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20.03.2017 15:39    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  exodus  parashat vayakhel- pekudei  

The account in this week’s reading of the contributions to the Tabernacle tells of two groups of women who spun thread for the cloth coverings used in the Tabernacle. One group spun threads for the lower covers using a variety of precious raw materials – wool dyed blue, purple, and crimson, and linen fibers (Ex. 35:25).   The other group spun thread for the upper covering out of plain materials – goat hair (Ex.35:26).

In appreciation of this work, Scripture praised the artistry and handicraft of these two groups, but expressed this praise differently for each group.  The women of the first group were called “skilled,” while the second group received exceptional note for their artistry:  they were women who “excelled in that skill.”   Even the Sages noted this special emphasis, observing, “Greater skill was ascribed to those who worked on the upper cloths than the lower ones” (Shabbat 99a).  In their opinion, Scripture viewed spinning goat hair as an artistic achievement requiring greater skill than that which was needed to spin precious materials, therefore it commemorated their work by a more grandiose description.  Many commentators, however, had difficulty accounting for this extraordinary admiration since weaving is a simple craft, not considered skilled labor.  This difficulty was compounded by the fact that in ancient times weaving was traditionally woman’s work. [1]

This difficulty led Midrash ha-Gadol (Margaliyot ed., 35:26) to conclude that “this was more difficult work, since goat hair is extremely fine and stiff.”  In other words, Scripture expressed exceptional praise for the skill of these women because of the nature of goat hair, requiring great expertise in order to spin it into thread. [2]

Another solution to this problem may be found in midrashic traditions holding that spinning thread of goat hair was considered an artistic feat because of the unconventional way in which it was done.  These traditions recount that the women who spun goat thread did not wait for the goat hair to be shorn; rather they spun it while it was still on the goat’s body.   For example, a baraitha attributed to Rabbi Nehemiah, in Shabbat (74b, 99a) says, “rinsed on the goats and spun from the goats.”  Rashi explains that Rabbi Nehemiah’s derasha was addressing a syntactic difficulty in the text:   Scripture says that the women “spun the goats,” (tavu et ha-cizim) without mentioning the word hair, the object of the spinning, hence the conclusion that the spinning was done “on the body of the goats.” [3]

This midrashic addition also appears in two relatively late Aramaic translations of Scripture.   Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (=Targum Yerushalmi) expands homiletically on this verse:  “They would spin the hair of the goats on their body and card [4] it while the goats were still alive.” [5] An interesting development of this homily appears in the Targum of Chronicles, on the verse, “Caleb son of Hezron had children by his wife Azubah” (Sperber ed., I Chron.2:18).   The name Azubah (meaning “abandoned”) invites a tragic interpretation, and indeed the author of the Targum interpreted her name, connecting it with events in her life: “The Lord, knowing of her disgrace – for she was barren and humiliated – blessed her and made her excel in wisdom so that she skillfully wove the hair on the goats’ bodies, unshorn, to make the cloths for the Tabernacle.” [6] This targumic tradition identifies Azubah as one of the women who took part in weaving the goat hair, noting that in compensation for her barrenness she had been blessed with artistic talent enabling her to spin goat hair before it had been shorn.

This homily deserves close attention, for the notion that the spinning was done prior to shearing the hair makes one wonder why the women had to resort to this peculiar method of spinning and what benefit they derived from it.  Furthermore, why was wool not spun in a similar manner?  Indeed, the difficulty in understanding this homily caused many later commentators to interpret this Targumhomiletically, explaining the women’s actions  as showing their proficiency in Halakhah.   Accordingly, the women took care to spin the goat hair before it was shorn in order to avoid halakhic difficulties that might prevent or restrict their participation in the work of spinning. [7] The drawback of these interpretations is that they turn the women of the generation of the wilderness into talmudic scholars delving into the fine points of earlier and later rabbinic authorities.

To resolve this thorny problem some adherents of the plain interpretation (the way of Peshat) suggested that the hair was spun before being shorn in order to assure that the thread be pure and of high quality.  For example, Rabbi David Pardo held that “the wool or hair is very clean then and does not become dirtied in use.” [8] This method, he said, was used only for spinning goat hair because it, in contrast to wool and flax, did not need to be dyed and therefore was likely to become soiled.  Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, however, on the basis of scientific knowledge in his day, explained that the quality of the final product suffered when separated from its biological source.   He claimed that spinning the hair while attached to “the source from which it grew” enhanced the beauty of the thread, giving it “greater sheen.” [9]

These commentaries help explain why goat hair specifically was spun in this complicated manner.  Since goat hair was used to make the outer cloths of the Tabernacle tent (Exodus 26:7), for the purpose of covering and protecting the lower cloths (Ex. 26:14), there was increased danger of these exposed cloths being damaged by the desert climate and the touch of human hands.

A totally different exegetical approach appears in an anthology of sermons on the Torah by Rabbi Israel Neiman (Cracow, late 19th century), who offers a psychological-religious explanation for this special spinning technique:

Perhaps the women were at wits’ end in their eagerness to get to work without delay, finding the time dragging as they waited for the 'feathers' [10] to be shorn so that they could get to work. Therefore they wove it while still on the goats.” [11]

The thrust of this interpretation is that the women’s strong desire to participate in the work of making the Tabernacle, coupled with their enthusiasm, prompted them to prepare coverings for the Tabernacle without having to wait a painfully long time for the goats to be shorn.  The group of women whose great skill was so highly praised therefore preferred the more complicated yet quicker method of spinning over the regular, more time-consuming method.  By immediately engaging in the work of spinning, they could give vent to their fervent ardor.

Rabbi Israel Neiman’s explanation is consonant with the well-known observation of the Sages:  “Love upsets the natural order” (Genesis Rabbah, 55.8).  That is, spurred on by love, in this instance for G-d, a person acts in an exceptional way and not in the normal order of things.

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