David Sedley
David Sedley
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Parshat Tetzaveh – Knit together

When the personal goes public: Haman’s vendetta against Mordecai became a plan to annihilate an entire people, and Esther’s intimate relationship led to the nation's salvation
Stocking frame at Ruddington Framework Knitters' Museum. (CC BY-SA, John Beniston/ Wikimedia Commons)
Stocking frame at Ruddington Framework Knitters' Museum. (CC BY-SA, John Beniston/ Wikimedia Commons)

A short blog this week in memory of my mother, Judy Sedley (Yehudit bat Yitzchak), who passed away last week.

There are many legends about how William Lee came to invent the knitting machine. My favorite is that he could never attract his wife’s attention because she was constantly clicking her knitting needles together, knitting stockings, in what had become something of a fad across the country.

It is unclear when knitting appeared in England. Spanish Catholic royal families in the 13th century hired Muslim knitters to create such items as cushion covers and gloves which have been found in tombs and cathedral treasuries. Fragments of knitwear have been found in cities across Europe dating back to the 14th century.

By the 16th century, everyone wanted knitted fine wool stockings, though Queen Elizabeth preferred hose knitted from silk. Knitwear became one of Britain’s chief exports and provided income for the poor.

Poor William Lee. Born in 1563, in Nottinghamshire, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1582 and served as curate at Calverton. But his wife showed far more interest in her knitting than in her husband. So, in 1589, he invented the world’s first knitting machine so that his dear wife wouldn’t spend so much time with her needles.

His first machine produced only coarse stocking fabric. But he continued to improve his machine, increasing the number of needles from eight-per-inch to 20. He displayed his new machine to Queen Elizabeth and asked her to grant him a patent. Her Majesty loved the stockings Lee produced but refused to grant him a patent. Long before the Industrial Revolution, the Queen was worried that the new machine would put the cottage knitting industry out of business. She told the inventor:

Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.

Lee continued to improve his machine and by 1598 it could knit silk stockings as well as wool. In 1603, Elizabeth died but when Lee went to King James, he was again refused a patent. So, he took nine of his machines, along with nine workers and his brother James to Rouen, France, where Henry IV was keen to support technology.

Things were finally looking up for Lee. He had signed a contract to supply knitting frames and train knitters and began production on March 26, 1610. However, just a couple of months later, on May 14th, Henry was assassinated and Lee lost his patron. Lee died in poverty in Paris in 1614.

After Lee’s death, his brother James moved back to England and sold off the machines. One of Lee’s apprentices, Ashton, took the machine and added a mechanism known as a divider (but don’t ask me what that actually does because I couldn’t figure it out).

Ashton created a thriving business in Spitalfields, just outside London which had plenty of sheep nearby to provide the wool. In 1663, the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters was finally issued a royal charter.

Lee’s frustration with his wife’s knitting obsession led to the creation of an entire industry. Queen Elizabeth saw correctly that his machine would destroy a cottage industry and turn individuals into factory workers. Her only mistake was in thinking that she could hold back the tide of industrialization.

Lee’s knitting frame reminds me of the instructions for making the priestly garments, detailed in this week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh.

The regular priests served in the Temple wearing four garments (tunic, belt, trousers and turban), while the High Priest was easily recognizable with his eight garments (the four of a regular priest along with the breastplate, apron, long tunic and headband). The regular priests wore white linen garments, but the High Priest’s long tunic was made of blue wool and his ephod was made from blue, purple and scarlet wool, twisted linen and spun gold.

These eight garments were worn by the High Priest whenever he worked in the Temple. The only exception was one day a year, on Yom Kippur, when he would enter the Holy of Holies. Before he went in for his most private and intimate encounter with the Divine, he would change into plain white linen garments. The rabbis explain that it would be inappropriate for the High Priest to wear gold – which was used to make the Golden Calf — when pleading for forgiveness for the nation.

The colorful, woven fabric was worn by the High Priest when he faced the nation. These garments were worn by the High Priest Simeon the Righteous when he went out to greet Alexander of Macedonia. They were the public face of the priesthood. In contrast, the plain white garments were the private aspect of the priesthood, worn only once to a place where nobody could see them, then put away forever. This dichotomy between public and private, communal and personal, represent the duality of the priesthood. The priests served the nation, offering their sacrifices and teaching them Torah. Yet at the same time they worked in the Temple as emissaries of God, and represented him to the world.

The fabulous clothing of the High Priest is described in the Torah as “splendor and beauty.” The same word appears in Megillat Esther, which we read today on Purim. Ahasuerus threw a great party to show off the “splendor of his greatness,” (Esther 1:4). From this, the rabbis learned that Ahasuerus wore the garments of the High Priest that had been pillaged by his grandfather from the destroyed First Temple.

The duality between personal and communal is a recurrent theme in Esther. Haman’s personal vendetta against Mordecai turned into a plan for annihilation of the entire Jewish people. Esther’s intimate relationship with the king became the salvation of the nation. When initially Esther was reluctant to risk her life to thwart Haman’s plans, Mordecai explained to her that her individual status was only valuable if she used it for communal good (Esther 4:13-14):

Do not imagine that you can escape in the King’s palace from all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, welfare and salvation will arise for the Jews from another place but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows if it was for this time that you arrived at majesty?

When Esther implored Ahasuerus to thwart Haman’s plans, it was both personal and communal. “If I have found favor in the king’s eyes and if it pleases the king, give me my life as my gift, and my people as my request,” (Esther 7:3).

After Haman had been killed, Ahasuerus thought that was enough. His Queen Esther had been saved. But the Jewish people still needed saving. “Esther arose and stood before the king,” (Esther 8:4-6):

She said, “If it be good to the king and if I have found favor before him, if the matter is right before the king and if I am good in his eyes, let it be written to return the books, the plan of Haman ben Hamdata the Agagite, who wrote to destroy all the Jews in all the king’s states. For how can I watch the evil that will befall my people, and how can I watch the destruction of my kin?

Esther had to implore the king to save her personally, but also to prevent the destruction of the entire nation.

There is a Hasidic idea that the name of the book “Megillat Esther” can be understood as “Revealing the hidden.” Like the garments of the High Priest, the story of the queen is both hidden and revealed, both personal and communal. From the palace in Shushan, Esther’s influence was felt around the world. And from the intimate encounter in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest brought forgiveness to all.

I’ll just end with a few words about my mother.

A much younger David Sedley wearing one of his mother’s knitted creations. (David Sedley)

She was a brilliant knitter, creating the most fabulous and intricate patterns for her children, grandchildren and friends. Just before she passed away, she had bought yarn and a pattern to knit a sweater for her youngest grandson on his first day of school.

For more than four decades, Mum suffered from Lupus, which caused almost constant pain, limited her energy, and prevented her from going and doing many of the things she would have loved to do. Yet even when she was bedridden, her influence was felt around the world. Every day she would phone people who needed support, to listen, counsel, and empathize. She knew everything about her children and grandchildren, sisters and nieces, around the globe, and always sent messages of support or encouragement or congratulations when appropriate.

She was a private person, never seeking recognition or fame, yet she was hugely influential on the Wellington Jewish community. She will be missed and mourned by her Jewish and non-Jewish friends from school, university, nursing school, neighbors from every house she ever lived in, and all who knew her.

May her memory be a blessing.

I will soon be giving an online series of classes at WebYeshiva about the lives and teachings of the rabbis of the Mishna. You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes by registering on the website. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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