THE BLOG

Manchester's Eruv Shows the Sillier Side of Religious Practice

13/01/2014 15:16 GMT | Updated 15/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Apparently Manchester's Jewish community have constructed the UK's largest eruv. So what is an eruv?

Some orthodox Jews obey the rules that say they can't do any work on the Sabbath. Like other religions, some people are more hardcore than others: some people simply won't go to work, whereas others will refuse to even switch on the lights in their house - as that breaks one of the many, many rules on what you can and can't do on the holy day.

In Israel, this can be particularly problematic as even hardcore religious people still need to live in the modern world. Lucky for them, there are many ways around the rules. Many lifts in Israel will operate automatically on Saturdays - simply stopping at every floor of a building rather than having the user press a button, and thus break a rule. Similarly, lights are often triggered on a timer, to stop people sitting in the dark.

This all gets a bit silly when you extend it to it's natural conclusion - with gadgets like special phones that rather than have buttons you press to dial a number, simply dials every digit until the user breaks the circuit using a special dialling wand, so only they number they want to dial is called.

That's right - God has disallowed doing a whole bunch of stuff, but it's fine if you cheat him with this semantic (or should that be semitic, haha!) workarounds.

It's not just Judaism - Islam doesn't allow usury (money lending), but some bureaucratic wrangling enables Islamic banking to work just fine. Islamic mortgages, for example, work by the bank buying the house at a price you agree with an estate agent, then you buy the house from the bank at a higher rate, paying piece by piece at fixed intervals.

Anyway - what about eruvs? Apparently under Jewish law you're not allowed to "push" or "carry" objects (like, say, a pushchair or a lawnmower) outside the home on the Sabbath. Luckily, eruvs provide a handy workaround for this restriction. An eruv is a symbolic barrier - to represent the boundaries of a home - that is often erected around Jewish communities, like the one in Manchester. This isn't an actual wall, but is a magic piece of wire, that conveniently means that all sorts of modern conveniences can continue to be used - as the people inside it are technically... in the same home. As Wikipedia says, "The eruv allows these religious Jews to, among other things, carry house keys, tissues, medicines, or babies with them, and use strollers and canes."

The new one in Manchester isn't the first in the UK either - there's at least three in London.

I know what you're thinking: this is ridiculous. From the perspective of someone who is non-religious, doesn't this really show up the absurdity of religious belief? The Torah has been retconned to make it more palatable to modern audiences - like when Iron Man's origin story was set in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam, or Tintin was made less racist. Sure, religions do this all of the time ("all of that nasty stuff in the Bible? Nah, we can ignore that bit and only listen to the nice stuff"), but a magic string as a manifestation of the belief? There's surely a fine line between unquestioning ritual and active belief, but who'd have thought that line would be suspended from telegraph poles around the suburbs? It's not like the boundary is small either, such as around the edges of someone's garden, or even a street - the Manchester eruv apparently has a perimeter of 13 miles. Just how big can one be before God realises that someone is taking the piss?

Wait - maybe this explains Israel's building of the wall on the West Bank? Maybe it is just the first stage in a giant eruv, so Orthodox Jews nationwide can go shopping (and push their trolleys) on Saturdays?

It must surely be tricky to get your head around the cognitive dissonance of the Torah saying one thing, and the rules being bent well beyond the original intention.

Perhaps it is unfair to pick on eruvim (that's the plural) as absurd ("wait, the wine is literally Jesus' blood?"), but it is another amusing highlight of the endless tension between religious belief and everyone realising that some of that ancient wisdom isn't quite so useful in the modern world.