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    The winding stairs

    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.

    Masonry sometimes allows the impression that largely or partly legendary material is verifiable history, not a “story behind a story” written to teach a moral lesson. An example is the dramatic allegory of the Second Degree concerning the winding staircase. The ritual requires a candidate to take a series of steps “as though ascending a winding stair”, and the Second Tracing Board informs us that the artisans employed on the building of the Temple were paid their wages in the middle chamber of the building, entering from a porch (“on the south side”?) and going up a winding staircase.

    An attractive story, but the Biblical texts about the Temple raise at least three questions. What evidence is there of a winding staircase? Did the workmen enter through the front porch? Was it in the “middle chamber” that they received their wages?

    1. The Winding Staircase

    I Kings 6 states that “against the wall of the house he built chambers round about… The door for the middle chamber was in the right side of the house; and they went up with winding stairs into the middle chamber and out of the middle into the third”. II Chronicles 3 omits the chambers and winding staircase. Ezekiel 41 mentions chambers “winding about … the house”, apparently on three sides of the building like long galleries. He does not mention the means of access. The Hebrew translated as “winding staircase” is lullim, a plural word of uncertain meaning. The commentators think lullim are a means of ascent, possibly stairs but not necessarily winding, within a hollow space or shaft. A passage in the Mishnah (Middot 4:5) speaks of the workmen being let down (and presumably raised) “in baskets”, possibly akin to lift cages.

    2. Entry from the Porch

    The Mishnah tells us that there was a fear that the workmen, even though they clambered all over the building, might treat the Holy of Holies with disrespect. They could presumably go in and out of the main porch whilst carrying out their official tasks, but our instinct suggests that for personal purposes like receiving their wages they would enter from a side door. I Kings speaks of an entrance “in the right side of the house”.

    3. A Middle Chamber pay office

    The Temple had store rooms and administrative offices. The “chambers round about” of I Kings 6:5 are used in I Kings 7:51 for storage. If one of these chambers was the pay office for the building works, this was no desecration of the sanctuary. Work was sacred; workmen had to be paid; and (Deut. 24:15) they had to be paid on time. But how could so many workmen utilise the same pay office and be individually tested and checked en route? Maybe the procedures were decentralised, but the ritual does not say so.

    Despite some misinterpretations, the Masonic writers were more or less in accord with the Biblical account, but in order to produce an allegory they built a whole story out of verses that others might think uninteresting. The moral they sought to convey was that the more a person works, the higher he aspires and the more he exerts himself, the greater will be his reward in terms of understanding the truth.

    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.

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