Space and Place

Authored by: Barbara E. Mann

The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Jewish Cultures

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415473781
eBook ISBN: 9780203497470
Adobe ISBN: 9781135048556


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The term makom in Hebrew may be translated, in deceptively simple fashion, as “place.” As in English, the word has both concrete and abstract significance, and may also be used metaphorically, as in “to know one’s place,” in a social, relational sense. Yet Hebrew usages of makom potentially bear another, more hidden burden, due to a special meaning of the term in Jewish tradition, where makom is also used as a synonym for God. This usage originates in a midrashic gloss on the book of Genesis: “Why is the Holy One, blessed be he, called Makom? Because he is the place of the world” (Genesis Rabbah 68: 8). Perhaps the rabbis who produced this text felt themselves to be in some sort of exile, and therefore invested space with transcendence, and God with the materiality of place. 1 This midrash refers specifically to the use of the term makom in the Jacob story, itself a classic tale of wandering. Jacob’s journey from place to place, from Paddan Aram (28: 5) through Beer Sheva and Haran (28: 10), into the land of bnei kedem (literally, sons of the East) (29: 1) and eventually back home through Machanayim (32: 3), is itself an attempt to find his own place, in social and familiar terms. His journey, of course, echoes that of his grandfather Abraham, who inaugurated the national drama with God’s command to “go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (12: 1). This process of identity formation occurs in relation to movement toward and from particular locations. At the beginning of his travels, Jacob “came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night.… Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place” (28: 11). The dense, repetitive patterning of the word makom (three times in a short, fifteen-word verse) alerts the reader that a moment of divine revelation approaches. In the very next verse, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven, and of God “standing beside him,” announcing the terms of the covenantal promise with Jacob, his ancestors, and his descendants. When Jacob awakes, he again notes the sacred quality of makom: “‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God’” (28: 16–17). And so Jacob names the place “Bethel” (Bet-El), literally, “house of God,” the place where God is housed.

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