Remembering the Temple's Destruction

In Remembrance of the Temple’s Destruction

In the wake of the destruction of the Holy Temple a great change took
place. It seemed as if after the destruction, and all that came in its
wake, it would no longer be able to continue living in a normal
manner.The Talmud relates (Tractate Baba Batra 60b):”Our Rabbis
taught: When the second Temple was destroyed, many of Israel separated
themselves from eating meat or drinking wine. Rabbi Yehoshua
approached them, saying: ‘My children, why do you not eat meat nor
drink wine? They replied: ‘Should we eat meat of which sacrifices were
brought, or drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the
altar, but now no longer?’ He said to them: ‘If so, we should not eat
bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased.’ They replied:
We can live on fruit.’ ‘We should not eat fruit either, [he said,]
because there is no longer an offering of first fruits.’ ‘Then we can
manage with other fruits [they said].’ ‘But, [he said,] we should not
drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of
water.’ To this they could find no answer, so he said to them: ‘My
children — come and listen to me. It would be wrong not to mourn at
all, because the evil decree is executed. To mourn too much is also
impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which
the majority cannot endure.’ ”
R’ Yehoshua continued and explained to them that the principle is that
life must go on. We cannot allow our great mourning over the
destruction of the Holy Temple to cause a state of depression that the
nation cannot endure. It is therefore impossible to institute that so
long as the Temple sits in ruin it is forbidden to consume meat or
drink wine. However, any time a person participates in a celebration,
he must recall the destruction of the Holy Temple, for as long as the
Temple is in ruins, the joy is still not complete.

Therefore, the Sages teach that a groom on his wedding day must place
Jerusalem above his highest joy and put ash on his head as a sign of
mourning. Likewise, when a person builds a house he must leave a
square cubit of wall without whitewash in remembrance of the Temple’s
destruction. And when preparing a celebrative meal, one must exclude
one cooked food in remembrance of the Temple’s destruction. And the
same is true of women’s jewelry.

A Square Cubit – Remembrance of the Temple’s Destruction

The Sages enacted a number of ordinances in order to remind us of the
destruction of the Holy Temple. The underlying principle is that when
a person has the good fortune of arriving at an occasion that gives
him a sense of gratification, he must remember that his joy is still
incomplete, for the Temple lies in ruins.

Therefore, the Sages instituted that when a person builds a house for
himself and reaches its final stage, the whitewashing of the walls, he
must remember that the house of the nation, the Holy Temple, still
lies in ruins. And in remembrance of the destruction of the Holy
Temple he must leave a square cubit of wall without whitewash.

In this ordinance, the Sages teach us that so long as the Holy Temple
is not built, the private home of an individual also cannot be
complete. Therefore, a square cubit of wall must be left without
whitewash. A cubit is approximately half a meter, and therefore, in
practice, a square half meter of wall must be left without whitewash.
In the same respect, if a person covers his walls with wallpaper, he
must leave a square half meter of wall without whitewash and without
wallpaper.

The bare square cubit must be in a place that catches the eye. The
Sages therefore instituted that this square cubit be situated opposite
the entrance of the house. Some have understood this to mean that the
square cubit should be situated above the entrance inside, in order
that the people in the house always see the area without whitewash.
However, according to most authorities, the non-whitewashed space
should be situated on the wall opposite the entrance so that whoever
enters the house can see it. Only in a case where it is impossible to
leave a space opposite the entrance – for example, in a house that has
no wall opposite the entrance – is it permitted to situate the non-
whitewashed space above the entrance (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim
560:1; Mishnah Berurah 3; Aruch HaShulchan 5).

The Law Concerning One Who Buys a House

It often happens that a person buys a house from somebody else and
discovers that no square cubit of wall has been left without
whitewash. In such a case, does the buyer have to scrape off some of
the wall opposite the entrance in order to uncover a square cubit in
remembrance of the Temple’s destruction? Or do we say that because he
was not the one who whitewashed the house to begin with, he is not
obligated to leave an area without whitewash in remembrance of the
Temple’s destruction?

Answer: It all depends on who built the house, i.e., who the original
owner was. If the person who built the house was a Jew, he was
obligated to leave a square cubit of wall without whitewash. If he did
not do so, the square cubit of wall was whitewashed counter to Jewish
law. Therefore, the buyer must scrape off the whitewash. However, if
the original owner was a non-Jew, he was not obligated to leave an non-
whitewashed area, and it follows that the buyer is exempt from
scraping off a square cubit of whitewash (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim
560:1; Mishnah Berurah 4).

It does not matter who the builders are. What matters is who the owner
of the house is. If the owner of the house is a Jew, he must leave a
square cubit of wall without whitewash even if non-Jew’s build his
house, for they are building the house for him. And if the workers
mistakenly whitewashed the entire house, the owner of the house must
himself scrape off a square cubit of wall opposite the entrance.

Ceramics, Wallpaper, and Decorative Paint

There is a debate in Jewish law between Rambam and Tur over the
question of whether or not it is permissible, while the Temple sits in
ruins, for a person to decorate the walls of his own house with
decorative ceramic tiles or patterned wallpaper, or even a patterned
two-color paint job. While it is clearly permissible to hang pictures
on the walls, there is disagreement about painting the walls with
decorations or patterns.

According to Tur, it is permissible for a person to beautify the walls
of his house with all sorts of decorations on the condition that he
leave a square cubit of wall without any decoration and or whitewash
in remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temple (Tur, Orach Chaim
560, based upon the third Baraitha in Baba Batra 60b).
However, according to Rambam, with the destruction of the Holy Temple
the Sages instituted a prohibition against overly decorating one’s
home. Therefore, it is forbidden to cover the walls with ceramic
tiles, wallpaper, or decorative paint. When the rabbis instituted
leaving a square cubit of wall un-whitewashed they were referring to
whitewash or paint, but decorating the walls with ceramic tiles, etc.,
is completely forbidden (Laws of Ta’aniot 5:12, based upon the third
Baraitha in Baba Batra 60b, and this is how Shulchan Aruch rules,
560:1).

As far as a final ruling is concerned, many authorities follow the
lenient opinions, and the accepted practice in many households is to
decorate the walls with wallpaper or decorated ceramic tiles. And in
remembrance of the Temple’s destruction they leave a square cubit of
wall un-whitewashed (Rif and Rosh also insinuate that it is
permissible, and Mishnah Berurah 1 writes that this is the custom).
The pious, however, act stringently, in keeping with the opinion of
Rambam. They refrain from decorating the house with ceramic tiles and
the likes and make due with whitewash or a simple paint job. And, of
course, they leave a square cubit of wall un-whitewashed and
unpainted.

All authorities are in agreement that in synagogues and study halls,
there is no need to leave a square cubit of wall unpainted. It is
likewise permissible to cover the walls of these places with wallpaper
or decorative ceramics. This is because the rabbinic ordinance applies
specifically to private homes, not public places (Magen Avraham and
Pri Megadim 560:4 ).

A Depiction of Jerusalem

Some people practice the erroneous custom of hanging a picture of the
Temple Mount opposite the entrance of the house. This is not in
keeping with Jewish law, for the picture cannot replace the rabbinic
ordinance. Rather, one must leave a square cubit of wall un-
whitewashed opposite the entrance of the house. And if a person seeks
to go beyond the letter of the law by making some kind of sign that
will cause whoever enters the house to understand the significance of
this bare square cubit, he can hang a picture of the Temple Mount
above or next to the bare space. It is also possible to write the
verse “If I should forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its
cunning” (Psalms 137:5). Others leave the plaster exposed but etch a
picture of walls into it, and since there is no whitewash, they
fulfill their obligation.

Though, as we learned in the previous section, it may well be that
those who follow the lenient path have authorities to rely upon, for
perhaps the underlying principle of the rabbinic ordinance is that
there be something that recalls the destruction of the Holy Temple –
and a picture of the Temple Mount certainly recalls the destruction of
the Holy Temple – but according to the overwhelming majority of
authorities the main idea of the ordinance is that the square cubit be
left with neither paint nor whitewash. This shows that the house’s
construction is not complete, and it gives expression to the idea that
so long as the Holy Temple is not built, our own private house also
cannot reach completion.

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