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The women’s precious gifts, made with consummate skill

The men had donated their own jewelry to make the Golden Calf, but the women were righteous, and committed theirs to the Tabernacle, with love (Vayakhel)
Spinning and weaving. (Ja'el Batyah, artist, Studio Tiferet HaYetsirah)
Spinning and weaving. (Ja'el Batyah, artist, Studio Tiferet HaYetsirah)

Who, among the Children of Israel, contributed textiles, precious metals, and other materials for the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan)?

Let’s imagine a tent in the wilderness…

A young woman removes her gold earrings and holds them in her hand, savoring their delicate workmanship for the last time. When she looks up, her mother-in-law, who gave them to her at her wedding just a few months ago, nods in assent. She drops the earrings into the basket in the middle of the tent. It is filling up quickly. Her mother-in-law removes an intricate necklace that she “borrowed” from a neighbor when they left Egypt, and adds it to the basket. A 12-year-old niece takes off the two golden bracelets she inherited from her grandmother. They are very old, those bracelets. Some say they have been handed down, grandmother to granddaughter, from the days of Rebecca, who received them from Eliezer at the well.

Accompanied by a few men from the family, the women bring the basket of jewelry as a contribution for the Tabernacle.

And the men came in addition to the women (al ha-nashim), everyone of generous heart brought bracelets, earrings, rings, and body ornaments, all golden items… (Exodus 35:22)

What does the phrase “al ha-nashim,” “in addition to the women,” come to teach us? Rashi, as explained in Siftei Chachamim, explains that even a woman contributing her own jewelry to the Tabernacle required her husband or father to accompany her and approve her donation.

Ramban, on the other hand, emphasizes that women had more jewelry than men, and eagerly took initiative. Some men indeed came in addition to the women, but women were the primary donors of jewelry.

Why did women have more jewelry to start with? Granted, in biblical society, as in our own, women likely adorned themselves with jewelry more than men did. But there is another possible explanation more specific to our narrative. A midrash recounts that the men had already offered their earrings for the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:3, Tanchuma Pinchas 7), while the women did not.

The author of Or HaChayim, Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar, offers an additional insight. Jewelry is among our most beloved possessions: because it is personal, because it is made of gold, and because each piece is unique. Women freely gave over precious and finely crafted items, knowing that they would be melted down and re-formed.

How many wedding rings went into the keruvim, the figures that symbolized God’s love for Israel? Did Rebecca’s nose ring, passed down through the generations, become part of the golden altar on which sweet-smelling incense was offered?

Back in the tent, the young woman takes up her spindle and chooses a hank of wool dyed blue, techelet. Spinning is a woman’s wisdom. It has taken her many hours, since she was a very little girl at her mother’s knee, to perfect the rhythm, the art. She spins the techelet into smooth, even thread. In nearly every tent in the camp, the women who are wise of heart are spinning with wool – blue and red and crimson – and with flax.

Every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought the spun yarn of blue and red and crimson and linen. (Exodus 35:25)

Rabbi Eliezer cites this verse as the source for his assertion that “a woman’s wisdom is only in her spindle” (Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 3:4). We usually emphasize the negative side of this statement, Rabbi Eliezer’s opposition to women’s Torah study (see here for an in-depth discussion). There is also a positive side. Spinning, like many handicrafts, is an art that requires its own wisdom. The women gave not only their cherished possessions, but their time and unique expertise to the Tabernacle.

Outside the tent, a few young children offer snacks to a long-haired goat to keep it quiet and calm, while their aunt’s quick and agile fingers spin its hair into shining yarn. Goat-spinning is a rare skill, but the quality of the live-spun goats’ hair is unsurpassed.

All the women whose heart moved them in wisdom spun the goats. (Exodus 35:26)

The Talmud (Shabbat 74b) derives from this verse that the women spun the hair while it was still on the goats, and goes on to state that this was an extraordinary and unusual skill.

Why would anyone spin hair while it is still attached to a goat? According to Seforno, live-growing hair has an extra shine and splendor to it. Again, we see that women spared no effort in making the finest possible contributions to the Tabernacle.

Early in the morning, an elderly woman looks in her bright copper hand mirror, arranging her headscarf, putting on a bit of makeup. She has had that mirror since her youth. She still remembers a certain night in Egypt, her husband coming home exhausted from the hard labor of brickmaking, and how she brought out that mirror and flirted with him… Today, she takes her mirror and joins her daughters and granddaughters in the crowd of women gathered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, praying with devotion and intensity, thirsty for words of Torah, eagerly offering their mirrors as copper for the Tabernacle.

He made the copper laver, and its base of copper, from the mirrors of the masses of women who massed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)

Rashi tells the story of the women in Egypt, who used their mirrors to awaken the desire of their enslaved and spiritually exhausted husbands and rekindle hope for the future redemption, beginning with the birth of countless babies. Ibn Ezra tells of the women in the desert who renounced worldly desires and sought only to learn Torah and serve God.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

What is love of God? It is to give everything, willingly and gladly, to commit our heart and soul, our desires and emotions and impulses, our wisdom and skill, our strength and material wealth.

The Tabernacle was built of rare and precious materials, crafted with consummate skill. Women played a unique and vital role in creating a place of sanctity, imbued with a whole people’s love of God.

About the Author
Ilana Sober Elzufon is a Yoetzet Halacha in Yerushalayim, and a writer and editor for Nishmat's Yoatzot Halacha websites (yoatzot.org) and for Deracheha (deracheha.org).
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