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    Operative & speculative Masonry in Hebraic literature

    By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.

    “To build” is one of the commonest verbs in Hebrew Scripture. Because the world was made out of nothing it is described as being created, but soon afterwards the word building is introduced. A significant illustration is in the second chapter of Genesis where God builds Adam’s rib into a woman (Gen. 2:22). The root meaning “to build” – banah – resembles the word for understanding – binah – which led the rabbinic sages (Talmud Niddah 45b) to say that when God built woman, He endowed her with more understanding than He gave man (the origin of woman’s intuition?).

    The Bible constantly speaks of what Freemasons would call operative Masonry. Buildings are planned and put up – some to honour God, such as the Tabernacle and the Temple; some to defy Him, such as the Tower of Babel. Building materials are described. Architects and artisans are named, such as the designer and artisan Betzalel. External decorations and interior décor are reported in detail. We discover how many masons were used on major building projects and how long the task took. The great Builder is God, the Builder of Jerusalem (Psalm 147:2). God is also the great Healer (Ex. 15:26), the Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25), and the paradigm of countless other activities.

    With all this there are also references to building in a figurative or metaphorical sense: a sort of ancient speculative Masonry. The Book of Proverbs, central to Biblical Wisdom literature, declares, “Wisdom has builded her house” (Prov. 9:1). Wisdom’s house has seven pillars (the source of the concept of Seven Pillars of Wisdom), allowing ethicists and homileticists much scope for speculative analysis.

    Speculative Masonry is developed in a number of colourful discussions in post-Biblical rabbinic literature. The verse in Isaiah, “And all your children (banayich) shall be taught of the Lord and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isa. 54:13) is subjected to a play on words: “Read not ‘your children’ – banayich – but ‘your builders’ – bonayich” (Talmud B’rachot 64a and parallels). This is an example of a rabbinic device whereby the plain meaning of a verse is given an added level of meaning. In this case the notion is that children are the builders of the future, though there is an interpretation by Rabbi Isaac Alfasi that bonayich is to be read as “men of understanding”, i.e. scholars and teachers. Thus Isaiah may be saying that knowledge (of God and His will, of the nature of man, and the structure of Creation) facilitates peace, harmony and equilibrium.

    An important piece of analysis addresses the rabbinic Hebrew word banna’i which means a builder or mason, from the root banah, “to build”. One view sees the plural banna’im as a contraction of ben na’im, a person (literally “son”) of becoming conduct: a refined character. Others revert to the root banah and link it with scholars “who build up civilisation all their lives” (Talmud Shabbat 114a).

    In Freemasonry the move from operative to speculative Masonry involved similar questions, especially what the idea of building can symbolise for thinking people who are determined to find the ethical principles necessary to help make a better world.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

    Order the paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon or the paperback from The Book Depository to receive free shipping. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.

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