This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Windows of Opportunity *

The Temple that King Solomon erected in Jerusalem was by all accounts a magnificent edifice, and the Bible describes its structure and measurements in meticulous detail. Some of the specialized architectural terminology consists of rare Hebrew terms whose precise meaning has become obscure with the passage of time. Scholars have done their best to fill in the gaps with the help of etymological research as well as by comparison with the building practices of neighbouring civilizations.

One of the more difficult passages in the description of the Temple is the verse that appears in 1 Kings 6:4 and is translated in the standard English version as "for the house he made windows of narrow lights." Underlying the English are three Hebrew words: halonei shequfim atumim. A survey of the standard translations produces an immense range of diverse interpretations. 

The word halonei is not terribly problematic; it appears quite frequently in biblical Hebrew in the sense of "windows" and is derived from a root whose basic meaning is related to holes or hollowness. 

The second word "shequfim" is more challenging. Its root (Sh-Q-P) appears in Hebrew in two differing contexts: there is a verb that normally has the sense of viewing or surveying, generally from above and from a distance; and there are several nouns containing this root that have something to do with frames, doorways, lintels and the like. If indeed they derive from the same original lexicographic root, then their common denominator would appear to be an association with openness and the ability to pass through.

As for the third term, "atumim"--it has something to do with closing, sealing or obstructing.

Taken together, the three words confront the exegete not only with a thick fog of obscurity, but also with an implied contradiction. After all, windows are designed as openings for light and ventilation, and this sense is reinforced here by the word shequfim; and yet "atumim" designates them as sealed or stopped up.

What would appear to be a relatively simple solution to the paradox is the premise that the biblical author is speaking of glass window panes. These are open in the sense of being clear and transparent to allow the penetration of light, while at the same time they are resistant to the air and rain. This possibility was proposed by Rabbis David and Jehiel Altschuler of Prague in their Metzudat David commentary and has garnered some support among more recent scholars. If it is true, then it would mark a significant advance in the development and dissemination of glass-making technology. As generally understood, the methods for producing glass vessels remained confined in Solomon's time to exclusive circles in localities like Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the manufacture of flat glass panes is not attested until well into the Roman era, more than a millennium after Solomon's time.

The most popular explanation among Jewish exegetes is one that was brought in the Midrash and Talmud and found its way from there into the writings of many traditional commentators: 

"Rabbi Hanina said: There were windows in the holy Temple through which light would be emitted into the world. What is the basis for this? 'And for the house he made closed-opened windows.' They were both open and closed! They were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to radiate light to the world. Said Rabbi Levi: According to the normal practice, when a person constructs a dining-hall he makes its windows narrower on the outside and broader on the inside in order to draw light inward. However, the windows of the holy Temple were not like that. Instead, they were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to radiate light to the world."

After citing this rabbinic interpretation, the celebrated fourteenth-century savant Gersonides dismissed it as nothing more than a pretty homily. He argued that it can be demonstrated with scientific certainty that, where light passes through a narrowing passage, the total amount of light in the house will thereby be increased.

This snide attitude towards rabbinic teachings rankled the sensibilities of Rabbi Solomon Aviad Sar Shalom Basilea of Mantua (c. 1680-1749) whose magnum opus "Emunat Hakhamim" (trust in the sages) was devoted to championing the inerrancy of rabbinic teachings in the face of alien philosophies and science. In this case, Basilea insisted, Gersonides' science was not superior to that of our revered sages, especially if he is implying that the rabbinic homilies were less accurate than the teachings of the gentile scholars.

Basilea shared his reservations about Gersonides with Rabbi Jacob Aboab of Venice whom he regarded as the foremost Italian rabbi of his generation in his combined mastery of rabbinic and secular learning. Against Gersonides' terse generalizations, Basilea proposed a more sophisticated theory of optics that distinguished between direct illumination--for which, it is true, the light expands as it shines through a broad aperture-- and reflected light which becomes more intense in its brightness as it is refracted through a narrower channel. 

For the benefit of readers who might have difficulty grasping the underlying optical theory, Basilea recommended a simple experiment that can easily be reproduced using a cylinder with broad and narrow ends to shine light into an otherwise sealed and darkened room. 

If Rabbi Basilea's science is valid, then his argument does indeed correspond with uncanny precision to the ideological lesson of the rabbinic homily: the religious values that are symbolized by the Temple are generated from within our tradition and they need not be imported from alien sources. The same would apply to scientific knowledge.

Of late, Rabbi Basilea's quality of Emunat Hakhamim has become a rallying-call for many contemporary Jewish fundamentalists and I can think of several self-proclaimed guardians of the tradition who would cite this case to justify their total opposition to the teaching of science or secular studies. However, this attitude did not typify earlier generations of Jewish scholars. For all his religious conservatism, Rabbi Basilea was also an accomplished astronomer and mathematician with a solid training in optics. It was his thorough scientific background that led him to suspect that Gersonides' theory of light, based on the old Aristotelian model, was outdated and had been superseded by more recent experimental studies in optics. Of course Rabbi Basilea derived immense satisfaction and validation from his discovery that the ancient Jewish sages had anticipated the findings of modern science.

Whether or not the sanctuary of Jewish wisdom is receptive to illumination from external sources, the midrashic metaphor remains an apt one. It is eminently fitting that the Temple windows should have been fashioned in a way that allows Israel's spiritual light to radiate outward and to convey the wisdom and enlightenment of our tradition to the entire world.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 11, 2010, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Brand, Joshua. Kele Zekhukhit Be-Sifrut Ha-Talmud. Jerusalem: Mossad haRav Kook, 1978.
    • Feldman, Seymour. Gersonides: Judaism Within the Limits of Reason. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010.
    • Ruderman, David B. Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
    • Simonsohn, Shlomo. History of the Jews in the Duchy of Mantua. Jerusalem: Kiryath Sepher, 1977.