The Foundation Stone

The tannaitic term even ha-shetiyah (Foundation Stone) was understood in two ways during Talmudic times: "the stone (or rock) from which the world was woven" and "the foundation stone." Both meanings are based on the belief that the world was created from the stone located in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem, thus forming the center of the world. This concept is closely related to the image of Jerusalem and the Temple as located at the "navel of the world." The Holy Ark was placed on this rock, and during the Second Temple period, the high priest, upon entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, placed the fire-pan on it. Muslim tradition identifies the rock, over which was built the Dome of the Rock, with the even ha-shetiyah.

The following are a few of the many midrashim and legends surrounding the Foundation Stone:

The holy Zohar, the principal work of the Kabbalist mystics, relates: "When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create the world, He detached one precious stone from underneath His throne of glory and plunged it into the abyss; one end of it remained fastened therein, while the other end stood out above. Out of the latter the world started, spreading itself to the right and left and into all directions." That stone is called in Hebrew even ha-shetiyah — the Foundation Stone. Some of the wise men of Israel say that this stone was called shetiyah, which in Hebrew also means "drinking," because beneath it is hidden the source of all the springs and fountains from which the world drinks its water.[1]

There is a Hebrew legend that the divine Name, YHWH, was inscribed on the Foundation Stone. In the Book of Ecclesiastes it is said: "He has made everything beautiful in its time; also He has set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God has done from the beginning, even to the end."

The Aramaic translator adds: "This hints of the divine name on the Foundation Stone. The divine Name was engraved on the Foundation Stone, and the Lord guarded it in great secrecy, so as not to arouse the evil inclination in the hearts of men, who would desire to know — with its help — all that shall come to pass in the end of time, until eternity."

According to the rabbis, the Foundation Stone already played a role during the patriarchal period. When Jacob woke from his dream at Bethel, he erected a pillar to the Lord, using the stone which had been his pillow, and then poured oil upon the top as a libation. This, they claimed, was the Foundation Stone.

The Torah records of Jacob: "And he lighted upon a certain place." The commentators note that he recognized in a vision that this was the future site of the Temple, and he therefore named it Bethel, the House of God. Many Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages gave the name of Bethel to the Temple site in Jerusalem, and believed this was the spot where the patriarch Jacob rested from his journeys, dreamt his dream, and set up this very Foundation Stone.

At a later date, when Jonah the prophet was swallowed by the fish, he had the privilege of seeing, among other things, the base of the Foundation Stone. There was a certain pearl embedded in the bowels of the fish. This pearl gave forth light for Jonah — as does the sun at noontime, and illumined for him all that is in the sea and the abyss.... And it showed him the Foundation Stone set in the abyss below the Temple of the Lord.

The fish said to Jonah: "Behold, you are now below the Lord's Temple. Pray, and you will be answered." And Jonah began to pray before the Holy One blessed by He, whereupon the Lord signaled to the fish, and it threw Jonah upon the shore."

The home of the Foundation Stone was the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to legend, when King David dug the foundation for the Temple, he found a stone resting on the mouth of the abyss with the divine Name on it. He put this stone into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The sages of Israel began to fear lest some young men learn the divine Name and destroy the world. To prevent this, they placed two brazen lions on iron pillars by the door of the Holy of Holies, one on the right and the other on the left. If anyone entered and learned the divine Name, these lions would roar at him when he came out, so that through terror and fright, the Name would be utterly driven out of his mind and forgotten.[2]

From this stone, situated at the center of the world, emanated the divine blessing which was bestowed upon all of Israel. With the destruction of the Temple, this benediction was lost, to the lasting sorrow of Israel. There is a legend that relates the Hebrew word shetiyah to the Aramaic word, shetiyah, which means "weaving." Accordingly, a custom grew up among Jewish women to refrain from weaving during the nine days of mourning, from the first day of the month of Av to the ninth day (Tish'ah be-Av), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple. They believed that there would be no blessing on their work in these sad days. The ancients found a hint of this in the saying of the psalmist: "When the foundations are destroyed, What have the righteous wrought?" The sages interpret this to mean: "Since the Temple is destroyed, what have the righteous achieved?"[3]

The Zohar relates that from this spot all the world is blessed. Groups of angels and cherubim hover above the Foundation Stone: "At the time of the sunrise, [they] stand in this place, raise their wings upward and spread them, and the sound of the melody of their wings is heard." And what song did they sing at this hour?
"They that trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved but abides forever.
As the mountains are round about Jerusalem
So the Lord is round about His people
From this time forth and for ever."

And the stars and the planets in the heavens joined in the song. The angels above, and Israel below, all hold fast to the stone, and it rises in heaven and rests among the righteous. And the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to frolic with them in the Garden of Eden."[4]

[1] Zohar II, 1867, p. 222; III, p. 131. [Back]
[2] Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (1) 36. Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 148a. Ecclesiastes 3:11. The Aramaic translation (Targum Yerushalmi) to Exodus 28:30. [Back]
[3] Yerushalmi, Pesahim 4:1; Ta'anit 1:6, Bavli, Sanhedrin 26b. Psalms 1:3. J. Caro, Shulkhan Arukh: Orah Haim 551:8. [Back]
[4] Zohar I, 1895, p. 231b. Psalms 125:1-2. [Back]
From: Legends of Jerusalem. The Sacred Land: Volume 1, ed. Zev Vilnay. Jewish Publication Society, 1973.



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