Melakhim Alef Chapter 7
Shelomo spent thirteen years building a residential complex for himself, which included multiple buildings. He commissioned the construction of the “House of the Forest of Lebanon”, which was an airy summer residence that either received its name from the wooden planks that comprised its structure or from its location outside of the city of Jerusalem in a wooded area. The house was elevated above ground, resting on cedar pillars, and its roof was made of cedar planks. Windows lined the walls of this house and an antechamber was situated in front of it.
Shelomo also built a “Judgment Hall” that contained the throne where he would sit to hear and rule on the legal cases and disputes that were brought before him. Although the foundation and structure of the building was constructed from the finest smooth stonework, the roof, walls and ceiling of this hall were covered in cedar paneling. King Shelomo’s personal residence and the home he constructed for his wife, the daughter of Pharaoh, were also built from smooth stone but overlaid entirely with cedar paneling.
All three buildings (the palace, the House of the Forest of Lebanon, and the Judgment Hall), were located in a single courtyard that was surrounded by three rows of stone and one row of wood, like the courtyard of the Temple. It seems that the residence of the daughter of Pharaoh was not located within the main complex. However, since the materials used in its construction and its style of architecture were are similar to the other buildings in the complex, it is mentioned here.
Shelomo sent for Hiram of Tyre, an artisan who was a member of the Tribe of Naftali, to assist him in the stone and metalwork necessary for the Temple. This was not the Hiram mentioned earlier, who was the King of Tyre; this Hiram was a commoner of Jewish descent who was known as a skilled craftsman. Shelomo commissioned Hiram to fashion a number of unique structures that would be placed at the entrance to the Temple and that were totally original – they did not correspond to anything that existed in the Tabernacle. For instance, two exquisitely decorated copper pillars were situated on either side of the entry to the complex, named “Yakhin” and “Boaz”. These had intricately designed bulbs on top and almost had the appearance of “scepters”.
The “Sea of Shelomo” was another innovation of Shelomo, positioned to the right of a person approaching the Temple. This was a large copper basin that contained a substantial amount of water (tens of thousands of gallons) and from which water would be drawn to purify the kohanim for their service. It rested on the backs of twelve molten oxen the front of whose bodies protruded from underneath the basin but whose hindquarters faced away from the observer, with three facing in each direction. Hiram fashioned ten copper lavers or washing stands with bases and large decorative chariot wheels. These were installed by the entrance to the Temple, five on each side, and allowed the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before going inside.
The furnishings inside the Holy Temple were also more extensive than those of the Tabernacle; instead of a single golden menorah and a single golden table for the showbread, the Temple boasted ten of each! This increase, as well as the increase in the number of washing stations from one to ten, may be understood as a reflection of the quantitative growth of the population since the era of Moshe – now, there were more Kohanim who needed to wash, and there were more Jews who needed sustenance, symbolized by the showbread on the ten tables. Alternatively, it may have been another way of highlighting the superiority in scale and grandeur of the new sanctuary – multiplying by ten is a typical technique of exaggeration or emphasis.
All of the implements designed to be used in the actual Temple service were fashioned from pure gold or brass, the quantity of which was so great that Shelomo did not even bother to weigh them. He transferred the items that David, his father, had consecrated to the Temple into its newly built treasure chambers
This chapter leads us to raise a couple of important questions. The first is an organizational difficulty: Why does the text begin by describing the construction of the Bet Hamiqdash, then shift to discussing Shelomo’s own palatial complex, and then return, once again, to complete its account of the Bet Hamiqdash and its accoutrements? It would have been much simpler to include all of the details pertinent to the Temple in one section and only then to change the subject to Shelomo’s personal building projects.
A second question of interest is why Shelomo spent so much more time (13 years) on his own palace, judgment hall and antechambers than he did on the Holy Temple. Our Rabbis generally take the view that this is a praise of King Shelomo – he prioritized and “rushed” the building of the Bet Miqdash, but was much more leisurely about his own residence.
Some modern interpreters have suggested the opposite; namely, that this undue emphasis on Shelomo’s own palace, summer home, etc., is indicative of a level of immodesty on his part, a personality defect that may play a role in his downfall later in the story. In support of their critical view, these thinkers point out that Shelomo used the same materials and architectural style in his own edifices that he employed in the House of God – expensive hewn stone, cedar paneling, etc. – almost unconsciously conveying that he viewed his own majesty as on par with that of the Almighty.
The commentaries, for good reason, spend much time deciphering the simple meaning of the verses in this chapter. Very little explanation of their deeper significance is provided. Even translating the unusual terminology used in these sections of the text is a tremendous challenge. So we have very little help from traditional sources when it comes to distilling the message of these elaborate and detailed descriptions of architecture. We will have to do our best to develop persuasive and original answers to our own queries here.
There are certainly Midrashim that suggest that, even from the beginning of his construction of the Bet Hamiqdash, Shelomo may already have been influenced by ulterior motives, and I hope to explore some of those ideas in later summaries. However, I would argue that, on a simple literary level, this chapter is better understood as idealistic, not negative, in its portrayal of the king.
I believe that the text integrates its presentation of the construction of the Temple and the construction of Shelomo’s residential complex in order to demonstrate that Shelomo saw his reign as a reflection and extension of Hashem’s reign on Earth, not as a substitute for it. Shelomo’s complex is divided into three parts – the Hall of Judgment, the summer home, and the royal palace, all of which are surrounded by a walled courtyard. It is a mirror image of the Temple, which is partitioned into the Devir/Holy of Holies, the Hekhal/Holy, and the courtyard, and which is surrounded by a wall identical in composition to that of Shelomo’s.
It seems to me that the parallels extend even further than this. The Devir/Holy of Holies is, in essence, the “Judgment Hall”, or symbolic throne of Hashem, Who is always portrayed as “sitting above the Keruvim/angels”, that are represented therein. In Divrei HaYamim, the Holy of Holies is, in fact, designated as “Hashem’s footstool”, evoking the imagery of a Divine throne room. The Hekhal/Holy is made of cedar wood, lined with windows and has an antechamber directly in front of it, just like the “House of the Forest Lebanon” or summer home of Shelomo. The royal residence is covered with cedar paneling and surrounded by its own courtyard, possibly in imitation of the third, outer section of the Holy Temple that contained the sacrificial altar.
Despite all of these parallels, which we might be tempted to interpret as “competitive” in nature, one striking difference emerges – gold is ubiquitous in the Holy Temple, covering nearly every surface, but is noticeably absent from the buildings in Shelomo’s complex.
All of this suggests that Shelomo saw his own majesty and position as nothing but an instrument to establish justice on Earth as a representative of the true Judge, Hashem. Because his sense of the importance of his role was inseparable from his understanding of the greatness of the Almighty and the primacy of His service, Shelomo’s royal complex replicated the layout and motifs of the Temple in many respects, and the descriptions of the two building projects are intertwined. Yet, one distinction remains – gold is not used in Shelomo’s residential structures.
This concept of Shelomo is not foreign to our tradition; in fact, we reference it in our prayers on a daily basis. In one of the blessings of the Amidah, we ask God to provide us with great judges and advisers like we had in the days of old. We follow up by stating that to be guided by such leaders would really mean having Hashem Himself as our sovereign. Righteous kings and judges do not push their own agendas; rather, they are proponents of Hashem’s plan and they do their best to implement that plan through their decisions and actions. In this way, Torah leaders serve as the agents or messengers of the Almighty in this world.
Shelomo is granted unprecedented power and authority and is prepared to judge his subjects wisely and fairly, not because he wishes to revel in his newfound influence but because he recognizes this as his sacred responsibility as the anointed one of Hashem. By applying the wisdom of Hashem to worldly affairs he effectively brings those matters not under his own jurisdiction but under the governance of the Almighty. The Bet Hamiqdash represents Hashem’s providence in the world in a symbolic manner, it is a source of clarity, edification and inspiration. Shelomo’s activities as king translate that awareness of Hashem into the language of practical politics.
We know from our Torah and Prophets that it is only when the Jewish people embody the values of charity and justice that they merit to have the Bet Hamiqdash in their midst. Traditionally, the Bet Hamiqdash was the center of religious worship, justice, and education. Shelomo Hamelekh accentuates the connection between these three core values by modeling his own home and courthouse after the House of God.
With this in mind, we can understand why the description of Shelomo’s palace and Judgment Hall is followed by more details related to the vessels and furnishings of the Bet Hamiqdash. The text first presents the Holy Temple as a place in which the Divine Presence will be manifest to and encountered by the Jewish people. This engagement with the Almighty inspires the nation to pursue the imitation of His ways in their conduct of national and personal affairs, represented and enforced by the king and his bureaucracy. However, to stop there would be to imply that the “final destination” of the experience of the Divine was the courtroom of Shelomo; as if, like other kings, Shelomo merely used the supernatural authority of religion to reinforce his own grip on his realm.
Therefore, the text immediately shifts back to a discussion of the vessels of the Temple – the implements utilized not in the passive “appearance before Hashem” but in the active worship of Hashem. Ultimately, our establishment of a just and equitable society, presided over by a righteous monarch, is only a means to an end – it paves the way back to the Holy Temple where we can learn Torah, reflect upon the True King’s infinite wisdom and devote ourselves to His service. This may be compared to the Torah’s account of the Revelation at Sinai, which is followed by the laws of civil society (Mishpatim) and only then by a description of the sanctuary to be constructed in the wilderness.
I’d like to add one last speculative observation for further consideration. The “House of the Forest of Lebanon” may be a reference to the phraseology we find in Psalm 96, “let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before Hashem, for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness.” Similarly, in Psalm 29 we read “the voice of Hashem breaks the cedars of Lebanon” a metaphoric reference to the power brokers and tyrants who seem invincible and unstoppable but are, in reality, unable to stand up against or thwart the will of God.
Metaphorically, the mighty trees of the forest tremble before Hashem’s majesty and judgment. Shelomo Hamelekh, in spite of all of his achievements, still saw himself as a humble and reverent servant in the presence of the Almighty. Calling his home “Forest of Lebanon” may have been an attempt to express that using the language of Tehillim, wherein the trees of the forest represent the mighty leaders who, despite their power, still tremble in God’s presence.