The Shabbat Prohibition to Walk Beyond a Certain Distance
Rabbi Sjimon R. den Hollander
The Sabbath (or Shabbat as it is called in Hebrew), is probably the best known of all the Jewish observances. For Jews who 'keep' (observe) the Shabbat, it is considered a precious gift from God. Shabbat is arguably the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is a day of spiritual enrichment and rejuvenation. The word Shabbat itself means to end, or to cease (i.e. from work).
Judaism teaches that God created heaven and earth in six days and on the seventh day (Shabbat), He ceased from His creating work. When Jews rest on the seventh day after being active on six days of the week, they, in a way, ‘imitate’ God in both His creative activity and in refraining from work periodically, thereby acknowledging that He is the Creator and Master of the universe. Shabbat-observant Jews remind themselves on a weekly basis, that our work, as important as it is, is not the ultimate end-in-all goal in life. It is good to temporarily set it aside on behalf of higher values, spirituality, and a different experience of time.
Resting on the seventh day is also about freedom. In ancient times, only the 'upper class' and the wealthy had time to rest. In pharaonic times in Egypt, slaves (Jews) never had a day of rest. So by resting on the seventh day, Jews remind themselves that they are liberated, and meant to spend quality time free not only of physical labor but also of mental anxiety. During the week, we may be 'slaves' to our work and the need to succeed, but on the seventh day we can
experience a deeper freedom, as were our ancestors freed from slavery.
The Jewish concept of resting on Shabbat may not be what we think it is. It does not necessarily mean doing nothing or sleeping. The Torah and the rabbinic tradition explain that Shabbat “resting” is merely desisting from a number of specified activities. Among these are activities like kindling fire, sewing, writing, cooking, baking, harvesting, sowing, building, trading, carrying objects outside a house or private area, traveling, or walking beyond a certain distance.
The prohibition to move outside a defined zone is based on a commandment in the Torah (Exodus 16,29): "Behold, the Lord has given you the Sabbath, therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Each man shall stay put, and not leave his place on the seventh day." One can, of course, argue what exactly is meant with "his place". Is it his room, his house, his neighborhood, his town? In the past, some groups of Qara'ites have taken this to mean that one should not leave one's house on the Shabbat, except to go to synagogue, provided that the synagogue is not too far. (Qara'ies, or Karaites, are Jews who do not follow rabbinic law.) Even in 1998, when I was in Jerusalem for Shabbat, and I was interested to attend a Qara'ite service, I ran the bell the day before to inquire what time service started. The woman who answered my question insisted that I could only attend if I stayed within the Old City. If not, it would be too far of a distance.
According to rabbinic law, the distance that one may travel on the Shabbat (we are talking about traveling on foot here) depends where one is at the start of Shabbat. If you are in a house outside of a town, for instance in a remote cottage, a farm house, or a “little house on the prairie”, you can walk as far away from that house as 2,000 cubits in each direction (which is roughly about 1 kilometer or almost two-thirds of a mile). In other words, one can walk anywhere within an imaginary circle that has a diameter of 2 km, i.e. 1.25 mile, with the house exactly in the middle. On the other hand, if you live within a village or a town, even a town as big as New York City or London, you can walk anywhere within that town until the edge of the town, plus another 2,000 cubits beyond the edge (in each direction).
The area within which can move around is called תחום שבת, Teḥūm Shabbat, or Teḥūm (also spelled as Techum) for short. While this is a different topic, observant Jews do not ride horses on Shabbat for various reasons. One of the reasons mentioned is that one may loose control over the horse and unwillingly go beyond the boundaries of the Teḥūm.
A Personal Story...
The following story happened to me in the summer of 2004. It was on a Friday, and I was flying back to my home in New York City from a short vacation in Colorado. According to my travel schedule, I should have landed early enough to make it home before Shabbat and in time to prepare, but for some unforeseen reason, there was a serious delay. I landed right at the time when Shabbat was supposed to start. I made it off the plane before the deadline, but now I was in the airport and Shabbat had started. What to do now? The airline personnel were not willing to help at all, and there I was with my suitcase. There were a number of problems that presented
themselves to me as a Shabbat observer. I am not supposed to use a vehicle, I am not supposed to carry objects on the street (my suitcase, my wallet, my keys), and I am supposed to honor the Shabbat with a festive meal, which was naturally not possible at the airport. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have any foods or drinks with me and I am not supposed to buy anything on Shabbat either. To make it even more complicated, we are not supposed to fast on Shabbat…!
I calculated all pros and cons. Not having the Shabbat meal and saying blessings over wine in honor of Shabbat is less serious than breaking the laws of carrying and traveling, so all things considered, it would be better to stay in the airport until the next evening. However I could not physically do that. There was no place to lay down on a bench, and perhaps I could do without food or drinks, maybe I could drink water for a fountain, but I certainly couldn’t manage without sleep. Then I made a decision. I had traveled with a non-Jewish companion, and he was still at my side, seeing if I would be okay. Shabbat is not incumbent on non-Jews. According to Judaism, a non-Jew is not obligated to keep these laws as they are only part of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel. Non-Jews can serve God in different ways (but that’s a different topic). This kind companion agreed to take my suitcase, my wallet and my keys and deliver it to my apartment, and I gratefully accepted his offer. Then I started walking from LaGuardia Airport towards my home in downtown Manhattan. I wasn’t really sure exactly how to walk, but I used my sense of direction and probably didn’t go as straight as I could have. I walked through the night at a high pace and it took me somewhere between 3 to 4 hours. All my muscles and bones hurt me when I came home. I said the blessing over wine, had a tiny mini-meal and fell asleep. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Shabbat service that morning.