“The measures are not fixed, but rather change in accordance with the person in question.”
Today’s reading includes a joke among a group of Rabbis who I imagine are standing around a ditch having a good old-fashioned belly laugh. I have to admit that I am not in on the joke and have not found the tidbits that I understand to be very humorous. Humor is personal and I die from laughter when I watch Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm show (did he really say that?), while many of my friends do not get it. To be honest, I do not get what Rabbi Yosei finds so funny.
We start with a lesson from Rabbi Hivya. He teaches that a ditch filled with water that lies between two Shabbat limits requires an iron partition in order to separate it into two distinct areas. The act, which Rabbi Yosei finds humorous, would allow neighbors on either side of the ditch to approach it from their location and draw water. It seems like a reasonable solution that would satisfy the needs of two pods of neighbors.
Rabbi Yosei found this teaching redundant. He threw his hands up over his head and said that its all meaningless because Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Nuri ruled that “ownerless objects acquire a place of residence.” Rabbi Yosei disputes this claim with his unique brand of humor. The Gemara asks: “just because he holds leniently, does he laugh at one who teaches stringently” The Gemara answers its question by stating that Rabbi Yosei laughed for another reason. It is because the discussion over dividing a ditch with an iron partition overlooks the fact that “flowing rivers and streaming springs are like the feet of all people” and as a result water does not acquire residence in any spot and it is permitted to be carried wherever one is able to walk.
At this point, if it were a vaudeville show, the cane would come out and Rabbi Yosei along with the mysterious Gemara would be pushed off the stage. And so, on with the next! The next act up focuses on determining the true measure of four cubits. A riddle is posed. If a cubit is equal to a measurement from one’s elbow to the end of his middle finger, how can one account for size differences? I am a small woman and my unit of measure would be different than the example provided of Og, king of the Bashan. Og was a man of immense portions; we learned in an earlier reading that he was so large that when he died his corpse would not fit through an average opening of a dwelling.
We are told that “the measures are not fixed, but rather change in accordance with the person in question.” And in continuation of the theme from the prior day, we also told that this is not a definitive rule and “this law is not absolutely clear-cut.” Allowances are made for those who have limbs that are small in relation to one’s body; in this case smaller people are provided the full allowance of a standard four-cubit measurement. But the larger among us are provided with what the text describes as an “expansive cubit” that allows “room to spread out his hands and feet.”
I have not taken a subway since early March; this is mostly because I have nowhere to go, and also because I envision New York’s Transit System as a moving petri dish. (Will I ever feel comfortable again holding on to an overhead subway bar during rush hour shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow commuters?) I miss the submersion underground, the lights of the oncoming trains and the magical emergence a few moments later in a different part of town. I would sit in my seat with my legs held together so that I would take up no more than my allotted space. Inevitably, if a man sat beside me, he would spread his legs wide open in order to claim his “expansive cubit” of space.
If the man’s spread legs felt too close to me, I would get up and move to another space in the car, because who wants to sit with someone’s knees poking into their ribs? Men expand into their seats in a posture that mirrors how they fully occupy their space in the world. The difference in how men and women occupy a subway seat is all that is needed to know about how much work there is still to do to break through barriers that allow some people to occupy expansive space, while others are limited to a standard measurement of four cubits.
As I write this, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s body lies in state in Washington DC. She is the first woman (and first Jew) to lie in state in the US Capital. Think about it: in all of history, just one woman. What I learned from the example of how she lived her life is to claim my rightful space in the world – it can be done quietly, but with hard work, tenacity and purpose. She will be greatly missed but always remembered.
Best wishes for Yom Kippur and the year ahead. Have an easy fast.