Michele Braun
Life Member, Hadassah Westchester

Wise-Hearted Biblical Women Who Knew When to Spin

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

As with all good storytelling, many of the Hebrew Bible’s narratives focus on individuals. In the background, the text provides glimpses of the wider community—extended families, rulers of foreign lands, the mixed multitudes who exited Egypt to become the Israelite nation. Rarely do we see those Israelites in action, a narrative pattern that struck me recently when I read about a group of Biblical women who combined their efforts to create something special.

On top of Mount Sinai, God gives Moses detailed instructions for constructing the holy ark and its “tent of meeting” enclosure. Similar detail describes the clothing that Aaron, the high priest, and his sons were to wear and the tools they would need (fire pans and such) in their service to God. Some readers claim that all this detail is boring and mind-numbing. I, however, find that, if read slowly, the details accumulate into vibrant images.

Early on, God directs Moses to solicit contributions to “let [the Israelites] make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). What a glorious thought—to create a place for God in the midst of one’s community! This “sanctuary,” it turns out, requires a very specific set of materials, so the solicited contributions included precious metals and stones, tanned animal skins, cloths with rare dyes, oil, spices and acacia wood. And, as requested, “all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering… came bringing” those precious materials (Exodus 35:22-24).

“And,” the text continues, “all the skilled women spun with their own hands and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple and crimson yarns and in fine linen. And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair” (Exodus 35:25-26). Curiously, yarn was not on previous lists of needed supplies for the sanctuary, its enclosure or the priestly garments.

Desert Sun Image courtesy of the author.

What’s with the extra donation? Anyone who works in textiles knows that yarn and, in its thinnest version, thread, is essential. We can imagine that members of the Israelite community had the requisite skills in metallurgy, wood carving, construction and such to build the tabernacle and its accoutrements with the solicited materials. But the women, and only the women, get credit for creating something extra for the tabernacle.

Spinning and weaving are ancient technologies that would have been known to the Israelites. Archeologists have dated a woven dress and drawings of a loom, found in Egypt, to 3500 BCE (King David’s reign began in about 1000 BCE).

Spinning raw fibers into yarn or thread that can then be woven into clothing has long fallen to women. Because spinning is portable and can be started and stopped quickly, it can  be performed adeptly while taking care of children. Competent spinning requires practice and skill and can be tedious, though also mesmerizing. Spinning the quantities of yarn needed for the tabernacle project, though, would have taken quite a long time to. Accordingly, reaching sufficient levels of production would have required a group effort. And, indeed, the contributions are attributed not to individuals, but to the plural of women working collectively.

The text describes the women who undertook this collective spinning project as חַכְמַת־לֵ֖ב (chachmaht-laev). Chachmaht translates to “wisdom of” and laev, to “heart.” So some translations call these women “wise-hearted,” while others use the term “skilled” (Exodus 35:25).

Both these interpretations make sense, as for the ancients, wisdom resided in the heart, in contrast to our current view that more often associates wisdom with the mind.

Those practical, dexterous and skilled women who spun the goats’ wool were, no doubt, wise enough of heart and mind to realize that their communities needed to contribute more than precious metals, jewels and acacia wood to build a tabernacle and to clothe the priests. Their wisdom, I believe, guided their hands.

Working alone, no Israelite woman could have produced sufficient yarn for a project of the size depicted in the Book of Exodus. Working together, the text informs us, they identified the need and spun the yarn with sufficient wisdom and skill to earn a special shout-out. Just as the modern women’s organization Hadassah brings together the collective force of “women who do” to care for the land and people of Israel, the Israelite community created a collective of strong and determined Biblical “women who did.”

About the Author
Michele Braun, a life member, Elana Chapter, Hadassah Westchester Region, is a member of the Hadassah Writers' Circle. She provides adult Jewish education classes and consulting services to synagogues and community organizations. Her life-long journey through Jewish learning began in the first-ever nursery school class of Temple Emanuel in San Jose, CA. In some form, she has been a student of Jewish life and texts ever since. Michele earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and an MS in Public Management and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. Following a career in public policy with the Federal Reserve System, Michele returned to graduate school, earning an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew University in 2022 and launching a new career in adult education. Topics of particular interest include Contemporary Torah Study, Jewish Textile Art as Modern Midrash, and making mainstream classrooms more accessible to students with disabilities. Michele and her husband, Norman Bernstein, live in Pound Ridge, NY. Their daughter, S. Judith Bernstein, recently published "In Shadowed Dreams," a novella.
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