on the Sabbath.

When I lived in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, there was no eruv where I lived. I prayed on the other side of the river, in Lower Merion. There was an eruv in Lower Merion. But, that didn’t help me when I left my home in Roxborough to walk to the Kollel in Merion Station where I prayed. I couldn’t carry my tallit, nor my prayerbook, nor my glasses. I couldn’t have anything in my pockets, not even a handkerchief. If I did, it would constitute bringing objects from a public space, Roxborough, to a private space, the area in Merion Station that sat within the boundary of the eruv.

Even with an eruv, you need to know a couple of other things: what its boundaries are, and whether or not it is up, that is, if it’s functional. Sometimes a storm, for example, may bring down part of the eruv invalidating its ability, until repaired, to function as a ritual enclosure. So, how did I manage my Sabbath while living in Roxborough but praying in Lower Merion? I kept my Sabbath tallit, prayerbook, and an extra pair of reading glasses at the Kollel, the place where I prayed. 

What I forgot about Kraków was that there is no eruv. So, I couldn’t carry my tallit, prayerbook, and most importantly, my reading glasses. The tallit was not an insurmountable problem. I could wear it to the synagogue. Wearing is not carrying. The prayerbook was, for me, more of a problem. The one I use is bi-lingual, Hebrew on one side, English on the other. Having the English available helps me make sure I understand what I am saying in Hebrew. All the ones at the synagogue, so I reasoned, would be in Hebrew only, or Hebrew and Polish.

But the biggest problem was not being able to carry my reading glasses. For people who are near-sighted, who must wear their glasses all the time, like Beth, it’s not a problem. For people like me, who need glasses only to read, it is a problem. Typically, my glasses are carried in a shirt pocket. I’m pretty much done growing, except around the middle perhaps, and my arms are not long enough to read without my glasses.

Beth kissed me and left for the Remuh. She looked so beautiful. How I wanted to go with her.

As the sun began to set, I opened the curtains of our room and in the dim light that entered through the window prayed the afternoon service, then moved to an area where we had left a light on, said the prayers to welcome the Sabbath, and concluded with the evening prayer. By the time I finished, Beth was back from the Isaac Synagogue. It turned out that there was not a prayer quorum at the Remuh and Beth had gone to the Isaac. We walked together the short distance to the JCC for a delicious meal with about fifty other people from all over the world. Fortunately, to go to the JCC, I didn’t need to carry anything.

After dinner, a young Polish woman who works at the JCC offered to carry my tallit, prayerbook, and glasses to the synagogue for me to use Saturday morning. I thanked her for her generous offer, but turned it down. I felt uncomfortable asking her to do for me what I was not allowed to do for myself on the Sabbath.

Next time, Sabbath morning, lunch, some Torah learning, and a walk.

Photograph of Remuh Synagogue’s Women Section © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.