The Obligation of Tehumin

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat BeShalah, Year Two

Part of my interest in this mitzvah is that it might not belong here at all, since rishonim debate whether there is any Biblical prohibition related to how far we travel on Shabbat.

The Early Rambam

In Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Prohibition 321, Rambam writes that we have been warned not to travel outside our Shabbat limits, based on Shemot 16; 29, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day (Koren’s translation, from Sefaria). Here, he says tradition had it that any further than 2000 amot (a mil) outside of the camp violated this prohibition (in any direction, so there was a permissible circle of that radius around any camp or city).

The length of an amah is still disagreed on today. I grew up thinking the consensus was that it was eighteen inches, with some more stringent views, I think opinion is gravitating more towards an amah being between 20 and 21 inches, also the length asserted by R. Moshe Feinstein z”l. If we take twenty inches, a mil is a little over three/fifths of a mile. [This past  year’s Tehumin has an article inferring the length of an amah from the structure of the Temple Mount. 20.8.]

To prove it is Biblical, Rambam points to Mekhilta on this verse, which gives 2000 amah as what the verse referenced, as well as Eruvin 17b, which spoke of lashes for violating tehumin, an indication it is a Biblical issue.

Ramban’s Counterattack, Including the Later Rambam

Rambam glosses this mitzvah, first pointing out the passage in Eruvin is the view of R. Akiva, a minority view. Also, Rambam himself, in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat, 27, agreed 2000 was a Rabbinic limit.

[Within this rule, Minhat Hinukh notes some rishonim thought the person had roughly 2800 amah, actually, the diagonal of a square surrounding a circle of 2000 amah, where others thought the 2800 was only when the city was lined up with geographical directions. A topic for another time.]

In Mishneh Torah, though, Rambam still thought tehumin was a de-oraita matter, just that it was traveling 12 mil (a little over seven and a half miles), the length of the Jewish camp in the desert. Sefer Ha-Hinukh Mitzvah 24 includes this version of the Biblical prohibition.

Rambam took this from Yerushalmi Eruvin 3;4, but Ramban thinks the Bavli disagreed, since it never mentions it, and therefore is not normative for us. Based on the Bavli, only R. Akiva held a Biblical issue of tehumin, 2000 amah, and his position is not accepted.

There is, of course, a universally acknowledged Rabbinic prohibition on travelling more than a mil outside one’s place of residence on Shabbat, but Rabbinic rules leave more room for leniencies and loopholes than Biblical ones, hence the stakes in our discussion.

Measuring the Limit

For people who live in large cities, the issue can often fail to arise, because tehum only starts to be measured from the last house at the edge of the city, Sefer Ha-Hinukh points out. [On the other hand, some sources suggest any unsettled area of 71 amot—less than 142 feet—ends a city. I believe poskim today triangulate to extend these limits, but that’s not our concern here.]

Perhaps here is also a reasonable place to note that tehum applies to objects and animals as well, usually thought to be guided by the tehum of whoever possessed them at the advent of Shabbat.

The Creation of the World

Sefer Ha-Hinukh suggests the mitzvah comes to remind us the world is created [in graduate school, I decided to branch out a bit and took a course in the history of science, only to have it be about the question of the creation of the world, which thinkers of all walks of life have debated since before Aristotle; part of what appeals about the belief in creation, in Judaism, is the room it leaves for miracles, less plausible if “laws” of nature are independent of God. Of course, thinkers are completely convinced of Rambam’s ”true” position, any one of three possibilities].

The idea applies to Shabbat as a whole, as Hashem says in the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, but Sefer Ha-Hinukh ties it to this aspect of Shabbat specifically. He says in recognition of creation, it is proper to spend the day in one place, to only travel as a matter of enjoyment, and up until twelve mil is not that strenuous a hike.

He hints at one weakness of his idea, stepping even one amah beyond the twelve mil could net a person lashes, and beyond the mil of the Rabbinic prohibition makkat mardut, Rabbinic lashes. [If it’s a matter of not working too hard, one amah wouldn’t seem to make the difference.

I am a huge fan of Sefer Ha-Hinuch; early on in my brief rabbinic career, I insulted a more senior rabbi by saying I did not hear enough rabbis include him in their sermonic or shiur material. Still, I do not find all his reasons convincing.

Here, his perspective would have been more convincing had he said that by refraining from going beyond our cities, we are staying within the world God gave us, not creating any new environment for ourselves on Shabbat. It puts it more in line with the prohibition of melakha generally.]

A Separate Prohibition

Minhat Hinukh gives reason to think I err in trying to bring this lav in line with other melakhot. He notes those Shabbat rules comes with a karet/sekilah punishment for violating lo ta’aseh kol melakha, performing creative labor on Shabbat, where tehumin is a plain prohibition. More, those categories—inferred from the building of the Mishkan—are also obligated by the commandment of tishbot, rest, where tehumin, he argues, is not.

(The idea that some aspects of Shabbat observance are not “rest” came from the teacher of the Rashba, who made the point about mehamer, encouraging/ commanding an animal to bear a load on Shabbat. It is an idea Minhat Hinukh employs often in his work, he says. Theoretically, it could be true for mehamer and not tehumin, but the basic claim is that if the Torah gave a separate command, it had its own nature and character.]

If he is right, the “reason” for the prohibition would be less likely to be as similar to melakha as I suggested.

On the other hand, Tosafot in Yevamot, Rambam, and Rashba himself thought tishbot could include Shabbat prohibited activities even if not melakhot. Accept their view, and tehumin can go back into the Shabbat slot.

Holidays and Pushing Aside the Lav

This discussion affects our view of tehumin and yamim tovim, holidays. Rashi in Hagigah said holidays did include tehumin (at a de-oraita level, Minhat Hinukh says, meaning Rashi anticipated Rambam’s view).

Similarly, if tehumin is a completely separate prohibition, it is only a prohibition, and halakha usually allows obligations to push aside prohibitions. For example, if the only shofar to blow on Rosh HaShanah was outside the tehum (Biblical or Rabbinic, because Minhat Hinukh is sure Hazal constructed their prohibition along the lines of the Biblical one), then if it is “just” a prohibition, we could violate it to secure a shofar; if it is covered also by tishbot, an aseh, we do not push aside an act prohibited by both an obligation and a prohibition, an aseh and a lo ta’aseh, to allow for fulfilling an aseh.

Constricted and Loose Amot

In many contexts, halakha grapples with whether an amah is shoheket or otzevet, whether the four fingers that make up the tefah, six of which make an amah, are held closely or loosely together. For lashes and/or the Rabbinic rule that someone who steps outside of tehum must stay there until after Shabbat, with only four amot to move, the sinner would have to travel beyond the loose-finger mil.

To place an eruv, a symbolic place of residence established by two meals’ worth of food, letting the person treat that as the center of the 2000 amah circle of travel,  it would have to be at the constricted-finger tehum, since already there, there is room to worry the person may not travel further.

We do not travel freely on Shabbat, according to Rambam beyond 12 mil at a Biblical level, according to most other authorities only as a matter of Rabbinic restriction to 2000 amot. Either as a part of Shabbat rest or not, it reminds us of God’s creation of the world, tells us to take this day off from strenuous or distant travel, stay where we are and absorb the messages of the day.

About Gidon Rothstein

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