Why were Betzalel’s talents so surprising?

In Parshat Vayakhel (Shmot 35:30-35) we read about Betzalel and Aholiav, the two master craftsmen of the Mishkan (Tabernacle):

And Moshe said to B’nei Yisrael: “See, God has called by name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Yehuda. And He filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship. And to devise plans with ingenuity, to execute those plans in gold, in silver and in bronze. And in cutting of stones for setting and in carving wood to execute all kinds of clever tasks. And He put in his heart that he may teach both he and Aholiav ben Ahisamach from the tribe of Dan. Them has He filled with wisdom of heart to work all manner of workmanship, of the craftsmen and of the skillful workman and of the weaver in colors, in blue and in purple, in scarlet and in fine linen and of the weaver, even of them that devise skilful works.”

Ramban explains how surprising it is to find these two talented people:

The Israelites had been deprived of the opportunity of learning to work in silver and gold and the cutting of precious stones which they had not even seen. It was therefore remarkable that such a gifted expert in all these fields should be found. Even in the circle of the skilled a man versed in all these varied crafts was unheard of. Those accustomed all their lives to working with bricks and mortar were certainly unable to ply such a delicate and artistic craft. Moreover, Betzalel was also blessed with wisdom and understanding and versed in the mysteries of the Mishkan and its vessels and their symbolism. It was for this reason that God addressed Moshe in such terms and said (Shmot 31:2-3): “See this wonder and know that the Almighty has filled him with the spirit of God, to know all these matters, for the express purpose of making the Mishkan. For it was His will to have the Mishkan constructed in the wilderness and He created him for His glory, forasmuch as He called into being the generations, from the beginning.

Nehama Leibowitz points out that the cause of wonder was the discovery of such a versatile craftsman amidst a people that had just emerged from centuries of degrading slavery and oppression, devoid of any previous tradition of artistic creation and delicate workmanship.

We learn from here that God is capable of doing anything including taking untrained slaves and turning them into master craftsmen.

In Israel today, Betzalel’s name has been preserved in the prestigious Betzalel College of Art and Design, named after the first artist in Jewish history. It is no longer a surprise that talented artists can be found in Jerusalem and throughout the State of Israel.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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