'ArchitecTorah': How Torah, architecture, and rabbinic literature link - review

Joshua Skarf adds an architectural perspective on each and every parasha in the Torah.

 Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Tower of Babel, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, Louvre Museum
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

A welcome trend in weekly Torah portion exposition invites readers to consider the text from a fresh, hyper-specific perspective. For example, the 2017 Urim title From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah by Diana Lipton has enriched my appreciation of the central role of physical sustenance in the Torah.

Urim’s latest publication, ArchitecTorah, adds another fascinating perspective in two or more essays per parasha, each approximately two pages long.

“I have been planning a book on architecture and the weekly Torah portion since I began studying architecture at the University of Michigan,” Joshua Skarf writes in the introduction. “I was intrigued whenever a lecture on architectural theory overlapped with ideas in the Talmud. After graduating, when I moved to Israel and joined a firm in Jerusalem, I began researching these areas of intersect.”

Analyzing the architecture in the Torah

He started by systematically marking architectural references in the Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, Mishna Torah and Midrash, taking notes that eventually developed into the essays in this book.

He also drew on archeological studies; old Roman and Greek literature; and works of architectural theory. 

 Joshua Skarf at the Mamilla Mall in 2006 when it was under construction.  (credit: SAFI ALLMAN)
Joshua Skarf at the Mamilla Mall in 2006 when it was under construction. (credit: SAFI ALLMAN)

“Some of the fifty-four weekly portions are rich in architectural themes, such as those in the second half of Shemot, which deal with the Mishkan, or the portion of Noach, which contains the other two major building projects described in the Torah,” he writes, referring to the ark and the Tower of Babel.

“In other parts, the architectural references are sparse. Many of the subjects are not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, but rather appear in rabbinic sources or else relate to a subject that is mentioned in the verse.”

No matter how seemingly tenuous a connection a portion may have with his topic, Skarf manages to mine something relevant to discuss, often veering into industrial design and other elements of built spaces – gardens, burial chambers, building materials, timepieces, gates, columns, courtyards, chairs, urban planning, property markers, sacred furnishings and textiles.

Skarf even looks at the walls of water of the parted Sea of Reeds as a structure: “If we think about the passage architecturally, Bnei Yisrael traveled through a long, narrow corridor. This type of built space normally serves as a transition between two more significant rooms. The longer and narrower the passage, the grander and more significant the destination feels upon arrival.”

Bereshit (Genesis) has the most essays, which is surprising given that no architecture is described in this portion. But speculating on the earliest forms of shelter constructed by Adam and his immediate descendants leads to some foundational discussions on the very idea of house and home.

“On the one hand, architects design the built environment to help mankind function. There is great joy in helping a family build a home, in helping a business construct a headquarters, in designing a hospital or a university which will help mankind thrive. This is one of the great motivations that attracts people to the field,” Skarf writes.

“On the other hand, architecture is a demonstration of human mastery over nature. Architects shape the world. They contend with gravity, leave a mark, take resources and shuffle them so that raw materials are shaped into foundations, walls, and roofs.”

Some essays bring the reader’s attention to matters of practical halacha. For instance, Skarf takes the opportunity of Parashat Yitro’s admonition “You shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold” to investigate the limits of the Talmudic prohibition on building replicas of the Temple.

Without photos, architectural drawings or even sketches of the actual buildings, however, modern architects “could only copy later interpretations, as they had no way to know exactly how the real Temples looked.”

He adds that “architects sometimes allude to well-known buildings in their designs” and points to buildings designed with Temple-like aspects, such as the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and even “Louis Kahn’s unbuilt design for the Churva synagogue.”

One of the essays on Mishpatim looks at the problem of bribery and kickbacks in the construction industry. An essay on Vayikra delves into the difficulties of maintaining buildings over time.

In Tzav, the author considers the maximum occupancy of the Temple, which Midrashic and Mishnaic sources describe as having had a miraculous accommodation capability. Skarf wonders: “Would a safety consultant for the Temple be able to design the exits based on the non-miraculous occupancy and trust that if a miracle were to take place to allow for greater occupancy, then this miracle would apply to exit widths as well, or would a greater number of exits need to be designed from the onset?”

Throughout, there are drawings and other images to illustrate the ideas presented. All in all, ArchitecTorah presents refreshingly different and thought-provoking insights that I look forward to sharing at the Shabbat table. 

ArchitecTorahBy Joshua SkarfUrim Publications600 pages; $39.95