For many pages now, the Gemara has been discussing the particulars of carrying on Shabbat within a 2,000-cubit radius outside of a city. On today’s daf, the mishnah addresses a logical question: How exactly are we to measure that distance?
One may measure a Shabbat limit only with a rope 50 cubits long, no less and no more, as will be explained in the Gemara. And one may measure the limit only at the level of one’s heart.
Clarifying our mishnah, Rashi states that “the level of one’s heart” means at the level of the chest. In order to standardize the manner in which distance is measured, the sages decided that holding the rope at chest height would make the most sense.
But is chest level really the best origin point for a standard measurement? After all, people come in different sizes. If a taller person and a shorter person held a 50-cubit rope between them, the rope would end up at an angle, which could skew the measurement. It would make more sense to put the rope on the ground, which makes for a level playing field among people of all heights (pun fully intended).
By choosing to describe this location as “the level of one’s heart,” the mishnah may be taking some poetic license to make an important point. We might think that weights and measures constitute a dull, workaday subject. But the rabbis tell us this view couldn’t be further from the truth.
The importance of standard weights and measures is established in the Torah. Deuteronomy 25:13 states: You shall not have diverse weights. In Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, we learn that the “punishment for unjust measures is more severe than the punishment for sexual immorality, for the latter is a sin against God only, the former against one’s fellow man.”
This is a remarkable statement. Jewish tradition teaches that there are only three sins for which one should die rather than commit the transgression, one of which is immorality. (Idolatry and murder are the others.) Why would Maimonides say that the punishment for unjust measures is even worse?
Perhaps it is because trust is the basis for all successful human interaction. If I can’t trust you not to cheat me when you’re measuring out my items at the market, how can I trust you to be a witness for me in court? Or not to lie about a potential match for my kid? Or to measure out the eruv boundary, to ensure that I’m not transgressing a commandment when I take a walk on Shabbat?
That may be why Maimonides equates just weights and measures with literal matters of life and death. It all comes down to trust, without which a society cannot function. And that’s something we can all take to heart.