As we know, one of the most revered prayer services throughout the Jewish year is Kol Nidrei, which is a prayer that annuls the vows that we make with God. As numerous scholars have explained, Kol Nidrei has its origins in the forced conversions of Spanish Jews, with the prayer being a plea to God to annul the vows that Jews had made under duress. As Rabbi Sacks explains, ‘once a year, at great risk, [these Jews] would make their way to the synagogue as their way of saying, “A Jew I am, and a Jew I will remain” …[so that] on Yom Kippur, even the most estranged Jew came home.’
Yet while, at least in a regular year, our shuls are packed on Kol Nidrei and each community does all it can to make room for even the most infrequent shul-goer, for much of the rest of the year our attitude to the estranged Jew is often far less welcoming.
Admittedly, there were those, like Rav Natronai Gaon (Responsa 369), who believed that once a Jew severed their ties with their people and with the Torah, they ceased being members of the Jewish people. Based on this, there are actions which fully withdraw a person from the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood.
The reason I mention this topic is because I was reminded of Rav Natronai’s position while studying the Mishna in today’s daf (Eruvin 4:11, 52b), which teaches us that ‘someone who [willfully] exited the techum [Shabbat], even by one amah (approx. 50cm), may not reenter [the techum]. Rabbi Eliezer says, if they [overstepped] two [amot outside the techum], they may reenter, but if they [overstepped] three, they may not.’
Though the Mishna presents a difference of opinion about whether a step of 1 or 2 amot beyond the boundary of the techum Shabbat is acceptable, the basic premise of the Mishna is that by overstepping this line, a person is no longer able to reenter the Shabbat boundary. They are outside and must remain there (until the end of Shabbat).
However, contrasting the position of Rav Natronai Gaon is that of Rashi (Responsa 171, 175), who invoked the Talmudic interpretation (see Sanhedrin 44a), applied to Achan (see Yehoshua Ch. 7), in order to teach that ‘even though [a member of the people of] Israel has sinned, they are still [a member of the people of] Israel’. Simply put, while there are actions that are forbidden to a Jew, there are no actions that fully withdraw a person from the boundaries of Jewish peoplehood.
Reflecting on this, it seems that the message of Kol Nidrei express the spirit of Rashi’s position, while the laws of techum Shabbat express the spirit of Rav Natronai Gaon’s position.
Yet something very strange occurs in the Jewish Calendar. On Kol Nidrei, Jewish communities are happy to do all they can to make room for even the most estranged Jew. Yet for much of the rest of the year we seem to forget this message and, instead, we communicate – consciously or otherwise –that if a Jew oversteps certain community-established boundaries of Jewish practice, they are then considered ‘outside’ the boundary of the community.
Yet notwithstanding the importance of the laws of techum Shabbat, it is important to stress that most of the halachic literature of the past thousand years serves as precedence to argue that the techum Shabbat boundaries are not an effective model that we should use to address questions of Jewish membership. Instead, like Rashi, we should remember that, ‘even though [a member of the people of] Israel has sinned, they are still [a member of the people of] Israel’, and that we should do all we can to communicate – to even the most estranged Jew – that they remain members of the people of Israel, and that whatever they may have done, the Jewish community is still their spiritual home.