Reflections on the Feast of Tishri

The following reflections are my own. They reference and interpret, but do not constitute, official teachings from Masonic rituals and documents. This was originally written and delivered for the Fort Worth Scottish Rite 2018 Feast of Tishri.

This annual Scottish Rite event celebrates the completion and dedication of King Solomon’s Temple, which is of utmost importance to Freemasonry, and certainly to the Scottish Rite. To begin understanding some of the special significance of this event, we should first understand its context in the Hebrew calendar. Tishri is a month usually occurring in September–October of the Gregorian calendar. According to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, before the Babylonian Exile it was known only as the seventh month of the ecclesiastical calendar. It was called Ethanim, which is understood to mean ‘endurance’ in reference to the brooks and streams still flowing at this time of year. The word Ethanim is based upon the root word, ethan, which means ‘strength.’

The current name of the month, Tishri, is Babylonian. After the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, they took the Jews into captivity over a period of 50-60 years. From that point on, the Jews have used the Babylonian name of the month, Tishri, literally meaning ‘a beginning,’ as the first month of their civil year. In other words, it is the establishment of the new civil year.

It strikes me as a very interesting that the two names of this month, Ethanim, the seventh ecclesiastical month, and Tishri, the first civil month, can be taken as references to the principles of strength and establishment. As all Masons should know, these two principles are referenced by the Hebrew names of the two bronze pillars that were at the portico of the Temple, Boaz for strength and Jachin for establishment. (1 King’s 7:21)

Another interesting connection with the Temple’s historical background is that the Feast of Tishri was originally associated with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. That harvest festival, known as Sukkot, commemorates the Israelites fleeing Egypt and living in temporary shelters in the wilderness for 40 years. The Hebrew word for such a shelter is sukkah, and it was also the word used for the Tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant, serving as a temporary and moveable sacred space for welcoming the presence of God, called Shekinah. The layout of the Tabernacle also served as the model for the floorplan of King Solomon’s Temple.

So now let us proceed to more directly consider the significance of our Feast of Tishri, which is the completion and dedication of King Solomon’s Temple. Our traditional references for that occasion are found in 1st Kings 7-8 and 2nd Chronicles 6-7, which present virtually identical accounts of the event. From these accounts, we can discern what the Temple meant to King Solomon and his people, which in turn can help us understand some of the most fundamental symbolic meanings the Temple can hold for Masons.

In the New International Version of 2nd Chronicles, at the beginning of chapter 6, we find:

(1-3) Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; I have built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.” While the whole assembly of Israel was standing there, the king turned around and blessed them.

A little later, Solomon declares:

(10-11) “The Lord has kept the promise he made. I have succeeded David my father and now I sit on the throne of Israel, just as the Lord promised, and I have built the temple for the Name of the Lord, the God of Israel. There I have placed the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord that he made with the people of Israel.”

Now we skip ahead into Solomon’s prayer of dedication, where he says:

(18-21) “But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet, Lord my God, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive.”

Later, while Solomon asks for blessings of justice, prosperity, and peace for the people of Israel, he includes this:

(32-33) “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Then in closing, Solomon prays:

(41) “Now arise, Lord God, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests, Lord God, be clothed with salvation, may your faithful people rejoice in your goodness.”

In Chapter 7, the story continues with this:

(1-3) When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures forever.”

After all the sacrifices were offered, we read about God’s response:

(11-12) When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, the Lord appeared to him at night and said: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices.”

(15-16) “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.”

Now let’s summarize some of the key points and their significance to Masons. First, the Temple is not a place that contains God. Solomon declares that nothing, not even the highest heavens can contain God. Rather, he prays for the Temple to be a dwelling place for God’s presence, a place to communicate with God, which the Israelites did through their musical praise and their prayers. But, as a dwelling place for Shekinah, God’s presence, the Temple was more than just a place to offer praise and prayers. Just like the Tabernacle, it housed the Ark Covenant, in which was stored the Tablets of the Law communicated by God to Moses. Furthermore, the Mercy Seat atop the Ark was also where Shekinah, referred to in these scriptures as ‘the glory of the Lord,’ would manifest in smoke and flame. So, in addition to being a place for the communication of praise and prayer, the Temple was a place of communion with God, a place where God’s presence could be directly and powerfully experienced, and not just by the priests, but by all the people. In fact, the Biblical account of the dedication ceremony says that after King Solomon’s prayer, all the people witnessed the fiery glory of the Lord come down from the heavens to burn the offerings and so completely fill the Temple that the priests couldn’t even enter. In response to King Solomon, God promises to always have a presence in the Temple, and to bestow blessings of justice, prosperity, and peace, so long as the people of Israel continue following God’s laws. Furthermore, it is declared that God’s name, eyes, ears, and heart will be there, open not only to the people of Israel, but to foreigners as well.

That last point about foreigners is of particular importance to Freemasons. Our tradition pays careful attention to the fact that the building of the Temple was not accomplished by King Solomon and his Israelite subjects alone. The Bible tells us that the Phoenician King Hiram of Tyre, his architect, Hiram Abif, and a great number of his workmen were essential to the building of the Temple. Masonic tradition also teaches that King Hiram of Tyre provided much of the financial and material resources for the Temple’s construction. In short, King Solomon’s Temple couldn’t have been built without those Phoenician foreigners.

Join me in thinking about that for a moment. That Temple, dedicated to God, who is therein worshipped through Jewish names and religious customs, owed its existence to non-Jews. What’s more, those non-Jews were polytheists, worshippers of many gods, but, as men of Tyre they worshipped Melqart above all others, and another name for Melqart was Baal.

Anyone who spent much of their childhood in Sunday school, at least like the ones I attended, learned that the people of Israel had a lot of trouble with the worshippers of Baal. For that reason, many of us grew up nearly equating Baal with the Devil himself. Nonetheless, here we are, in the construction, completion, and dedication of Judaism’s most sacred edifice, with Solomon welcoming, including, honoring, and praying for blessings upon those worshippers of Baal and other foreigners. I’ll reiterate this point that an explicit part of the very dedication of this edifice is its inclusion of foreigners, which is not merely to say people of other lands, but people of other faiths because in those times most nations had their own religion. The Temple’s inclusion of non-Jews is later echoed in the book of Isaiah and in the New Testament when God is quoted as saying: “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17)

This observation is of utmost Masonic significance because it is reflected in our own commitment to welcome men of all faiths who acknowledge a Supreme Being and are willing to take our moral and fraternal obligations. That’s how Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others can sit side by side, bow their heads in reverence together, pray together, and together dedicate their work to Deity, even though their hearts may be silently speaking different names for Deity, or their minds holding very different concepts about the nature of Deity. That’s how we, in the Scottish Rite, can have the holy book of more than one faith on our altars. So we can, we should, and we do practice this kind of inclusion not just as a popular convention, but as a fundamental element of our Craft as stated in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, which says:

“But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.”

Beyond the principle of Masonic religious inclusion, I want to suggest the Temple’s dedication event has an even deeper symbolic significance for Masons. Let’s begin moving in this deeper direction by noting that Masonry teaches us to contemplate King Solomon’s Temple as a model for each Masonic lodge, and the lodge as a model for each Mason’s own life. In short, what we have learned about the dedication of the Temple also applies to each of us as a human being. With that thought in mind, consider that the dedication of the Temple was, in effect, the initiation of its life as a place for the people of Israel to commune directly with God, and for welcoming the people of all nations to join them in doing so. We may therefore regard our Masonic initiations as having the same significance for each of us in accord with the sacred laws of our own religions.

Masonic initiation and instruction is offering each of us the opportunity to take the raw material of the body and soul and craft it into a more complete and refined temple for God’s presence in this world. And, just as with King Solomon’s Temple, it’s important to understand that in order to do our best in this work, we need the help of others, and often the help of others who are very different from us, who have different resources, different talents, different life experiences, different perspectives, different beliefs, and different understandings of things. Masonry not only offers us the opportunity, but actually expects us to both give and accept that kind of help. Furthermore, it teaches us that doing so in our fraternal lives is meant to prepare us to do so in all parts of our lives, with our family, friends, coworkers, fellow citizens, and even those who seem most foreign to us, or who we might otherwise regard as enemies.

In closing, we can see that the Feast of Tishri holds a special place in Scottish Rite Masonry not merely because it commemorates the completion and dedication of King Solomon’s Temple, but because that event is symbolic of things each of us should be doing in our own lives. Even so, I want to add that none of us is expected to be perfect, let alone pretend to be perfect in this work. A number of times throughout the story of the Temple’s dedication, God’s forgiveness and loving kindness are invoked and praised, and rightly so, because we’re all going to make mistakes, or simply drop our tools in exhaustion from time to time. Since I am speaking to you now, let me be the first to say I screw up and give up far more than I could ever adequately account for. I also want to say that I don’t think doing this work means we have to go around with our noses stuck in our favorite holy books, trying to be so super serious about our piety that we lose the joy of ordinary life. No, I think this work is really about ordinary people working, and sometimes struggling, to let the light of truth and love shine a little more brightly in their lives than it otherwise would, and very often having a really good time doing so. With God’s blessing, so mote it be.