World of the Sages: The four cubits of halacha

With the destruction of the Temple, our nation was left bereft of a central abode for the Almighty's presence.

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And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amidst them (Exodus 25:8). With the destruction of the Temple, our nation was left bereft of a central abode for the Almighty's presence. Our sages tell us where God resides in the aftermath of the destruction of His sanctuary: "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed is He, has nothing in His world, except for the four cubits of halacha (Jewish law)" (B. Berachot 8a). In our vast world, a mere four cubits hardly seems a fitting dwelling place for the omnipresent Almighty! Indeed, in talmudic parlance "four cubits" is a code word for an individual's personal space (B. Eruvin 48a). Thus our sages are telling us that instead of a focal national center for the Almighty's presence, God finds a dwelling place in each person's personal four cubits. We are left wondering: Why only four cubits of halacha? What of the other disciplines of Torah study? Is this teaching implying that God does not dwell in the realm of non-normative Torah? This suggestion would be astounding to say the least, for elsewhere in rabbinic literature we find the following passage: "If you want to know who spoke and the world came into existence - study aggada" (Sifrei, Devarim 49). It would seem that God also dwells in non-normative spheres of Torah study, and maybe even more in the realm of aggada than in the four cubits of halacha. Explaining the singling out of halacha as the domain of the Almighty, Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) states that the theoretic study of halacha coupled with its practical application is the ultimate synthesis between the noble pursuit of wisdom and the translation of that knowledge into practice. This dual achievement is the pinnacle of service of God and the culmination of all creation. Thus God can be located where this lofty ideal is being pursued. Lauding this approach the Rashba (13th century, Barcelona), in his pioneering commentary to the aggadic portions of the Talmud, comments that this talmudic passage has already been elucidated by Maimonides, and there is nothing further to add. One of the early hassidic masters, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye (d.c. 1782) offers an entirely different approach that does not seek to justify the isolation of the world of halacha for the presence of God. In the first published work to give voice to the teachings of Hassidism, the Toledot Yaakov Yosef, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef categorically states that the term "halacha" refers to the entire gamut of Torah disciplines. God therefore dwells in the domain of all areas of Torah study. Still, the use of the term "halacha," which normally denotes but one discipline of Torah, to reflect all areas of Torah is puzzling. The Toledot explains that this purposeful usage hints at the fundamental essence of the pursuit of Torah. The term "halacha" comes from the same root as halicha - walking, going or progressing. Plumbing the depths of the tradition should be an exercise in growth. Even if one begins studying the texts of our heritage for the wrong reasons - such as a desire for communal recognition or worldly fame, the ultimate goal is to progress from these initial incentives, forsaking them in due time. While Torah study may begin for the wrong intent, it should evolve towards the ideal goal. From here the Toledot continues to a second explanation of the unexpected usage of the term "halacha" as a reference to the entire Torah. In this approach, the Toledot reveals the ultimate objective of Torah study. The Toledot begins by transposing the letters of the term "halacha" to arrive at hakala - the bride. A bride adorns herself in preparation for meeting her groom. A bejeweled bride bedecked in finery provides the invitation for the groom, which leads to the consummation of their relationship. The initial attraction between a young bride and groom is an integral step in the process of forming a deeper union and a lasting, genuine partnership. Thus with Torah, there are many trimmings that gild the ultimate purpose of encountering the texts of our tradition. The Toledot says that these ornaments may be in the form of intellectual casuistry or the recognition and communal respect that is afforded a Torah scholar. The Toledot goes further, suggesting that the pursuit of reward in the World-to-come is also a decoration and perhaps even finding personal meaning in a text is an adornment. While we recognize that such ornaments are an inherent part of the process, and hence bring us closer to God, the true objective of Torah study, opines the Toledot, is connecting to the Almighty. Another hasidic master, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (18th-19th centuries, Byelorussia), would cry out while praying: "I don't want Your Garden of Eden, I don't want Your World-to-come, I only want You!" Promises of reward are incentives that encourage us on the path to deepening our connection with God, not ends in themselves. Finally, the Toledot combines his two explanations - "halacha" as halicha (progress) and "halacha" as hakala (the bride): A bride's finery is an external adornment, providing an opportunity for attraction on the way to developing a true relationship. Similarly, the trimmings of Torah study are the first stop on the journey toward the ultimate aspiration of connecting to the Divine. The Toledot does not in any way condemn or negate these adornments; they are a necessary stimulus for initial attraction. Ideally, however, these decorations should be recognized for what they are: adornments of the real thing. Thus the Almighty's presence can be found even in these ornaments and in the process of piercing the external nature of this gilding one can connect to the Divine essence of Torah. In a Temple-less reality the Holy One, blessed be He, may have nothing in His world except the four cubits of halacha, but this seemingly small area, according to the Toledot, is an entire realm that opens up to the Infinite Divine. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.