The day that King Solomon overslept

The building of the Temple - recalled in the haftarah - was the apex of Solomon’s reign but it heralded a spiritual decline, according to rabbinic folklore

By Mordechai Beck, September 28, 2010
Solomon offered 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep at the Temple dedication

Solomon offered 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep at the Temple dedication

The haftarah for Shemini Atzeret in the diaspora recalls the ceremony mounted by King Solomon for the inauguration of the First Temple. In this it provides a fitting climax to the careers not only of Solomon but also of his father, King David, who, in the parallel text in the Book of Chronicles, planned and devised almost every detail of its complex architecture. The amount of words lavished on the building's design in both sources only emphasises its supreme importance in the annals of ancient Israel's history.

The subject matter is nevertheless surprising given that the festival of Succot which precedes this Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly (or, more literally, of Holy Happening) is centred on the frail booths representing our ancestors' dwellings when crossing the Sinai desert on leaving Egypt. Why, then, should the inauguration of this splendid and solid edifice be featured here? How can it serve as a coda to the season of autumnal festivities?

The ostensible reason for including this particular text in the day's celebrations is the verse that appears towards the end of the reading: "On the eighth day, he (Solomon) sent the people (away) and they blessed the King, and they went to their tents rejoicing and full of good cheer for all the goodness that God had bestowed on David his servant and on Israel His people" (I Kings 8:66). This eighth day is - according to the Book of Chronicles (II Chronicles 7:9) - none other than the day after the Feast of Succot, which in that particular year also marked the dedication of Solomon's Temple.

This grand ceremony may have been in lieu of any other mitzvah attached to the day. Though mentioned twice in the Torah (Leviticus 23:36 and Numbers 29: 35-37), no special reason is given for it, or any mitzvah other than ceasing from work and offering up appropriate sacrifices.

As a formal explanation this may be adequate - other haftarot are chosen for no greater coincidences. However, here there seems to be some other motive behind the ancient sages' choice, if for no other reason than that the number eight is often loaded with hints at going beyond the normal cycle of things, or even of eternity. Moreover, the sages ascribe to this day the sobriquet regel bifnei atzmo literally an independent festival juxtaposed to, but different from Succot, a fourth "foot" to be added to the shalosh regalim - literally the three "foot festivals" of Passover, Shavuot and Succot. Yet the reason for this fourth "foot" remains hidden, unexplained.

It might be assumed that the sages would praise Solomon for this major construction. Yet they, too, raise many questions as to it efficacy, as though they are troubled by the very need of such a structure, splendid as it is. For 400 years, since leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel seemingly had no need of such a building. Why now? Was it only because no one until David and Solomon had the knowhow to design and build such a temple? Was it because only with such a building could David's insistence on the centrality of Jerusalem be justified?

Behind the plain reading of the text the sages inform us that "everyone helped in the construction of this Temple - even the spirits, the hobgoblins, the angels" (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:5). No less surprising is the midrash that tells of Solomon's marriage to the anonymous "daughter of Pharaoh". Their wedding took place on the night before the inauguration of the Temple and "the joy of the occasion was greater than that of the Temple inauguration" (Bemidbar Rabba 10:4).

The lady invited an orchestra to their wedding party, explaining to her new husband how each tune was dedicated to a different god. She then covered their bed chamber with a sheet studded with precious stones that shone as though they were the planets and stars. Each time the newly wed awoke, he thought it was still night and thus slept "till the fourth hour". His subjects, who were waiting impatiently for the Temple inauguration, were fearful of awaking him (he was sleeping on the Temple key). Finally, they sent in his mother Bathsheba to wake him up and give him a bit of her mind .

This extraordinary juxtaposition of nuptials with a foreign wife and the Temple's induction points up to another dimension of this haftarah, namely that the inauguration ceremony will be the spiritual apex of Solomon's reign. Thereafter, although he is successful politically and militarily, his inner world begins to crumble till finally he is "replaced" by Ashmodeus, King of the underworld spirits (Talmud, Gittin 68b).

Is this haftarah thus meant to be a subtle reminder of the dangers inherent in the spiritual life? Even if you are as wise as Solomon, or have spent a month or more in praying, fasting and feasting, you can never be sure that nefarious forces will not overtake you, and fling you into exile and oblivion, from where only God himself will be able to extricate you.

Last updated: 11:20am, September 28 2010