The Challenge of Four Cubits

Towards of the beginning of the entire Talmud we read:

Once I heard what Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla: Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy Blessed One has only one place in the world, only the four cubits of halakha (Jewish law) alone. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 8a)

The meaning here is that after the destruction of the ancient Temple, God is made manifest through Jewish ritual, practice, and tradition. But also this measurement of four cubits is specifically significant as well in Jewish practice.

In short, the distance of four cubits becomes the definition of both personal space and the smallest possible area that defines a private area. For example, one is not supposed to walk within four cubits of another person who is in the middle of praying. One is not supposed to carry an object more the four cubits from one’s home into the public square on Shabbat. And the smallest a Sukkah can be is four cubits by four cubits.

This notion may seem obscure to us until we realize that four cubits is roughly equal to six feet.

During this pandemic, we have all learned that six feet is the distance of safety; the proper amount of space necessary for social distancing to prevent the transmission of the virus. So whether we realized it or not, we have been embodying the Talmudic measurement of personal space for a long time now.

We know that this distancing is what we are told is one step necessary for safety. And yet, it exacted a price. I realized I have shaken anyone’s hand or hugged anyone outside my family for over a year. I will admit that in the beginning the introvert in me enjoyed the separation, the confinement at home was rejuvenating. But as it wore on, I missed the lack of not only physical contact but being in close proximity with another. So much of how we convey care and connection with another is through touch and drawing close.

And that was brought even more into perspective this week as my wife Yohanna has been in the hospital being treated for fluid around her lungs. Because of Covid protocols, I was not able to visit her, which made things that much harder. This is not a new story, many during Covid could not be close to their loved ones during times of illness and infirmity. And as I experience this, I am reminded of how important again touch and closeness is important not only to our general human connections, but specifically in healing as well.

Our tradition calls the practice of caring for the ill bikur cholim, which literally means visiting the sick. Jewish wisdom understands that actually visiting those who are sick is part of the healing process, not only because it allows one to care for physical needs, but to demonstrate emotional support as well. While this week Yohanna and I were able to stay in touch with texting and FaceTime, it is not the same as the ability to visit. The need to stay apart to prevent the spread of disease also takes away one thing we can do to help healing.

I wonder what effects this prolonged separation will have on us. I wonder too what will happen when the pandemic subsides and we are given the guidance that we no longer need to social distance. Will we still feel the need to maintain some distance? Will we need to relearn how to have casual contact? Will we rethink personal space since we have been kept apart for so long?

What I do know, is that the pandemic has given new meaning to the Jewish concept of four cubits. In its original conception it is empowering: a place for personal growth, one’s physical and spiritual domain, the place where God dwells. Now we know it is also the measure that keeps us apart, that impedes human connection, the boundary that keeps God distant.

Keeping six-feet apart heals, but also hurts.

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I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

One thought on “The Challenge of Four Cubits”

  1. Ohhh dagnabit…..I had not heard re.Johanna’s health issue. Sounds serious and not being able to be at the bedside of a loved one is painful for you both. I’m sending Episcopalian prayers for her recovery!! Kathy BF



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