The Bridge That Collapsed According to Halachah

pittsburgh bridge eruv
View of the bridge from the bottom of the ravine. (Rabbi Elisar Admon)

The collapse of Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge was stunning news, covered extensively in the U.S. and international media. Two aspects of the event dominated the headlines: that no one was killed on the generally heavily trafficked bridge, only a few minor injuries even though four vehicles including a bus were on it at the time; and that it occurred just hours before President Joe Biden arrived in the city to promote — what else, but his trillion-dollar infrastructure bill!

For Biden, the timing was better than anyone on the White House staff could have planned. A spontaneous infrastructure event just in time for his visit to talk about repairing the nation’s bridges. Not often does a photo-op like this drop out of the sky.

“I’ve been coming to Pittsburgh a long time, and as a former Pennsylvanian … I didn’t realize that there are literally more bridges in Pittsburgh than in any other city in the world,” Biden said at the scene, and promising, “We’re going to fix them all,” CNN quoted.

Presidential serendipity aside, the miracle was that there was no loss of life, a realization shared by the officials and eyewitnesses at the scene.

Pittsburgh City Councilmember Corey O’Connor said that “if this would have occurred an hour later, this is a road that gets probably about 15,000 cars on it a day, and if it was rush hour, we would be looking at a couple hundred cars down in that valley.”

pittsburgh bridge eruv
L-R: Rabbi Silver, Rabbi Admon, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

“I’m at the site now and it’s astonishing there weren’t fatalities,” Pennsylavania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said in an interview with USA Today.

“It’s a miracle nobody died,” retired city planner Bruce Barnes, of Wilkinsburg, Pa., told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Another official who got a close-up view of the miracle was Rabbi Elisar Admon, who was there in his capacity as chaplain for the Pittsburgh Police and Pennsylvania State Troopers, and had a chance to meet President Biden.

“It’s a miracle, Mr. President,” Rabbi Admon said. “It’s a miracle.”

“It really is, it really is,” Biden responded. “It’s astounding,” he was quoted as saying in Hamodia’s report.

Rabbi Admon filled in some of the hashgachah involved in an interview with Hamodia: “A lot of our community members drive on that bridge every day. Because of the snowstorm, the schools were delayed so no school buses were on the bridge. No one was walking on the hiking trail under the bridge, and there were no homeless there either.

“As soon as I arrived, I saw the Yad Hashem. Nobody died from falling off the bridge in their vehicles. The bridge carried a gas line, and there was a strong smell of gas, but there was no gas explosion. … I felt it was mamash chasdei Hashem.”

There was another miracle covered in Hamodia, which (not so miraculously) went unmentioned in the mainstream media.

The reason Rabbi Shimon Silver was there was that he is the Rav hamachshir of the city’s eruv. Since the Fern Hollow Bridge is used as part of the eruv that runs along Forbes Avenue, if there was no bridge (it was Friday morning), then there was almost certainly no eruv either, and the Jews of Pittsburgh would not be able to carry on that Shabbos.

However, as Rabbi Silver ascertained during an inspection of the structure down in the ravine where it fell, the eruv was still kosher. Rather than collapsing into an undifferentiated pile of rubble, the bridge had rearranged itself into a “new wall,” in just such a way as to still conform to the halachos of eruvin.

“Unbelievable! Mamash nissim!” he exclaimed in an interview with Hamodia.

“When I saw that there was nothing that we needed to do, that Hashem had taken care of it, I got choked up. The frum Yidden will use the eruv if it’s kosher; and, if it’s not kosher, they won’t carry,” he says. “But there are a bunch of Yidden out there who don’t realize that they are being saved from chillul Shabbos by an eruv.”


pittsburgh bridge eruv
President Joe Biden talks to first responders as he visits the site where the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed Friday. Rabbi Elisar Admon is at right in reflective vest. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)


Now investigators are seeking to find out why it collapsed. Even though inspectors had given Fern Hollow a rating of “poor” in every two-year inspection since 2011, according to the Post-Gazette — it was still considered safe until Friday.

Andy Herrmann, a retired bridge inspector and immediate past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers who gave the country’s bridges a C grade last year, sounded mystified.

“The government system is pretty robust,” Mr. Herrmann said. “The government is very stringent on what those inspection numbers mean. … I’m very surprised this bridge collapsed given the rigors of that system.”

The National Transportation Safety Board has already launched an investigation, but it could take 18 months or more before any answers are found.

In the meantime, the message min haShamayim is obvious enough: the time for political machinations and bureaucratic delay is long over. We don’t need expert evaluations any longer to prove that the bridges and roads of this country are in desperately bad shape.

Speeches, presidential or otherwise, should be superfluous. All the talk about fixing America’s infrastructure must be translated into action, before the next bridge collapses, with possibly more serious consequences.

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