This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #8. To help us continue to pay our writers, please consider subscribing.

Rabbi Yosei says: It is not the place of a person that honors them; rather, the person honors their place.
—Babylonian Talmud Taanit, 21b

Space is the place.
—Sun Ra

Among the hundreds of hiking trails that stripe the landscape in Israel, it is strikingly common how hard it can be to find the trailhead. Over two stints living in Israel, and some thirty-odd hikes I have taken around the country, I have at times had to go behind a block of hotels, climb over a highway guardrail, and hitchhike to a parking lot-less side of the road in order to find the start of even the most famous trails in the country. On a recent hike along Nahal Amud, one of the most traversed hikes in northern Israel, I had to go behind a major cemetery in Tsfat, descend underneath an expressway, and walk about a kilometer along an agricultural path recently used by a group of cows before finding my way to the trailhead.

The destination for my hike along Nahal Amud was the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (the “Rashbi”) a leading Second-century rabbinic sage who contributed substantially to the Talmud. His grave in Meron features a large synagogue, a house of learning, multiple stores, and even an amphitheatre for major pilgrimages. The entry to his tomb from the trail is, similar to the trailhead, quite hard to find. From Nahal Amud, I had to navigate through the back end of a neighborhood, up an aluminum catwalk, and through a small forest, then pass two false entrances, before concluding at the proper entry to the tomb. I only realized that I was heading in the right direction when I started to see tattered fliers advertising religious classes in honor of the Rashbi’s memory on the catwalk walls.

Trail marking for the “blue” hike on a signpost directing to one of the saint’s graves in Tsfat. (All photos taken by the author)


Catwalk leading to the Rashbi’s tomb in Meron.

The difficulties I faced in finding both the secular-pilgrimage site of the hiking trail and the religious-pilgrimage site of the “saint’s grave,” raises the issue of where geography, space, and place sit in the discussion in contemporary Israeli society, and, more broadly, in Jewish life and thought. In Israel’s history, and certainly in the current ruling political coalition, a dominant definition for, and employment of, “Jewish space” has been the rigid focus on claiming and controlling territory, manifest in different practices from pre-State Zionism through to the ongoing Settlement enterprise.[2] The Israeli state’s emphasis on territory supports the ongoing Occupation, both via seizing Palestinian lands and disproportionately allocating resources to expanding settlement infrastructure. The project of territorial expansion predominated even in historical periods of more left political power in Israel. The Labor government of the late 1960s actively promoted Jewish settlement in the newly occupied West Bank. Even socialist youth movements founded kibbutzim (agricultural collectives) in the Jordan Valley region of the West Bank.[3]

In my read, there is a clear, historical and contemporary rationale for sovereign territory in Israel to be part of what defines Jewish space. My fear is that territorial control will (and in some circles, already does) serve as the singular definition. That ruling land is the only way to conceive of Jewish spatial practice is tragic both in practice and in theory. Unflinching territorial hegemony (and the hegemony of the idea of territoriality) is a narrow definition of Jewish space, that yet requires a wide range of mechanisms of repression to maintain. It demands the continued subjugation of Palestinians and indefinitely defers peace. It also risks taking the place of thinking on how space, beyond ruling land, can play a generative, active, and creative role in Jewish life. As a student of city planning and geography, a Jew actively engaged in both religious and secular dimensions of Jewish identity, and someone living in Israel for the year, it feels crucial to unearth other narratives of Jewish geography, to search for ideas and practices outside a strictly territorial definition of Jewish space. One place to find definitions is to go to the sources, to trace out spatiality in Rabbinic texts. Another avenue is to find alternative spatial narratives in Israeli society, ideas that can redefine the troubling role of space in the country’s politics today. I search for these narratives as I study text and walk through different sites, hoping to find new definitions for Jewish space.

Classic paradigm of Jewish space (and time)
My learning in the Jewish tradition started in preschool and has continued through to what we call “life-long learning”—that population of those like me, who have decided they don’t want to become professional Jews, but do take seriously the idea of Jewish study. In these more than twenty years of learning, I had rarely engaged with the contours of what makes for Jewish geography and space. Certainly, some of the texts I study describe the biblical Land of Israel in great length. And, there is an entire set of halacha—Jewish legal code—that applies only to those residing within the boundaries of this biblical border. At a more micro scale, I have discussed the architectural specifications of the Temple and the various vestments that functioned within this holy space. But, there is no Temple in Jerusalem, and the most expansive boundaries of the biblical Land of Israel (which stretches roughly from somewhere in contemporary Iraq to the Sinai desert in Egypt) are no way practicable except in the armageddon/utopia vision of the ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious, ultra-right.

Built out of a robust rabbinic literature following the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman exile in 70 CE, through to modern Hebrew and Yiddish poetry, a dominant, post-Temple geographic system can be gleaned in Jewish literature. This spatial structure is roughly described as the following concentric system:[4] In the outermost orbit is cholin, the secular world (also, interestingly, the Hebrew word for weekday and sand, each signifying a kind of mundane space). Inside this orbit is the Land of Israel, holier than the secular-mundane. And the Land of Israel wraps around the most holy center, Jerusalem. Cholin is the place where, for most of the past two thousand years, most Jews lived their lives, and where I have always lived, except, seemingly, for the last year that I have lived in Jerusalem.

Yet, to consider the cafe in which I am currently sitting on Shatz Street in West Jerusalem to be at the center of this classic geographic model ignores the basis of that mystical geography in a longing for Jerusalem. My family, like most likely all the other families in my apartment building, ended their Passover seder this year with the adage, “next year in Jerusalem.” We were learning and eating in the contemporary administrative boundaries of the city, but these boundaries are troubled, contested and fraught, at the local, national, and international scale.[5] We were holding our seder in a Jerusalem that was very much part of chol, though also part of the holy—we were at the table, in my apartment, in the city of Jerusalem, it felt different than when we do the same thing in Cleveland. Yet, we still long each year, for the transcendent Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of redemption, that Jerusalem at the center of the geographic system—maybe we will get there next year. 

Concentric Rectangles and Nuclear Squares: the Mishnaic emphasis on intimate, public space in Masechet Eruvin[6]
One of the most creative spatial interventions in the Jewish legal canon is the eruv. The eruv is a both a geographic boundary and set of physical and legal spatial practices that allows Jews to perform the prohibited act of “carrying” between private and public spaces on Shabbat, the day of rest. Through various mechanisms, the eruv collapses public space into private, thereby allowing for carrying. The debates on the eruv in the Mishna, the earliest significant redaction of the Jewish oral tradition and the initial foundation for Jewish legal codes, reflect an approach to Jewishness in the built environment that are cautious when blurring private and public space, and instead take significant textual energy to develop an extensive architecture of differentiation between these two kinds of spaces.

Charolotte Elisheva Fonrobert, one of the leading academic scholars of the eruv, argues that “Given that [the eruv’s] hermeneutic dimension with respect to biblical law is minute in comparison to other ritual practices such as the dietary laws and menstrual impurity or sexual prohibitions, the institution of the eruv shows the rabbis at their most creative ritual thinking and law making.”[7] My ongoing study of Masechet Eruvin is a kind of “walking slowly,” or in Fonrobert’s terms a means of “creative ritual making.” As I read these texts and walk around neighborhoods near where I live, I wade through the rabbis’ arguments, and attempt to parse how the tradition addresses questions of geography. By walking and reading, and reading and walking, I too might find new roles for space as part of Jewish life.

One of the regular walks I take, multiple times each week is the half-hour uphill trip from my apartment to Mahane Yehuda, the central outdoor food market in West Jerusalem, colloquially referred to as “the shuk,” “the market.” Like all walks, particularly those in Jerusalem, this trip traverses multiple worlds. Starting at my apartment, I pass porches populated by graduate students, then stroll past one of West Jerusalem’s most famous non-kosher cafes, notorious for serving shrimp to the secular-elite. Turning left, I then pass multiple, important Israeli archaeological and governmental archives, before entering a largely American-Orthodox neighborhood, where New Jersey-inflected English/Hebrew/Yiddish predominates. Next, a brief stint of ultra-Orthodox apartment blocks, before entering Nachlaot, a maze of narrows streets that signals I am close to the shuk.

Nachlaot is unique in numerous ways. Home to upwards of one hundred synagogues, the neighborhood also houses many of Jerusalem’s artists—it’s not rare that I pass a sidewalk sale of someone’s ceramics and second hand tshirts, set up next to the entryway of a yeshiva (house of study) across the street from a Moroccan synagogue. This fascinating sociological mix is situated in a perhaps an even more fascinating built environment. The neighborhood was one of the first in West Jerusalem constructed outside the walls of the Old City—a dense, confusing, beautiful, grid-less network of narrow passageways. Few of the streets in Nachlaot are wide enough for car traffic. I get to the shuk by foot, walking past the galleries and synagogues, in and through alleyways of high walls and closed-in narrow corridors, but also open, light-filled commons, courtyards set between stone apartments, meeting places in between the traffic of the city center and the market.

a) Alleyway and

b) Alleyway-within-alleyway in Nachlaot, Jerusalem.















a) Private courtyard and b) Municipal courtyard in Nachlaot, Jerusalem.

My walks through the passageways and public spaces of Nachlaot have made quite real the site planning discussed in the Mishna. The differentiation between an alleyway and courtyard is key to the legal-geography of Masechet Eruvin. One of the cases where the eruv’s function is explored most literally is in how to differentially enclose courtyards (a hazter in rabbinic Hebrew) as compared to alleyways (a mavoy).

The public nature of a courtyard is robust. It has recently turned summer-like in Jerusalem. When I turn a corner out of one of Nachlaot’s alleyways, into a courtyard, I find chairs set up outside, and picnics commencing on the stone floor. Alleyways are different, they signal a strange kind of public space—accessible to all, but only as a means of passing through on the way to other private or public spaces. The narrowest alleyways in Nachlaot are too small to allow even a couple to walk side by side.

The Rabbis in the mishna are aware of this difference between the public character of the alleyway versus that of the courtyard. In section 6:8 of Eruvin the debate between the Rabbis focuses on what happens when members of a residential community forget to contribute the requisite food donation to be considered part of the eruv, and there where they can and cannot continue to carry between public and private areas within the geographically defined eruv-space. In the mishna, if one of the members of the courtyard-surrounding houses forgets to contribute to the eruv, they can travel both within the courtyard area and the outside area enclosed with the alleyway. However, those living in the alleyway area who forget to contribute to the eruv-system are allowed to carry only in the courtyards, but not in the alleyways near their homes. The alleyway is a place to pass through and is prohibited, the courtyard is a meeting space, a commons, and is allowed regardless, even to the forgetful. By prioritizing movement within the courtyard space, the system highlights this more public or communal space as a location for gathering on Shabbat.

It appears that the Rabbis want to draw the community in close, and that the intimate, yet public, center is in their view the characteristic Jewish space, at least on Shabbat. As Fonrobert elaborates, “the so-called eruv hatserot (the eruv of courtyards) and its companion institution the shituf mevoot (sharing of the alleyways) . . . have a collective significance—that is, for building and circumscribing communities. A neighborhood is thus transformed into a more or less intentional community by ritualizing it or inscribing it with a ritual structure.”[8] One, perhaps more aggressive, way of making such intentional community in space are the numerous signs I pass on the way to the market, admonishing or praising certain life choices. My favorite is one that reads: “The good life is only possible without the internet or movies.” Perhaps. The Rabbi’s vision here seems to make a similar point. They ask for us to leave a place of passing through, and instead come outside, unfold a chair to sit down.

“Holiness that expands more and more (outwards)”: the radiating, geographic spirituality of Na Nach
My hike from Tsfat to Meron along Nahal Amud was roughly four and half hours and traveled through a valley next to a flowing streambed. It was the last weeks of the rainy season and the area was lush, many of the pools deep enough that I stumbled across individuals ritually bathing. The canopy of the trees and density of the greenery made for an immersive environment. The sight then of a highway, a strange, illuminated underpass that was part of the trail under that highway, and in that underpass “Na Nach” graffiti meant I was leaving the woods and approaching the site of Rashbi’s tomb.

The “Na Nach” sect of Breslev hasidim, colloquially called Na Nachim, hold an outsider position in the ultra-orthodox world, yet are a very significant presence in the physical and social landscape in Israel. In popular culture, television shows portray secular Tel Aviv artist types who become religious following Na Nach encounters. Each time I travel (roughly once a week) between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I pass tables selling Na Nach books. Similarly, in the regular traffic jams along Tel Aviv’s central Ayalon Highway, Na Nachim famously begin dance parties between and around the stopped cars. Perhaps the most dramatic presence of this community in Israel’s landscape is the prevalent “Na Nach Nachma Nachman m’Uman” graffiti, a statement meant to hasten the messianic time, spray painted everywhere from the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv to highway signs in far flung corners of the peripheral desert.

Na Nach graffiti outside the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv.

The Na Nach presence at a saint’s grave stands out. My recent visit to the Rashbi’s grave was on Taanit Esther, one of the minor fast days on the Jewish calendar. In the middle of conducting an interview with the proprietor of a Na Nach bookselling tent in the grave’s parking lot, a passerby admonished the owner to turn off the ever-present techno music, because it did not “match” the “quality of the day.” In the eyes of the normative orthodox establishment it was a fast day, and quiet was more suitable. The book seller’s response encapsulated the extent of difference between his religiosity and those around him. Riffing on a popular phrase from Rebbe Nachman, the Na Nachim’s singular Rabbi, he responded, “it is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be in a state of happiness, always, even on fast days.”

a) Private courtyard and b) Municipal courtyard in Nachlaot, Jerusalem.

At the grave, I asked the Na Nach proprietor both what the deal was with the graffiti along the trail and the general importance of pilgrimage to grave sites. He explained the situation as one in the same, that the graffiti taps into an emanating holiness from the saint’s graves, a “holiness that expands more and more [outwards]” from the seed of the grave, to the region and landscape around it. Or, as the bookseller continued, “The light of belief is in all of Tsfat, even the secular person is a believer in Tsfat, this light is the light of the tzadikim (the saints).” The presence of the saints, their tombs and their graves is seen as geographically generative, it enters the soil, climbs over mountains, and waits, only for the petitioner, for me, to open their heart and engage. This is quite different from Nachlaot and the alleyways and courtyards discussed in the Mishna. The Na Nach approach taps into the presence of holiness as it spreads out, or diffuses, across an ever wider geography. The Na Nachim let me know I was getting close to Meron even in the approach.

This Na Nach geography is an alternative Jewish spiritual geography; it departs from the classic, concentric model of a singular Jerusalem at the center, in turn for multiple centers—Tsfat, Meron, and the numerous other locations of saint’s graves. To a certain extent, anywhere the Na Nachim set up their techno-mystical party bus is a temporary spatial nucleus that builds a radiating spiritual geography expanding from their loudspeakers to the corners of Tel Aviv and beyond.

The Na Nach graffiti I passed on the trail was a spatial trigger to decentralized, spatial, spiritual engagement. Whether walking by the graffiti on a sidewalk, or seeing it blast by spray painted on a car, my eye moves across each iteration of the phrase: first the “Na” then the “Nach” and ultimately the “m’Uman.” This slow reading, in space, is enhanced by the attention paid to dramatic colors, or fonts, or both, in graffiti. I rarely come across a piece of Na Nach graffiti that is plain black in script font. Unlike nearly all of the other graffiti in Israel, the Na Nach utterances are annotated with vowels signaling a kind of sanctity to the phrase. The graffiti makes the space in which I am encountering the spray paint sanctified, the viewing of these syllables is part and parcel of a spiritual pursuit.

Textual Space and Spatial Text: Using tensio nto define Jewish space in an“eccentric” geography
In contrast to the concentric model of Jewish space, Yoram Bilu, the leading anthropologist of saint’s graves in Israel, argues there is countervailing force of “eccentric” space in the character of Jewish thought and practice. Instead of an orderly mystical and physical geography, the eccentric system is characterized by a more carnival-like relationship to space, situated in places “that are not based on religious obligation, but instead on free will and personal motivation.”[9] In Bilu’s read this freedom derives from a spatial and social remove from the established centers of power in society, both political and religious. In the example of my hike between prominent saint’s graves in Tsfat and Meron, the entirety of the hike is located outside of Israel’s “center” region, where the vast majority of political and economic life takes place.[10] Similarly, the grave sites themselves are not located at the center of their respected cities, and therefore feature substantial perimeter areas that house auxiliary services to the pilgrimage/carnival—food stalls, talisman salesman, booksellers, and more.[11] Even turning from an alleyway to a courtyard in Nachlaot might be such a carnival moment; switching from the space of transit to the place of pause. In this eccentricity, these carnival-spaces, I find much to be learned as to the character of Jewish space, as it functions in the lived-out experience of Jews. The Mishna on eruv and in the Na Nach graffiti are both eccentric interventions, creative uses of land and landscape to engage spatial practice with Jewish life. What this eccentricity projects forward is a rupture between places, a breakage, that makes for Jewish space. There is a tension, “now I am in a different space,” that the eccentric examples highlight so well.

In the mishna, this tension is built through a legal system that impacts on the actual spatial practices of the Jewish community. Through robust argument among the Rabbis, Masechet Eruvin creates an entire spatial reality, in the text, but transcending the limits of the textual forms. The arguments that take place on the page form the literal geography of Jewish life, at least for those who are observant of the laws of Shabbat. The central tension in the Jewish geography of this piece of mishna is between the “intimate” public life of the courtyard, and the “passing through” publics of the alleyway. It is the text of this mishna that produces this differentiation and thus allows for movement. In the practice of my more observant friends, this means they can walk on a certain sidewalk on Saturday with their potluck contribution, while on another sidewalk across the street they cannot even carry house keys in their pocket. The tension is manifest: In space “A” they can move more freely, in space “B” they cannot. The space of the textual-legal system has produced a differentiated geography of physical and and spiritual practices on Shabbat.

The Na Nach approach instead builds spatial tension by applying literal words, text of a different form than in the legal mishnaic system, to the spatial world. This approach is more spontaneous. The Na Nach graffiti merely asks me to read the text as I move through space. This is a rupture that happens also through movement, only here, movement in passing-by, rather than movement within spatial limits. The Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv becomes the place for text to stand out, not the ideas from the text, but literal words, meant to bolster and build up a spiritual consciousness in me as I hurry to catch the 405 to Jerusalem. As I move past the graffiti I am—consciously or not (and I don’t know if this matters to the Na Na chim)—taking part in a pursuit of the world-to-come.

What both these rabbinic and contemporary examples put forward is the necessity of walking towards the tensions at the center of Jewish space. To best get a sense of the differences the rabbis are talking about in the eruv I ought to walk its perimeter. To get at why the Na Nachim are dancing in the middle of the highway, I had to learn that they’ve graffitied the same phrase at intervals along another highway, in the middle of the desert. I have to push at the spiritual boundaries of longing for a transcendent, redeemed Jerusalem, while still living in the fraught boundaries of the contemporary, political city. These examples require a process of searching out the limits of Jewish space at their most eccentric locations—be they mystically far afield, physically distant from the urban center, or both. Like I had to search to find the trailhead, or the saint’s grave, the process of searching is how I can build Jewish geography from a place of eccentricity. My looking for, seeking out, delving into and moving to the limits, makes more place for Jewish space.

Josh Davidson is an urban planning and geography researcher from Cleveland, currently living and working in Philadelphia. His research interests include the spatial characteristics of poverty and the geography of pilgrimage sites. Josh will begin his doctoral work in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania this fall.

[1] The research and writing of this article was conducted while part of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel. I thank the Dorot Foundation for their support of my learning. Most of his article was developed over walks with my partner and love Bec Richman, without whom this writing would not have come anywhere near to fruition

[2] Thank you to Harry Reis for helping me think through these ideas of territory in Israeli history.

[3] See Gorenberg, Gershom. The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of Settlements, 1967-1977. 1st ed. New York: Times Books, 2006.

[4] My discussion here of the “concentric” model and the use of this term comes almost entirely from Yoram Bilu’s insightful introduction to the role of saint’s graves in the logic of Jewish and Israeli space. See Bilu, Yoram. “Pulhani kedoshim v’aliyot l’mekomot kedoshim c’tofaah universalit [Cultic rituals and pilgrimages to holy places as a universal phenomenon].” In El kivrei tzadikim: Aliyot l’kvarim v’hilulot b’Yisrael [To saint’s graves: Pilgrimage to graves and memorials in Israel], edited by Rivka Gonen, 11–25. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, Yedioth Ahronoth, Sifrei Hemed, 1998. [In Hebrew].

[5] This is idea is expanded upon widely in Jewish literature through discussion of Yerushalayim shel lamala (the heavenly Jerusalem) and Yerushalayim shel lamata (the earthly Jerusalem). A native of Jerusalem, Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, in particular, addresses the play between these two forces in the city’s identity.

[6] Many of the ideas in this article on the eruv were hashed out in my chevruta (paired learning) on Masechet Eruvin with Joanna Kramer, who is due many thanks for helping spur this project and set framing for this article.

[7] Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva. “The Political Symbolism of the Eruv.” Jewish Social Studies 11, no. 3 (April 2005), p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 11

[9] Bilu, 1998. Translated by author.

[10] In other works, Bilu makes extensive note of the fact that most of the saint’s graves in Israel are located in the country’s geographic periphery, where economic standing is substantially lower than in the central region and most of the population are not from the most powerful ethnic group of Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) Israelis. See Bilu, Yoram. The Saints’ Impresarios: Dreamers, Healers, and Holy Men in Israel’s Urban Periphery. Israel. Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2010 and Ben-Ari, Eyal, and Yoram Bilu. “Saints Sanctuaries in Development Towns in Israel: On a Mechanism of Urban Transformation.” In Grasping Land: Space and Place in Contemporary Israeli Discourse and Experience. SUNY Series in Anthropology and Judaic Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

[11] For an extensive discussion of these practices in the built environment of Netivot and the resistance to European model, state ordained urban planning in Israel see Yacobi, Haim. “From State-Imposed Urban Planning to Israeli Diasporic Place: The Case of Netivot and the Grave of Baba Sali.” In Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place, edited by Julia Brauch, Anna Lipphardt, and Alexandra Nocke, 63–80. Heritage, Culture, and Identity. Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.


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