Beshalach: Shabbat Boundaries

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01 Feb 2007

Although the primary commandment to keep Shabbat is part of the Ten Commandments, the first Shabbat commandments are in our parsha: the double portion of manna on the sixth day which kept until Shabbat, which is the precedent for oneg Shabbat, and the commandment “no man shall go out of his place” (Shemot 16:29), establishing Shabbat boundaries which are the original kind of Shabbat rest.

Many authorities rule according to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Eiruvin 3:4), that this verse teaches a Torah prohibition for any Jew to go twelve Hebrew miles beyond the place of his Shabbat station; all agree that the Sages imposed a more stringent boundary of two thousand amot, which is one Hebrew mile – about a kilometer.

The Talmud explains the source of the two-thousand amot “city limit” based on a most cryptic inference: “We learn place from place, and place from fleeing; fleeing from fleeing, and fleeing from border; border from border, and border from beyond”. (Eiruvin 51a)

Rashi explains: The word “place” in the verse “No man shall go beyond his place” is clarified by the word “place” in the verse “And I have established a place whither he may flee” (Shemot 21:13), referring to the cities of refuge which provide sanctuary for an unintentional manslaughter.

And the word “fleeing” in this verse is clarified by the word “fleeing” in the verse “from the border of his city of refuge, whither he may flee” (Bamidbar 35:26). And the key to the meaning of this fleeing is the word “border” – there is a specific boundary in which the inadvertent killer is protected.

The word “border” in this verse is clarified by the the word “border” in the next verse, “And the blood avenger will find him beyond the border”. The key to the meaning of this border is the word “beyond” – a border demarcates an area within and an area without.

Finally, the word “beyond” is clarified by the word “beyond” in the verse “And you shall measure beyond the city” two thousand amot in each direction (Bamidbar 35:5). This measurement refers to the environs of the special Levite cities, which may not be built up for two thousand amot around. We conclude that the Shabbat boundary is two thousand amot.


This passage suggests that our Shabbat location can be likened to a city of refuge – the ir miklat where the negligent but unintentional killer is protected from the blood avenger. When the period of exile is through, he is free forever from the threat of vengeance.

Shabbat is a place of refuge for the Jewish people, a time when we are safe from the worries and concerns which pursue us relentlessly during the week.

Like the unintentional killer, most of the worries which stalk us are of our own making, the results of our own careless actions. Even so, the Torah provides us a refuge in the form of the Shabbat. Ultimately, the killer is released from his time of exile, and the avenger may no longer pursue him; after Shabbat, we start our week anew, with an inner peace which protects us from the weekday worries which seemed so daunting on Friday afternoon.

We further learn “fleeing” from “border”. The inadvertent killer is not automatically granted protection from reprisal; he must flee to the specific boundary of the city of refuge. Outside of this boundary he may be accosted.

Shabbat also has a border. Like the case of the cities of refuge which don’t protect us until we enter their boundaries, Shabbat doesn’t protect us unless we keep it. The arrival of sunset on Friday doesn’t automatically free us of worries, it merely provides a city of refuge. We then have to hie ourselves to this sanctuary, by observing the Shabbat. (As we explained in parshat Bo in 5760, referring to the idea of a “sukkat shalom”. In a later column we will explain G-d willing the profound likeness of Shabbat to a city of Levites.)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.