THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayakhel – פרשת ויקהל
March 2, 2019 – כה אדר ראשון תשעט
The laver was an important cultic vessel. Officiating priests were obligated to wash their hands and feet from the laver’s sanctified waters before commencing their daily service. Scripture offers a curious explanation for the source of the raw materials used in the construction of the laver. “He made the laver of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Exodus 38:8, translation by Robert Alter.) Mirrors were typically a feminine toiletry item, and in the Ancient Near East were predominantly manufactured in Egypt. That Israelite women, who had recently departed from Egypt, would possess such items is consistent with the material culture of the era.
The Midrash offers an embellished account of how mirrors came to be used in the construction of a Tabernacle vessel: Pharaoh issued a decree forbidding Hebrew slaves from sleeping at home or engaging in sexual activity with their wives. His goal was to eliminate a hated minority by preventing them from procreating. Israelite women took the initiative to thwart Pharaoh’s plan. When drawing water from the river, Israelite women would catch fish which they would sell. They used the profits to buy wine. The women would go out to the fields where they would feed and give intoxicating drink to the husbands. They would use mirrors to help them enhance their beauty so as to seduce their husbands. Myriads of Israelite children were conceived from these romantic encounters. When the time came for the Israelites to donate their valuables for the construction of the Tabernacle, the women chose to give their mirrors. Moses was angered by these donations, regarding a toiletry article associated with the arousal of sexual desire to be exceedingly inappropriate for a rarified space such as the Tabernacle. He ordered his underlings to take batons and break the legs of the donors. God intervened and informed Moses that the mirrors were worthy donations as they were the tools that facilitated the nation’s explosive demographic growth (Tanhuma Pekudei 9). In the Talmudic retelling of the story, the Exodus itself is said to have occurred in the merit of those righteous women (Sotah 11b).
The Midrash offers a homiletic connection among the righteous Israelite women, their mirrors, and the waters of the laver. The suspected adulteress, or Sotah, is mandated to undergo a trial by ordeal intended to reveal her innocence or guilt. She drinks a bitter potion whose waters are taken from the laver. The special mirrors from which the laver was constructed endow the waters contained therein with the capacity to investigate the daughters of Israel and to determine if they behaved as righteously as their devout foremothers did in Egypt (Numbers Rabbah 9:14).
The final clause of Exodus 38:8, הצבאת אשר צבאו פתח אהל מעוד, is difficult to translate. Alter’s reading, cited above, fits the interpretations of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, both of whom explained that throngs of women arrived simultaneously to donate their mirrors such that they looked like an assembled troop. Ibn Ezra explained that some women abandoned the vanities of earthly life and wished to dedicate themselves exclusively to the service of God. No longer having any use for a mirror, whose sole purpose is to foster physical attractiveness, they donated the bronze toiletry to construction of God’s abode. The Midrashic reading above similarly understood צבאו in the sense of host, troop, or crowd, though the reference was to the multitudinous progeny of the women donating the mirrors, not to the women themselves (see Exodus 12:41).
Th JPS translation of Exodus 38:8 is markedly different from Prof. Alter’s. It reads: “the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” Elsewhere in Scripture, the word צבא has the connotation of being subjected to service (Numbers 4:23) or of being qualified to serve (8:24). Ibn Ezra suggested an alternative interpretation fitting this reading: that the women classified as צובאות were not throngs of pietists, but merely those already performing the service of spinning threads for the making of the Sanctuary coverings.
Nahum Sarna, author of the JPS Commentary on Exodus, offered a compelling argument in favor of the JPS translation. Exodus 38:8 suffers from a glaring anachronism. The Tent of Meeting, presumably synonymous with the Tabernacle, was not extant when the mirror donations were first made. Ramban and Bachya were aware of the anachronism, and resolved it to their satisfaction by understanding the Tent of Meeting in this context to mean the tent of Moses (see Exodus 33:7). Sarna offered what in my view is the more convincing suggestion that the designation in 38:8 “is a retrojection from the later role of these women in performing lowly tasks in the Tabernacle.”
Is there any further evidence that women worked in the Tabernacle?
Scripture records the misdeeds committed by the sons of Eli the High Priest at Shiloh. Hophni and Phinehas “lay with the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (I Samuel 2:22).” The Talmud famously whitewashes the deeds of Hophni and Phinehas. Instead of being guilty of sex crimes, the sons of Eli are accused of delaying the sacrificial offerings of birth-mothers. In so doing, they forced the women to lodge in Shiloh and prevented them from swiftly completing their purification rituals and resuming marital intercourse with their husbands. For this lesser transgression, the authors of Scripture extended a heavy hand against the young priests by writing that they committed adultery (Shabbat 55b). The plain reading of the text, however, indicates that Hophni and Phinehas abused their authority over low ranking female employees and coerced them into sexual activity. Irrespective of the severity of Hophni and Phinehas’ sins, and putting aside the Talmudic assertion that the women in question were visiting parturients, the evidence of Scripture suggests that some women did work at the Tabernacle.
Jeffrey Tigay noted that although it is unclear what the female mirror donors did, they seemed to have had a role not only in the manufacture of the Tabernacle but also in its ongoing functioning (Jewish Study Bible). Charles Ellicott (19th century British theologian) theorized that the female Tabernacle employees mentioned in I Samuel may have assisted the Levites in liturgical worship. He mustered proof from Psalms 68:11 “The Lord giveth the word; the women that proclaim the tidings are a great host.” Joseph Exell’s 19th century Pulpit Commentary suggests that women worked in the Tabernacle cleaning the utensils and cooking the food. Some scholars claim that a band of pietistic women were attached to the Tabernacle. They cite the example of Anna. “She was a widow four score and four years, who departed not from the Temple, but served God with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2:37).”
Nahum Sarna, however, categorically rejected the notion that the women mentioned in Exodus 38:8 exercised any ritual or cultic function. Robert Alter, too, noted: “The cult was administered by males, and there is scant evidence of a quasi-sacerdotal function performed outside the Sanctuary by women.” It is clear from Scripture that highest prerogatives of the priesthood devolved only onto male Aaronids (Leviticus 6:11, 22). Biblical religion, with its single-sex cultic structure, was, in many respects, a protest against the debauchery and lasciviousness associated with then-contemporary paganism.
And yet: “The women flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” They have done so in every generation. They still do today. The great challenge facing religions with classically male-dominated cultic structures is how to foster the sincere spiritual yearnings of those who by dint of their gender cannot proceed beyond the entrance.