The Bible and Freemasonry
by Rabbi Cyril K. Harris, Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa

Modified text of the lecture given to Table Mountain Lodge #6824 (UGLE)
Reprinted from haBoneh haHofshi, The Israeli Freemason

As I am an operative as well as a speculative Rabbi, I seek to apply the connection between the Bible and Freemasonry to morals, in the very spirit of that common purpose which suffuses them both.

In that Freemasonry exercises all its functions in the name of the Grand Architect of the Universe, in that its wisdom is derived from the Holy Bible, considering its high purpose is the moral improvement of all Brethren, bearing in mind its classical use of allegory and symbolism, and mindful of the deeds of goodness and charity performed by Brethren of our noble Order all over the world, it might well be thought quite superfluous to articulate the self-evident connection between Scripture and Freemasonry.

Yet, the connection is so basic to all that we attempt to achieve and so vital for the furtherance of our objectives that we, with profit, may consider the fascinating links between the two, together with those points of difference which, almost exclusively based on the Bible, were nevertheless altered by the earliest Freemasons in order to preserve the secrecy of our Craft. One would add that a rather sad opposition of a regrettably large number of Churches and denominations which, largely due to misinterpretation and misunderstanding, unfortunately have instructed their adherents to avoid Freemasonry.

Let us begin our journey by contemplating the basic Biblical method of pointing a moral from the working tools of a craftsman, an exercise we engage in at all our meetings. The plumb line, a string with an attached weight for testing the perpendicularity of a wall, is used half-a-dozen times in Scripture to illustrate the lack of uprightness displayed by the people and their deviation from that which is straight. These metaphors borrowed from the builder's art are utilized by the Prophets Isaiah and Amos, and mentioned in the Book of Kings and Lamentations.

For us Masons, the plumb is also a symbol of rectitude of conduct, and teaches that level of integrity of life and moral uprightness which alone distinguish the good and just man. As the worker constructs his temporal building by the strict use of the plumb line which will not permit him to deviate, so the Freemason, guided by unerring principles of truth, follows throughout life an undeviating course.

From the historical point of view, the Bible provides us with interesting evidence of a certain unity among craftsmen, so that morals drawn from their everyday working implements would be readily understood. In those days, there existed unions of artisans--trade unions--which assisted their members in the economic and social sphere. Originally, association among the artisans was confined to the framework of the family, most of whose members were employed in the same profession--for example, tailors or goldsmiths--and that group concentrated in a certain site in town for residence and work. The Bible mentions a "Valley of Craftsman" and the "Baker's Street" in Jerusalem!

These early Guilds expanded to include relatives and friends in the same occupation. From the earliest time, mutual assistance was a major declared objective of the company of craftsmen and the Talmud relates how "the wool workers and dyers ... the donkey drivers ... and the sailors ..." acted to reach agreement among themselves for the benefit of their fellow craftsman. Significantly, in the synagogue at Alexandria, at the time of Philo, the Guilds actually had separate seating arrangements for their membership. "The goldsmiths by themselves, the silversmiths by themselves, the weavers by themselves, and so on, so that a visitor could come and join his profession" and be in the company of those who shared his interests. These admirable seating arrangements allowed one--during the long service--to catch upon the news of one's trade, on the latest gossip affecting work, and vitally important, on the most recent market price of one's goods!

We are informed that the Beadle of this large Synagogue, in which it was quite impossible to hear the Reader, in addition to which this was 12 centuries before the invention of printing so that few prayer books were available, would wave a large red flag when the congregation was supposed to say "AMEN", so there were some interruptions at least to the conversation! How the public Guilds became private and secret Crafts is shrouded in the mists of early history, but the Bible has already set the pattern.

The Masonic use of Biblical names deserves our close attention. The First Book of Kings tells us that Hiram of Tyre "set up pillars in the porch of the Temple" meaning that through the Temple firmness and strength will come to Israel. Hence, at the very entrance to the Temple, the pillars denoted that the House of G-d was well prepared and strong.

In all ancient systems, without exception, the right side has precedence over the left, because most people are right-handed. Until a generation ago, those unfortunate enough to be born left-handed were forced at school to hold a pen in the right hand, as left-handedness was considered some form of abnormality. Nowadays, we know better and one marvels at the large number of cricketers, tennis players, southpaw boxers who are left-handed.

But, the ancient Romans never went to war if the birds flew towards the left, only when the omens were towards the right, and indeed the Latin for right is 'dexter' giving us dexterity or skillfulness, but for left it is 'sinister'.

Thus, the Lodges deliberately chose the left for priority, singling out this practice from the norm. It should be added that one deeply sensitive religious interpretation reminds us that we are all facing G-d, and although G-d is incorporeal, His right-hand side is our left and His left-hand side must be our right! So that, our left--which is G-d's right--takes on, with this deeper understanding, a higher precedence.

The secret force of numbers, which plays such a significant role in Freemasonry, is derived directly from Biblical usage. In both Hebrew and Arabic, letters double up as numbers, that is to say, the first letter of the alphabet 'Aleph' signifies 1, the second letter of the alphabet 'Beit' 2, and so on. Thus, the number 15 is symbolic of the name of G-d Himself. Fifteen is the total of the sacred name of G-d, 'Yah'. As in 'Halleluyah' which occurs so often in the Book of Psalms, 'Halleluyah' meaning 'Praise Ye the Lord'. By use of the alphabetic arithmetic, the first Hebrew letter 'Yod' having the value of 10 and the second 'Hey' having the value 5, we arrive at 15.

The 15, made up of 3, 5, and 7, have intrinsic value in their own right. Note that they are odd numbers, preferred by the Kabbalah, the major source book of Jewish Mysteries. Three as a number signifies completeness--a beginning, middle, and end; 5 denotes the fingers of one hand, and 7--the seventh day, the Sabbath.

The spiritual value of these numbers is signified by G-d being holy in Heaven, holy on earth, and holy for all time, the number 3; the 5 Books of Moses, containing G-d's Law and allowing mankind the opportunity of G-d's thoughts on how to behave; and 7, the traditional number of Heavens in the progression of the soul. Hence, the meaning of the number 15 is not simply an ascent from a lower to a higher sphere, but a climb towards the spiritual perfection enshrined in G-d.

Similarly, the Priestly Benediction in the original Biblical Hebrew words follows the 3, 5, and 7 pattern, again in order to reach a climax. "The Lord bless thee and keep thee" refers to material blessings; "the Lord cause His face to shine upon thee and favour thee" refers to spiritual enlightenment, and "the Lord turn His face to thee and grant thee peace" refers to the ability to enjoy both material and spiritual blessings together, a blissful state described as 'peace'.

Moreover, the arithmetic values allow us to substitute one word for another. Without being too technical, the Hebrew word "Eh'ad", that G-d is 'One,' equals (1+8+4) 13, and this word carries the same numerical value as the Hebrew word "Ahavah," also totalling (1+5+2+5) 13, the word meaning 'love.' This apparently contrived technical arithmetic teaches us the simple lesson that "G-d is love."

The symbolic use of color also plays a major role. The Apron must be white as a symbol of purity. Originally, a symbol of authority derived from the 'Ephedra' of the High Priest and mentioned in the Book of Exodus, the Apron in Freemasonry, the peculiar and distinctive badge of a Freemason, encourages purity of thought at all times.

Parallel to this, the Biblical doctrine of repentance is graphically illustrated by colour. "Though your sins be red as scarlet, they will become as white as snow" says the Prophet Isaiah. In both, the physical cleanness of white denotes the inner states of purity.

A deeper insight into the significance of the Priestly garments is given in the Talmud. There we learn that each and every garment helped to effect atonement. The 'breastplate' atoned for the neglect of civil laws; the 'Ephod' atoned for idolatry; the 'robe' for slander; the 'tunic' for violence; the 'miter' for arrogance; and the 'girdle,' worn over the heart, atoned for improper thoughts of the heart.

Not only with numbers and colours and attire, but also with Direction, the Craft leans heavily on Biblical patterns. The Hebrew word 'Kedem' meaning 'East' in respect to place, also carries the meaning 'old' or 'venerated' in respect of time. Moreover, the Prophet Ezekiel alludes to "the glory of the G-d of Israel coming by the way of the East" and the ancient world perceived the course of human progress as being analogous to the course of the sun, i.e. proceeding from the East to the West. The Master's place in the Lodge is thus always in the East, that the physical enlightenment of the sun should bespeak the illumination of the Worshipful Master's instructions to his Brethren.

The 'Eastern Wall' carries special meaning for the Jewish brothers in that the dispersion of the Jews was primarily to countries of the West, so that when praying they faced East, towards the Holy Land.

The most prominent feature, which pervades all the symbolic instructions of Freemasonry, is the spiritualization of the Temple of Solomon. Because Freemasonry dates its origin from the building of King Solomon's Temple, the need to elevate the construction of an earthly and material Temple into a spiritual Temple in our hearts where G-d is to dwell, is its driving force, the primary link that binds the operative and speculative divisions of the Order.

It must be appreciated that everything about the Temple, as specified in the Bible, carried symbolic value. G-d's Home was not just beautiful, containing gold and silver, the finest wood and the most precious materials, adorned by the most skilled craftsmen, the purpose of the Sanctuary was to impress the children of men with spiritual teachings. Each item had moral significance. The Cherubim for example, with the faces of children, spread their wings on high, simultaneously screened the Ark cover with their wings, their faces were toward each other and also looked upon the Ark cover. This stance--captured in solid gold and impossible to achieve without Divine help--has the symbolic value of aspiring upwards, defending the faith, helping each other, i.e. the ability to look each other in the face, and looking to the mercy seat of G-d for spiritual strength.

Similarly, the Ark containing the Ten Commandments was not only overlaid with gold but inlaid with gold. That is to say, a wooden box of Ark of Acacia wood, was lined on the inside with an inner golden box and the whole placed in an outer golden box. That the outside should be of gold no one queries, but that the inside--which no one ever saw--should also be of gold, is surprising. But, the Bible is teaching us about sincerity, that it is no good having "top show", the inside must always match the outside, and the outside must be a true representation of the inner content.

Indeed, so powerful is the symbolic imagery that the artificers of the First Sanctuary in the wilderness--the forerunner of Solomon's Temple--were blessed, according to Scripture, "with the spirit of G-d, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, and to devise skilful works."

The Hebrew for the latter phrase literally means 'to think thoughts'. For in all true art and craft there is a vital underlying thought. Not just to charm the eye, nor to delight the senses, but to appeal to the imagination, to kindle in the heart all that is good and to inspire to high morals, was the purpose of the construction of the physical, external objects of G-d's own house, Thus was the Temple, the living reminder of the path of duty.

Now, let us illustrate the method by which the design of King Solomon is appropriated to Masonic use. To construct this earthly Temple, the workmen followed the architectural designs laid down on the Trestle Board or tracing board. In our Masonic ritual, the Freemason is reminded that as the operative artist erects his Temple, building in accordance with the rules and designs laid down on the Trestle Board, so should he erect that spiritual building in obedience to the rules and designs laid down by the Grand Architect of the Universe.

Moreover, we learn from the Second Book of Chronicles that three distinct categories of workmen were involved in the construction of Solomon's Temple. They were the bearers of burdens, the hewers of stones, and the overseers. A remarkable similarity is afforded by the three degrees practiced in Freemasonry. The procession from Entered Apprentice through the Master Mason follows in its symbolism the stages of the operative work from its commencement to its conclusion. The stones having been hewed, squared and numbered by apprentices, having been properly adjusted by the craftsmen, are then finally secured in their proper places by the master builders. Thus does the immortal Temple of the heart depend on the progress from hesitant beginnings towards spiritual sublimity and grandeur.

A Lodge which rejoices in the name of Table Mountain brings to mind the Temple Table--the Table of Shewbread. Two cubits long and a cubit wide, and one-and-a-half cubits high, it was made of Acacia wood covered with pure gold. Every Sabbath, 12 loaves of wheaten flour were placed on the Table and left there until the following Sabbath. When the loaves were removed, they were eaten by the Priests. The Shew bread expressed thankfulness, a standing acknowledgment on the part of the people to the Divine Giver of man's daily bread.

Finally, to the gray area separating historical fact from legend. In its reference to Hiram, the Bible points out that he was an Israelite on his mother's side and a Tyrian on his father's side. In himself, he therefore symbolized the union of two peoples, antagonistic each toward the other, opposed in religion and dissimilar in manners, yet united in the one person. So does one common brotherhood result from Freemasonry and is the precious reward of all its participants. 'Hiram' is short for the Hebrew 'Ahiram' which means 'my brother is exalted'.

In addition, Hiram is described as being "most wise, imbued with prudence and understanding." Most interestingly, Hiram Abif, denotes from the Hebrew 'Av' meaning 'father' or 'leader', that he was the Chief Builder of the Temple at Jerusalem. All these are historical facts. But, what of the authenticity of the legend of the Third Degree? Some Freemasons are disposed to give it full credence, while others look upon it simply as a beautiful allegory.

It may be contended that the very silence of Scripture in relation to the death of Hiram is an argument in favour of the mysterious nature of that death. A man so important in his position as to have been called the favourite of two kings, of Israel and Tyre, would hardly have passed into oblivion when his labour was finished, without the mention of a single line, unless his death had taken place in such a manner as to render a public account of it improper. The account must be kept safe in the secret society where all are believers.

But, even if it be admitted that the legend of the Third Degree is fiction--that the whole Masonic and extra-Scriptural account of Hiram Abif is simply a myth--it would not in the slightest way affect the validity of its message. The legend relating to him is of no value as mere narrative, but of immense importance to a symbolic point of view illustrating one of the most vital philosophical and religious truths--namely the dogma of the immortality of the soul. Fact and imagination, the real and ideal, may be closely united when the goal permits. Undoubtedly, the Solomonic Freemasons of the Temple wished to utilize Hiram Abif as the symbol of man developed in the life here and in the life to come, thus emphasizing that the experience of closeness to the Almighty begun on this earth is continued and intensified, by all who deserve it, in the world of eternity. The Bible and the Craft are inextricably linked to the glory of the former and the betterment of the latter.