Today a discussion about what distance constitutes a “long journey” and how far a person can walk in a day gives way to cosmological speculation about the size of the universe. When an initial estimate holds that the world is 6,000 parasangs (~14,000 miles) wide, the following beraita (early rabbinic teaching) is brought to refute that number and show just how vast the world really is:
Egypt was 400 parasangs by 400 parasangs,
and Egypt is 1/60th the size of Cush,
and Cush is 1/60th the size of the world,
and the world is 1/60th the size of the Garden of Eden,
and the Garden of Eden is 1/60th the size of Eden,
and Eden is 1/60th the size of Gehenna.
Therefore, it is found that the entire world is like a pot cover to Gehenna.
It is interesting to note that the rabbis begin this tour of the universe with Egypt — the land of Israelite suffering and slavery. In this teaching, Egypt is thought to be 400 parasangs, or about 900 miles across. This is not a terrible estimate. It’s difficult to say what boundaries the rabbis have in mind for Egypt — surely not precisely the contemporary boundaries of the modern state — but just for fun I plotted a trip on Google Maps from Alexandria, situated on the Mediterranean along the northern border of Egypt, down to Argeen, located on the edge of Lake Nubia right at the Sudanese border to the south. Traveling on existing roads, the distance is about 869 miles.
But Egypt, a land whose Hebrew name Mitzrayim means “narrow place” is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond Egypt is the land of Cush, usually identified with Ethiopia (perhaps here meaning the rest of the African continent) which is, in the rabbinic reckoning, 60 times the size of Egypt — about 54,000 miles! (Note: the earth is 25,000 miles in circumference.) Even if we extend that road trip from Alexandria all the way down to Cape Town, South Africa, the distance traveled is only about 6,400 miles. So now we’re off by an order of magnitude.
But the size of Cush pales in comparison to the Garden of Eden, the primordial paradise where God placed the first man and woman — until they disobeyed their one divinely-given commandment and found themselves expelled forever. This lush garden of heavily-laden fruit trees and all manner of earthly delights was, in the rabbinic reckoning, 60 times larger than Cush!
We don’t stop there! The Garden of Eden was a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the land of Eden. (Actually, this idiom is apt — the rabbis use the fraction 1/60th to mean basically that. And this suggests that taking these measurements too literally is a mistake.) This is one reason it would be pretty much impossible for a living person to find their way back there. And Eden itself was tiny compared to the vast stretches of Gehenna — of hell.
Wait a minute! Thought Jews don’t believe in hell? Well, it’s a bit complicated. Gehenna, also called Gehinom, takes its name from a valley just south of Jerusalem. The rabbis understood it as a place of punishment where souls went after death, though most did not remain there permanently. Your average imperfect soul wouldn’t need more than a year in Gehenna to be straightened out, as it were, and sent on its way to eternal life in the Garden of Eden. (This is why, to this day, Jews say Kaddish for loved ones for 11 months — to imply that they do not require a full year of reforming in the underworld.)
We might have expected the beraita to go on to speculate about the size of heaven, but it doesn’t. (This happens elsewhere in rabbinic literature, and the rabbis have even been known to speculate about the size of God!) Instead, however, we are given a vivid picture to sum up this “map”: Therefore, it is found that the entire world is like a pot cover to Gehenna. That’s right, according to this teaching, our world, including our corner that is so small when compared to Egypt, to Cush, to the Garden of Eden and to the land of Eden itself — all of this is but a lid on the incomparably large roiling, boiling pit of hell. And boy, some days that really feels like the truth.