The Land of the Living

Eiruvin 2 returns to one of my favorite themes in the Talmud, which is relating the circumstances of the diasporic world to the desert camp of the Israelites. The particular issue at stake is closing off an alleyway in order to render it into a private rather than a public space (thereby permitting you to do a variety of things in it on Shabbat that you can’t do in a public space, and also restricts movement into it from public spaces, FYI).

You can close off an alleyway (creating an eiruv) by placing a crossbar across its entrance (making it sort of like a door). The mishna says that this works as long as the crossbar is no more than 20 cubits off the ground (a little over 9 meters); Rabbi Yehuda says that it can be higher (how much higher? Maybe up to 40 cubits, maybe as high as you want).

But what’s more interesting to me is the nature of the dispute. The Gemara explains that what the argument turns on is which part of the Temple in Jerusalem is to be taken as the paradigm for an entrance. Was it the entrance to the sanctuary, which was 20 cubits tall? Or was it the entrance to the outer entrance hall, which was 40 cubits tall?

There’s no general principle clearly at work here, at least in the Babylonian Talmud. The notes to 2a in my edition mention that several Rabbis and the Jerusalem Talmud explain the dispute as about the fact that the cross-beam you place needs to be a noticeable sign that the alley has been set off from the rest of the public domain and, if it’s too high up, it can’t serve that purpose. But there’s no such discussion in the Babylonian Talmud. And, if that were the issue, then I would expect to see discussions similar to discussions of other rulings, that make exceptions for when the presumed problem doesn’t manifest. For example, in Shabbat there are a few discussions where you can do things in a group that you can’t do alone – alone, it’s too similar to a Torah violation and so you might forget and transgress; in a group someone would remind you, so it’s OK. We don’t see something here like, “it can be over 20 cubits high if it is an alleyway well-known to everyone as between houses of pious people,” or “… if it’s painted in a bright color,” or “… if it’s in a city where people commonly make their crossbeams 30 cubits high.”

What’s at work is an attempt that happened throughout Shabbat as well, to replicate spaces and practices of the Temple in the diaspora. If I am carrying on Shabbat, I need to infuse my consciousness with the idea of the Levites who carried the tabernacle beams, so that I can avoid that labor and carry in a different way. If I am inclined to write on Shabbat, I should stay my hand by thinking of what I am doing would be like making markings on the beams of the tabernacle. Maybe it’s just that I’ve spent 3+ months reading about the laws of Shabbat, but I can’t help but think that – at least for Jews who take the Shabbat prohibitions more seriously than I do – Shabbat would function as a kind of fruitful void here. By being aware that carrying on Shabbat would be acting like a bearer of sacred beams when those bearers were commanded to rest, I become aware that during the rest of the week my actions are infused with meaning by connection to those bearers. Similarly with the eiruv entrance – I create one by consciously conforming space to the sacred space of the Temple, creating a sort of echo or doubling of the Temple in whatever place I happen to be.

There’s also a second doubling here – in the daf, the rabbis discuss whether Torah verses that refer to the tent of meeting and the tabernacle, which were the portable sacred spaces that the Israelites used in the wilderness, are also logically linked to verses that refer to the permanent Temple that was/is to be built. They conclude that they are – the tabernacle and tent prefigured the Temple (or perhaps the Temple echoed the tent and tabernacle) and so you can effectively use references to them interchangeably when deriving halacha.

Years ago, when I was a religious studies minor, I took a class on religious philosophy, and one of the things we talked about was how many ancient cultures did not think in terms of strict linear time the way that most contemporary folks do. For instance, when festivals followed the form of some mythical event, the understanding of people would be less that the festival was replicating or “acting out” past events (as is natural for us to think about it) but more that what was happening was that the festival and the mythic event it “replicated” were not separate events, but the same one – despite being distant in linear time, they are identical in spiritual/mythic time. You see this a lot in Jewish liturgy as well – Passover is celebrated, e.g., in honor not of what G!d did for our ancestors, but in honor of what G!d did for me.

The doubling of space in the Talmud feels like that. I think the sages are close enough to our understanding of the world that they would say that no, when you create an eiruv you are not “literally” building the tabernacle (and that the tabernacle was not “literally” the Temple). But there’s a kind of slippage – though I am not creating a new tabernacle, my actions shape sacred space in a way that is similar to the way that the entrance to the tabernacle divided sacred and secular space. I am not just “imitating” sacred space.

Unsurprisingly, I like this from the perspective of someone who’s inclined to see Judaism as “inherently diasporic.” The doubling of the Temple and the tabernacle indicates that there’s a spiritual identity between the wandering in the desert and the establishment of a kingdom – the tabernacle is not some inferior stop-gap for the Temple, it pre-figures it, and is its blueprint. The destruction of the Temple does not make it impossible for Jews to create sacred geometries in whatever place they find themselves – neither because we have lost the spiritual power of the Temple nor because we must await its return. Even when there was a Temple, it echoed diaspora, and gained some of its spiritual importance from that duplication.

I’ve just finished reading Gershom Scholem’s slim volume of selections from the Zohar, where there’s a third doubling that makes this relationship mystically literal. Just as the geometries created in the diaspora are congruent with the geometries of the Temple which are congruent with the geometries of the wilderness, the Zohar implies that all of these physical spaces are doublings of a spiritual space. The Zohar relates:

… Isaac said to Jacob, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed [Gen. 27:27]. We have been taught that this was so because accompanying Jacob… was the Garden of Eden… how could the Garden of Eden enter with him, stretching as it does an immense length and breadth…? In reality, God possesses another holy garden… This garden it was that entered with Jacob.

Likewise, when the story is told that the entire land of Israel came and put itself under Abram, it signifies another land which God has, a holy and celestial land which is also known as “the land of Israel.” This land of Israel lies beneath the mystical abode of Jacob and God, out of his love for them, has given it to Israel to be with them and lead them and stand guard over them; it is known as “the land of the living.”

Gershom Scholem, ed. Zohar: The Book of Splenor – Basic Readings from the Kabbalah (New York: Schoken, 1963), p. 117.

One could read the Zohar as referring to a literal metaphysical place, perhaps something extradimensional if you tend towards the sci-fi, but which is just like a physical Zion in a different realm. However, given the importance of words to the Jewish philosophical and theological traditions, I think another view is quite plausible. None of the physical sacred spaces are the “real” Temple or the “real” Zion – or, they are all equally real, maybe. The model of all these spaces is precisely in the books and discussions that link the Jewish people together across time and space as a community – we carry words with us that we can then unfold into physical sacred space wherever we are, in whatever place has meaning for us. If G!d is makom (place), it is a place that is created and recreated through community, not through being the “right” spot on which to build a twenty-cubit doorway. The “real” Israel is maybe the “land of the living” in a spiritually potent but also mundanely literal sense – an infusion of meaning through words and communal practice into the spaces where people are currently living their lives, not held apart from us by the lost past or the ungiven future.*

The complex of tabernacle-Temple-word-community also prefigures discussions I’m kind of excited to get to in Eiruvin, which deal with the ways in which creating the joined space requires markers of shared community (shared food in particular) as well.


*So, probably, hard-core theosophists (who I assume are not reading this) would object to me drawing any connections from the language of the English translation of the Zohar. To them I say a few things:

a) The Zohar was already written in pastiche Aramaic by a dude who actually spoke Hebrew and Spanish. The most likely explanation is that he did this not as true deception, but as a literary device to make a connection to the thought of earlier sages – similar to the way that someone today might write a novel narrated by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, or invoke what the US founding fathers might have thought about internet speech. If there’s a cosmic or mystical message there, it’s that language is important but not dead – it matters for how it will be perceived by its audience, not for how it is written in G!d’s version of the Torah. If I can create a spiritually potent version of the tabernacle entrance with a fencepost laid across an alleyway, surely Scholem can create a spiritually potent rendition of the Zohar in English. Even if you are fascinated – as I am – by the homiletic meanings of the Hebrew letters in Shabbat, that just means that perhaps someone needs to do the homiletics of the English alphabet as well, which will reveal different things. I know, I know, this is the line of thinking that results in me spending twenty years in my old age developing chaos gematria, probably.

b) Even some of the Rabbis (Shabbat 115) affirm that sacred texts in translation are still sacred. So nyah.

c) The Zohar itself claims that the literal text of the Torah is merely a kind of armor or shell that permits the Torah to manifest in this empirical world, and the task of understanding is to see past that to its true form, as one might guess what someone’s body was like by seeing them in clothing (pp. 121-2 in Scholem). If that’s the case, then surely one can “see through” different vestments to the essence, and declaring only study in Hebrew or Aramaic to be valid for gleaning insight would be making a category mistake. So nyah.

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