Up on the Roof - Scary Business


by Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)

This past year Congregation Beth Israel in Lebanon prioritized replacing its leaky roof with a brand new one. While any significant building cost can be a headache for board members tasked with the job, roofs are specifically notorious for their difficulties.

Most American synagogues were built in the 1950s through the 1970s, during a time known as the suburban expansion, when Jews moved from cities to suburbs further out into the country. This population dispersal required new shuls to accommodate the post-war economic boom. The common designs of synagogues were often mid-century modern, which featured flat roofs that needed special drainage systems. This modern design straddled later generations with maintenance concerns, leaking problems, and expensive water related damages. Where there’s a leak, there’s also often mold. With much grumbling over any construction project, our congregation discovered that difficulties with rooftops stretch as far back as the Bible. The whole process was both humbling and endearing.

To look up a specific theme in the Bible, you must consult a concordance and a lexicon. The Lexicon (known colloquially as the “BDB” for its authors Brown, Driver, and Briggs) is a book that lists every appearance of the word you’re looking for in the Bible, in the Hebrew form. After finding every occurance of the word “roof” or “gog,” (root gimmel, vav, gimmel in Hebrew) I noticed a striking pattern.

Rooftops are frequently mired in danger, and are often centerpoints of horrible circumstantial events. Quite often, rooftops also serve as bastions of idolatry. Since it was a common practice in the polythiestic Middle East to worship the stars, rooftops were the place that rituals were done to directly worship the zodiac symbols above. While I’ve assembled some interesting examples of rooftop peril below, there are a few more references to roofs than included.

The first mention of the roof as dangerous is linked directly to bloodguilt - if you don’t make a parapet for your roof, anyone who falls from it is under your liability (Deut 22.10).  The next mention, in the story of Joshua, features Rahab the Harlot orchestrating a daring and dangerous escape from the roof (Joshua 2). Rahab hides two spies sent by Joshua under stalks of flax on the roof. Their peril is imminent, yet after the danger of discovery has passed, Rahab safely lets the spies down via rope, where they narrowly escape capture.

In the book of Samuel (Samuel 1:26), not-yet-king Saul is talked down from the roof by the prophet Samuel. Saul’s tempestuous relationship with God is foreshadowed by his untenable position, up on the roof. Another well known prophetic tale of rooftop agony features King David and Batsheba (2 Samuel 11). Batsheba is bathing on the roof, where King David sees her, as he is also on the roof. King David’s acquisition of Bathsheba as a wife dooms Uriah the Hittite and brings death to David’s son in retribution. In a striking measure-for-measure rebellion, Absalom (King David’s own son!) sleeps with all of his father’s concubines. Of course this event also happens on the roof, as the text says “with the full knowledge of all Israel” (2 Samuel 16:22).

Further in the canon, Isaiah’s “Valley of Vision,'' speech addresses Israel beginning with the question: “What can happen to you that you have all gone up on the roof? Oh you who are full of tumult... (Isaiah 22:5).” Jeremiah, a prophet just after Isaiah, has no shame in accosting the backsliding Israelites by saying “The houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah shall be unclean, like that place Topeth - where all the houses on the roofs of which offerings were made to the whole host of heavens and libations were poured out to other gods.” This vituperation is one of a few in Jeremiah where rooftop ritual is synonymous with the grave sin of idolatry (Jeremiah 19:12, 32:30).

Quite out of context, the book of Proverbs repeats a line twice, “It is better to dwell on the corner of a roof, than in a spacious home with a contentious wife” (Proverbs 20:27, 25:24). While offensive to modern sensibilities and a definite affront to marital bliss, this popular quip made its way into our sacred literature and underscores the obvious danger of being on the roof. Luckily for our synagogue, the committee heading the roof replacement project was a husband and wife duo. They did a stellar job.

Lastly, the end-of-days prophecy of Ezekiel features a mythic battle between two forces “Gog,” and “Magog.” While these don’t necessarily mean “roof,” they are in fact the same Hebrew root of the word roof, gimmel, vav, gimmel. Contemporary conspiracists view these terms as a battle between the East versus the West, or Russia/China and America/Europe, but let’s be realistic here: this is just another projection onto a three-thousand year old Bible story that has many meanings behind it.

The rabbis of later years say even more about rooftops. They halachically give leeway to those who need to say prayer in a dangerous place. I agree with their perspective on safety as a primary consideration in mitzvah observance. Even deeper, the very reason why we cover our heads with yarmulkes is because we recognize God is above us. Classical rabbis are quick to point out that Pharoah stood over the Nile. Sacro-spatially, we should be reserved to place ourselves in a high position when we are not divinely ordained to do so. And we should tread carefully when we are so far above our usual elevation. The rooftop is a high up place, very unlike the synagogue’s bimah where we get an “aliyah” to ascend to Torah. The rooftop can be a physical level that puts us above others in a way that is dangerous. Being on the roof connotes the reality that we may fall.

In the final days of the roof’s construction, during a stormy afternoon, the board member tasked with overseeing the project discovered that the wind had blown down the ladder leading up to the rooftop, stranding him. Luckily, he was able to flag down a passerby. Thus, our board member was safely delivered from the risks of the shul’s rooftop, not by the wings of an angel, but by a random civilian doing his civic duty. Now that our rooftop is fixed and our building no longer leaks during heavy rain, I don’t foresee any reasons for people to ascend high up on the roof.

Regardless, if you ever find yourself, like the popular Drifters song, “Up on the Roof,” remember to be careful!

When this old world starts getting me down

And people are just too much for me to face

I climb way up to the top of the stairs

And all my cares just drift right into space

On the roof, it's peaceful as can be

And there the world below can't bother me

Let me tell you now...

Follow Rabbi Sam on Instagram at @yoshmu26