The Elk & the Eruv

A few years ago, when our three kids were teens and older, we decided to take them all on that iconic drive to the Big West….Deadwood, South Dakota, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons….the sort of thing you do with your older kids because you know that soon they won’t travel with you anymore so you try to make it an adventure.

Our Oldest, Twenty-One, had become a Chassid. Lubavitcher. Traveling with him presented some challenges: kashrut, Shabbat and tolerance.

We decided that part of our adventure would involve camping in Yellowstone. Picture this: it is Friday late afternoon we are just arriving at our new campsite — we are setting up camp and Shabbos is approaching.

Little bit of background information here….if you have not heard of the term ‘eruv’ it means a boundary within which you can carry things on Shabbat. Sort of a ‘virtual’ house, separating public space from private space since you cannot really carry stuff in public space on Shabbat if you are more strict in your observance.

In a larger city like New York, Los Angeles, a wire is hung within a certain geographical area which is predetermined to be ‘within the eruv’ where people who are very observant can walk to shul, to synagogue – creating a private space from a public space, so to speak, so they can carry stuff.

You know — .umbrellas, house keys, — children, coffee — grudges…


Ahead of time, wanting everything to go smoothly, naïve little us, as a family, we had foraged in the woods for sticks which were of a certain legal height (Twenty-One had researched it and it couldn’t be trees); he had brought kite string from home so we could tie a boundary around our campsite so he would be ‘legally, as it were’, able to bring his cocoa, his wine, his marshmallows, his challah, siddur and (ahem, attitude) from the campfire to the table, etc. etc.

(small note here…we were in bear country…so food needed to be locked up, nothing at all in the tents. — Pretty dangerous on that note, actually).

So..back to our pre-Shabbat scene. We have put the sticks into the ground, we have tied the string and now we are off to the showers…the sun much, much lower in the sky.

And dropping.

This eruv was a really big thing for Twenty-One (and for us. A lot of effort, and basically, one of the big challenges with having him travel with us and camp during Shabbat. No judgement here on my part. We were just trying to make it work. Everybody who has ever been in a family – ever — can appreciate what I mean, right?

You do what you have to do to make it work so you can all be together.

So…all clean for Shabbat (if there is such a thing in the deep Wyoming woods) we return to the campsite to find our careful little eruv….rolled up in a little ball of string on the table….sticks stacked against a tree. And next to the string…a citation from the guy upstairs – you know, the Yellowstone Park Ranger:

“Clotheslines are not allowed in Yellowstone because of the elk – their antlers can get entwined in the string. This is a warning. Failure to comply will result in a $500 fine”.

You cannot even imagine what happened next.

The sky is darkening. The eruv is on the table and Twenty-One, our Twenty-One….starts a rebellion. He begins to complain, to scream, to stalk about. He was mad. So mad. Angry that we made him come on the trip, angry that his eruv was gone and Shabbat would not be right.

He began to take his challah into the tent but of course, because of the bears, this endangers all of us, which I believe, in my humble arrogance, I just want to say, may not have been G-d’s intention when G-d said ‘keep Shabbat holy’.

So…we had a bit of a mess.

Like I said, we were doing the best we could. It was too late in the evening to call the rabbi back in Wisconsin…that is even if we could have gotten a cell signal. We were on our own. Suddenly this place, our campsite, was Meribah. The place of friction and of strife. The eruv had been erected once…and taken down by the rangers (and, might I note — NOT by the parents). Striking the rock, so to speak, a second time would bring us a $500 fine –or worse.

So Twenty-One took his siddur, his prayer book, and stormed off to the tent, without dinner, to bed-roll.

So much for family vacation.

So much for Shabbat Shalom. Sigh.

Now the next morning…it is 6 am. Nineteen and I are tending the breakfast fire. It is cold. The beautiful sun is rising through the trees. Out of nowhere we hear (apologizing in advance for this) “ooooawwww” (it is a bone-shaking sound, especially at close range…google it!)….We look up, expecting the Shabbat bride. And there, not even ten yards from us, in our campsite, is a huge, HUGE male elk with a full set of antlers with two female elk. Wow. Really, wow. They are spectacular. Gorgeous. Scary. I move slowly to the tent and speak through the tent wall to Twenty-One,…uh, honey, you might want to look out here.

Which he did.

Later, after a few minutes and after they had wandered away – he opened the tent and came out to us, smiling, saying ‘HaShem sent the Elk here so we would know that it was all okay with the eruv.”

And that was that.

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