The Boundaries of Shabbat and of the Human Personality

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Boundaries of Shabbat and of the Human Personality

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte


"Let every person stay in his place; let no one leave his place on the day of Shabbat." (Shemot 16:29)

Rashi on this verse immediately refers us to the famous dispute between Rabbi Akiva and the Sages. Rabbi Akiva (Sota 27b) states that the law against leaving a city's limits on Shabbat - techum Shabbat - is of biblical origin; the Torah forbids one to walk more than 2,000 cubits outside of his city. The Sages (Eruvin 46a), however, believe that this prohibition is really rabbinic in origin.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Shabbat 27:1) complicates matters by mentioning a third opinion (not held by him): there is indeed a biblical prohibition, but it prohibits one only from going more than twelve mils (one mil = 2,000 cubits) out of the city, i.e. 24,000 cubits. The stricter 2,000-cubit limit, however, is rabbinic in origin.

Bearing all this in mind, we encounter a strange discussion. The Gemara (Shabbat 69a) asks if there is a situation wherein a person on Shabbat could forget all the thirty-nine prohibited acts (melakhot), yet still know it was Shabbat. The assumption here is that Shabbat, halakhically, is characterised by certain prohibitions. This assumption is interesting and debatable in and of itself, but our attention must focus on the answer.

The Gemara replies that such a situation is indeed possible - if one agrees with Rabbi Akiva that the prohibition on leaving the city limits beyond 2,000 cubits is biblical. Thus, if a person were to forget all thirty-nine melakhot, but were to remember the separate prohibition of leaving the city beyond 2,000 cubits, then even though this prohibition is not one of the classic thirty-nine, it would be enough to characterize the day as being Shabbat.

The Amudei Or (Rav Yechiel Heller) asks immediately: according to the Rambam, there is a view that techum Shabbat is biblically prohibited at the twelve-mil mark; why can the Gemara not cite this view also in its answer?

The answer to the Amudei Or's question is clear. There are two separate facets of the idea of Shabbat. One entails a certain list of prohibitions - a list that automatically differentiates Shabbat from other days. The second facet is what we perhaps would call a "positive" side, a list of things one MUST do, proscriptive acts.

According to Rabbi Akiva, the law of techum Shabbat flows from the prohibitive side of Shabbat, even if it is not legislated technically as one of the thirty-nine melakhot. Thus, if one remembers only this law, one still remembers the prohibitive side of Shabbat, which the Gemara assumed to be central here.

According to the view that states that twelve mil is biblically prohibited, this prohibition flows from a different source entirely. It is generated by the POSITIVE side of Shabbat, more specifically, the idea mentioned in the verse above, "Let every person stay in his place." The nature of this law is not a prohibition against walking a certain distance outside the city, but rather a positive command to remain in one's domain during Shabbat.

Philosophically, this idea is captivating. The week is a time for travel, change, growth and development. One leaves a protected shell to venture out beyond stable yet staid environments, to forge one's personality in a world of conflict, change and tension. A muscle will grow weak if there is no demand made upon it to exert itself.

Shabbat, however, is the time when "home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill." We return to the blazing hearth, to our base, and there, in a secure, stable environment, we review all that we have encountered, we evaluate all that we have done, and we mold our personalities. "Let no man go out from HIS place..."

We find expression of these ideas in many places; let us mention two of the more revealing sources.

Rav Yochanan ben Nuri (Eruvin 42b) holds that if a person in a moving wagon fell asleep before Shabbat, and woke up after Shabbat had begun, the 2,000 cubit limit applies from the place where he woke up, and not from the place he was when Shabbat began.

There are two contradictory explanations of Rav Yochanan's opinion. One says that the person, while asleep, is just like any other inanimate object, and therefore cannot "acquire" a base-location which he will be prohibited from leaving. The second opinion claims that, on the contrary, since a conscious person can acquire his own personal space, and thus be prohibited from moving beyond that, so can a person who is sleeping. Until he awoke, every second, he was acquiring his own personal space as he travelled, beyond which he cannot go. The fact that he was not conscious of his acquisition or of the prohibition is irrelevant; his mere existence, conscious or otherwise, is enough.

The philosophical assumptions of this debate are clear. On the one hand, human beings are, to a certain extent, molded by their surroundings, as much as any inanimate, unintelligent object. There is a definite place for some form of determinism in our world view; we are shaped by our environments, to a certain extent. This view is carried to its logical, yet absurd extreme, by the first view which claims that a sleeping person, one devoid of the ability to choose, is wholly an object, wholly determined.

On the other hand, the second opinion claims that we are not clay in the hands of unseen forces; we choose, we build, we form ourselves in a manner different from all other beings and things which populate the universe.

The tension between these two views is one which always accompanies us. We acknowledge that when we go out to sail the seas beyond our safe dry shore, we are formed to a certain extent by that which surrounds us, and that we are as vessels in the grasp of the molder. However, when we return on Shabbat, we affirm that it is we who place the final stamp on who we are, that by review and decision, we do indeed create and mold ourselves.

The second place where we find an illustration of this conflict is in a dispute between Rav Chisda and Rabbi Meir. Rav Chisda (Eruvin 19a) claims that one should not learn from one teacher only, while Rabbi Meir (Avot De-Rabbi Natan 8:2) disagrees and says that a person should have one mentor alone.

Eventually, Rav Chisda moderates his view and says that there is a time when one should learn from only one person, namely, during one's formative years. At that stage, a person needs to receive a tradition, a rooting, a basis upon which he can stand and from which he can venture forward in years to come, and to which he may return after his adventuring.

Again, the dispute centers on whether a person should place himself in a situation where he will be molded entirely by one source alone, or whether he is to draw from as many different wells as possible, secure in the belief that he himself, in the end, is the one who will sculpt it all into the final form of a human being. However, even those who claim that we do have the final say in what and who we are, recognize the need for some inviolable place, beyond even our own touch, to which we can retreat when necessary and where, ironically, we can chisel away to our hearts' content.


(Delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Beshalach 5757 [1997].)


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