Israel Drazin

Rational Thoughts on Vayyakhel, Pekudey, Shabbat, Synagogues, and more

Two biblical Torah portions are read this week. The portion of Vayyakhel, Exodus 35:1-38:20, contains the Sabbath law, which the rabbis translated as “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day,” which the Sadducees translated as “You shall have no fire throughout your habitations,” and celebrated Shabbat in darkness, the enthusiastic liberal Israelite response to the building of the Tabernacle, the appointment of the artists involved in the various constructions, and about items in the Tabernacle, including the curtains, ark, table, menorah, altar of incense, altar of burnt offerings, laver, and court, all of which were previously discussed in chapters 23, 25, 26, and 30. The portion Pekudey, Exodus 38:21-34:38, like many other portions, begins in the middle of a chapter, the latter being a division that Christians instituted. This last portion of Exodus describes some of the final stages in building the Tabernacle and its articles.

  • The sages divided the Torah into 54 portions to be read entirely in a year. Since the Jewish calendar adds a thirteenth month during leap years, more than 52 were necessary.
  • In non-leap years, two portions are read on some Sabbaths. In 2023, Vayyakhel and Pekudey are read together.
  • Rashi emphasizes that the Torah mentions Shabbat before the requirements for the Tabernacle to teach that the Tabernacle does not supersede Shabbat.
  • My father, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, reminded me when I was 21 while driving me to the airport when I was going into the army, “More than the Jew keeps the Shabbat. The Shabbat keeps the Jew.”
  • Rabbi Shmuel Golden, in his “Unlocking the Torah Text,” writes that while the Tabernacle, Temples, and synagogues reflect the sanctity of space, the Shabbat demonstrates the sanctity of time, which must be given preference. How we use time makes us what we are meant to be.
  • While giving time the preference it deserves, combining it with space, and observing Shabbat with one’s family at home, is marvelous.
  • Rabbi Golden suggests that the prohibition of melakhah, “work,” on Shabbat stops our attempt to transform our environment through physical creation. God ceased creating physical objects on the “seventh day.” We remember God’s creation when we quit physical creation. Shabbat is an excellent time for study and mental creation.
  • He adds that Shabbat places Jews between two extremes. At one extreme, Jews think, “the might of my hand produced this wealth.” On the other extreme, Jews feel powerless when they see people’s insignificance compared to the universe’s vastness.
  • While the biblical text indicates that God chose the artists working in the Tabernacle, the sages insisted that the Torah means the artists had natural abilities. God is given credit for their abilities because God created nature, as Maimonides explains in his Guide 2:48. The sages said no one is placed in a community position unless appointed by the people.
  • Many books give us pictures of the Tabernacle articles, implying that we know how the items looked. These depictions are not accurate. The Torah is insufficiently specific concerning them. For example, the high priest wore a tiara with the words Kodesh La’Y-h-v-h, “holy to the Lord.” We do not know if the two words were on one or two lines and if La from La’Y-h-v-h was detached, making three words. The sages had different views. Another example is the candelabrum. The sages differed in how it was shaped. The Bible states it had one central shaft with six branches, three on each side. Where the branches straight or on an angle facing toward the central shaft?
  • Should we be bothered that we do not know precisely how the Tabernacle and Temple articles looked? I am not bothered at all. When Rabbi Ruderman of Ner Israel Rabbinical College gave me semichah, making me a rabbi at age 21, he said, remember that you are young and that there is much you do not know. Do not be afraid to say, “I do not know.” He reflected on what the oracle told about the philosopher Socrates; he was the wisest man because he knew he did not know everything.
  • What happened to the Temple articles when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE? We do not know. Some, such as the historian Josephus said the Romans took them to Rome. Some claim they are in the Vatican storehouse today. Others invented the tale that King Josiah hid the Ark, the anointing oil, Aaron’s staff, and a vial of manna (Babylonian Talmud Horayot 12a and Keritot 5b). And there are other ideas.
  • It also does not bother me because I can imagine a form of the Tabernacle items that I think are correct while keeping in mind that I may be wrong.
  • Another problem with obscurities is the Torah telling us that the menorah had to be aflame tamid (Exodus 27:20, 30:8, Leviticus 24:2, 24:4). Tamid can be translated “forever” or “continually.” Rashi and others say it means “forever” here. They point out that Exodus 30:8 states that the lamp should be lit every evening with enough oil to last until morning. In the morning, the lamps were to be cleaned and prepared for the evening lighting (30:7). Yet, synagogues today have a light over the ark in memory of the Tabernacle and Temple menorah that is never extinguished.
  • Why is the description of the Tabernacle items repeated in the portion Vayyakhel?
  • Rabbi Golden reminds us that Gersonides, also called Ralbag, in his commentary to 35:39, explains that the repetitions frequently occur in the Torah because this was the style of writing when the Torah was written.
  • Nachmanides (Ramban) suggests in his commentary to 36:8 that repetitions indicate how important the Torah considers the items,
  • Although the Decalogue prohibits making images, the rabbis understood that the law was designed to keep people from worshiping images but allowed making them if they were not considered idols. Thus Jews have had photos, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and the like since ancient times, and the Tabernacle was decorated with them.
  • Rashi and Nachmanides say Moses descended Mount Sinai on Yom Hakippurim (later called Yom Kippur) with the second tablet of the Decalogue because Moses shattered the first one. He began talking about building the Tabernacle the following day. There is no clear identification of the dates in the Torah. Why did they and other sages say this? Was it to impress Jews on the importance of Yom Kippur? Was it told so Jews would think they should repent and be forgiven as the ancient Israelites were forgiven on Yom Hakippurim?
  • It is worth thinking about the items in the Tabernacle, Temples, and later synagogues that copied them. The sages saw practical lessons in each article. For example, the ark symbolizes the marvelous nature of God’s decrees, the Tabernacle table reminds us that everyday activities, even eating, should be done properly, and the light of the candelabrum suggests the peace and light we should bring to our lives and society.
  • The book of Exodus, with 1,209 verses, ends with portion Pekudey. It has 40 chapters. While the Babylonian system divided Exodus so it could be read in a single year into eleven portions, the Israeli system split it into 29 to be read in a three-year cycle. The Israeli system was discontinued.
  • Jewish tradition has congregants rise as the final parashah is ended in the synagogue and say in Hebrew. “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.” This encourages us to be strong for other people and strong to observe Torah teachings.
  • Verse 38:25 states that the Israelites donated 301,775 silver shekels for items needed in the Tabernacle construction. Verse 30:13 required males aged 20 and higher to contribute half a shekel. The coins also revealed the number of these males fit for military service. Since 301,775 full shekels were given, half shekels and males are 603,550, as indicated in Numbers 1:46.
  • Numbers 1:47 states that this count excludes the Levite tribe. Rashi, relying on Midrash Tanhuma, supposes they were not counted because they functioned in the Tabernacle and deserved a separate census.
  • Why doesn’t 30:13 reveal that the Levites did not have to donate half shekels and be counted? Does it reflect the Torah style, discussed by me in the past, that the Bible frequently states something in one place but gives further details in a later section? An example is God instructing Noah to take a pair of every land and air animal into the ark, and only later discloses that seven were taken of certain animals.
  • Were the Levites not required to donate toward the Tabernacle construction because the donations were made partly to support their work and they were recipients of the funds?
  • Rashi gives another reason why the Levites were not involved in the half-shekel donations. Relying on the Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 121, he says God foresaw that He would decree in the future that all those who were numbered would die in the desert and did not want the Levites to die there since they were not involved in the worship of the Golden Calf. Does this make sense? Yes, a talmudic sage had this idea, but that does not make it correct. Even if we take the death of the older Israelites in the desert to mean all of them miraculously died, rather than the Bible making an exaggerated statement for emphasis, a typical biblical style, as I discussed in the past, there is no need to use this strategy of not counting them to save their life. God has the power to save them. Besides, when it says all died, it means man, did so.
  • When the construction of the Tabernacle was finished, 39:43 states that Moses blessed the people. This was his thanks to the people for their work. Shouldn’t he have blessed God?
  • Tradition states that Moses composed the seventeen verses in Psalm 90, “A Prayer of Moses,” and this was the “blessing” that Moses made. Yet, Psalm 90 is not a blessing. It is a praise of God. Its purpose is to encourage people to praise God for what God did and does. No mention is made of the Tabernacle in the Psalm. It states the opposite, “Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.” What is accomplished by attributing this Psalm to Moses and saying he used it as a blessing when the Tabernacle was finished?
  • Verse 40:15 describes the anointing of Moses’ brother’s sons to be priests. Why weren’t they anointed when their father Aaron was anointed?
  • Why were they anointed? In the future, non-high-priests were not anointed, only high priests.
  • Kings are also anointed. Why?
  • In 40:20, the Decalogue is placed in the Ark. The Decalogue is called “Testimony.” What is the significance of this name?
  • Tradition states the broken pieces of the Decalogue that Moses shattered when he heard the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf were also placed in the ark. The placement is not mentioned in the Torah. Why does tradition feel the shattered pieces were set in the ark?
  • The Torah states that Moses performed the priestly duties in the Tabernacle during the eight days it was consecrated. Why did he and not Aaron do it?
  • When the work was completed, 40:34 states, “A cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Y-h-v-h filled the Tabernacle.” Tent of Meeting and Tabernacle are synonymous here. What was the purpose of the cloud? Was it to screen God who entered the Tabernacle from being seen? God is not corporeal and cannot be seen. Why is there a need for screening?
  • In his commentary to 40:35, Rashi states that Moses could not enter the Tabernacle when the cloud was on the Tabernacle. Did Rashi believe that God is corporeal?
  • The Hebrew word for “glory” in 40:34 is cavod, also mentioned in 29:43. What is “glory”? Is it physical?
  • In later Judaism, the name cavod was replaced by The root of this name means “dwelling.” Many Jews believe it is a being separate from God without understanding that this is a polytheistic notion.
  • How should rationally minded people understand the final verse in Exodus that a cloud and a fire led the Israelites from place to place in the desert?
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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