Building Blocks of Torah
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By Ben Rothke | March 02, 2023
The recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria highlighted the importance of building standards and good architectural practices. Turkish officials have turned architects into reasons for the failures, and the public outrage at architects is viewed as responsible for the over 50,000 deaths. But a disaster of this scale is certainly more than just the architects’ fault.
Architects are easy victims, but the real reason is that building standards were not maintained, corrupt officials turned a blind eye to safety standards and regulations and much more. Architecture is at the heart of a new and fascinating book ”ArchitecTorah: Architectural Ideas in Judaism and the Weekly Torah Portion.”
When I received the book and saw it was almost 600 pages, I was sure there was not that much one could write about architecture in the Torah. While there is Noah’s ark, the Mishkan and the building of the Holy Temple, I couldn’t think of that many additional topics. Once I got to page 50, I saw how mistaken I was. This is one of the most original books I have read in a while, and it is equally fascinating.
Author Joshua Skarf is an architect who has a passion for the subject. The book contains over 170 short pieces that examine the Torah via architecture. Skarf starts the essays with an introduction to the architectural topic or history and then connects it to the Torah parsha.
If you asked most people to come up with architectural ideas in Torah, they’d struggle to come up with more than five. But the book clearly shows how significant architecture is to the Torah. From building technology for the Tower of Babel, halachic issues in cemetery design, public and private spaces, to sukkah balconies and more. You’ll read each chapter and see how eminently clear it is that architecture is an integral part of the Torah.
The book also includes a significant amount of architectural history. Characters such as Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (first-century ACE) to 20th-century architectural historian Spiro Kostof and others are introduced to the reader.
Regarding the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the book has a chapter on ”Bribes and Kickbacks for Parshat Mishpatim,” where Skarf writes that the rabbis set an extremely low bar for bribery. Almost any type of benefit that a judge accepts qualifies as a bribe.
Sadly, the construction business is rampant with forms of bribery, both overt and less obvious in nature. This begins with blatant textbook bribes in which money is offered in exchange for selecting a firm, an architect, contractor or a supplier. Kickbacks are also widespread in which the contractor or architect in charge of selecting a supplier is given a percentage of the overall sale in exchange for choosing a specific business.
Obviously, all of that is prohibited by the Torah. And for those that are not under the auspices of Torah law, such as those in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere, following the Torah’s guidance in these cases can literally be life saving….
Here, Skarf writes in Parshat Ki Tisa about the muchni in the Bais Hamikdash. The parsha discusses the brass laver Kohanim washed in. But Tanach doesn’t contain the logistical details regarding the day-to-day operations of the vessel. Only later in the Mishna is information concerning the muchni, a later innovation for water-raising that was connected to a wooden gear train that was used with the laver.
There was an issue in the Bais Hamikdash where water from the laver could become unusable, which can cause halachic problems that are best avoided. And it was the muchni that provided a solution to a pressing need in the Bais Hamikdash using the advanced technology of the day.
Skarf writes his bombshell that the muchni offers proof that the Bais Hamikdash was open to adopting new solutions to existing problems. And presumably, the future Bais Hamikdash will allow for similar technology uses.
Never in the book does Skarf use a forced peshat to make a point. Everything here is well-researched and logically sourced. Architecture plays a vital role in both religious rituals and public safety. Skarf has written a fascinating and engaging work of highly original ideas. This is one of the most engrossing books I have read in a while, and I think you will enjoy it, also.
Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke
For more information about this book, please visit: http://www.urimpublications.com/architectorah-architectural-ideas-in-judaism-and-the-weekly-torah-portion.html