“The entire settlement of the world rests under one star.”
How large is your world? The Rabbis in today’s Daf Yomi attempt to size the entire world. They do not yet have the concept of the earth rotating on its axis, but they have the perspective of the earth being contained within one hour, which comes close. Their world envisions a celestial dome that hovers over us as the sun and the moon and the stars move from east to west across the firmament.
The discussion starts within the context of the iterant distant traveler, who we previously learned can be released from the duty of upholding the first Pesah if he is away from home at the time. Today’s journey takes us further than we have traveled before in this Tractate. It is a journey through the entire world. And through this journey of the text, we all become distant travelers of a sort. There is some debate on the exact qualifications for such a designation.
The question is asked, “how far can a person walk in a day?” Imagine what the answer would be today where people rarely walk anywhere. In today’s text, we are told that if the average person traveled on his feet, from dawn to nightfall, he could walk forty mil. An ancient mil is approximately three-fourths of a mile.
Rava sizes the entire world, which would have been perceived through what he could see in the night sky. He says the world is “six thousand parasangs, and the thickness of the firmament is one thousand parasangs.” A parasang is approximately three miles. So, the entire world according to Rava is eighteen thousand miles if my math is correct (and it might not be.)
We are provided with another perspective on measuring the entire world. We are told that the entire world is one-sixtieth the size of the Garden of Eden, and the Garden of Eden is one-sixtieth the size of the land of Eden, and Eden is one sixtieth the size of Gehenna, a cursed valley in Jerusalem. The sorrowful valley of Gehenna which can be seen as a metaphor of our transgressions is immeasurable. The world is compared with a “pot cover, which is a small part of the total size of the pot.”
The Rabbis reach above and beyond themselves in an impossible task to size the world’s immensity and at the same time to make it knowable. Rabbi Natan said that the area of the inhabited world “sits under one star.” One can travel east as far as his legs can take him, and the star is always there over his shoulder to keep him company and guide his way. We are told that by inference, “the entire settlement of the world rests under one star.”
How large is your world? Mine became much smaller when the pandemic hit and for the past year, my entire world has been my small city apartment. My passport has been collecting dust in a drawer and google maps shows that I have only traveled within the small radius of my home. But the sky was always there above me. At night it is a dark, gray city sky with only the illumination of airplanes as they cut through the clouds.
I cannot see the mystery of the dancing lights as viewed from a northern sky, or the crystal-clear points of light seen from a southern one. But I know they are up there somewhere, and someone is standing on a roof or in a field on a mid-winter night watching the magic of the northern lights. To look at a night sky and envision that it reaches out from all directions is to understand that the world is large, but still knowable.
I imagine if one could reach out and hold hands with everyone who is looking up at the sky at that same hour that the Talmud tells us contains the entire world, it would not seem so large after all. And knowing we are all sheltering under the same sky, makes the world a little less lonely.