Archive for June, 2015

In the discussion of Solomon’s Temple in I Kings, a peculiar mystery of its architecture caught my attention.

וַיַּעַשׂ לַבָּיִת, חַלּוֹנֵי שְׁקֻפִים אֲטוּמִים.

He made for the Temple windows that were shekuphim atumim.
(I Kings 6:4)

“Shekuphim,” in modern Hebrew would be translated as “see-through,” based on the Hebrew root Sh-K-Ph, meaning “to look” or to “scope” (as the English “scope” is clearly related to the Hebrew). “Atumim” would translate as “sealed.” So to me, “shekuphim atumim” conjures up imagery of modern glass windows, that are “sealed” and “transparent.” However, glass was not used for windows historically until much later. So either Solomon’s Temple had one up on everyone technologically, which, by the way, is totally possible (more on this in a later post, perhaps), or shekuphim atumim means something else. But a window being see-through (open) and sealed (closed) at the same time without being glass seems to be an oxymoron.

JPS translates as follows:

And for the house he made windows broad within, and narrow without.

So “shekuphim” means “broad,” hence you can see through them, and “atumim” means narrow, more “closed.” But how did the translator know that the broad side was the inner, and the narrow side the outer?

I somehow remember that castle windows were made broad on the inside and narrow on the outside so it was harder for enemies to shoot into the castle windows, while easy for the castle defenders to shoot out of them. Perhaps this was the thought of the translator, though since this was not a castle, but a temple, presumably this architecture would have been pointless.

I also remember there being a reason for ancient structures to have the opposite window design, that is, narrow on the inside and broad on the outside. As I recall, this functioned as “air conditioning,” causing air to be pushed inward into the edifice, cooling the interior. That would make more sense here. So why does the translator think the windows were broad on the outside and narrow on the inside?

Let’s examine the comments of Rashi:

Our Rabbis explained: ‘shekuphim’ is a term of seeing, openness, looking. [The windows were] open on the outside, and ‘atumim’ (closed) inside, narrow inside, unlike other windows that are made for light. [The windows of the Temple were thus constructed] to show that the Temple did not need light [from outside].

In other words, according to Rashi, a window designed to be wide inside but narrow outside was to facilitate the spread of light on the inside, and was the typical structure of most windows. This may explain the translation. Ironically, however, Rashi notes that according to our Sages of blessed memory, the windows of the Temple were constructed oppositely, to highlight (no pun intended) that the Temple did not need natural light, implying that its source of illumination was perhaps supernatural.

Let us examine this statement from our Sages in its original context:

‘He made for the Temple broad (shekuphim), narrow (atumim) windows.’ It was taught: Broad on the outside and narrow on the inside, ‘[for] I (G-d) do not require illumination.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Menachoth 86B)

This comports with Rashi’s commentary to our verse, but Rashi’s comments to this passage of the Talmud are even more “illuminating”:

The narrow side of the threshold of the windows faced inward, while the broad side faced outward, so [the light of the Temple] would go forth and illuminate the world. (Emphasis added.)

But where indeed did Rashi get this last insight, that the windows were thus constructed so that the light of the Temple would go forth into the world?

My surmise is that if the sole purpose of windows that were narrow inside and broad outside was to show that the Temple did not need natural light, why have any windows at all? Rather, the windows must serve a purpose, which, if it is not to let light in, must be for light to go out.

In fact, I discovered that a midrash says this explicitly:

The Holy Temple had windows, and from there light would go forth to the world, as it says, ‘He made for the Temple broad, narrow windows.’ ‘Broad, narrow’ — They were narrow inside and broad outside in order to bring forth light to the world. (VaYikra Rabah 31:6)

Similarly, and perhaps more dramatically, in B’Midbar Rabah 15:1:

We find in many places that the Holy One Blessed is He commanded regarding the lighting of candles… The Holy One Blessed is He said to Moshe: ‘Not because I need candles did I command you to light candles, rather to grant Israel merit.’ … Know that this is so (that G-d does not need the light of man), for when a man builds a house, he makes for it windows that are narrow outside and broad inside so that the light will enter from the outside and illuminate the inside, but Solomon, who built the Holy Temple, did not do this, rather he made windows that were narrow inside and broad outside, so that the light would go forth from the Holy Temple and illuminate the outside, as it says, ‘He made for the Temple broad, narrow windows,’ to teach you that He is all light, and does not need [the light] of man. And why did He command them [to light candles]? To give them merit… ‘And not only this, but if you are careful to light the candles before Me, I shall light for you a Great Light in the End of Days.’ Therefore it says, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come… And nations shall walk in your light, and kings in the brightness of your luminescence’ (Isaiah 60:1-3).

(Also see Midrash Tanchuma, B’Haalothecha 2.)


Found an awesome Rashi while reading I Kings 6:8:

“פֶּתַח הַצֵּלָע הַתִּיכֹנָה אֶל-כֶּתֶף הַבַּיִת הַיְמָנִית; וּבְלוּלִּים יַעֲלוּ עַל-הַתִּיכֹנָה, וּמִן-הַתִּיכֹנָה אֶל-הַשְּׁלִשִׁים”

Never mind the English translation right now, ‘cuz I’m working from the Hebrew. The context is the construction of Solomon’s Temple, and the text is describing the different parts of the structure.

As I read, I’m confused by the word “belulim.” The word ‘balul’ in Hebrew (or the root B-L-L in general) usually means “mixed up.” The abbreviated root, B-L, means the same, and the Torah states clearly that this is the root of the name of the city ‘Babel’ (or more properly ‘Bavel’ in Hebrew), the place where languages were confounded (mixed up). It is also certainly the root of the English word “ball,” and likely “bowl” as well. So what does it mean here in this verse? Rashi weighs in:


He first cites Targum that translates the word as “mesivatha” in Aramaic, from the S-B root which means to go around. (Famously, this is the root of the modern Hebrew word “sevivon,” a spinning top, known popularly in Yiddish as a “dreidel.”)

Rashi then relates this to an Old French word that I don’t recognize, spelled in Hebrew letters וויין. This might roughly be the equivalent of the Latin spelling “wein,” but I’m not sure what it amounts to in Old French. We will soon see that this word is related to the English word “wind” (verb), as in “turn” or “twist.”

Then Rashi goes on to German, where Rashi offers two terms: what appears to be phonetically pronounced as “vindel shtein,” and something that phonetically amounts to “shvindel shtig.” Rashi describes this as a sort of winding stone structure, a pillar of stone, as it were, with steps ascending around it, so that one ascends by walking around the central pillar.

Well, after some google searching with alternate spellings, I came up with a few things.

“Wendelstein” means “winding stone,” and is the name of a place in Bavaria, Germany. It is also the name of a mountain there (for which the place is named, presumably).

Germane (no pun intended) to our context, however, is that a “wendel-stein” was a structure in old German castles, which is exactly what Rashi describes. Some were winding ramps used to carry heavy things up. It can also refer to a winding staircase, also known in German as a “wendeltreppe.”

I haven’t figured out what a “shvindel shtig” is, but “schwindel” in modern German means “dizziness” (according to Google translate) and “schtig” translates as “addiction.” Perhaps the connotation is a structure that turns continually, such as the winding ramp or stairs described above.

Oh, and now the English translation of the verse according to JPS:

“The door for the lowest row of chambers was in the right side of the house and they went up by winding stairs into the middle row, and out of the middle into the third.”

I know, you’re thinking, “You could have just looked at the translation tobegin with!” But that’s not how I study. I read the original Hebrew and try to figure out what it means, using commentaries where appropriate. This is how scholarship is born. I find it amazing that my conclusion aligned with the translation (which I only checked at the end).

So can anyone else help me with the Old French term or the “schwindel schtig” thing?

UPDATE: Aha! Just figured out (via some more google searching for different variations) that “steig” in old German essential means “a steep track” ( So “schwindel steig” means a winding ramp — perfect!

Interestingly, even in modern Yiddish vernacular, particularly in “Yeshivish” slang, to “shteig,” is used to refer to one’s spiritual ascent, that is, when someone learns Torah with vigor, or increases their level of observance, this is called “shteigen”! I should have known!

Still need help with the French, though.

UPDATE: With the help of some awesome friends (shout-out to Ari Khan of West Hempstead, NY), we’ve solved the French weird mystery! The word that appears to say “vine” is apparently exactly that! It seems that the winding, twisting path of the vine caused that word to become the word for the staircase with the same shape. Hooray hooray hooray for words!