I have always been a “touchy-feely” kind of gal. And while I never gave it much thought before, I realize now that I am a chronic hugger, arm-linker and couch-snuggler. But not anymore. COVID-19 has changed all of that.
Now I incessantly ponder the concept of “personal space,” defined generally as the approximate area surrounding an individual that others should not physically violate in order for that person to feel safe and secure.
Science has shown that humans need a buffer, a certain amount of physical distance from others, to feel physically and psychologically safe.
This buffer zone non-verbally establishes relationship rules between people; it indicates to others who we will let in and who we will keep out. We move away when someone stands too close when speaking to us. We may flinch when touched on the arm or shoulder by a boss although that same touch by a parent is generally welcome. We accept hugs from friends but not from strangers.
Historically, personal space has been guided by cultural guidelines, social norms and religious laws.
For example, in Iran, a three-kiss greeting is given among men to show respect and create camaraderie. In many European and Latin American countries, cheek-to-cheek kissing as a greeting is an accepted practice.
More reserved behaviors are the norm in the Orthodox Jewish community. Shaking hands or hugging between the sexes is considerate immodest and inappropriate.
Today we are in unchartered territory as we walk through a corona landscape with minimal certainty and maximal fear. Personal boundaries are being determined, not by custom or community standards, but by public health officials and governments.
Overnight, social distancing has become one of the principal interventions offered to protect and safeguard us against COVID-19.
Currently, the CDC recommends that people not living under the same roof stay a minimum of six feet apart from one another at all times and urges contact to be outdoors. No touching, no hugging, no couch snuggling.
This restraint should also be used in the home if someone is ill, has been exposed to anyone with COVID-19, or has been traveling.
What amazes me as I think about these new divides today it that over 1,000 ago, the idea of personal space was heavily analyzed and discussed in Jewish texts. The idea of “dalet amot” (or four cubits which is approximately six feet!) is ubiquitous throughout halacha (Jewish law). It represents the idea of personal space.
The Talmud, the basis of Jewish religious law, states that when someone is praying, another person is not allowed to walk within a proximity of four cubits. The reason is that when a person sees himself in dialogue with G-d and someone invades that space, it has the potential to alter or destroy the sacred space of the worshipper.
The Jewish concept of personal space is applied in ordinary circumstances as well.
A room whose size is less than four cubits by four cubits is not required to have a mezuzzah since it doesn’t create a personal space. The prohibition of carrying items in the public realm on the Sabbath (to avoid it from becoming an ordinary day of commerce) is to carrying things more than four cubits. If one is on a sidewalk and carries something only two cubits, this is considered within one’s private space, almost like a personal bubble.
As our nation begins the somewhat perilous and frightening re-opening of businesses and restaurants, we have an opportunity to reevaluate what personal space means to us as individuals and as a community. We can use dalet amot to assess and prioritize what we’ve missed most about our lives and relationships before COVID took hold. And we can be guided by principles of communal respect for others’ personal space, health and safety.
This is not a cure for COVID but it is a small step toward restoring our faith in the belief that we still have the power to make a difference.
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