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The Music of Halacha: Infinite Boundaries

Most of my favorite Shabbat memories are of the unexpected. My father zt”l and I came home from Yeshiva after Friday night services to find a family with eight children in the apartment. (1966) I don’t remember the details, only that their car broke down just before Shabbat a block away from our home and they headed straight to the nearest Shabbat observant home they could find. They were from a small town in New York called Monsey, lived “down the hill” from my cousin, got lost in Toronto, and needed a place for Shabbat. None of us, not even my “evil” sister, resented camping out on the living room and hallway floor. There was no sense of adventure because we, the kids, did not particularly like the children. We also did not appreciate the loss of our special Shabbat time with our father. We couldn’t play Twenty Questions at the Friday night Se’udah, or review the Taryag Mitzvot over the second Shabbat meal, but we had a special sense of joy that Shabbat.

We experienced the reality of Shabbat in a powerful way: The fact that a family of ten people did not hesitate to knock on our door one minute before candle lighting to ask for a place for Shabbat, that my mother stlyt”a, welcomed ten strangers with open arms, that we, the children, assumed that this is what Shabbat is, and that the heroes were not my parents, but the guests who simply walked away from their car with empty pockets, leaving all their luggage behind in their rush to find a place for Shabbat, reflected Shabbat as something larger than life. My sisters and I willingly gave up our beds and rooms to honor our guests’ Shabbat life. My family responded to Shabbat. We did not act as we did because of the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests; we did it to honor their Shabbat observance.

My father sat with them on Shabbat afternoon reviewing the Halachot applicable to their situation. We sat on the floor around the adults listening in to the most memorable lectures on the laws of Shabbat. So much of Shabbat observance was so natural to us that we rarely had to ask whether we could do something, or how to do it according to Hilchot Shabbat.

Something similar happened about fourteen years later when I lived in Santa Clara, California. A family with five children showed up at the Yeshiva during Kabbalat Shabbat. They (Monsey people again!) were stuck in a traffic jam on their way to San Jose from the San Francisco airport. They realized that they only had a few minutes until Shabbat, emptied their pockets of everything including the rental car’s keys, and headed toward the singing they heard from just over the highway fence. They didn’t know that there were Shabbat observant Jews in the area. They only knew that they could not be in their car on Shabbat.

People fought for the privilege of hosting such people for Shabbat. We spent the entire day wondering what we would have done in similar circumstances. I remembered my father’s talk fourteen years earlier and applied his lessons to their situation. It was a rare opportunity to examine the Shabbat laws with fresh eyes. It was also a reminder that Shabbat demands sacrifice when necessary. It has a reality all its own.

I had my opportunity to make such a Shabbat decision a few weeks later in Tahoe. I spent Shabbat in a friend’s cabin high up in the snow covered mountains. I took a Shabbat walk up the mountain and got lost. I realized that I may have crossed the Techum Shabbat – Shabbat Boundaries.

The laws of Techumim limit our movement on Shabbat beyond certain boundaries: “Let every man stay in the place he occupies, no man shall leave his place on the seventh day.” (Exodus 16:29) The Talmud (Eiruvin 48a) defines a person’s place as, “Makom Shevita,” his “Place of Dwelling.” Our basic Makom Shevita begins with the four cubits he physically occupies.

Techum Shabbat expands our basic Makom Shevita to 2,000 Cubits (approximately 6/10 of a mile) in any direction beyond where he is when Shabbat begins. If he is alone in an unsettled area, such as the desert or a forest, he has 2,000 Cubits beyond his basic Four. If he is in a house in middle of nowhere, he has 2,000 extending in every direction from the property. If he is in a village, he will usually have 2,000 Cubits in each direction from the last house in the village. (This depends on how distant the homes are from each other.) The village is his Makom Shevita, his Four Cubits. If he is in a large, well populated city when Shabbat begins, he will usually have 2,000 Cubits beyond the outer limits of the city, which can continue for miles.

If a person, as did I in Tahoe, mistakenly walked out of the Techum on Shabbat he is instantly confined to the space of only eight Cubits in any one direction.

I had to stay where I was in middle of the forest until Shabbat ended. My adventure began…

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