Quick: What’s the square footage of your home? If you live in a Manhattan apartment, your place probably feels much smaller than the square footage the real estate broker told you. That’s because landlords are allowed to include the area of tiny spaces like closets, or measure the dimensions of a room from outside the walls. The liveable space of an apartment listed as 500 square feet might only be 360.
All this is to say that measuring the boundaries of a given space can be tricky business, and on today’s daf, we encounter this very issue.
We’ve spent a good deal of time in this tractate discussing the laws that restrict a person from walking more than 2,000 cubits from their Shabbat residence. However, the sages created several leniencies to extend the actual distance one may travel, including defining the entire city where one is spending Shabbat as the Shabbat residence, so that we actually measure the 2,000 cubits only from the city limits. But what constitutes the city limits?
The mishnah on today’s page teaches that the borders of a city must always be drawn as a straight line and always in the shape of a rectangle. That means that if there’s a house or a turret that protrudes from the edge of a city, we push the entire face of the border out to include it. In this way, the sages greatly increase the area of the city — much like a Manhattan landlord might try to do for her apartment.
This is fascinating in and of itself, but even more so is the beginning of the Gemara, in which a dispute raises questions about the fundamental nature of boundaries:
Rav and Shmuel disagreed: One taught that the term in the mishna is me’abberin, with the letter ayin, and one taught that the term in the mishna is me’abberin, with the letter alef. The Gemara explains: The one who taught me’abberin with an alef explained the term in the sense of limb [ever] by limb. Determination of the city’s borders involves the addition of limbs to the core section of the city. And the one who taught me’abberin with an ayin explained the term in the sense of a pregnant woman [ubbera] whose belly protrudes. In similar fashion, all the city’s protrusions are incorporated in its Shabbat limit.
The word the mishnah uses for extend is me’abberin. But according to the Gemara, how it’s spelled changes its meaning. If it’s with the Hebrew letter alef, it means “to add limbs.” But with an ayin, it means “to expand like a pregnant belly.” The practical outcome is the same: all protrusions, whether imagined as limbs or as pregnancy, are considered part of the city. But conceptually, these positions present very different understandings of what it means to draw a boundary.
Rendering the word to mean limbs suggests a degree of permanence. A person’s limbs are (hopefully!) a permanent feature of the body. So by defining the city limits in this way, it suggests that once the borders are extended, they are fixed. But if we understand me’abberin to refer to pregnancy, we conjure the image of a changing shape that expands and contracts, suggesting that by their nature boundaries are never permanent.
The difference in these perspectives might not matter much if we’re talking about the Shabbat domain or the square footage of apartments. But in the broader world, it can be a matter of life and death. Much blood has been spilled over the demarcation of borders. Too often we have clung to the idea that boundaries are fixed, sometimes by God, and must be defended at all costs. What if we took the view that boundaries are like a pregnant belly, fluid in nature? What if we let go of the tendency to lay permanent claim to land and instead accept the natural expansion and contraction of boundaries?
It may well be in our nature to see borders as limbs, permanent and unchanging. But that’s not the only option. Ultimately, we can aspire to accept that borders, like everything else in the world, are impermanent.