The Secret of Place and Space

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)



The center of place and space is the Temple.[1] What do we mean by place?


There are ten concentric layers of space in the world. The Mishna[2] mentions ten levels[3] of holiness, for these layers of space, within Eretz Yisrael:

1.     The walled cities,[4]

2.     the city of Jerusalem,[5]

3.     Mount Moriah, 4. the area within the surrounding rampart,

4.     the Women’s Courtyard,

5.     the Courtyard of the Israelites,

6.     the Priestly Courtyard,

7.     the area between the altar and

8.     the Entrance Hall to the Sanctuary,

9.     the building of the Sanctuary, and

10.  the Holy of Holies.[6]


The world is our place our space. As we move towards Jerusalem, the quality of space and the material world is different. The material world is weightier. The Hebrew word for ‘weight’ is the same word used for ‘honor’ or ‘dignity’ (The Hebrew word for heavy or weight is kaved (כבד). The Hebrew word for honor or respect is kavod. (כבוד) Yes, they’re related. They share the same root letters, and in Hebrew, that means they’re definitely related.)


On his way to travel to Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Chanina used to lift up stones to weigh them. He wanted to know when he crossed the border and entered the holy land. As long as the stones weighed their normal weight, he knew that he was still outside the land. However, when he picked up a stone and it weighed much more than normal stones, he knew that he had crossed into the Land. Tosafot notes that this episode is found in the Tanchuma,[7] where the Midrash tells us that as soon as Rabbi Chanina realized that he was in Eretz Yisrael, he kissed the stones as he proclaimed:[8] “For your servants have cherished her stones, and favored her dust.”


Maharal writes that the fact that the stones of Eretz Yisrael are heavier than the stones outside The Land, לארץ חוץ, is a function of the greatness of the land. Even mundane objects such as stones are more spiritual in their essence than those found outside the land. As a result, the stones are not as readily affected by external physical forces, and they remain firm and stable, unchanged and unmoved when they are lifted. This results in their seeming heavier.


The liver is called kaved, the heavy organ. That is where the soul makes contact with the body. When you move into Israel, you move into the dimension of HaShem’s honor or glory.


The Gemara says that the land of Israel expands to fit all of the Jewish people. This is called eretz tzvi.


The comparison of Eretz Yisrael to the skin of a deer which one Talmudic Sage interpreted as a tribute to the lands ability to produce fruits quickly and plentifully was applied by Rabbi Chanina to the expanding nature of its territory.


Challenged by a heathen skeptic how it was possible, as the Sages claimed, that millions of Jews once lived in a part of Eretz Yisrael called Har HaMelech, he referred him to the Prophet Yirmiyahu’s description of the country as "the land of the deer". Just as when the skin of a deer is removed from its carcass it is impossible to once again have it envelop the animal’s flesh because of its contraction, so too when Jews live in Eretz Yisrael the land expands to absorb them after contracting when they are not there.


In the Book of Daniel,[9] Eretz Yisrael is described as "Eretz Ha-Tzvi." The Hebrew word tzvi connotes splendor, reflect­ing our desire and love for the land, hence Eretz Ha-Tzvi, the desirable, beautiful land. Alternately, the word tzvi can mean "deer", hence "the land of the deer". The Talmud explains: Just as the hide of the deer has the capacity to encompass its body, but shrinks when separated from its flesh, so too can the Land of Israel expand to encompass its rightful inhabitants but shrinks when we are exiled from it. If this be the case, should it not have been called Eretz Tzvi, "deer land", thus equating the nature of the land with the deer? Why then is it described as Eretz Ha-Tzvi (ארץ הצבי), "land of the deer," as if the possessor takes on the characteristic of the deer? Perhaps the lesson implied by our Sages is that only when the possessor of the land expands himself to the land can it attain the quality of the deer, allowing it to stretch to its inhabitants' needs. And we "expand ourselves" through the way in which we regard the land's holiness and respect its special qualities. Just as a deer who is killed would not be able to have all of its meat that was taken out of its body put back into its skin (which is too small to contain the meat after death), so too is Eretz Yisrael. When people are living there (as in when the deer is alive), there is a lot of space. When they are not, the land is small.


Thus we understand that the land of Israel will expand to include plenty of room for all the Jews. This has some significant ramifications when you stop to think that the vast majority of known Jews today come from just two tribes:  The tribe of Yehudah and the tribe of Levi. That means that 10/12th of all Jews are incognito even to themselves. If there are fourteen million Jews from the tribes of Yehudah and Levi, then that suggests that the other ten tribes, when they are exposed, will number eighty-four million. That means that just the Jews living today will number ninety-eight million! Now when you add to that by all the Jews of history, one can easily see two billion Jews. And they will all comfortably fit in the land of Israel! This is remarkable when you consider that Israel is only slightly larger than New Jersey.


Now we understand that the land is weightier and more flexible than any other land. As we move into the inner circle of Jerusalem, we move into a higher dimension of space. The Mishna puts it this way:


Avot 5:1 … a man never said to his fellow, "The place is too strait for me to lodge in Jerusalem”.


The simple meaning is that there was lodging for the millions of pilgrims who went up for the festivals. But the deeper meaning is that Jerusalem exists in a higher dimension of space when it comes to the Jewish people.


As we move closer to the center, to the precincts of the Temple, you reach a far higher dimension of space. When the Jews came to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals, they all fit into the courtyard. One can appreciate the flexibility of “space” within the Temple when they see what happened on Yom Kippurim, according to the Mishna.[10] In the Musaf prayers of Yom Kippurim, each time the High Priest would utter the in­effable holy name of the Almighty, the Tetragrammaton, when the people heard it, they knelt and prostrated themselves, and then, too, the miracle of space occurred.


How tightly were they pressed together originally? The commen­taries associate the Mishnah's word tzefufim with the word tzaf, to float: There was no room for anyone to move in any direction; everyone was held pressed, as stiff as a beam, until his legs could be lifted from the ground, and he would float, as it were. Anyone who has ridden New York’s subways in the rush hours would know what is meant here.


The Mishna[11] tells even more: When they bowed amid ample room, each person had four cubits of space about him, one cubit in each direction, so that no one would hear another’s prayer. But, something more basic can be learned here, from the “timing" of the miracle: it happened only when all prayed and bowed in prayer. Not until then did the great pressure of crowding abate. One cannot help but see that when one empties their ego and prostrates to HaShem, then, and only then, does everyone have room to prostrate. Our egos certainly take up a lot of space!


So, in the Temple we have a higher dimension of space, the dimension of the miraculous.


Now, lets move to the most inner circle, the area known as the Holy of Holies. Here space no longer has meaning as we understand it.


The essence of this physical world is that it can exist only within the confines of space and time. In the worlds above this world, there is no space, no time. They are spiritual worlds. Between this existence and its neighbors, however, there exists a place of transition, a border. Where is the border between this world and the next? Where is this gateway to eternity?


In the First Temple, in the middle of the Holy of Holies, there sat the Aron Kodesh, the holy Ark. There's an amazing fact about the Aron. It took up no space. Even though it had physical dimension, nevertheless it occupied no space.


If you went into the holy of holies and measured from one wall to the Aron, and then you measured from the other side of the Aron to the far wall, those two measurements combined would be the same as the distance from one wall to the other. In other words, the distance between the two walls of the holy of holies was the same whether you measured from the walls to the sides of the Aron or whether you measured its entire width.


How was this possible? how was it possible for the Aron to have measurements and yet occupy no space in this world?


Wherever there is a border between two entities, we can expect to see elements of both. The Aron was the border of two worlds. It sat on the even Shetiya[12], the rock from which HaShem extruded the entire universe. This was the "border post" between two worlds; thus the characteristics of both this world and the next were manifest. The Aron occupied no space because it rested on the even Shetiya, the stone from which this physical world was extruded, the gateway to beyond space. On the other hand, from the place of the Aron flows all creation, all space and time. This is the place where the physical world begins; thus, it had dimensions. The Aron was in this world, but it was not of this world; it had dimensions without occupying space.


The even Shetiya as the origin of space, occupies no space. This is where space is created, yet space has no meaning at this place.


While Jerusalem is a city which is the capital of Israel, it is also the capital of reality. The even Shetiya, in the center of Jerusalem, as the origin of space, occupies no space. This is where space is created, yet space has no meaning in this place. The Ramban makes note of the fact that the ‘rules’ of space do not apply to the point where space comes into being. The sorrow we experience for the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem is that we can no longer tap in to power of time and space, in that place. Yet, HaShem, obviously is the origin of time and place and we still have some limited access to Him, we no longer have the direct access that we used to have.


Yitzchak[13] experienced ‘death’ on the altar, above the even Shetiya. Never the less, he also experienced resurrection in that same place. Note how he and his parents were prepared for this, given the name given to him by HaShem: יצחק, Yitzchak (“He shall laugh”).


Laughter is a function of the daat. We respond with laughter to an event, or sequence of events, which have a certain form, and then this form reverses itself. The sharper the reversal, the sharper we laugh. The sudden juxtaposition of two polar opposites causes us to laugh. When one thing becomes its radical opposite, that’s what provokes laughter. Laughter is a response to the unexpected. Laughter is the reaction of humans when the confines of reason have been broken. We laugh occasionally out of extreme fear or out of extreme joy.


Laughter is the experience of the soul to the transition from this world to the next. Death, from the spiritual perspective, is the funniest experience imaginable.


This world is the exact opposite of the next world. In this world it seems that everything is headed for decay and death. When we suddenly transition to the next world, we see that it is not like that at all.


Now that we know what causes us to laugh, let’s look at examples from the Torah. The first use of קחצ “laugh” is found in:


Bereshit (Genesis) 17:17 Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?


This first occurrence of laughter indicates that this is where laughter was created. Avraham, when confronted with the impossibility of having a son in his old age, laughs. This is where we learn that laughter occurs when we are confronted with the impossible, where two opposites come together. Both Avraham and Sarah laughed when confronted with the impending birth of Yitzchak:


Bereshit (Genesis) 18:10 And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?


יצחק, Yitzchak (“He shall laugh”) is a person of extremes. He is also “the unexpected one.” He is the person who we least expected to come onto the scene. Avraham and Sarah didn’t expect him. Ishmael was certainly jarred by his arrival. Yitzchak is a symbol of laughter because his very being is a suspension of reality.


Laughter is produced only by noticing something which strikes us as ridiculous. But where, in the whole world is there any greater absurd contradiction than the expectation that a hundred-year-old man and his ninety-year-old wife, who never had a child in the course of their long married life, now, practically at the end of their lives, should get a son!


Intrinsic to the experience of humor, is the experience of happiness. For example: When a woman is in labor, literally dying to give life, she experiences extremely sharp pains. Just when it seems that it could not get any worse, then the child comes and the incredible pain is forgotten in the joy of a new life. This is the time for laughter. Yet, the baby is not laughing, he is crying. It is those on the outside, the mother and the father who laugh. This is an important concept.


If a person slips on a banana peel, it is NOT funny to the one who slips. It is only funny to those watching. The same applies to those who transition from this world to the next. It is difficult for those making the transition, but it is funny to those watching the transition. This is the secret of laughter.


יצחק, Yitzchak (“He shall laugh”) was born at a time when it was impossible to be born. Not only were Avraham and Sarah way past the age of bearing children, but Sarah did not have the organs of birth, she did not have a womb! At this moment when it was impossible, then the angel came and announced his birth. At that moment, Avraham and Sarah both laughed.


Sarah was criticized for not laughing enough. Avraham laughed because he experienced the birth of Yitzchak, and the holding of him at that moment. Sarah laughed because she would experience holding Yitzchak in forty weeks.


So, when Avraham and Sarah experienced the total reversal of their lives, they laughed. They laughed at the birth of the Jewish people! Thus we derive the concept that the concept of the Jewish people is that they are the people of the impossible, and that when the impossible happens, they will laugh. We live at the moment of the impossible.


A womb and a grave are both called “kever”, in Hebrew. Why are they both called the same word? They are called the same word because they are both portals between this world and the Olam HaBa. Thus we learn that laughter occurs when we face the impossible, the transition between worlds.


The letters in Yitzchak can be rearranged to: Ketz chai, which means “death in life”, or idiomatically as “the next world while yet in this world”. This give us a hint that the Jewish people should be people who are so tuned in to the spiritual aspect that they can actually live in the next world whilst still in this world.


Yitzchak means laughter. Laughter occurs when two opposites come together. Yitzchak is the connection between the higher and the lower worlds. The higher world is just the opposite of this world. It is what this world was supposed to be. No wonder this connection was named Yitzchak, laughter.


The mystical concept of the root of laughter is as a response to deliverance from imminent, and certain, disaster.


People laugh when they encounter a sharp and unexpected encounter of opposites. The sharper the contrast between the opposites, the greater the laughter.


Mishlei (Proverbs) 32:25 Strength and dignity are her clothing; and she shall laugh on the day of the end (death).


There can hardly be a sharper contrast between this world and the next. Thus we see that the woman of valor will laugh at this transition. To the woman of valor who has already seen through the mask of this world, and sees the next world whilst still in this world, this will be a time of laughter.


The Hebrew words for “laughter” and for “play” are closely related: tz’chok and s’chok; and it should be no surprise at all that the word used for intimacy between man and wife in Torah is this very word: “And Isaac was causing Rebecca his wife to laugh”, referring to marital intimacy. There are no empty expressions in Torah; the delicate and pure language of Torah is always exact. Thus when the woman of valor transitions to the next world and experiences the sensation of ‘arrival’ with no place to go and nothing more to do, then she laughs just as she laughed in marital intimacy when she ‘arrived’.


Esav’s descendants see things as they are, selling their soul for a sweet-tasting moment.


Yitzchak’s descendants, the Hakhamim (the wise men) sees the future. Rooted to one spot, he knows that true success is the measure of a tree that’s solidly planted. Yitzchak’s descendants have seen through the mask of nature and see clearly the spiritual world.


Yitzchak will laugh - and he will laugh best.


Now laughter is what happens when two opposite things come together. For example: when the arrogant stumble. The Temple is likewise, a place where two opposites come together: HaShem (The infinite Spirit) and man (the physical and finite).


It is in the redemption that true happiness, accompanied by laughter, will be experienced, as in the verse:


Tehillim (Psalms) 126:2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, HaShem hath done great things for them.


It is amazing to note that after our bodies are reconstructed at the resurrection of the dead, HaShem will provide underground passages through which they can be transported to the Holy Land. Until they reach the Land of Israel, they will remain bodies without souls. Only there will HaShem grant them souls so that they can come to life. This is alluded to in the verse, “[ HaShem] gives a soul to the people in [the land]”.[14] This indicates that HaShem will provide a soul for the resurrected dead when they are in the Holy Land. Why does the resurrection take place in eretz Yisrael? Because that is where man was first created. Eretz Yisrael is also Gan Eden!


Finally, the Hebrew word Makom - מקם is normally translated as place.


Makom is a word that we use rather lightly in the English speaking world. In the Hebrew world it is never taken or used lightly. You see, HaMakom (The Place) - המקם is one of HaShem’s names! By referring to HaShem as The Place we are saying that HaShem is not in the world; rather, the world is in HaShem. HaMakom asserts that HaShem is everywhere and everything: physical and spiritual, matter and energy. All of this makes up the oneness of HaShem. HaShem makes a place for the world. He provides a place for the world to exist.


Bereshit Rabbah 68:9 HaShem encompasses the world; the world does not encompass Him[15].


The Land of Israel is also HaMakom, the place on earth set aside by HaShem as the Holy Land.


The Torah calls Mt. Moriah, HaMakom:


Bereshit (Genesis) 22:4-5 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place (HaMakom) afar off. And they came to the place (HaMakom) which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.


Bereshit (Genesis) 22:9 And they came to the place (HaMakom) which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.


Bereshit (Genesis) 22:14 And Abraham called the name of that place (Makom) Adonai-Yireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of HaShem it shall be seen.


The Midrash reiterates the significance of HaMakom:


Midrash Tehillim Psalm 90 R. Huna said in the name of R. Ammi: Why is the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, called “place?” Because He is the place of the world, as is said, “Behold, there is a place by Me. Abraham called Him ‘place’”, as is said “And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh”.[16] Jacob called Him ‘place’, as is said “How full of awe is this place”.[17] Moses called Him ‘place’, as is said “Behold, there is a place by Me”.[18]


Many of the items found in the Bet HaMikdash did not have fixed places. For example, the menorah had a position relative to the Holy Ark, specifically, southeast of the Ark, but it did not have an absolute place in the Temple. In contrast, the Mizbeach, the altar, had an absolute place, and if it was not in that place, the obligation of performing the Temple service was not fulfilled. Why? Because, says the Rambam, the place of the altar is the place from which man himself was created!


We feel homesick when we have been away from our home (the place) for a protracted period of time. No matter how humble, we long for our place of origin. We long for our home, our place. Thus we learn that our soul longs to return to HaShem, it’s origin, it’s source. Homesickness was given to us as a mashal to help us understand that our soul longs to return to it’s home with HaShem.


Thus we can understand that makom, place, is very significant. It is a name of HaShem, it is where HaShem focuses His attention, it is a place we will ultimately call home.










* * *


This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian).

Comments may be submitted to:


Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501


Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

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[1] Much of this study is based on a shiur given by Rabbi Akiva Tatz, titled:  Israel and Jerusalem – The Secret of Space.

[2] Keilim 1:6, quoted by the Rambam, in Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 7:13-22.

[3] Of the ten levels of holiness descended onto the world, eight of the levels are on the Temple Mount where Yaaqob prayed.

[4] The walled cities of Israel are those settlements physically protected from foreign invasion. 

[5] Maimonides writes that Jerusalem has a special level of holiness that never lapses. Therefore, even though the Beit HaMikdash lies in ruins entering the site of the Mikdash is forbidden, since we are not in a state of ritual purity.

[6] The innermost room of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, is called The Holy of Holies; the Holy Ark was placed in this chamber. This Ark stood on a rock. Our sages tell us this is the rock from which the universe was created. This point is the border between the world and its creator - God. The starting point of all creation is the Holy of Holies.

[7] Parashat Shelach

[8] Tehillim (Psalms) 102:15

[9] Daniel 11:16

[10] Avot 5:8

[11] Yoma 6:2

[12] The Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, brings this point home by explaining that all blessing and sustenance come to us from above, from the site of the holy Temple in Jerusalem: "There is a special place where all these roots come together. In that place is the root of all things. In that place are the roots of the earth and all it contains, the heavens, the heavens of the heavens and all their hosts without exception. In the place where all these roots come together, in the middle, there is a single stone. This stone is most precious. It possesses every kind of beauty and charm. It is called the Foundation Stone".

[13] Yitzchak, Isaac, was THE sacrifice on THE alter in THE place of the Temple:  Bereshit (Genesis) 22:9 When they reached the place G-d had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

[14] Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 42:5

[15] Bereshit Rabbah 68:9: Shemot Rabba 45:6

[16] Bereshit (Genesis) 22:14

[17] Bereshit (Genesis) 28:17

[18] Shemot (Exodus) 33:21