By Guy Lieberman
The Masonic Order has always carried with it a sense of mystique, a quality of the clandestine. The fact that it is believed to be a secret society, and has been for hundreds of years, certainly adds to its reputation. On top of that, because so much is simply unknown about Freemasons, there have been longstanding misunderstandings about the purpose and functioning of this cloistered community. The reality, however, is far from the Illumaniti-like fiction that so many tend to imagine freemasons to be.
Elya Joffe, Worshipful Master of Mount Carmel 44 Masonic Lodge in Haifa, is a South African born Israeli, initiated into the order 36 years ago. With all the enigma that comes with his title of seniority, Elya is open and articulate about what it means to be a mason.
“Firstly ” he says, “you need to understand how Freemasonry originated. That will help clarify where our practices came from. It’s not nearly as magical as people think.”
It’s almost impossible to tell Elya’s age. His hair and neat mustache are Gandalf-white, but he is otherwise a lithe and exuberant man, energetic yet measured, clearly pacing his presentation. He continues.
“The origins of Freemasonry are unclear, although early Freemasons were influenced by legends, imagery and customs of medieval stonemasons. It is believed that in the middle ages, the construction of the cathedrals across Europe required a large number of stonemasons, tasked with designing and building these massive, often ornate edifices, and would do so over long periods, thus they organized themselves in “Lodges” (similar to the notion of guilds, for other professions.)
“For practical purposes, the masons would come from across the continent, live together throughout the construction. The stonemasons needed to keep their skill, stock and trade and their plans secret from other builders, thus confidentiality was paramount. They would literally draw out their plans in the sand, and then once everyone understood their task, they would erase them.”
If anything was to dispel the myths surrounding the masonic secret society, it’s that the originators were literally operative builders who worked with stone. It doesn’t get more grounded than that. Elya takes it further.
“All these men living together for extended periods meant that there was more to their existence than just construction. Coming from the culture they did, prayer and worship was key to their routine. It was here, in these lodges, that the first blended elements of the unique ceremonial and mystical attributes that make up the masonic order began.”
Eventually, the overseers of the construction on site, assigned by the King, were probably first outsiders to be accepted in these lodges, though they themselves were not masons. And so, masonic rites and rituals gradually evolved beyond just operative stone masonry.
“Elias Ashmole was the first recorded to be initiated in a Lodge in Warrington, England in 1646 as an English speculative mason,” Elya explains.
From the 1660s, more evidence exists of ‘gentlemen’ being made Freemasons. In 1717, four London Lodges came together, declared themselves a “Grand Lodge,” the first Grand Lodge in the world. A rival Grand Lodge was formed in 1751, labelling the original Grand Lodge ‘Moderns’ and themselves ‘Ancients’. The two coexisted until they united in 1813 forming the United Grand Lodge of England, the mother of all grand lodges in the World.
In time the Freemasons took a retroactive look at the King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as ground zero of their spiritual practice. This lines up well, considering that the essence of their worldview is in the stone masonry of great houses of worship.
Over the centuries the masonic lodges grew in stature, format and appeal. Operating under the core values of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth – now expressed in the guiding principles of Integrity, Respect, Friendship and Charity – Freemasonry attracted people from all walks of life and spread around the globe. These principles of Freemasonry speak potentially to every person, regardless of religion, race or gender.
These networks helped their members in many ways, including, as simplified by Elya, “in becoming better, more refined men, with a focus on the greater good.” Beyond that, over time it evolved into a vast combined network of discreet charitable ventures, beyond Freemasonry itself including supporting hospitals, hospices, educational scholarships, even free legal and medical advice.
“There are Freemasons in virtually every democratic country in the world. The reason for us only functioning in democracies is simply because masons need to be ‘free’ in both the political and religious sense, freedom not granted in totalitarian regimes. It would be impossible for an order to function under a dictatorship or authoritarian rule.”
There are, however, degrees in Freemasonry that simultaneously clarify and deepen the inner work, the formation of the character.
“These are achieved,” Elya carefully explains, “based on one’s own spiritual development that, when recognised, are the basis for moving higher up in the order.”
If one were to sum up the essential philosophy of Freemasonry, Elya unpacks it like this:
“‘A peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols.’ Now, by a peculiar system, we mean a specific system. ‘Of morality’ would be the intent of the order to make good men better. ‘Veiled in allegory’, simply, the Masonic rituals are parables acted out that convey moral lessons, and impress them on a candidate’s heart.
“’Illustrated by symbols’, meaning these symbols might be drawn from nature or from the workmen, and so fall within the understanding of a candidate. So then, the famous Masonic rituals are allegorical in nature and confer these moral lessons, similar to biblical parables, to instill a certain mindfulness of self, conduct, and others. The rituals help one prepare for life and all that comes with it.”
The Freemasons have always been men-only. Over the last century, parallel women’s lodges also formed outside of Freemasonry, but independently aligned with it. One might easily interpret the masons as just another religion. Elya quickly dispels that myth.
“Despite the fact that the moral teachings are based on the tradition of the construction of the House of God in Jerusalem, Freemasonry is not a religion, and yet does not conflict with religion. During the Masonic ceremonies, the volumes of the sacred law, the Bible, the Koran and the New Testament are open, emphasizing that everyone is equal in the order. Indeed, In Israel one can find Jews, Muslims and Christians, all meeting in harmony. No one forces his views on another.”
One has to wonder how the masons in Israel navigate around conflict during their meetings.
“To avoid friction, religion and politics are not discussed, which means one can find left and right, Israelis alongside Palestinians from East Jerusalem. If there is no religion and politics – everyone can live together in peace and tranquility.”
This Freemasonic quote poetically distills this dynamic: “Prince and peasant, priest and layman, the ruler and the ruled, prophet and philosopher, meet upon the level and can sit in the same Lodge, with neither batting an eye, wearing the same symbols of the Craft.”
Famous Israeli Freemasons include the former Prime Minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin, the former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shaar Yishuv HaCohen, and the former Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz. Grand Lodge Officers have always comprised both Arabs and Jews. M. W. Bro. Jamil Shalhoub, an Arab lawyer from Haifa, was elected as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Israel in 1981. Bro. Nedim Mansour, a Christian Arab from a village near Haifa, was also elected as Grand Master in 2010.
Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein were, for example, in the same Masonic lodge in the USA. When Rabin died, King Hussein referred to him as ‘My Brother’. This was a reference to their lodge fellowship. Another famous Freemasons was Jacob Rothschild, father of the Baron Edmund de Rothchild.
Israel is a country of immigrants and there are lodges that operate in different languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Turkish and Russian.
Five of the lodges operate In English, in Haifa, Netanya, Jerusalem and Ra’anana.
To learn more about joining Freemasons, see the link below. Before you do so, however, here are the criteria:
You are at least 21 years old (unless son of a Mason, known as a “Lewis”, then at 18).
You believe in God or any Supreme Power (whatever you may perceive that to be).
You are of good report, meaning you have a clean reputation.
You are willing to contribute time and resources to the community.
You believe that every man is born free and all men are equal.
You are ready to act for these principles and serve as an example to others.
Website of the Grand Lodge of the State of Israel:
Or contact: Elya Joffe, WM of Mt. Carmel Lodge no. 44 at: [email protected]