Shabbat 99

Brain over brawn.

Continuing a discussion from the previous daf regarding the hanging of curtains in the mishkan (tabernacle), the Gemara at the beginning of today’s page offers a surprising comment on the fabrication of these curtains:

Our sages taught: The bottom curtains in the tabernacle were made of sky-blue wool, and of purple wool, and of scarlet wool, and of fine linen; the top curtains were made of goat hair, even though that material is considered to be inferior and common. However, the wisdom that was stated with regard to the top curtains was greater than that which was stated with regard to the bottom ones. This is because, with regard to the bottom curtains, it is written: And every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet and the linen (Ex 35:25); with regard to the top curtains, it is written: And all of the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the goats (Ex 35:26). The phrase “whose hearts inspired them” suggests a greater degree of wisdom. 

The Torah describes the colorful and luxurious bottom curtains as spun by “every wise-hearted woman” and the more rustic, goat-hair curtains as spun by “women whose hearts inspired them.” While we might be tempted to read this as poetic variation of language, the Talmud sees a significant value difference between these very similar expressions. But why?

One clue comes to us from the new JPS translation of the Torah, which translates “wise-hearted” [chachmat lev] as “skilled,” and “inspired with wisdom” [asher asa liban otana b’chochma] as “excelling in that skill.” There is certainly a difference between being simply skilled and truly excellent at one’s craft. The great commentator Rashi even suggests that the second group of women were so accomplished that they actually spun the hair while it was still attached to the live goats!

I would suggest that perhaps the rabbis are also looking carefully at exactly who is doing the spinning, and in what manner they are accomplishing the task. In Exodus 35:25, the Torah uses the singular, “isha/woman,” to describe each artisan that came to spin with her individual skill and wisdom. Verse 26, by contrast, uses the plural, “nashim/women,” to describe a group of exceptionally talented and inspired craftswomen working together. (After all, if Rashi was right, spinning the hair of a live goat is certainly at least a two-person job.)

Perhaps what we are meant to learn is that wisdom and technical skill may be great, but they are only individual achievements. As wonderful as those singular accomplishments may be, to really get a job done exceptionally well, especially one as critical and holy as constructing God’s home in the wilderness, you need everyone on board, working together. As a former colleague of mine used to say, “teamwork makes the dream work.” To get a mishkan — or a community — up and running smoothly and well, you need the skills of everyone in the group to get it done right.

Read all of Shabbat 99 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 13, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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