Shabbos | Part XX - Time and Space

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

There are two properties that define the parameters of the world: time and space. The spiritual world – the world of the souls, in the heavens – is not limited by time and space, but the physical world is governed by these properties. We are so bound by time and space that we cannot possibly conceive of an existence without them, which is why we cannot conceive the nature of the World to Come; it is a world that transcends time and space.  The Rambam says it is like trying to explain fire to a fish: the fish, which lives in water, has no concept of what fire is. Or, as another example, it is like trying to explain the concept of colour to someone who is blind from birth; colour is outside his frame of reference. So too we, who are bound by this physical world, cannot imagine a world which is not bound by time and space.

These two properties constitute two major categories of holiness in Judaism: kedushat hazman, “sanctity of time,” and kedushat hamakom, “sanctity of place.” The Torah takes the most fundamental dimensions of the physical world – time and space – and seeks to uplift and sanctify them. Our mission on earth is to sanctify the physical world, and that means sanctifying these physical properties.

The sanctity of time and space

Previously we have discussed how Shabbat is the source of the sanctity of time and how it is the basis for the sanctity of all the festivals. Friday afternoon, just before the sun sets, is a regular weekday; yet when the sun drops below the horizon, physical time is transformed from mundane to holy, as we enter a new dimension – Shabbat. Shabbat uplifts and infuses the physical property of time with holiness.

In addition to the holiness of time, there is also the concept of sanctity of space. For example, the Torah tells us that the Land of Israel is holy, and the Talmud elaborates on what this holiness means and its practical ramifications. The city of Jerusalem is the holiest city of the Holy Land, and the Temple Mount is the holiest place within Jerusalem. We have a similar concept of holiness of space within our shuls: A shul is holy ground, a sanctified space, which the Prophets and the Talmud refer to as a “mikdash m’at” – a minature tabernacle.

In the same way that Shabbat is the source of the sanctity of time, the Temple is the source of the sanctity of space. The Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, and subsequently the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where we served G-d, was the holiest place and the embodiment of the concept of the sanctity of space.

Shabbat is intertwined with the Temple. In the Chumash, Shabbat is often mentioned in the context of the building of the Mishkan, and even more significantly, all the laws of Shabbat are learned from the Mishkan: the Torah commands us not to do any melacha – “work” – on Shabbat, which, The Oral Torah teaches, is defined as the thirty-nine categories of work done in the construction and service of the holy Tabernacle, and later on in the Holy Temple. In other words, Shabbat is the combination of the sanctity of time and the sanctity of space in this world. It is the basis for the sanctity of time and is also bound with the sanctity of space in being linked with the Tabernacle, because all the laws of Shabbat are drawn from the Tabernacle itself.

The nomad and the settler

We have discussed at length the sanctity of time. But what does the sanctity of space, kedushat hamakom, really mean?

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, explains as follows: if we look at human history, we will see that human beings started off as nomads, and as civilisation progressed they settled down and built settlements, villages and cities. Civilisation meant moving from being a nomad to settling in a particular place. Rav Soloveitchik points out that the psycho-social difference between a nomad and a settler is that a nomad, by definition, is a parasite while a settler is committed. The nomad allows his livestock to graze in a particular place for as long as the grazing is good; and as soon as the grazing runs out or the water runs low, he moves on to the next area. In contrast, the settler remains in the village, even if the crops are not bountiful.

There is another difference, which is a result of the first, and that is that the nomad has no emotional attachment or commitment to the place he is in because he is only there as long as it is convenient; whereas a settler forms an attachment and is committed to the place, in good times and bad, because he has made it his home. 

The mindset of the nomad versus the mindset of someone who is settled is a good analogy for understanding our attitude toward everything, especially toward how we relate to G-d and our Judaism: are we nomads who are only connected to Judaism and our relationship with G-d whilst the “grazing” is good and fulfils our needs, or does our commitment run deeper? Rav Soloveitchik points out that one of the names of G-d is HaMakom, “the Place,” because, as the Talmud says, Lo ha’olam mekomo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu, ela HaKadosh Baruch Hu Mekomo shel olam, “The world is not the place of G-d but G-d is the place of the world.” Meaning, our relationship with G-d should be one where we are settled and rooted.

In today’s world, the philosophy of the nomad has taken hold, and this affects everything. For example, marriage is not nearly as popular an institution as it used to be; instead, people are just living together. Living together versus being married is the philosophy of the nomad versus the philosophy of the settler. Living together means staying in the relationship so long as it is good, and if and when it is not so good anymore, one moves on. But being married means staying in the relationship and being committed to a spouse, in good times and bad. The nomad cannot really form a bond with his or her partner because there is no commitment. The nomad’s attitude is fundamentally selfish; there is no commitment to the relationship or willingness to try and make it work.

This is one of the dangers of living in a world which is driven by consumerism. We want a certain product and if the product does not satisfy our needs we simply take our business elsewhere, to the competitor. This is the nomadic mindset at work, and though it might be successful in the world of commerce, when this mindset invades our relationship with our spouse, with our children or with G-d, it becomes a problem.

Forming a permanent connection with G-d and our Judaism

Rav Soloveitchik says that kedushat hamakom, sanctity of place, means being permanently connected to G-d and His Torah – not just a connection of convenience, but one unconditional of loyalty and commitment. There is so much within Judaism that is inspiring and wonderful that at times we can indeed feel that our connection to it is simply because of what it has to offer. The problem with this is that it becomes a self-centred relationship of convenience. We need to make Judaism our “place.” It is not just a part of our lives; rather, it defines our very identity. Through loyalty and commitment we transcend ourselves.

Elsewhere Rav Soloveitchik brings another example which explains this, in discussing the difference between a religious experience and an aesthetic one. Listening to beautiful music or seeing a great mountain range can evoke very spiritual feelings, similar to the feelings evoked in davening. The difference between the two, says Rav Soloveitchik, is that the aesthetic experience is fundamentally self-centred, whereas a religious experience is meant to be transcending of self.

Of course, the ultimate goal in Judaism is to transform the aesthetic experiences – such as music or the beauty of nature – into transcendent ones, where we can connect with Hashem through them. Unfortunately, people often fail in this and some even reduce religious experiences to nothing more than self-centred, aesthetic experiences. But ultimately, the religious experience of connecting with G-d is when we transcend ourselves. This necessitates moving beyond being a self-centred nomad, thinking solely about what is beneficial and convenient here and now. We have to move beyond what is immediately convenient and develop a sense of commitment. Kedushat hamakom means being rooted in our Judaism and in our connection with Hashem, where we feel comfortable in our place and the relationship we have. When we can move beyond ourselves, that is when we find the deepest contentment with life.

Paradoxically, when our lives are focused solely on consumerism and we are constantly shopping for self-help systems that promise to make us better, happier or something else entirely, we think we are serving our own interests, but we are actually not. We get lost in ourselves, without any anchor or meaning, and become completely self-centred.

Shabbat is about re-establishing not only sanctity of time but sanctity of place. We experience sanctity of place on Shabbat because it is a day that envelops us on all sides. We are rooted in place, and are completely submerged in it. There is a commitment which gives meaning to everything; we are not just floating around without roots but are connected to Hashem and His eternal values. Shabbat anchors us, giving us the sense that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.


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