At my nephew’s wedding in Israel a few years ago, the proud groom introduced me to the head of the Jerusalem yeshiva where he had once been a student.
“Ah, so where in England are you from?” queried the eminent rabbi. Now, usually when I tell Israelis that I live in Manchester, the traditional, paint-by-numbers response is a knowing smile and a cheery acknowledgement of my home town’s (superior) football team.
And it seemed this learned rav was indeed familiar with my place of birth, but for far loftier reasons.
He simply replied: “Ah, Manchester, ir hakodesh (the holy city)”. From the way he stroked his beard, I knew we were talking Old Testament here, not Old Trafford.
You see, Manchester has a hallowed status across the Charedi world. It’s a reputation born of an intensity among Orthodox practitioners who take religious observation to quite a powerful, all-consuming level.
Which is why it will be fascinating to observe whether my city’s holy status will be compounded or compromised by the fact that tomorrow (Shabbat, January 11) the long-awaited Manchester eruv finally goes live. I suppose it depends — oh, dear — which side of the fence you’re on.
First, however, it`s important to acknowledge that this isn’t just any old eruv.
It’s the largest in the country, with a perimeter of more than 13 miles. Little wonder its creation has taken ten long years of indefatigable work by a dedicated committee who have worked tirelessly to make this £350,000 project happen.
On that basis alone, surely it would be rude to do anything other than junk the Shabbat belt and instead start filling pockets with house keys and emergency packets of sugar-free Orbit.
The question is, will this Shabbat see the good folk of north Manchester — weather warnings permitting, since umbrellas are still a halachic no-no — pushing prams to shul or taking a convivial bottle of Palwin over the road to an ailing neighbour or disgruntled pal?
I certainly hope so. But therein lies the irony.
For it’s precisely because Manchester is a holy city, there have been a few dissenting grumbles about the halachic reliability of the eruv (as well as the unspoken view that as a concept, an eruv is pritzus — roughly translated as the slippery slope to immorality), even though the eruv is under the inspection and supervision of the world-class, super-scrupulous Manchester Beth Din.
As those who already enjoy one will know, the benefits an eruv can bring are manifold. No longer will young mothers be housebound — how well I remember those wall-climbing years of Shabbat child jail. The elderly and infirm will be liberated with assistance from wheelchairs and walking frames.
What a shame it would be if Manchester`s rarified spiritual climate caused some to volubly fret and fear about taking the wrong step — quite literally.
At one recent shul meeting to discuss the practicalities of life with an eruv, the vexatious nature of new-found freedom was palpable.
“Can I carry my Shabbat key in my pocket if I know I’ll be out until after Shabbat?” And my favourite: “What do I do if I hear the eruv is down and I’m out pushing my little boy in his buggy?” (Parking the little fella at the bus stop until after Shabbat is not an option).
Inevitably there will be teething problems. But we must as a community park sanctimonious nit-picking as the default position. After all, those on the Manchester Eruv Committee didn’t, I imagine, take this project on lightly, particularly since it involved negotionating with three local authorities and a fairly tortuous, crowd-pleasing perimeter route.
Let the eruv both literally and symbolically remind us that one central tenet of our religion is to help each other. And with that we must give the eruv our fullest support.
And if the holier-than-thou are still not convinced, they can have my Shabbat belt. From tomorrow it’s going to be out of service. Chewing gum anyone?