Fooling Around with Goats

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

No, it’s not what you think!

In this week’s Parshah of Vayakhel, Moses delivers the instructions for the construction of and service in the Tabernacle to the Israelites. He begins by gathering all of the Israelites together — the meaning of the word “Vayakhel” — and giving them their marching orders. The balance of the Parshah is about the enthusiasm with which the Israelites immediately took to their respective tasks, and the painstakingly detailed description of how the Israelites made each component of the Tabernacle.

Last year, we discussed one of the women’s primary contributions to the Tabernacle: the donation of their copper mirrors. These were a gift that Moses was apparently inclined to reject, as mirrors are the tools of vanity, and he felt that their base purpose would diminish the holiness and purity of the Tabernacle. G-d, however, insisted that Moses accept and use them, indeed declaring them to be his favorite gift of all; as it was using these very mirrors that women beautified themselves to seduce their weary husbands in Egypt, rejuvenating their flagging libido, and producing scores of new Israelites. You can read about this fascinating deliberation here.

This, however, was not the women’s only recorded contribution. The Torah relates that:

And every wise hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought spun material: blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen. And all the women whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom, spun the goat hair.

Exodus, 35:25-26.

Rashi notes the distinction between the two sentences. The first sentence lists various fabrics, but does not specify where they came from — including, for example, “crimson wool” — and it describes the women who spun those fabrics as “every wise hearted woman.” In the second sentence, however, the Torah specifies that the women “whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom” spun the “goat hair” — which, of course, means wool (or cashmere). So why these differences?

Citing the Talmud (Shabbat, 74b), Rashi explains that women “whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom,” had additional talent that the “wise hearted” women did not: these women would actually spin the hair while it was still on the goats’ backs.

“Wow,” you may say, “that’s…um…cool, but…why?”

Good question! And there are a few answers:

First, there is apparently some sheen to the wool or cashmere that is preserved when it is spun without first shearing it from the goat, and the Israelites were so enthusiastic about making the Tabernacle as beautiful as possible, that they even went to such lengths as to spin the wool on the goats’ very backs in order to squeeze that extra tiny bit of beauty out of them.

A second beautiful explanation is that these women found themselves with an unusual talent. Perhaps it was a talent that did not have much of an apparent utility or benefit, but they had it nonetheless. And they knew that there is nothing that G-d creates in this world that does not have its purpose; hence, they concluded, there was a purpose to this obscure ability of theirs to spin the hair directly on the goat’s back — and so they did, to ensure that G-d’s Tabernacle would have the benefit of all of their resources and talents, however trivial they may seem.

And indeed, isn’t that the true connotation of “And he gathered” — Vayakhel? That Moses gathered together the collection of unique talents and abilities of the nation, each bringing its own hue and shine to G-d’s home on earth.

Finally, the connections between this week’s Parshah and last week’s Parshah, which contained the episode go the Golden Calf, are both many and obvious. Starting from the top, as earlier “the [nation] gathered against Aaron” for a less than desirable purpose (Exodus, 32:1), now Moses gathered the Israelites to him for a holy, restorative purpose. Earlier, as Aaron asked the Israelites to donate — not their golden vessels and coins — but the gold earrings that were then in the ears of their family members, from which the Golden Calf was to be made; so too were the Israelites’ donations for the construction of the Tabernacle, not detached items sitting in a chest at home, but materials that were taken fresh from their source. Thus, when the construction of the Tabernacle called for cashmere, those that could brought the goats themselves, and spun the hair on their backs, so that the contribution to the Tabernacle would be freshly produced and a worthy atonement for the regrettable use of their earrings for the Golden Calf.

This brings us to one more fascinating — and indeed, a bit titillating — verse in this week’s Parshah.

The men came with the women; every generous hearted person brought bracelets and earrings and rings and buckles, all kinds of golden objects, and every man who waved a waving of gold to the Lord.

Exodus, 35:22.

Rashi here addresses the odd mix of gender references. First “men” with “women.” Then the genderless “person”; and then back to “man”. And then, of course, there are the “bracelets and earrings and rings and buckles” which are primary women’s jewelry.

Thus, Rashi explains that “the bracelets and earring and rings and buckles” were brought while they were still on the women. This, of course, is an even more personal touch than spinning the wool while it is still on the goats, for in this instance the Israelites were emphasizing how they are removing their personal adornments and donating them to the Tabernacle.

Even more: When the gold was donated for the Golden Calf, the men were told to go and get their wives’ and children’s earrings. However, various Midrashim state that either the men were unwilling to negotiate with their wives regarding the parting of their jewelry, or that the women refused to donate their jewelry to this cause, as they wanted to have no part in the Golden Calf. So the men ended up using their own jewelry. When it came time to build the Tabernacle, the women came with their jewelry on them, and then took it off and presented is as a donation, to demonstrate that it was not greed or vanity that attached them to the jewelry, and that they were perfectly willing to part with it for a holy purpose.

(The titillating part of this is that the word that I have been translating as “buckle” is “Kumaz,” which Rashi states was actually a golden ornament placed over a woman’s private parts, citing the Talmud (Shabbat, 64a) which teaches that “Kumaz” is an acrostic for the words “Kan Makom Zima” — “here is the place of lewdness.” We have previously discussed the nature of the Kumaz here. If the Kumaz is as Rashi describes it — a golden ornament covering a woman’s genitalia — and if the women wore their jewelry to the drop-off point, and only then took them off — that would certainly have been a fascinating building drive to behold!)

Shabbat Shalom!