One of the hardest hit industries of the pandemic has been the restaurant industry. Many restaurants have permanently closed; surely, many more will close in the coming months, and those that survive may never fully recover. 

Socially distanced eating is somewhat of an oxymoron. Eating is as much a social activity as it is something we do to satisfy our biological needs. That is why we like to eat with others, and why our tradition places so much emphasis not only on feeding the poor, the widow and orphan, but inviting them to join us for meals—especially at holiday time. And it is why the same halacha (Gittin 61a) that demands we feed, clothe, and visit sick non-Jews—even pagan idolaters—demands that we refrain from having a l’chaim with, especially with, our non-Jewish friends and neighbours. Our Sages opted for social distancing all year round, lest it weaken our commitment to marrying only within our faith. 

It is food that brings people, places and cultures together, extending our social groups. And thus, it is food that serves as the key ingredient in setting up an eiruv, be it an eiruv tavshilin, allowing one to cook on Yom Tov for Shabbat; an eiruv chatzerot, allowing one to carry beyond the confines of our home; or an eiruv techumim, allowing one to walk beyond one’s city limits. An eiruv tavshilin requires that one begin cooking for Shabbat before the chag begins; an eiruv chatzerot requires that all those living in the enclosed area contribute some food to a common area; and an eiruv techumim requires food be placed in the direction where one wants to walk on Shabbat. The word eiruv itself means to mix or join together; our eiruvim link Shabbat and Yom Tov[1], people in various neighbourhoods and people in separate towns. 

Jewish law prohibits one from walking more than 2,000 cubits (approximately one kilometre) beyond one’s city of domicile on Shabbat. However, by placing some food in between two towns that are no more than 4,000 cubits apart, that place becomes one’s domicile for Shabbat. This allows one to walk to either and both of the two cities, provided both are within 2,000 cubits from one’s new domicile.

Interestingly, it matters little if one actually eats the food used for an eiruv; as long as food is there, potentially ready for consumption, social cohesion is achieved and one’s eiruv has fulfilled its function. 

While any and all foods—with the exception of water and salt—are acceptable for an eiruv, the food must be potentially edible. Forbidden food—a category that includes untithed food—would not be acceptable for an eiruv

But what if the food is kosher and edible but the person making the eiruv cannot eat it? This is a matter of tanaitic dispute. “One may establish an eiruv for a nazir with wine, or an Israelite with terumah. Sumchus says, [only with] chulin, food” (Eiruvin 26b). 

According to Sumchus, one can make an eiruv only if one can personally eat from the food. Creating a new domicile requires a “kitchen” that provides sustenance to the homeowner at a minimum. The Sages, however, argue that as long as anyone—i.e., a kohen—can eat the food, the eiruv is valid. 

This is not just some argument about the technical details of an eiruv. Sumchus argues that a home is first and primarily an abode for the owner. It is a place where others enter only at the behest of the host. The Sages, on the other hand, posit that a home is a place that affords one the opportunity to welcome others, to provide for others in need. A place where guests are welcome can be classified as one’s own home, regardless of whether the owner is even home. 

The Gemara (Eiruvin 30b) notes that Sumchus agrees with the Sages regarding the use of wine for an eiruv for a nazir, despite the fact that the nazir may not drink the wine. The Gemara explains that the nazir can have his vow annulled, thereby permitting him to drink the wine. Even if the vow is not annulled in practice, the fact that theoretically, one can remove one’s nazirite status allows him (or her) to make an eiruv using wine[2]. Yet if so, the Gemara continues, one should allow the use of terumah for an eiruv as here, too, the halacha allows one to remove the terumah status from the food and replace it by declaring other food as terumah instead. Thus, even terumah should be acceptable for use in the eiruv of a non-kohen. The Gemara explains that while this is theoretically possible, chaveireem, observant Jews, would not do such a thing. This, because one must actually see the produce that one is tithing, something that is not possible if the only food at the place of the eiruv is some terumah

The Tosafists note that, for the honour of Shabbat, we make an exception to this rule of chaveireem

The Gemara (Yevamot 93a) relates how one of Rav Yanai‘s business partners would bring him (untithed) fruit every Friday in honour of Shabbat. One week, it was getting close to Shabbat, and the worker had not yet arrived. Afraid that the fruit would arrive after Shabbat began, at which point tithing would not have been allowed, Rav Yanai took tithes from other food he had in his home in anticipation of the fruit he was about to receive. This, despite the fact that he did not see and did not know exactly what fruit he was tithing. 

Based on this story, one would have thought that there is no reason that for purposes of an eiruv techumim—something that enhances our enjoyment of Shabbat—one could not substitute the terumah of the eiruv with other terumah, allowing its use for an eiruv techumim. Tosafot (Eiruvin 30b s.v. lo) explains that we must distinguish between the various ways we honour the Shabbat. While both eating and travel may enhance our enjoyment of Shabbat, only the former allows the relaxation of the rules of regarding tithing. The honour due Shabbat is most manifest regarding the food we eat on Shabbat. And this, despite the fact that Rav Yanai had plenty other food to eat. Being able to enjoy some extra fruit on Shabbat is worth relaxing the laws of tithing. Being able to go for a long walk on Shabbat is nice, but not at the expense of laws of tithing. 

Yet more important that the technical laws we learn from this story is the sensitivity of Rav Yanai. His partner was clearly ignorant of the laws of tithing—the classic Talmudic definition of an am ha’aretz. Week after week, he brought “non-kosher” food to Rav Yanai as a token of appreciation. Surely, there were many opportunities to teach him the basic laws of terumot and maasarot. Yet Rav Yanai did not do so. No doubt doing so would have caused some embarrassment. Here he is bringing gifts to a great Rabbi, and what he gets in return is a message that the gift is lacking! Better for Rav Yanai to remove the tithes himself than to possibly slight a fellow human being by showing a lack of appreciation for a gift. 

This is not the only crucial message of this otherwise rather dry and technical discussion about a law that has little practical relevance for most. Honouring Shabbat is great, but it cannot come at the expense of others. The Shulchan Aruch begins the laws of Shabbat (Orach Chaim 242) with the exhortation to properly honour Shabbat. Our Shabbat meals should be the best of the week, and those who are of little means must eat a bit less during the week so that they will be able to afford a nice Shabbat meal. However, one must “make his Shabbat like a weekday”, eating a very simple meal rather than asking for charitable dollars from others.

Not only the poor must watch their spending. On this very first page of the laws of Shabbat, the Mishna Berura notes how earlier generations established an enactment prohibiting—even for those who could easily afford it—overpaying for fish on Shabbat if the fish merchants, knowing the almost inelastic demand for fish on Shabbat, specifically raise the price. 

Honour of Shabbat is important, more important than (some of) the laws of tithing, but less important than asking for a handout or putting an end to price gouging. 

During these times of pandemic, we are more aware (or we better be) of the many who are forced to spend Shabbat alone and the many who have been terribly hurt financially. While it might be noble for people in need not to ask for help, it is incumbent upon those fortunate enough to not be alone and to have their basic needs taken care of to reach out to others offering both companionship and support. We may be socially distanced, but we must be near emotionally and economically. That is the honour due to others, an honour even more important than the honour due Shabbat. 


[1] In our tradition Friday is not just Friday, it is erev Shabbat, the day by preparing for Shabbat, we join together the “secular” days of the week and the holiness of Shabbat.

[2] In a similar vein, the conceptual basis allowing an eiruv tavshilin is that by starting to cook for Shabbat before Yom Tov begins, one may continue the cooking process on Yom Tov itself with the understanding that one will actually eat the food of the eiruv on Shabbat. Yet here, too, the fact that the food could be eaten is good enough even if in practice, one does not do so. However, if the eiruv is eaten before Shabbat, one may no longer to continue to cook for Shabbat.