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Imagining the Temple in Rabbinic Stone: The Evolution of the ʾEven Shetiyah

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2019

Naomi Koltun-Fromm*
Haverford College
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The mythical ʾeven shetiyah, often translated as the “foundation stone,” marks the physical place where the Jerusalem temples once stood in the rabbinic imagination. In its earliest incarnation it identified the place where the ark of the covenant resided in Solomon's Temple. Over the centuries it absorbed cosmogonic and eventually eschatological meaning. In later post-talmudic rabbinic literature, it adopted another mythic trope—the seal on the tehom. I argue that these two separate narrative strands of a seal on the tehomunder the Temple and ʾeven shetiyahin the Temple became intertwined, but only in late (post-talmudic) rabbinic midrash. I trace this evolutionary trend and argue that while the early rabbis both innovated and reinvigorated older biblical and ancient Near Eastern cosmogonic motifs with their ʾeven shetiyah, the later rabbinic texts were influenced by Christian and Muslim competition for spiritual and earthly Jerusalem. The stone that started as a means for rabbinic self-authorization became a reassertion of God's control of history and protection of Israel and the world, but in the process displaced priestly authority.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 2019 

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1. See for example Psalms 48, 89, 93; Isaiah 2:2, 6:1–8; and Ezekiel 28:13–15 and 47:1–8. No text earlier than the Mishnah mentions a particularly special stone, let alone an ʾeven shetiyah, within the sanctuary building. See Ginsburg, Louis, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1968), 5:15n39Google Scholar.  This essay focuses primarily on third- through eighth-century rabbinic texts in order to show the mythological evolution and trajectory from cosmogonic source to eschatological endpoint within rabbinic thought in reference to the ʾeven shetiyah. It is not the purpose of this essay to compare it extensively to Christian and Muslim sources, though they are abundant, interesting, and necessarily related, but only to show how the rabbinic texts evolve in relation to the change in political regime as well as architecture on the Temple Mount.  For a direct comparison to Christian and Muslim sources see Koltun-Fromm, Naomi, “Jerusalem Sacred Stones from Creation to Eschaton,” Journal of Late Antiquity 10 (2017): 405–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2. M. Yoma 5:2; text from printed editions, corrected against Kaufmann; translation (with slight adaptations) by Danby, Herbert, The Mishnah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 167Google Scholar.

3. T. Yoma 2:14; Lieberman, Saul, ed. The Tosefta, 5 vols. (Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1955–88)Google Scholar, Seder Moʿed, 238; author's translation.

4. See Jastrow's many usages and spellings. Jastrow, Marcus, A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (New York: Choreb Press, 1926), 2:1637–41Google Scholar; and Lieberman, Saul, Tosefta Kifshuta: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Tosefta (Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1988–92), 4:722Google Scholar.

5. Y. Yoma 5:3 (42c), author's translation. Note that some printed editions have only הושתת twice, while others (e.g., Vilna 27a) use both variations (and thus suggest this translation). But see also comments by Liebes, Yehuda, Perakim be-milon Sefer ha-Zohar (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1977), 372Google Scholar, although here he is most interested in how the terminology works in the kabbalistic literature.  Jacob Neusner, in his translation of this passage, understood the second hushtat to mean “to water,” based on another connotation of shatah.  But given the proof texts—neither of which mention water—this meaning, though buried within the concept of cosmic mountains, which often provide living waters, does not seem to surface here. However, it will in the later renditions, particularly those that connect the stone to the tehom. Neusner, Jacob, The Talmud of the Land of Israel, vol. 14, Yoma (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 139Google Scholar.

6. Clifford, Richard J., The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 3Google Scholar; Levenson, Jon D., Sinai and Zion, An Entry into the Jewish Bible (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 109–21Google Scholar.

7. See for example Psalms 48, 89, 93; Isaiah 2:2, 6:1–8; and Ezekiel 28:13–15 and 47:1–8.

8. Cohn, Naftali S., The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 87Google Scholar.

9. Ibid., 87–89.

10. Adelman, Rachel, in Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 320CrossRefGoogle Scholar, uses the term “repressed” to refer to mythic tropes that resurface in the eighth-century Pirke Rabbi Eliezer, but the term can be aptly applied to earlier rabbinic texts as well. See also discussions in Levinson, Sinai and Zion, 109ff; Rubenstein, Jeffrey, “From Mythic Motifs to Sustained Myth: The Revision of Rabbinic Traditions in Medieval Midrashim,” Harvard Theological Review 89, no. 2 (1996): 132–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. B. Yoma 54b, author's translation.

12. Clifford, Cosmic Mountain, 26.

13. See Irshai, Oded, “The Christian Appropriation of Jerusalem in the Fourth Century: The Case of the Bordeaux Pilgrim,” Jewish Quarterly Review 99, no. 4 (2009): 465–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14. Glenn Bowman argues that the text of the Bordeaux Pilgrim should be seen as a spiritual guide for catechumens rather than a travel guide for pilgrims. ‘Mapping History's Redemption’: Eschatology and Topography in the Itinerarium Burdigalense,” in Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. Levine, Lee I. (New York: Continuum, 1999), 163–87Google Scholar.

15. See Brown, Francis, Driver, S. R., and Briggs, Charles A., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1951), s.vGoogle Scholar. ירה at p. 435. Yarah could even mean “set” in this rabbinic passage, in that God “set” the stone/foundation in the ocean, which would echo the ancient Near Eastern myths in which the world grows as from a mountain that originates in the sea. Or it might counter a pinnacle or copestone narrative. Either way the rabbis reject this option and this ʾeven pinah lies at the bottom of the sea.

16. See work of Neis, Rachel, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), esp. chap. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 724CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18. Sperber, Daniel, “On Sealing the Abysses,” in Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1994), 49Google Scholar. Liebes, Yehuda makes the same connection more directly in “Ha-ʾel ha-ḥotem,” in Torat ha-yeẓirah shel Sefer ha-Yeẓirah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 2000), 177204Google Scholar, as does Michael Fishbane, following the targum text, in Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 126Google Scholar. See also Heinemann's, Joseph article, “David ha-melekh ve-hitparẓut mey ha-tehom,” in Meḥkere sifrut mugashim le-Shimʿon Helkin, ed. Fleischer, Ezra (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1973), 2334Google Scholar.

19. Y. Sanhedrin 10:2 (29a), line 52.  Translation by Sperber, “On Sealing the Abysses,” 48. I have only substituted “clay pot” for “pottery shard,” because it both better translates עציץ (according to Jastrow, Dictionary, 1102) and better fits the idea of a magic bowl/pot containing the chaos demon.

20. Sperber, “On Sealing the Abysses,” 51–53.

21. B. Sukkah 53a–b, author's translation. See also version in B. Makkot 11a.

22. Pottery was used as a primary writing material, as paper and parchment were less accessible, particularly for incantations.

23. See for example 1 Kings 5:5, Nehemiah 1:9, and Jeremiah 7:14.

24. Sperber, “On Sealing the Abysses,” 50.

25. Ibid. Note that the Greek of the Prayer for Manasseh (σφραγισαμενος) means “to seal with wax” as with a letter or a wine jar; the Aramaic כביש carries more the connotation of “subdue” or “suppress,” but not the completeness of “seal.”

26. The themilios was also the place where one inscribed memorial inscriptions, such as the name of the builder or donor.

27. Liebes, Perakim, 181; Heinemann, “David ha-melekh,” 31.

28. Liebes, Perakim, 181, also claims that the Babylonian text suggests that David simultaneously establishes the foundations of the world as well as the Temple, but I think he is reading too much into the talmudic text.

29. T. Sukkah 3:15, author's translation.

30. B. Sukkah 49a, author's translation. Note that the talmudic text amends R. Yose's saying to parallel R. Yoḥanan's interpretation, even as it brings the baraita to support R. Yoḥanan.

31. Cohn, Memory of the Temple, 87–89.

32. While I think all of Leviticus speaks to the ritualistic ways Israel manages its impurities in order to keep God in its midst, the sacrificial service is the centerpiece and the most public means of ritual cleansing and atonement.

33. See, for example, Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 16, 25; Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.33.1; and Demonstration of the Gospel 8.3.10. Andrew Jacobs also argues that late ancient Christian appropriation of biblical sites around the Holy Land constitutes a wholesale usurpation of Israel, the people, the land, and the divine promise. See his excellent book, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

34. Thus, within the Babylonian tradition the semantic and geographic kinship of shittin and shetiyah certainly resonates. No doubt, the ʾeven shetiyah and the shittin share many similarities. They are both part of Mt. Zion's bedrock, they are both primordial, they are both creations of rabbinic imagination, and their names may derive from the same Hebrew root and reflect ancient primordial foundation mythologies. Yet, the most notable discrepancies, location and function, point to vast differences as well. The ʾeven shetiyah locates itself in the holy of holies; the shittin are found under the altar, outside the sanctuary building, but within the innermost Temple courtyard. The ʾeven shetiyah sits hidden, without any apparent function, under the ark of the covenant; the shittin open into the courtyard with purpose: they collect the libations (M. Middot 3:3; Meʿilah 3:3), they are an integral part of the priestly sacrificial service and ritual infrastructure as imagined by the rabbis. Thus, while the shittin and shetiyah are most likely related semantically, the midrashim are not. The focal point of the ʾeven shetiyah texts are on the ʾeven shetiyah; the focal point of the David and tehom texts are on the shard / Name of God and the tehom. Moreover, in the Babylonian traditions of the shittin, the focal point is more specifically on the altar and the tehom; the shittin are secondary.

35. Sperber, “On Sealing the Abysses,” 49. Liebes, “Ha-ʾel ha-ḥotem,” 177–204; Heinemann, “David ha-melekh,” 23–34.

36. See Maher, M., Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 1112Google Scholar. See also Adelman, Return of the Repressed, 6n17. Katharina Keim argues for less dependence of Targum on PRE than Adelman. K. E. Keim, “Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality and Historical Context” (PhD diss., University of Manchester, 2014), 260.

37. Translation by Dr. Eldon Clem (Oak Tree Software, 2015). Exodus 28:30 reads as follows: “In the breast piece [ḥoshen] of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually” (NRSV).

38. There is no biblical evidence that God's name was inscribed on the ḥoshen; this is a later exegetical development, but it is not clear where else this is asserted.

39. Pirke Rabbi Eliezer 35; Friedlander, G., trans., Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (New York: Hermon Press, 1970), 266–67Google Scholar. See also Adelman, Rachel, “Midrash, Myth, and Bakhtin's Chronotope: The Itinerant Well and the Foundation Stone in Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer,” The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 17, no. 2 (2009): 143–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40. In PRE 10, Jonah can only view the foundation stone while in the whale in the sea, at the point where it sits under the Temple Mount.

41. The Tanḥuma, like PRE, is notoriously hard to date, and there is no fixed text. But most scholars agree that it is “late rabbinic,” that is, from the late Byzantine or early Islamic periods, sixth to eighth centuries. Rubenstein, “Mythic Motifs,” 133n7.

42. Tanḥuma Kedoshim 10 (Warsaw ed.), author's translation. See also discussion in Rubenstein, “Mythic Motifs,” 133n7.

43. Both Jubilees and Josephus refer to Jerusalem as an omphalos, but this is not necessarily the same connotation. See discussion in Phillip Alexander, “Jerusalem as the Omphalos of the World: On the History of a Geographical Concept,” in Levine, Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality, 104–19.

44. Although this text has been used as the “source” of the navel trope, in its biblical context טבור does not necessarily mean “navel.” However, when understood as “navel,” as it is here in the Tanḥuma, it is the perfect proof text. See discussion in Talmon, Shemaryahu, “Tabur Ha-ʾareẓ and the Comparative Method,” Tarbiz 45 (1976): 163–77Google Scholar.

45. Rubenstein, “Mythic Motifs,” 136.

46. M. Kelim 1:6–9, but there neither stone nor navel are mentioned, only the concentric rings of holiness.

47. See, for instance, Ibn Ishaq, “The Night Journey and the Ascent to Heaven,” in his Sirat Rasul Allah, 263. English translation in Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 181–87Google Scholar.

48. Adelman, “Chronotope,” 166.

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