‘And Nations Shall Walk in Your Light, and Kings in the Brightness of Your Luminescence’

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.)


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