When you build a new house, then you shall make a ma-akeh for your roof; then you will not put blood-guilt on your house if the faller falls from it. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:8)
This verse appears in a compilation of practical laws in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”). At the most literal level, it simply requires a parapet around a roof as a safety precaution to prevent anyone from falling. If the faller were being injured or killed the owner of the house would be liable, bearing the “blood-guilt”.
Roofs from Egypt to Babylon (as well as in other parts of the world with dry climates and mild winters) were usually flat and built to bear weight, so people could walk, sit, sleep, and work on them. In the Ancient Near East, builders ran wooden beams or whole logs from wall to wall. They covered the beams with framed straw or reed mats, then topped the roof with several layers of clay compacted with stone rollers. Sometimes they added latticed rooftop structures to provide shade for people using the roof. A parapet around the edge made the top layer more durable, as well as improving safety.
The Hebrew Bible mentions using rooftops for private conversations,1 for sleeping,2 for storage,3 and for making sacrifices at altars for other gods.4 The Talmud also mentions keeping small lambs or goat kids on one’s roof.5
A roof without a parapet is unsafe not only because a person might fall off, but also because something might fall, or get pushed, from the roof onto a person below. When an unsavory king in the book of Judges, Avimelekh of Shechem, captures the town of Teiveitz, its residents flee to the tower in the middle of their town.
And they shut themselves inside and they went up onto the roof of the tower. And Avimelekh came up to the tower… to set it on fire. Then a woman sent down an upper millstone onto the head of Avimelekh, and it cracked his skull. (Judges 9:51-53)
The Talmud (Bava Kamma 15b) extends the requirement for a parapet around a roof to all other hazards in a house, such as keeping a vicious dog or setting up an unstable ladder. If the owner does not remove the hazard, he is liable for damages and a court can even excommunicate him.
Even if the owner is the only person who lives in the house, he must still make it safe for the benefit of guests and future residents.6
A sufficiently high parapet also provides privacy. According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 2b) if the roof of one house adjoins the courtyard of another house, the owner of the first house must build a parapet four cubits high,7 so he cannot look into the neighbor’s courtyard when he is using his roof. A similar ruling is that a wall separating the courtyards of two adjacent houses should be four cubits high, so neighbors cannot see into each other’s courtyards (Bava Batra 5a).
Even if houses are not adjacent, a higher parapet may be needed for privacy. If two houses are on opposite sides of a public road (Bava Batra 6a), both owners are likely to build a parapet high enough to prevent anyone on the road below from seeing them; but each owner must also build one side of his front parapet high enough to block the view from the opposite roof. Then both families will have privacy (and share the expense equally).
A story in the bible illustrates another situation in which a high parapet would have provided privacy.
It was evening time, and David rose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house. And he saw a woman bathing, from up on the roof, and the woman was very good in appearance. (2 Samuel 11:2)
For the sake of privacy, Bathsheba would have been bathing either on her own lower roof, or in the enclosed courtyard of her own house. But King David’s view was not blocked by a high enough parapet. Enamored of her naked beauty, he found out who she was and sent for her, assuming that since her husband Uriah was away at war, he would never know. When Bathsheba became pregnant, King David had Uriah sent home from the front, but he refused to sleep with his wife until the war was over. So David arranged for the death of the innocent man. None of this would have happened if King David’s parapet had been four cubits high.
Metaphor for Pride
The original injunction in this week’s Torah portion has also been interpreted allegorically, with the rooftop standing for pride. Philo of Alexandria wrote in the first century C.E. that when people give themselves credit for intellectual and social advancement, instead of crediting God, they are likely to fall from their high positions and be destroyed.
For the most grievous of all falls is for a man to stumble and fall from the honour due to God; crowning himself rather than God, and committing domestic murder. For he who does not duly honour the living God kills his own soul … (The Works of Philo, trans. by C.D. Yonge, “XXXIX, On Husbandry, 171”)
The Hassidic commentator Dov Baer Friedman interpreted Deuteronomy 22:8 by applying the metaphor of pride before a fall8 to a Torah scholar’s pride in coming up with a new interpretation.
This refers to one offering a new interpretation of Torah. “Make a railing for your upper storey.” If the verse were referring to a literal house, it would have said: “for its upper storey.” As it is, the upper storey is on you, referring to the swelling of your pride at this new teaching. Do not let your head get turned by pride! Even though this is a bit of Torah that no ear has ever heard, it comes not from you, but from God.
“Should somebody fall from it.” You are all set for such a fall.9
Building a Mental Parapet
Pride: All of us who enjoy either personal achievement or a high position in society should build a mental parapet to prevent ourselves from falling into the self-delusion of pride. This mental parapet might be a prayer or a reminder that our success depends on the deeds of other human beings, on the family and society we inherit, and on the genes that nature or God gave us.
Privacy: We can also find an inner meaning of the Talmud’s extension of the law in Ki Teitzei to cover privacy.
Just as humans need privacy in our living quarters, we need privacy in our own mental lives. You can share your physical space with close family members, and you can share your personal information, random thoughts, and emotional reactions with a trusted partner who knows you well. But sharing these things with neighbors, friends, or strangers can cause them to feel uncomfortable, to make false assumptions about you, or to feel burdened by your apparent neediness. It can even give false friends information they can use against us or against other people we know.
When it comes to privacy, we should to set our own boundaries, building a mental parapet so we do not reveal the wrong things, whether in response to an inappropriate question, or in a gush of good will or exhibitionism.
Those of us with flat and inhabitable roofs still need parapets to prevent people and things from falling off. But we all need parapets when it comes to the contents of our own minds.
- Examples of using a roof for private conversations: Joshua 2:6, 1 Samuel 9:25-26.
- Examples of using a roof for sleeping: Joshua 2:6, 2 Samuel 11:2.
- A roof is used for storing flax in Joshua 2:6.
- Examples of using a roof for altars to worship other gods: 2 Kings 23:12, Jeremiah 19:13 and 32:29, Zephanaiah 1:5.
- Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 6b.
- 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2009, p. 513.
- A cubit is the length of a forearm from elbow to fingertips. Four cubits would be over 6 feet, or almost 2 meters. (Bava Batra 2b also provides rules for window and courtyard partition placements to prevent a neighbor from being able to look inside the house next door.)
- Proverbs 16:18.
- Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, Or Torah (1804), translated by Arthur Green in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah, vol. 2, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2013, p. 124.