1. In Remembrance of the Temple's Destruction2. A Square Cubit - Remembrance of the Temple's Destruction3. The Law Concerning One Who Buys a House4. One Who Builds Houses for Sale5. Ceramics, Wallpaper, and Decorative Paint6. Whitewash and Paint7. A Depiction of Jerusalem 1. In Remembrance of the Temple's Destruction
In the wake of the destruction of the Holy Temple a great change took place. It seemed as if after the destruction, and all that came in its wake, it would no longer be able to continue living in a normal manner.
The Talmud relates (Baba Batra 60b):
"Our Rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, large numbers in Israel became ascetics, binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine. R' Yehoshua got into conversation with them and said to them, 'My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine?'
They replied: 'Shall we eat flesh which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, now that this altar is in abeyance? Shall we drink wine which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, but now no longer?'
He said to them: 'If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased.'
They said: '[That is so, and] we can manage with fruit.'
'We should not eat fruit either, [he said,] because there is no longer an offering of firstfruits.'
'Then we can manage with other fruits [they said].'
'But, [he said,] we should not drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of water.'
To this they could find no answer, so he said to them: 'My sons, come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn too much is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.' "
R' Yehoshua continued and explained to them that the principle is that life must go on. We cannot allow our great mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple to cause a state of depression that the nation cannot endure. It is therefore impossible to institute that so long as the Temple sits in ruin it is forbidden to consume meat or drink wine. However, any time a person participates in a celebration, he must recall the destruction of the Holy Temple, for so long as the Temple is in ruins the joy is still not complete.
Therefore, the sages teach that a groom on his wedding day must place Jerusalem above his highest joy and put ash on his head as a sign of mourning. Likewise, when a person builds a house he must leave a square cubit of wall without whitewash in remembrance of the Temple's destruction. And when preparing a celebrative meal, one must leave out one cooked food in remembrance of the Temple's destruction. And the same is true of women's jewelry.2. A Square Cubit - Remembrance of the Temple's Destruction
The sages enacted a number of ordinances in order to remind us of the destruction of the Holy Temple. The underlying principle here is that when a person has the good fortune of arriving at some occasion that gives him a sense of gratification, he must remember that his joy is still incomplete, for the Temple lies in ruins.
Therefore, the sages instituted that when a person builds a house for himself and arrives at its final stage, the whitewashing of the walls, he must remember that the house of the nation, the Holy Temple, still lies in ruins. And in remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temple he must leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed.
In this ordinance, the sages teach us that so long as the Holy Temple is not built, the private home of an individual also cannot be complete. Therefore, a square cubit of wall must be left without whitewash. A cubit is approximately half a meter, and therefore, in practice, a square half meter of wall must be left without whitewash. In the same respect, if a person covers his walls with wallpaper, he must leave a square half meter of wall without whitewash and without wallpaper.
The bare square cubit must be in a place that catches the eye. The sages therefore instituted that this square cubit be situated opposite the entrance of the house. Some have understood this to mean that the square cubit should be situated above the entrance inside, in order that the people in the house always see the unwhitewashed space. However, according to most authorities, the unwhitewashed space should be situated on the wall opposite the entrance so that whoever enters the house can see it. Only in a case where it is impossible to leave a space opposite the entrance - for example, in a house that has no wall opposite the entrance - is it permitted to situate the unwhitewashed space above the entrance (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 560:1; Mishnah Berurah 3; Arukh HaShulchan 5).3. The Law Concerning One Who Buys a House
It often happens that a person buys a house from somebody else and discovers that no square cubit of wall has been left without whitewash. In such a case, does the buyer have to scrape off some of the wall opposite the entrance in order to uncover a square cubit in remembrance of the Temple's destruction? Or do we say that because he was not the one who whitewashed the house to begin with, he is not obligated to leave an area unwhitewashed in remembrance of the Temple's destruction?
Answer: It all depends on who built the house, i.e., who the original owner was. If the person who built the house was a Jew, he was obligated to leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed. If he did not do so, the square cubit of wall was whitewashed counter to Jewish law. Therefore, the buyer must scrape off the whitewash. However, if the original owner was a non-Jew, he was not obligated to leave an unwhitewashed area, and it follows that the buyer is exempt from scraping off a square cubit of whitewash (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 560:1; Mishnah Berurah 4).
It does not matter who the builders are. What matters is who the owner of the house is. If the owner of the house is a Jew, he must leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed even if non-Jew's build his house, for they are building the house for him. And if the workers mistakenly whitewashed the entire house, the owner of the house must himself scrape off a square cubit of wall opposite the entrance.4. One Who Builds Houses for Sale
"Iggrot Moshe" (Orach Chaim 3:86) gives a unique ruling regarding the law of a square cubit of unwhitewashed wall in remembrance of the Temple's destruction. In his opinion, only a person who builds his own house must leave a square cubit of unwhitewashed wall opposite the entrance of the house. However, a person who builds houses in order to sell them, even if he intends to sell them to Jews, is not obligated to leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed. This is because these houses were not designated for his own private usage.
In addition, "Iggrot Moshe" writes that because the contractor who built the house was exempt from leaving a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed in remembrance of the Temple's destruction, the buyer too is exempt from scraping the whitewash off of that square cubit. Only one who builds his own house, or hires a contractor for the purpose of building his house, must leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed in remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temple.
This ruling is grounded in the words of the sages, who teach that "one covers [the walls of] his house with plaster and leaves a square cubit of unwhitewashed wall opposite the entrance" (Baba Batra 60b). In other words, the obligation rests upon the one who builds his own house. But one who builds houses in order to sell them or rent them out is exempt from leaving a square cubit of unwhitewashed wall in remembrance of the Temple's destruction.
And since the contractor is exempt, the one who buys from him is also exempt from scraping the whitewash from a square cubit of wall opposite the entrance of the house. However, from here forward, if an owner should desire to whitewash the house, he must leave the square cubit of wall opposite the entrance of the house without whitewash.
However, it must be added that if the apartment was purchased from the contractor before its completion, even "Iggrot Moshe" says that a square cubit of wall must be left unwhitewashed, for at the time of the whitewashing the apartment was already considered his house. And if the workers went ahead and whitewashed the square cubit opposite the entrance of the house, the buyer must scrape off that area himself.
All of the above is the opinion of "Iggrot Moshe," however there are authorities who disagree. They hold that if the original owner was a Jew, there is at any rate an obligation to leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed. Therefore, if a person buys an apartment from a Jewish contractor and the contractor did not leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed, he must himself scrape off this area.
And, according to these authorities, even if the first owner did not do this, whoever buys the apartment after him will be bound by Jewish law to scrape off this area. Because the first owner was Jewish, the apartment became obligated to have a square cubit of unwhitewashed wall in remembrance of the Temple. (This is what is implied by a plain understanding of the words of the authorities. Only if the first owner was a non-Jew is the house exempt. Magen Avraham and others).5. Ceramics, Wallpaper, and Decorative Paint
There is a debate in Jewish law between Rambam and Tur over the question of whether or not it is permissible, while the Temple sits in ruins, for a person to decorate the walls of his own house with decorative ceramic tiles or patterned wallpaper, or even a patterned two-color paint job. While it is clearly permissible to hang pictures on the walls, there is disagreement about painting the walls with decorations or patterns.
According to Tur, it is permissible for a person to beautify the walls of his house with all sorts of decorations on the condition that he leave a square cubit of wall without any decoration and or whitewash in remembrance of the destruction of the Holy Temple (Tur, Orach Chaim 560, based upon the third Baraitha in Baba Batra 60b).
However, according to Rambam, with the destruction of the Holy Temple the sages instituted a prohibition against overly decorating one's home. Therefore, it is forbidden to cover the walls with ceramic tiles, wallpaper, or decorative paint. When the rabbis instituted leaving a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed they were referring to whitewash or paint, but decorating the walls with ceramic tiles, ect., is completely forbidden (Hilkhot Taaniot 5:12, based upon the third Baraitha in Baba Batra 60b, and this is how Shulchan Arukh rules, 560:1).
As far as a final ruling is concerned, many authorities follow the lenient opinions, and the accepted practice in many households is to decorate the walls with wallpaper or decorated ceramic tiles. And in remembrance of the Temple's destruction they leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed (Rif and Rosh also insinuate that it is permissible, and Mishnah Berurah 1 writes that this is the custom). The pious, however, act stringently, in keeping with the opinion of Rambam. They refrain from decorating the house with ceramic tiles and the likes and make due with whitewash or a simple paint job. And, of course, they leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed and unpainted.
All authorities are in agreement that in synagogues and study halls there is no need to leave a square cubit of wall unpainted. It is likewise permissible to cover the walls of these places with wallpaper or decorative ceramics. This is because the rabbinic ordinance applies specifically to private homes, not public places (Magen Avraham and Pri Megadim 560:4 ).6. Whitewash and Paint
Shulchan Arukh writes (Orach Chaim 560:1): "When the Holy Temple was destroyed, the sages of that generation ordained that one should never build a building that is whitewashed and decorated like a regal building. Rather, one plasters his house with loam and whitewashes it and leaves a square cubit of wall without whitewash opposite the entrance of the house."
These days, in ordinary construction, people use plaster instead of loam. And plaster is spread in two layers. The first layer consists of a dark plaster, and the second, outer layer is a light type of plaster. This outer layer of plaster is then covered with whitewash. It follows that, according to Jewish law, the square cubit of wall opposite the entrance of the house should not be whitewashed at all, such that the white plaster be exposed.
It is important to underscore this point because many people whitewash their entire house and then, when painting on top of the whitewash, leave a square cubit of wall unpainted. Others paint the entire house and then paint the square cubit opposite the entrance of the house in black.
Nonetheless, those who choose to be lenient in this regard have authorities to rely upon. There are authorities who explain that the main purpose of this rabbinic ordinance is that there be a recognizable difference in this square cubit of wall in remembrance of the Temple's destruction. Therefore, according to this position, if there is a recognizable difference between the wall color of the rest of house and this whitewashed or black area, one has fulfilled his obligation (See Shaar HaTziyun 560:8; Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:86).
However, according to most authorities, one must leave a square cubit of wall with neither paint nor whitewash. In the words of the Shulchan Arukh one must "leave a square cubit of wall opposite the entrance of the house without whitewash." It is not enough that there be something that visibly reminds us of the destruction of the Holy Temple; rather, it is necessary that the house remain unfinished, and whitewash is the house's finishing touch. If the workers inadvertently whitewashed the entire house, one should not merely go ahead and paint the entire house except for the appropriate area. The proper course to take is to scrape off the whitewash in order to expose the white plaster underneath (Mishnah Berurah 560:2).
People do not generally whitewash wallboard ("geves") walls. Therefore, in such a case, it is enough to refrain from painting the square cubit opposite the entrance of the house.7. A Depiction of Jerusalem
Some people practice the erroneous custom of hanging a picture of the Temple Mount opposite the entrance of the house. This is not in keeping with Jewish law, for the picture cannot replace the rabbinic ordinance. Rather, one must leave a square cubit of wall unwhitewashed opposite the entrance of the house. And if a person seeks to go beyond the letter of the law by making some kind of sign that will cause whoever enters the house to understand the significance of this bare square cubit, he can hang a picture of the Temple Mount above or next to the bare space. It is also possible to write the verse "If I should forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning" (Psalms 137:5). Others leave the plaster exposed but etch a picture of walls into it, and since there is no whitewash, they fulfill their obligation.
Though, as we learned in the previous section, it may well be that those who follow the lenient path have authorities to rely upon, for perhaps the underlying principle of the rabbinic ordinance is that there be something that recalls the destruction of the Holy Temple - and a picture of the Temple Mount certainly recalls the destruction of the Holy Temple - but according to the overwhelming majority of authorities the main idea of the ordinance is that the square cubit be left with neither paint nor whitewash. This shows that the house's construction is not complete, and it gives expression to the idea that so long as the Holy Temple is not built, our own private house also cannot reach completion.
Some of the translated Talmudic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).