THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Beshalach – פרשת בשלח
January 30, 2021 – יז שבט תשפא
This essay is dedicated by Richard Hochman in memory of Abraham Albert Hochman Z”L.
Traveling on the Sabbath
Judaism has long recognized legal limitations on the distance one may travel on the Sabbath. Multiple texts, dating from the late Second Temple and immediate post-Temple eras, attest to the existence and widespread observance of such regulations; they differ only about the scope of the prohibition. Normative rabbinic Judaism evolved such that the Sabbath boundary (Techum Shabbat) was not to be considered any sort of impediment to the enjoyment of the weekly day of rest. Other sectarian groups within – and beyond – Judaism, sharply disagreed with the rabbinic view, in both directions. They either adopted even more rigid guidelines or they abandoned restrictions on Sabbath travel altogether.
Possibly the earliest reference to Sabbath travel restrictions is in the mid-second century BCE Book of Jubilees. “And every man who does any work thereon, or goes on a journey… or travels by ship on the sea… shall die (Jubilees 50:12).” Jubilees does not define “journey.” The Zadokite Fragments, or Damascus Document, are more precise: “Let him not walk outside his city more than a thousand cubits (10:21).” However, later in that same document is a seemingly contradictory line: “No one shall walk after an animal to pasture it outside his city more than two thousand cubits (11:5).”
The New Testament mentions Sabbath travel restrictions in passing, and quite helpfully adds geographic landmarks indicating a rough measurement of the permitted walking distance. “Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city (Acts 1:12).” The author of Acts takes for granted that his readers are familiar with what is meant by a “Sabbath day’s walk.” Josephus variously measures the distance from the outskirts of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives via the Kidron Valley to be five furlongs (Antiquities 20:8:6) or six furlongs (Wars of the Jews 5:2:3).
The early-second century CE Church Father Ignatius of Antioch was a vicious critic of Judaism. He encouraged Christians to observe their Sabbath on Sunday, not Saturday, and to do so in a spiritual manner different from the Jews’ observation. He characterized the Jewish Sabbath as a day for “eating stale meats, drinking lukewarm drinks, and waking measured distances (Letter to the Magnesians 9).” Of the many facets of the Jewish Sabbath that he held in disdain, Ignatius chose to mention the restrictions on the slaughter of animals, the heating of beverages, and on personal mobility.
The Essenes adopted an extremely strict version of the Sabbath travel ban. Josephus wrote that they would not “go to relieve themselves (Wars of the Jews 2:8:4).” Hippolytus of Rome noted that “Essenes do not move any utensil, nor do they defecate. Some do not even leave the couch (Refutatio Omnium Haeresium 9:25:2).”
The rabbis determined that a Jew may travel on the Sabbath up to 2,000 cubits beyond his city’s municipal limits. Rabbi Akiba derived that measurement from a comparison of consecutive verses describing the Levitical cities. Numbers 35:4 states that the town pasture for Levitical cities shall extend 1,000 cubits outside the town wall. Yet Numbers 35:5 instructs the surveyors to measure off 2,000 cubits for the pasture. In reconciling the verses, Akiba explained that the 1,000 cubits closest to the city are for pasture, while 2,000 cubits was the Sabbath boundary (Mishnah Sotah 5:3).
Rabbinic literature offers further Scriptural hints to the 2,000-cubit travel limit. During the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan River, the Ark of the Covenant was kept 2,000 cubits away from the people (Joshua 3:4). The Midrash explains that since the Israelites were going to spend the Sabbath just beyond the river, it was necessary for the Ark to be no further away than the maximum walkable distance of 2,000 cubits so that people could come to pray before it. Similarly, during the wilderness sojourn, Moses positioned the various tribes no further than 2,000 cubits away from the Tabernacle (Numbers Rabbah 2:9).
The most popular Scriptural support for Sabbath travel restrictions is a verse admonishing Israelites not to venture outside their encampment to collect manna on the Sabbath. “Mark that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore, He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is; let no one leave his place on the seventh day (Exodus 16:29).” The Halakhic Midrash defines “one’s place” as an area extending 2,000 cubits in every direction (Mekhilta d’Rashbi Beshalach Vayasa 5). The Talmud cites Exodus 16:29 as evidence that some limit on Sabbath travel exists, cites Numbers 35:5 for the measurement of 2,000 cubits, and connects the two verses through a series of strained exegetical interpretations (Eruvin 51a).
Christian scholars mocked the rabbis’ lenient approach to Exodus 16:29, noting that a literal reading of the text would require Jews to remain seated for the entirety of the Sabbath. Origen characterized rabbinical interpretations of the Sabbath travel law as “empty and trifling tales,” and “innumerable fables” (De Principiis 4:17). He also belittled the Scriptural reading put forth by the Samaritan heresiarch Dositheus, who posited that “one must remain until nightfall in the position, posture, place, or position in which he found himself on the Sabbath day.” Origen considered Dositheus’ view to be even more ridiculous than that of the rabbis.[i] Jerome noted that when Jews are challenged to defend their peculiar, non-literal reading of Exodus 16:29, they respond, “Barachibas [Akiba], Simeon [Shammai], and Helles [Hillel] our teachers have handed down a tradition that we may walk 2,000 feet on the Sabbath (Epistle 121). The Church Fathers considered the rabbinic Oral Tradition to be nothing more than a series of incoherent and illogical interpretations; they certainly rejected the notion that the rabbis taught correct Biblical readings preserved since deep antiquity.
Samaritan halakhah concerning Sabbath travel evolved over time. It is unclear what Dositheus actually meant. Some scholars understand him to have remained in the same physical position for the duration of the Sabbath. Others scholars understand him to have meant that one must remain in the same social or mental condition for the duration of the Sabbath, but that physical mobility was permitted. Literary evidence suggests Baba Rabbah, the early fourth-century CE Samaritan High Priest, spent the entire Sabbath in the synagogue (II Sefer Ha-Yamin 16:2). In his era, Samaritans allowed bodily movement on the Sabbath, but considered it unlawful to exit the building in which one was situated. In the eleventh-century, Samaritan halakhist Abu al Hasan as-Suri found Scriptural support for the permissibility of venturing outdoors on the Sabbath. He noted that though the wood-gatherer was guilty of a Sabbath violation (Numbers 15:32), the witnesses who caught the transgressor were themselves also out in the field and yet they were not reckoned as having sinned (Kitab al-Tabah). Fellow Samaritan scholar Yusuf ibn Salama al-Askari understood Exodus 16:29 to mean that venturing outside is forbidden only if the intention is to perform a weekday activity (e.g., collecting manna), but that traveling a short distance to attend the synagogue would be permitted, just as it was permitted for Israelites in the wilderness to seek God at the Tent of Meeting (Kitab al-Kafi).
Did the rabbis consider Techum Shabbat to be Torah law or rabbinic law? The Talmud posits that Rabbi Akiba considered Techum Shabbat to be Torah law, while his colleagues considered it to be merely rabbinic law (Sotah 30b). Rabbi Hiyya agreed with Akiba and ruled that one who unlawfully travels too far on the Sabbath is subject to corporal punishment (Eruvin 17b). The anonymous redactors of the Babylonian Talmud repeatedly give the impression that Akiba’s viewpoint is the outlier and that the rabbinic consensus opposing Akiba is correct (Shabbat 153b, Sanhedrin 66a). For example, in the Aggadic embellishment of Naomi’s conversation with Ruth, Naomi tries to dissuade her daughter-in-law from converting to Judaism by mentioning its burdensome features. Naomi refers to Techum Shabbat as being separate and distinct from the 613 commandments (Yebamoth 47b).
Another indication that the rabbis regarded Techum Shabbat as merely rabbinic law is the seemingly cavalier way that the Sabbath boundary is calculated (Tosefta Eruvin 3:11). One is permitted to walk across the entirety of an inhabited area (possibly stretching for miles), and then 2,000 cubits in any direction (north, south, east, or west) beyond the edges of civilization, or as much as 2,800 cubits if one travels to far corners of the map (northeast, northwest, southeast, or southwest). When there are conflicting boundaries calculated by competing surveyors, the more accommodating calculation is to be trusted. Why? “Because the sages said this matter not to be strict but to be lenient (Mishnah Eruvin 5:5).” The Talmud challenges the Mishnah from a Baraita stating the opposite: “The sages said this matter not to be lenient but to be strict.” The Talmud resolves the contradiction by acknowledging that the entire concept of Sabbath boundaries is a rabbinic enactment. Rabbinic law in this regard is stricter that Torah law – which recognizes no limits on Sabbath travel – but is itself to be applied with a hermeneutical eye toward leniency (Eruvin 59a).
The subject of Techum Shabbat is further complicated by a passage in the Yerushalmi that suggests alternative measures for the Sabbath boundary aside from the traditional 2,000 cubits. One such suggestion is 4,000 cubits, though the Yerushalmi offers no explanation for it. Another suggestion is twelve mil (which equals three parsangs, or 24,000 cubits), corresponding to the width of Israel’s encampment in the wilderness. Scripture states: “And they encamped by the Jordan from Beth-Jeshimoth as far as Abel-Shittim, in the steppes of Moab (Numbers 33:49).” Rabbah bar bar Hannah claimed to have seen that region and measured it at three parsangs across (Eruvin 55b, Yerushalmi Shevi’it 36c).
Among the post-Talmudic halakhic codifiers, three viewpoints emerged:
A) The Sabbath boundary is an entirely rabbinic institution (Ramban).
B) Torah law limits traveling on the Sabbath to a distance of twelve mil, while rabbinic law reduces the permissible walking distance to 2,000 cubits (Maimonides, Hilkhot Shabbat 27:1).
C) The 2,000-cubit Sabbath boundary is Torah law (Halakhot Gedolot 10 Eruvin, She’iltot Beshalach 48).
What is the correct interpretation of Exodus 16:29? Is it a commandment for all generations regulating travel on the weekly day of rest, or was it a one-time warning to the Israelites in the wilderness that they not go out to collect manna on Sabbaths when no manna was to be found? Pseudo-Jonathan read the verse as having halakhic import. Consistent with his tendency to read rabbinic interpretations into the text, he included reference to the 2,000-cubit boundary in his Aramaic translation. Ibn Ezra hewed to the plain meaning, reading the verse as a warning to the manna collectors, specifically. Rashi first mentions the 2,000-cubit rule, but then concedes that that is not really the meaning of the verse because the 2,000-cubit rule is merely rabbinic legislation. Rashi acknowledges that the primary import of the verse was that it is an admonishment to the manna collectors.
I suspect that the original limitation imposed on Sabbath travel was not connected to any particular Biblical verse -- and certainly not to Exodus 16:29, the exegetical interpretation of which is not evidenced in the pre-rabbinic period. Most likely, arduous travel, and even lengthy walks, were regarded by the Jews of yore as being out of character with a day of rest. The extreme practice of not leaving one’s home altogether, which at times was adopted by some Essenes, Samaritans, and Karaites, could never have been widely accepted. And it runs afoul of “Nor shall you carry out burdens from your home on the Sabbath day (Jeremiah 17:22),” which implies that absent carrying a burden one is permitted to move about beyond the confines of one’s home.
Techum Shabbat quite reasonably grounds us within our religious community for the duration of a weekly Sabbath designed to refresh our lagging bodies and elevate our spirits.
[i] Origen’s opinion that it is impossible for a person to remain in the same position for the entirety of the Sabbath seems to be inconsistent with God’s instructions to Ezekiel that he lie on his left side for 390 days (Ezekiel 4:9).