World of the Sages: Walk the walk

A wise person should not walk with broad strides or with an upright posture.

We each have our own gait: Some of us amble along, saunter and meander, others march or stride, while there are those who seem to be traipsing from one place to another. Our sages detail conduct that is unbecoming of a Torah scholar and include a directive about how to walk (B. Berachot 43b): A wise person should not walk with broad strides or with an upright posture. Further in the talmudic passage, our sages explain that a large stride takes away 1/500th of a person's eyesight. Elsewhere, our sages advise all people - not just Torah scholars - to avoid large steps and thus preserve their eyesight (B. Ta'anit 10b). This directive is restated in the context of Shabbat where we try to create a special atmosphere with special foods, nice clothes, different modes of speech and a relaxed pace (B. Shabbat 113b). One school of commentators - Tosafot (12th-14th centuries, France-Germany) - wondered: If each broad stride takes 1/500th of a person's eyesight, then 500 large steps will render a person blind; experience, however, would suggest that this is not the case. Tosafot, therefore, explain that with each stride people lose 1/500th of their remaining eyesight, not of their original capacity. Given this understanding, Tosafot wonder why the first stride inflicts greater damage than subsequent steps. They explain that once the initial impairment has been wrought, a person becomes desensitized to the harm and the injury inflicted is progressively diminished. The halachic codifiers record the prohibition against walking with large strides in the context of the Shabbat atmosphere (Remah OH 301:1). Later halachists note that while large strides on Shabbat - and for that matter jumping - are an infraction against the spirit of this holy day, on a weekday we must also refrain from such steps because of the potential eyesight damage (Mishna Berura). Elsewhere in our tractate a third angle of broad strides is highlighted (B. Berachot 6b). The Talmud says that broad strides should specifically not be taken when exiting a synagogue for this gives the impression that we are anxious to escape the burden of participating in the service. In this context an exception to the rule is stated: When coming to the synagogue - and indeed going to do any good deed - it is a mitzva to run, as the prophet says: "Let us run to know God" (Hosea 6:3). One sage tells us that when he first saw sages scurrying to hear Torah discourses on Shabbat, he thought they were transgressing the holy day. Once he heard the dictum that a person should always run to hear a matters of Halacha, even on Shabbat - he too would rush. Moreover, this sage felt that the primary reward for coming to Torah discourses was granted from the effort exerted in running to the study hall. As one commentator explained: People who attend public lectures often cannot recap the lesson later on; all that remains is the reward for the energy spent in participating (Rashi, 11th century, France). What is a "broad stride"? Obviously this depends on the individual, but we can nevertheless provide a general indicator of what should be avoided. A standard stride is about one cubit, that is, 48 cm. or 58 cm. A step that goes beyond that would be considered a broad stride and should be sidestepped. Poor eyesight is, however, no proof of broad strides, for the Bible attributes the dimming of eyesight to accepting bribes: "Do not take a bribe for a bribe blinds the wise and distorts the words of the righteous" (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19). In this context Rabbi Avraham Segal Ittinga (1874-1924, Galicia) related that there was once a Jewish judge about whom it was rumored that his decisions could be purchased for the right price. The judge happened to be lame in one foot and Rabbi Ittinga's grandfather would quip: If this judge becomes blind, he could not claim that he had taken broad strides because his limp prevented such a gait; it could only be on account of his perverting justice by accepting bribes. Is there a cure for those who have taken broad strides and seek to improve their eyesight? The Talmud tells us that the eyesight can be restored with the Friday evening kiddush wine. How can this kiddush elixir be accessed? According to a tradition attributed to the ninth-century Babylonian gaon, Rav Natrunoi, the medicinal properties of the kiddush wine take effect when the wine is placed on the eyes (quoted in Tosafot). The halachists recommend looking at the wine during kiddush either to ensure concentration or to benefit from the therapeutic potential of the wine (Remah OH 183:4; 271:10; Mishna Berura). Some commentators suggest that the curative powers of kiddush can be harvested by drinking the wine (Rashi and others). While the magical properties of the holy kiddush wine can be difficult to discern to the untrained eye, perhaps we could suggest an accessible perspective to understanding its miraculous properties. People who hurry about often can be seen taking large, rushed strides. Running around hastily may indicate a lack of focus and perhaps even a measure of spiritual dishevelment and disarray. With no time for reflection, such people often age quickly and naturally their eyesight deteriorates. This process can be halted or at least slowed down by taking a few deep breaths, and Shabbat is the time set aside for this very purpose. Indeed the creation of the world was not completed until the Almighty rested on the seventh day (see Rashi, Genesis 2:2). On Friday night we return from the synagogue to usher the holy day into our homes. We begin with the recitation of the kiddush as we stand around the bedecked table holding a silver goblet of wine. We look at the cup of wine and taste it, and with that we sense tranquility and create a serene atmosphere that is unattainable as we rush around with broad strides during the hectic and demanding weekdays. In this way the Shabbat kiddush wine is a panacea against the eyesight-damaging bustle of the work week. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.