Ben-Tzion Spitz
Former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay

Biblical Fiction: Building Committee

“Order!” Penuel banged on the makeshift table. “Can we have some order here?”

The thirty people in the large tent quieted down and turned to face the white-haired, heavyset, old man sitting at the far end of the tent.

“That is better,” Penuel cleared his throat loudly. “As you all may know by now, Moses has appointed me, Penuel son of Alchish, former architect of the Great Pyramid of Ramses, to organize the sanctuary construction effort. As the Israelite with the most design experience, it has fallen upon me to lead this effort.”

“Excuse me for interjecting,” Nethaniel son of Tzuar said, “but my understanding was that Moses just wanted you to assemble individuals with the skill, talent and interest in assisting the construction. He did not mention anything about leading. He just wanted you to convey the basics of the work so we can get organized.”

“My apologies, Prince Nethaniel,” Penuel looked down. “Your keen judging talents have indeed clarified the words of Moses our Teacher. I am certain that your own architectural experience will also be invaluable in our efforts.”

“Spare me the compliments,” Nethaniel said with an edge in his voice, “and let us get on with the sanctuary details.”

“Of course,” Penuel stated, while adjusting the belt around his rotund belly. “We are to construct a mobile structure that can be assembled and disassembled quickly and easily. It should not require specialized labor beyond the initial formation of the components. Furthermore, the components must be compact and light enough to be easily transported.”

The assembly immediately started murmuring.

“I know, I know!” Penuel called out. “This is the strangest construction I have ever heard of. One would think that if it is to be a temple to God, it should be massive and solid. I personally do not understand why Moses requested such a nomadic structure. Nevertheless, I shall draw for you an outline of what we are discussing. Truthfully, it is not even that grand.”

Penuel spread out a large piece of parchment and started to sketch on it with a piece of cold charcoal.

“This is meant to be the inner sanctuary with a longer room adjacent to it,” Penuel drew and pointed. “Then it will be surrounded by a larger perimeter that will enclose the sanctuary building.”

The people in the tent approached and surrounded Penuel’s table to take a closer look at his sketch.

“It is not large,” Nethaniel commented, “but it is still a fairly big structure to constantly take apart and put together again.”

“Well, I think that with standard bricks, stones and enough slaves,” Penuel explained, “we can build and disassemble the structure expeditiously.”

“And what slaves would you be referring to, Penuel?” Nethaniel asked. “We are no longer in Egypt; your brothers are no longer yours to command or direct in such a wretched manner.”

“Of course, of course. It is my oversight, my old colleague.” Penuel wiped his brow with a small rag from his pocket. “But I still do not see how we can reach these dimensions without intensive labor.”

“Ahem,” a young man motioned. “I think I know how.”

“I beg your pardon?” Penuel exclaimed. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“I am Betzalel son of Uri,” the young man announced, “and I believe I can help.”

“Help?” Penuel laughed. “Why, you are hardly old enough to know how to read a sundial!”

“Let the boy speak,” Nethaniel told Penuel.

“Very well. We do not have all day.” Penuel glared at Nethaniel. “What is it you want to say boy?”

“I know how we can build what Moses described,” Betzalel said.

“You do now, do you?” Penuel said with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes. We can use wood instead of bricks and stone.” Betzalel explained.

“Wood!” Penuel gasped. “And where in this desert will we find good wood? Did you happen to pass an oak or a cedar as we walked through? I would even settle for some short olive wood, even though it is terrible for building. Leave us boy. We do not have time for playing childish games.”

“We can use acacia wood,” Betzalel said, unflinching.

“Acacia wood?” Penuel looked perplexed. “That is too thorny for construction. And it will not be tall enough to use for roofing.”

“It is not difficult to scrape off the thorns,” Betzalel proclaimed. “I have done it myself. And we can use skins for the roof.”

“Skins for the roof? Are you mad?” Penuel turned red. “Get out of here now. I haven’t the patience for anymore nonsense.”

“No!” Nethaniel commanded. “Betzalel should stay. So far, his suggestions have been intelligent and I wish to hear more.” There was an undertone of approval from the rest of the people in the tent, who were transfixed by the exchange.

“If the skins are sown together well,” Betzalel continued, “and enough is left to hang over the sides of the wooden walls, then the roof will be tight and it will appear as a perfectly flat roof, with no sagging – or we could even tie the skins down.”

“And what will the prodigy say about all the golden structures we need to supply?” Penuel sneered at Betzalel. “Those are incredibly heavy.”

“Those can also be made out of wood, with gold plating,” Betzalel explained, unperturbed. “That way we shall have the beauty of the gold with the lightness of the wood.”

“But, but, what will keep the wooden beams for the wall upright?” Penuel asked, wiping his profusely sweaty forehead and turning redder.

“We can have small metal bases into which the wooden boards can be inserted,” Betzalel put his right hand out and pointed two fingers downwards. He then grabbed the tips of his fingers with his left hand. “It will help with anchoring the structure, it will make construction and placement easier, and it will keep the wall straight and sturdy.”

“But, but, but,” Penuel looked around in a daze, “I was supposed to lead this effort.” He stood up abruptly. “I cannot bare this degradation! Moses appointed me. Me! I, Penuel son of Alchish, Master Architect, Designer of The Great Pyramid of Ramses. I should have led this effort.” Enraged, Penuel  stomped out of the tent.

The entire tent was quiet.

“That was unfortunate,” Nethaniel declared. “Not surprising, but unfortunate. Nonetheless we must continue. Betzalel, I am curious about your solution of the wooden beams. The metal bases for support are ingenious, but what would you do about the top of the beam? Would they not be unstable?”

“That is an excellent question,” Betzalel smiled. “I would consider perhaps tapering the top ends to add stability.”

“I must ask something else first,” Nethaniel interjected. “How is it that someone so young knows so much about building, and has completely original ideas? I too was a pyramid designer and I have never heard of your innovations, though they appear to make sense.”

“My father, Uri son of Hur, was Pharaoh’s chief shipbuilder, and I assisted him. We constantly had to think how to build light and compact vessels. You pyramid builders are always thinking about massive and heavy construction.”

The tent flap opened and Joshua son of Nun entered, followed closely by Moses. Moses looked around the room. “Where is Penuel?” he asked.

“Um, Penuel is currently indisposed,” Nethaniel answered. “But,” Nethanial motioned to Betzalel, “I believe that we may have found the ideal candidate to lead the construction of the sanctuary.”

Moses’ left eyebrow went up imperceptibly, but he said nothing, looking at Betzalel closely.

“If everyone is in favor of this, I have no objections,” Moses declared. “God has now given me explicit details that I can relay to you.”

Moses then started to read from a long list: “We are to use acacia wood to build the structure…”

* * * * * *

Biblical Sources:

Exodus 25-27. (Significant detail on the Sanctuary construction. Recommended reading for architects and interior designers.)

Secondary Sources:

Tractate Sanhedrin 69b

“Betzalel was a thirteen year old boy when he constructed the Tabernacle.”

Tractate Berachot 55a

The Holy One, Blessed be He, queried Moses, “Moses, is Betzalel deserving in your opinion?” Moses answered, “Lord of the Universe, if he is deserving in your opinion, he is certainly deserving in mine.” “Nonetheless,” replied God, “question Israel.” Moses questioned Israel, “Is Betzalel deserving in your opinion?” They answered, “If he is deserving in the opinion of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in your opinion, he is certainly deserving in ours.”

Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1

Even with affairs that he (Betzalel) had not yet been taught about by his teacher, his personal hypotheses correlated with what had been said to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Tractate Berachot 55a

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses, “Go instruct Betzalel to construct Me a Tabernacle, Ark, and implements,” Moses switched the order and instructed Betzalel to construct an Ark,  implements, and a Tabernacle. “Our master Moses,” said Betzalel, “the practice of the world is that one first builds a house and only then places implements in it; but you instructed me to ‘Make an Ark, implements, and a Tabernacle.’ Where will I place the  implements that I make? Did the Holy One, Blessed be He, maybe instruct you, ‘Make a Tabernacle, and Ark, and then implements’?” Moses responded, “Were you in the shadow (betzal) of God (el) [hence his name], that you apprehended this?”


Many years ago, I walked into a grey utilitarian room in Detroit, Michigan. I had the distinction of meeting with two GM engineers responsible for welding solutions for the manufacturer’s engine developments. I was the sales engineer for a company with a new welding technology.

The senior engineer, a grey (somewhat heavy) man in his late fifties, spread out plans for the engine block on the table, and explained to me in great detail why the technology I was suggesting would not work for any of their welding needs. I noticed the junior engineer, a taller, red-headed man in his thirties was extremely quiet the whole time, but looking intently at the plans.

After the senior engineer had made sure I knew the folly of suggesting using the technology on his engine, the junior engineer proceeded to quietly, respectfully, but very firmly point out, not one, not even two, but six different parts where our welding technology could help them.

Lesson: Give the junior guy a chance.

I completely made up the pyramid vs. boat vs. Tabernacle design theme. Makes sense to me.

The acacia wood is a prominently recorded component of the Sanctuary (as are the skins), and there are some records that acacia wood was also used during that era for shipbuilding.

Books and illustrations from “The Temple Institute” were extremely helpful in picturing the Tabernacle, its design and components.

Tags: Biblical Fiction, Exodus, Terumah


About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay. He is the author of six books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. He is the publisher of Torah.Works, a website dedicated to the exploration of classic Jewish texts, as well as TweetYomi, which publishes daily Torah tweets on Parsha, Mishna, Daf, Rambam, Halacha, Tanya and Emuna. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.