Pho­to by Michael Jas­mund on Unsplash

My third-sto­ry apart­ment in Jerusalem gets pleas­ant breezes on warm days, so I often leave the win­dows open. My win­dow screens, how­ev­er, have proven to be remark­ably inef­fec­tive at keep­ing bugs out. I have to accept some bad with the good. 

My book, Archi­tec­Torah: Ideas in Judaism and the Week­ly Torah Por­tion, focus­es on the many places where Judaism inter­acts with archi­tec­ture. The win­dow presents a per­fect exam­ple of this intersection.

Accept­ing the bad and the good is the type of trade­off that comes with hav­ing holes in your walls. While win­dows give access to light, fresh air, and scenic views — rows of rooftop water heaters, in my case — they also cause prob­lems. A win­dow makes a good emer­gency exit, but also a good point of entry for thieves or mos­qui­toes. A room with a view is nice, but oth­ers can peep in as sure­ly as we can look out. Ven­ti­la­tion is huge­ly impor­tant, but no one wants extra cold and damp­ness seep­ing in dur­ing the win­ter. Sun­light is great, but some­times you want to nap in the day­time. A win­dow needs to be, oxy­moron­i­cal­ly, an open barrier.

Thank­ful­ly, there are inven­tive ways to make this pos­si­ble. Ear­ly win­dows were just open­ings in the wall, usu­al­ly placed high up as a secu­ri­ty mea­sure. At some point peo­ple began installing glass or paper as a translu­cent bar­ri­er, quite an inno­va­tion. How­ev­er this blocked ven­ti­la­tion, so lou­vers and oper­a­ble win­dows were invent­ed. Once a win­dow could be opened, screens and bars were need­ed to keep insects and rob­bers out and chil­dren safe­ly in. These bars obscured views, how­ev­er, so recent­ly, plex­i­glass bars have become a ver­sa­tile alter­na­tive. Lay­ered glass helps keep out harm­ful UV rays, insu­lates against the ele­ments, and keeps shat­tered glass from scat­ter­ing. Sun­shades, blinds, shut­ters, and awnings help con­trol pri­va­cy and exces­sive sun­light. Each inno­va­tion helps max­i­mize the util­i­ty of a win­dow while min­i­miz­ing its harm. 

I’m focus­ing on win­dows not because there is some­thing par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish about them, but because I want to point out that they fre­quent­ly appear in Jew­ish writ­ing, includ­ing the Torah and rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. The Tal­mud debates whether the win­dow open­ing is con­sid­ered inside or out. Among the win­dow-relat­ed inno­va­tions I list­ed, the Tal­mud men­tions trans­par­ent film, win­dow bars, lou­vers, blinds, and shut­ters. We live our lives sur­round­ed by archi­tec­ture, so it is not sur­pris­ing that there are many ref­er­ences to build­ing details in these texts.[1] The Jew­ish sources are not try­ing to influ­ence design or instruct how to build, they are sim­ply ana­lyz­ing the built envi­ron­ment of their era and con­sid­er­ing it from with­in the halls of the beit midrash

Prin­ci­ples voiced by Louis Kahn, Louis Sul­li­van, or Le Cor­busier can prompt new inter­pre­ta­tions of a pas­sage in the Tal­mud, whether about sacred space, sky­scrap­ers, or rib­bon windows.

In my book, Archi­tec­Torah: Ideas in Judaism and the Week­ly Torah Por­tion, each short essay begins with a verse in the Torah, orga­nized accord­ing to the week­ly Torah por­tions. Some con­cern pas­sages in which archi­tec­tur­al analy­sis adds depth to a bib­li­cal sto­ry. For exam­ple, we find Lot inter­act­ing with the peo­ple of Sodom at his front door, Jew­ish slaves mak­ing bricks in Egypt, and, apro­pos to our dis­cus­sion, Abim­elech glimps­ing Rebec­ca and Isaac through an open window. 

Oth­er chap­ters in Archi­tec­Torah intro­duce pieces of archi­tec­tur­al the­o­ry or con­cep­tu­al build­ings and use them to reex­am­ine pas­sages in the Torah. Prin­ci­ples voiced by Louis Kahn, Louis Sul­li­van, or Le Cor­busier can prompt new inter­pre­ta­tions of a pas­sage in the Tal­mud, whether about sacred space, sky­scrap­ers, or rib­bon win­dows. While these ideas may be famil­iar to trained archi­tects, oth­ers will also find that the book con­tains many lessons about design, in addi­tion to explo­rations of Torah. 

Return­ing to the sub­ject of win­dows, in one chap­ter I con­sid­er the bless­ing of the prophet Bal­aam, How good­ly are your tents,” and the sub­se­quent pars­ing of this text by the Sages of the Mish­nah and Tal­mud. The Tal­mud sug­gests that Bal­aam was prais­ing how the open­ings of Israelite tents were stag­gered to pre­serve pri­va­cy. The Tal­mud con­se­quent­ly bans the con­struc­tion of new win­dows in close prox­im­i­ty to exist­ing ones. How­ev­er, the Sages also rec­og­nized the impor­tance of sun­light, rul­ing that one can­not block exist­ing access to the sun’s rays. These two val­ues – hav­ing sun­light, but not imping­ing on the mod­esty of oth­ers – are poten­tial­ly in con­flict and need to be balanced. 

We find these same top­ics and ten­sions mir­rored in sec­u­lar law. Reg­u­la­tions pro­tect­ing access to sun­light are com­mon, what in Eng­land is called ancient lights.” In the Unit­ed States this is main­ly accom­plished with build­ing codes demand­ing set­backs and shad­ow analy­ses. We also find build­ing codes that lim­it the prox­im­i­ty of struc­tures to help ensure pri­va­cy and ven­ti­la­tion, social-mind­ed laws that were a response to ten­e­ment con­di­tions. One of the under­cur­rents of Archi­tec­Torah is that Jews have always lived in the same built world and mate­r­i­al cul­ture as their neigh­bors and grap­ple with the same issues. The Mish­nah, for exam­ple, dis­tin­guish­es between Syr­i­an and Egypt­ian win­dows, reflect­ing the two dom­i­nant cul­tures that neigh­bored Israel before the Roman con­quest. The archi­tec­ture of the First Tem­ple mir­rored con­tem­po­rary tem­ples of the sur­round­ing region, while Herod’s ren­o­va­tion remade the Sec­ond Tem­ple as a Clas­si­cal precinct. Syn­a­gogue design has his­tor­i­cal­ly reflect­ed the archi­tec­ture of the host cul­ture. It is unsur­pris­ing that archi­tec­tur­al dis­cus­sions tak­ing place in the world at large can be applied to Jew­ish sources, with fruit­ful results. 

This analy­sis and appli­ca­tion of archi­tec­tur­al ideas is at the cen­ter of Archi­tec­Torah. Study­ing the Torah through the lens of archi­tec­ture opens up nov­el points of view. It gives read­ers both new per­spec­tives on our texts, and a deep­er appre­ci­a­tion of the built envi­ron­ment around us.

[1] Tosef­ta Eru­vin 8:14, Mish­nah Ohalot 8:4, Mish­nah Ohalot 13:1, Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud Nid­dah 17a, and Mish­nah Shab­bat 25:5

Joshua Skarf is a licensed archi­tect liv­ing and work­ing in Jerusalem. He stud­ied in Yeshi­v­at Har Etzion and has degrees in archi­tec­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and Beza­lel Acad­e­my. He has designed hos­pi­tals, train sta­tions, shop­ping malls, Israeli con­sulates, army instal­la­tions, ele­men­tary schools, muse­ums, and research facil­i­ties in Israel. Skarf was born in Toron­to, grew up in Michi­gan, and has been liv­ing in Israel since 2004.