Why Jews built casemate walls

In most languages there is one word for wall. Hebrew, however, has many words for “wall,” depending on its use.

At the newly discovered Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Eila Valley (photo credit: SKYVIEW LTD)
At the newly discovered Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Eila Valley
(photo credit: SKYVIEW LTD)
According to archeologists, one of the unique characteristics of building by Jews/Judeans during the early settlement of Eretz Yisrael, known as the Israelite/ Iron Age period, was their use of casemate walls, a double wall that separated the outer fortified city wall from the inner walls of private residential buildings constructed within the city wall.
As a result of building projects during the reign of King Solomon and his successors, casemate walls were found in the major fortified towns of Megiddo, Hatzor, Gezer and the City of David – and at the newly discovered Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Eila Valley. Such walls are not found in Canaanite and Philistine cities; one was found from an earlier period in Jordan.
In non-Jewish cities, the residents built their homes using the city wall as their back wall. This seems logical, since it meant building one less wall, and one could easily climb directly to the top of the wall to defend it when the town was under attack. Creating a space between the city wall and inner residential structures, however, would make defense more difficult and involve extra work. So, why didn’t the Jews build like everyone else?
First, homes that were built before a fortified city wall was built would obviously be separate from the city walls. Cities in which homes which were built after the city wall was constructed had a different halachic status. Homes that did not use the city wall as part of their building, if sold, could be bought back by the original owner within a year for a reasonable sum. (BT Shmita 12)
Cities surrounded by a wall in which the wall was built first, before private homes, have a special status, kedusha (Keilim1:7) The unique construction of building a separation between walls could mean that Jews generally built homes first, and only afterwards enclosed the area with a protective wall. This was anticipated in the Torah:
“If a man sells a home that is in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year after it is sold… and if it is not redeemed within a year, the house that is within the walled city becomes the permanent property of the purchaser forever; it does not go out in the jubilee. But houses of villages without a city wall around them are counted like fields of the country: they may be redeemed and they go out in the jubilee.” (Leviticus 25: 29-31)
Second, the city wall would have been higher than walls of residential homes. Since roof beams needed to be slightly angled (to prevent rainwater and snow from accumulating), and since buildings were usually attached, the only way to anchor the beams (without cutting into the city wall) would be to build supporting walls that were not connected to the city wall.
Third, building city walls was a huge collective effort since the stones used in the wall were very large; private homes could be built more easily and quickly, using smaller stones and needing fewer workers.
Fourth, if/when under attack, smaller stones from homes could be used to repel invaders.
Fifth, separating between public (belonging to all) and private (belonging to a family) was important for Jews whose great-grandparents had come through the desert experience when the Jewish people were organized according to tribes with distinctions between public, private and sacred spaces.
Sixth, according to Torah, if someone has signs of tzara’at (a disease associated with leprosy), they had to leave the city if the city walls were built first. The possibility that tzara’at could appear on the walls of homes is mentioned in Torah, in which case the walls would have to be destroyed, although according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin) this never happened. (cf. Lev. 14:33-57) Seventh, the space between the city wall and private dwellings – although small – could be used for holding small animals or birds to be used in ritual offerings, or for domestic purposes.
The Hebrew language reflects the importance of walls in Jewish law and tradition.
In most languages there is one word for wall. Hebrew, however, has many words for “wall,” depending on its use:
Millo: A protective wall composed of two strong walls that were filled in between by smaller stones
Homa: A protective wall surrounding a city which also served as an eruv (making the entire area within into a single common space in which one could carry on Shabbat) • Kir: An inner wall (as in a house)
Kotel: The Western Wall, which was part of the retaining wall built around Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount) where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed and where the First and Second Temples stood
Gedarim: Terrace or boundary walls
Dofen: A side wall.
Judaism is concerned with boundaries and separation. The word kodesh, which is translated as “holy,” really means “to be separate,” and it may be that creating a separation between one’s home and an outer, protective city wall was a way of expressing the sense that one’s home and family are kadosh.
If these stones could talk, perhaps that is what they would be trying to say.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist in Israel.