This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Yarmulke and the Hard-Hat*

Like many legal systems, the Jewish halakhah must deal in minute detail with questions related to construction and home improvement. In particular, the Rabbis had to keep a vigilant eye on cases when renovations to an existing structure might impinge upon the convenience of neighbours, whether by obstructing a view or restricting their privacy.

Indeed, so deeply rooted were these rights in Jewish tradition that in reading Balaam's blessing "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob" some of the Talmudic sages visualized the heathen prophet being overcome by admiration for the Israelites' scrupulous consideration in not aligning their doors opposite one another, so as to prevent people from peeking into each other's homes.

Although the regulation of such laws demanded intimate familiarity with construction methods, there is little explicit evidence that the Rabbis made a habit of consulting with experts in the field. Often. in fact, their typical approach was just the opposite: When called upon to determine empirical facts, the Talmud seems to prefer to cite the flimsiest of literary proof texts from the Bible or oral tradition rather than consulting experts or collecting experimental data.

Among the exceptions to the above generalization are some passages in the Palestinian Talmud in which the opinions of "builders" are cited in the course of discussions about Jewish law. The information supplied by those ancient builders enriches our knowledge of daily life in the Land of Israel during the Talmudic era.

One such discussion deals with the obstruction of access to a neighbour's windows. The Talmud quotes these unidentified "builders" as stating that if the original window did not overlook an open space, but only a "stoa" or colonnade, then we may assume that the window did not exist for the sake of its view, but merely to allow sunlight to enter the house. Hence a neighbour who intended to erect a structure in front of that window was obliged to leave only enough clearance for the continued entry of sunlight, but need not worry about interfering with the view.

The premises of the discussion may appear strange to us today, since we generally assume that all windows are designed to provide a view. However in the ancient world, when the manufacture of large units of sheet glass was rare and expensive, windows tended to be much smaller, and restricted to specific purposes. Archeological evidence teaches us that the ancient "window" was usually no more than a cluster of tiny round holes in the wall. Some were for ventilation, others for light, and some for view. Ancient building codes took these factors into account in determining whether or not it was permitted to build a structure opposite somebody else's window.

The Talmud observed that according to Jewish law any window that does not provide direct access to an open space must have been built to provide light, not view, and hence a potential builder must leave only a token distance in front of that window. In support of this distinction, the Talmud makes reference to the customary practice of the "builders" who follow a similar policy when determining the appropriate distance between an old house and a new one.

The Talmud's account of the builders' opinion is corroborated by a compendium of local Palestinian building procedures that has survived from the early Byzantine era, composed by an architect named Julian. Like the Jewish sources, the municipal by-laws cited by Julian distinguish, for purposes of determining the minimal distances between buildings, between windows that are intended for light and those designed for view. Any view that is fragmentary, indirect or at an angle is not guaranteed by the law.

The cooperation between yarmulke and hard-hat extended to some additional issues as well. For instance, disputes arose over how to distribute the expenses for repairs to multi-owner dwellings. How are we to determine which repairs benefit the inhabitants of the individual dwellings, and which serve the interests of the entire building. Here again the testimony of the builders was adduced in order to establish that the costs of repairs to the foundations are customarily shared by all the tenants, whereas improvements to the walls of an individual apartment are paid for only by the inhabitants of that unit.

All this reminds me of the following classic anecdote about a Rabbi who volunteered to design a house for a member of his community, to whom he offered assurances that all his construction methods were derived from the Talmud.

A week after the structure was completed, the Jew approached the sage, and morosely asked him why his new house had collapsed almost immediately after it was built.

The learned Rabbi pored through his Talmud for a moment, and then his eyes lit up with satisfaction.

"How remarkable!" he declared. "Rashi asks exactly the same question!"

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 6 1996, p. 14.

  • Bibliography:
    • Saul Lieberman, "A Few Words on the Book by Julian the Arhitect of Ascalon The Laws of Palestine and its Customs, Tarbiz 40 (1971), pp. 409-417.