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The Kitchen or the Library?

The Kitchen or the Library?


A huge fireplace dominated the room, in which a fire blazed round the clock. To its right were the food preparation areas. A massive oaken table, seating fourteen, indicated that the food in this home would be eaten right here, within sight of where the staff of butchers and chefs had prepared it for consumption. It was also obvious that this was the epicenter of the building, while the other rooms (sleeping alcoves, storage rooms and guest reception areas) filled secondary roles to the structure's central space.

"My design," explained the architect, "recaptures the home's initial, primal function: to shelter and nourish its inhabitants" "My design for A New Home for the New Millennium may seem revolutionary," explained the architect, "but only because we have drifted away in recent centuries from the home's initial, primal function. The kitchen moved from the core of the house to its periphery. It shrunk in size, sometimes to miniscule proportions, or it became little more than a showcase for expensive gadgetry. The dinning table devolved into an undersized 'kitchen table' and thence to a small countertop at which one perches to 'grabs a bite.' My design represents the endeavor to recapture the original purpose of the home: to shelter and nourish its inhabitants..."

A smattering of applause. Then the second architect unveiled his design.

At first glance, the second architect's model was similar in form and dimensions to the first. But closer examination revealed it to be a fundamentally different structure. The kitchen and other service areas were out in the courtyard. The building's core was an intimate room, furnished with bookshelves bearing a collection of ancient and modern volumes. It was a space for people to pursue intellectual study, listen to heart-stirring music, and engage in soul-enriching dialogue.

Is that all we are — bodies that eat?
"As you can see," the second architect began, "I have taken the very opposite approach of my esteemed colleague. Yes, the home should cater to our visceral needs; but is that all it is? Is that all we are—bodies that eat? To me, the primary function of a home is to house and facilitate our spiritual self—the self that thinks and feels, the self that gains and imparts knowledge and wisdom, the self the thrives on receiving and sharing joy..."

"G‑d desired a home in this world."1 Indeed, say the Chassidic masters, this is the purpose for which G‑d created all the worlds supernal and lowly, and the purpose of everything we do in and with our lives.

Following the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, G‑d instructed that a "model home" be built — a structure that will embody, on a highly condensed and intensified scale, His vision of a dwelling for Himself in the physical world. Thus the portable Mishkan ("Tabernacle") was built in the desert to accompany the Children of Israel in their journeys, later achieving a more permanent form in the Beit Hamikdash ("Holy Temple") in Jerusalem.

A "model home" that embodies, on a highly condensed and intensified scale, G‑d's vision of a dwelling for Himself in the physical world
The design and construction of the Tabernacle are described, in great detail, beginning in Exodus 25. The Sanctuary itself consisted of two chambers. An outer chamber, the "Holy," housed the menorah (seven branched candelabra), the "table" on which the 12 showbread were displayed, and a small altar for burning incense. The inner "Holy of Holies" contained the ark which held the Torah.2 The "courtyard" enclosing the Sanctuary contained the large Outer Altar on which the korbanot (animal and meal offerings) where offered.3

Which of these "vessels" most represented the significance of the divine dwelling? In which of these various functions did the primary objective and raison d'être of the edifice lie? Two of the great commentators and interpreters of Torah offer two contrasting perspectives on this question.

According to Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the Holy Temple is most basically defined as "a house for G‑d that is prepared for the offering of korbanot."4 According to Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1195-1270), "The main object... is realized in the ark, as G‑d says to Moses, 'I will commune with you there, speaking to you from above the ark's cover...'"5

According to the Talmud, when we are confronted with differing opinions amongst Torah sages we should appreciate that "these and these are both the words of the living G‑d."6

In the home we make for G‑d out of our lives, where does G‑d live—in the kitchen or in the library?
What is our purpose in this world—to serve G‑d with our bodies, or to serve G‑d with our souls? Which is the greater mitzvah—to eat kosher or to study Torah? Who is closer to G‑d—the honest businessman or the ascetic sage? Which is the holiest part of ourselves—our physical being or our transcendent strivings?

In the home we make for G‑d out of our lives, where does G‑d live—in the kitchen or in the library?

These and these are both the words of the living G‑d.

Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16.
The ark held the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as well a a Torah scroll.
The word korban means "something that is brought close." The korbanot were primarily animals which were offered up to G‑d, along with a meal offering and a wine libation (though there were also meal offering that were brought alone). After the animal was slaughtered in the Temple courtyard, its blood and fat were offered upon the altar, and its flesh was eaten in conditions of ritual purity. Thus an ordinary ox or sheep was uplifted from its mundane existence and brought close to G‑d.
On a deeper level, the korban represents the effort to elevate and sanctify the "animal" within oneself. According to the chassidic masters, each of us is comprised of both a "G‑dly" and an "animal" self. The G‑dly self is our spiritual essence, the transcendent soul within us which seeks to escape the mundane and cleave to its divine source. But there is also an animal side to us, self which is driven and fulfilled by our physical needs and desires and spawns our selfish drives and aspirations.
This is the animal in us that is to be offered as a korban to G‑d. Its "blood"--i.e., its fervor and passion for material things—is to be sprinkled on the altar; its "fat"--its excessive indulgence and pleasure-seeking—is to be burned. But the gist of the animal soul is not sacrificed, but reoriented. Its "meat" is to be eaten in holiness—the physical drives themselves are not to be disavowed and suppressed, but are to be refined and directed towards higher and loftier ends.
Thus the korban represents the endeavor to sanctify and "bring close to G‑d" our daily, physical and material existence by eliminating and sacrificing its negative and destructive elements and developing the substance itself into something that serves a higher, G‑dly goal.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 1:1
Nachmanides' commentary on Exodus 25:1.
Talmud, Eruvin 13b.
By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 1, 2011

at home, in Nature During the Babylonian Captivity, we had to forego our synagogue for a slightly different ethos, in transit, to another place, another way of being. We learned that nature itself is the greatest of canopies, and that within nature, looking up at the stars, as in the Sukka, is a deep and livening connection with G_d, the Divine presence that infuses all beings, all creatures, every blade of grass. Within this infinite greatness, lies the pulse, of a beating drum, a heart.

The synagogue is a place of worship, and surely a House of G_d, but we must not mistake this for the greatest temple of all, which is the world, the skies, stars, grasses, flowers, a living breathing cosmos, that is truly, beautifully Divine, and here for me, I say my prayers, daily, as in The Garden, which could be, Eden itself. Gan Eden.

Remember where it all comes from. We tend to, forget how we forge our sanctuary, the sand in our vessels of glass. Reply

Jaya Kader Zebede, AIA Bay Harbor Islands, FL via March 7, 2006

The kitchen or tha library Thank you for the beautiful commentary. I like to think of the dining room as the fusion of the two realms of human experience. Jewish tradition has found a way to elevate our "visceral needs" to the realm of wisdom and knowledge. What better opportunity to learn and share words of Torah, than sitting at the Shabbat table with family and friends? Thus, playing the third architect in the story, I have designed the dining room as the special object, the jewel within the framework of my Jewish home. Reply

Stephen P. Meyer Charleston, West Virginia March 3, 2006

The kitchen or the library The use of the two analogies shows for me the intellectual breath of Judaism and how it encompasses the whole range of human endeavors. Reply

Interior Designer Milwaukee, WI February 28, 2006

A home for G-d in this world Thank you! I was wondering if there was in fact a standard design for a Jewish home. Now I have some understanding of what the standard is, and the theory behind what the physical structure of a Jewish home should include. Reply