Vanity Mirrors

  • Rav Alex Israel
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.



by Rav Alex Israel


The parasha this week describes the fashioning and crafting of the mishkan by the "skilled people whose hearts were endowed with wisdom by the Lord" (36:2). The discerning reader will notice that our parasha describes many of the vessels of the sanctuary for a second time (e.g. the Ark, Table, menora are described here in ch.37 - a repeat of ch.25). We read the account here wondering why this detail is necessary. Why does the Torah need to go into this lengthy description a second time?


A structural look at the book of Exodus will accentuate our problem.

25:1-31:11 The command to build the sanctuary

31:12-18 Shabbat

32:1-34:35 The sin of the Golden Calf and the renewal of the covenant

35:1-3 Shabbat

35:4-40:38 The people construct the sanctuary

Note the command of Shabbat which lies alongside each account of the tabernacle - both in concept and in construction. Note, too, how the Shabbat description is the length of but a few verses, whereas the detailing of the sanctuary covers 12 entire chapters!

Shabbat gets only a few lines in the Torah. It never receives detailed treatment, no more than a few verses at a time are devoted to it, yet its laws are incredibly complex and massive in their scope. The Rabbis pictured the Laws of Shabbat as "a mountain suspended by a thread" (Chagiga 1:8). The "thread" is the minimal space devoted to Shabbat in the Torah. The "mountain" is the enormous volume of legal material which describes the obligations and restrictions of Shabbat. Why did the Torah choose to present Shabbat in such minimal terms and to become so verbose when talking about the sanctuary?

My teacher David Nativ suggests the following historical answer. The Torah, despite its divine nature, was not born in a vacuum. Its messages are eternal, there are lessons for all time, but we must all agree that the written law was given over, at a particular point in history to a particular people who lived in a world with a strong, firmly established way in religious expression. At the time of the birth of Judaism, all cultures had temples and all religions were practiced through sacrifices of one type or another. This is the religious reality, the cultural background that Judaism had to contend with.

Judaism arrived and introduced a revolution in many areas: the dignity of man, human freedom, ethical monotheism. Judaism introduced many new ideas. For the Jews, there were laws and regulations to follow, 613 commands which would shape the new way of life that God was introducing into the world. Certain ideas were unique to the new religion, for instance, the mixing of milk and meat or Shabbat. These could be mentioned in a sentence. There was no danger that any of the contemporary culture would pollute these ideas because only the Jews were practicing them. But if God told them to build a temple, to bring sacrifices, they would have simply followed the contemporary pagan way!

So, for the notion of sacrifice, of temple and sanctuary, God had to spell it all out. To prevent possible osmosis from other cultures, the infiltration of alien ideas into the sanctum of the monotheistic mindset, the Torah had to define these spiritual tools in the most miniscule detail. A Jewish temple was to be exactly this way. Nothing was to be left to interpretation.

But there was no danger from the outside to the institution of Shabbat. However Moses defined it would become its shape and form. Hence, Shabbat receives rather brief description. The tabernacle, on the other hand, is described in deliberate detail to ensure that its symbolism conforms to the sophisticated ideas of the Divine plan.


This explanation only tells us something about the detailed descriptions here. Their intricacy and detail is indeed striking. But what of the repetition of the entire construction? Could the Torah not have stated; "And the people acted as the Lord had commanded" or something of that sort?

The above outline of the structure of Exodus already introduces us to another concept which might explain the "repetition" of the construction of the vessels of the tabernacle that we read in our parasha. Note a clearly symmetrical structure: tabernacle - Shabbat - Calf - Shabbat - tabernacle. This is termed a "chiastic structure" in the academic world. This concentric structure - commonly found in the Torah - tells us much about the inter-relationship of the themes within it.

In this case, it would seem that a connection is being deliberately drawn between the sin of the Golden Calf and the tabernacle. What might that connection be?

On Yom Kippur the Israelites were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. That very day they were commanded, "Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them" (25:8) in order to inform the world that they had received atonement for the sin of the calf. That is why it is called "the Tent of Testimony" (38:21), for it testifies to all the world that God resides in your tabernacle.

God said, "Let the gold of the sanctuary come and atone for the gold that formed the Calf." There it states "The people removed their gold rings etc." (32:3), and the gold was their atonement as it states, "This is the donation that you shall receive from them, Gold" (25:3) (Midrash Tanchuma - Teruma).

The tabernacle is a sign that God has forgiven the Israelites. How so? One might imagine that the plan to erect a sanctuary - the expression of the covenantal bond between God and Israel - would have been "postponed indefinitely" in the wake of the Calf affair. After all, the Golden calf was a classic act of betrayal. How could the nation put up a structure denoting God's presence amongst them so soon after they had rejected him?

It is indeed remarkable that the show did go on. Moses' intercession on the Israelites' behalf ensured the Children of Israel were granted a reprieve. One might imagine that certain scars still lay beneath the surface, that the relationship would be forever tainted in some way. The Torah repeats it all, word for word, to emphasize that the pre-sin and the post-sin relationship are identical. The repair is absolute, the healing complete.

Hence, the double description tells an important tale of forgiveness and return to the covenantal relationship with God.


Let us, however, move from the general to the specific. Let us discuss one particular "vessel" of the tabernacle. We will talk about the "kiyor," the washing laver.

But one note of introduction is in order here. A fundamental principle of the commentaries on these chapters is that every element of the sanctuary, every item, each choice of pattern, material, and shape, embodies a particular message or concept. There is an entire science of "tabernacle symbolism" - examining the materials, the method of design, the aesthetics and the form of each and every part of the tabernacle. (Rav Hirsch is really the champion of this view: See his commentary on Teruma or his book "The Commandments as Symbols." The philosophy that underlies this theory states that the basic ideas of Judaism are the primary factor that gave shape to the holy vessels of the tabernacle. Indeed, it was the craftsman Betzalel and his group of workers (see 35:30-36:3) each endowed with "chokhmat-lev" - wisdom of the heart - who were able to take the conceptual blueprint and put it into concrete form.

As we study the parshiot of the tabernacle, it is useful to stop and focus on certain details which can frequently give an interesting, novel or inspiring angle on points of Jewish thought. If the tabernacle is the physical translation of absolute Jewish ideas, then the study of the furniture of the tabernacle will reap rich dividends in understandingclassic Torah concepts.

This week, we take one example from the tabernacle and we will show how the difference of approach by various commentators hides a fundamental difference of opinion in Jewish philosophy.


One of the interesting items contained in the tabernacle was the "kiyor" - the laver or washbasin. The priests were required to wash their hands and feet before they performed the "avoda" or "holy service" so this was a rather essential element of the tabernacle.

The command to create the kiyor is described in last week's parasha:

Make a laver of copper and a copper stand for it, for washing; and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it, and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet from it. When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may not die... (30:17-20).

The actual construction of the kiyor is described in our parasha where we are told in a single sentence:

He made the laver of copper and its copper stand from the mirrors of the women who gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting (38:8).

This description immediately arouses our curiosity. Why do we need to be informed as to the origin of the raw materials for the basin? We are never told whose gold created the menora, or whose wool made the curtains of the tabernacle. Why are we emphatically informed that this copper originated with this group of women? Are we interested if a woman donates her copper mirror or a pair of earrings or anything else for that matter? And another question can be asked. Who is this group of women who congregate at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting? They are referred to as if they were a definable group but we don't know a thing about them!


Rashi (38:8) answers both our questions. He tells us why the materials used for the kiyor are singled out and this is linked with the identity of these women.

The womenfolk of Israel had mirrors which they used when they beautified themselves with cosmetics. When the women offered these mirrors as gifts for the tabernacle, Moses' immediate reaction was to reject them as they were made for the "yetzer hara" (the evil inclination - i.e. for sexual purposes - to make themselves sexually attractive and endear them to their husbands.) God told him 'Accept them! - These are dearer to me than all the other gifts! - because it was due to these mirrors that these women brought miryads (tzeva'ot) into the world when they were in Egypt.

When their husbands were engaged in backbreaking labor they would go to see their husbands bringing along food and drink. They would eat together and then they would hold up the mirrors together and would see themselves in the mirror. She would tease him saying - 'I am more good-looking than you' and in this way they would seduce their husbands ... and had children ... and these are the mirrors (mar'ot ha-tzov'ot).

This rather sexual comment by Rashi paints for us the desperate situation that the Israelites experienced in Egypt. There was no hope in the future. Husbands lived in labor camps away from their wives. Bringing children into the world was an absurdity. Why bring another slave into the world? And if it happens to be a boy, he will be flung into the river.

The situation as described here reminds us of the famous midrash (see Chizkuni on Shemot 2:1) about Yokheved and Amram - Moses' parents - who separated rather than bring further children into the world. It was an act of faith which led them to get back together and they were rewarded with Moses as their son. Here too, the men have despaired of the future of their people. The women still have faith in God. They have hope. The women visit their husbands in the midst of their despair, their depression and filth, and they use the mirrors as part of a process that induced their husbands to sleep with them. In this way, the Jewish people was given new life, and "miryads were brought into the world."

Rashi uses a interesting pun here. The mirrors are described as "mar'ot ha-tzov'ot." Mar'ot are mirrors, but the word "tzov'ot" is unclear as to its meaning. Rashi connects it with the word "tzeva'ot" - miryads. These were the mirrors which created miryads of Jews - an entire generation.


The Ramban disagrees with Rashi's reading. He feels that it doesn't fit with the second phrase of the pasuk "asher tzav'u petach ohel mo'ed." Textually, Rashi's interpretation is difficult. The Ramban comes up with a new theory based on a comment by the Ibn Ezra.

Women habitually look in the mirror - made of copper or glass - every morning to put their head-dress into shape. ... Now, amongst the Israelites were certain women, dedicated to the service of God, who distanced themselves from worldly desire. They donated their mirrors to the tabernacle as they had no further use for beautification. These women would come each day to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to pray and to hear the details of the mitzvot (Ibn Ezra - Perush Ha-arokh).

According to this explanation of the Ibn Ezra, there was a group of women who gave away their mirrors! These were women who decided to dedicate every last fiber of their being to God. To this end, it would appear that they paid no attention to their physical appearance and would not indulge in worrying about the way they looked. Instead, they occupied themselves solely with Torah and prayer. These ascetic women disposed of their mirrors as an expression of their non-worldly aspirations. They were used - quite appropriately - for the basin of purity which stood, just like these women, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.


Clearly, these two readings of a single verse reveal diametrically opposed approaches to the same issue: the place of human sexuality and desire in the value system of Judaism.

Rashi expresses a view which suggests that sexuality, when used to enhance love between husband and wife, when utilized to further the Jewish people, is appropriate. In fact, it is more than appropriate, it is holy! Moses initially shies away from accepting these mirrors which are instruments of human desire. God tells Moses that he has to adopt a wider view. These mirrors were used for a noble purpose - for the selfsame purpose that caused God to create human passion in the first place. These mirrors find their place in the sacred space of a tabernacle.

The Ibn Ezra proposes that one can find true holiness when one transcends the human. Sexuality is an important aspect of human living but there are spiritual realms which rise above those levels. There is a need for a separation between the physical and the spiritual. The two are located in different worlds. For the ordinary man, human desire can find its place integrated within a life of holiness. But there are pious saintly levels which demand that one transcend the passions of the flesh. Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai and did not eat or drink for forty days. According to the midrash (see Rashi Bamidbar 12:1), Moshe separated from his wife. There is a certain view which sees the ultimate holiness as beyond the realm of humanity.

Can the human enter the Holy of Holies? Can human desire be sanctified and elevated, or is there a level of Godliness that can be reached only by negating one's humanity? This question is difficult. Maybe there are different answers for different people. Certainly, different groups throughout Jewish history have proposed a whole range of answers.


But maybe we might end with a discussion which dates back to the second century. The Rabbis at the time were deciding on the canonization of the Tanakh - which books would be included and which would be rejected. The question came up of whether to include Shir Ha-shirim (which we read in just a few weeks time, on Pesach). The problem with this book was its overt sexual imagery. Shir Ha-shirim is a passionate love story, understood by the Rabbis as a metaphor for the turbulent but passionate relationship between Israel and God. Was it an appropriate work to be included in the Tanakh? The opponents said that the sexual could not find their place in the holy writings. The proponents replied that there were certain depths of feeling which could be understood only in terms of sexual passion, that through human desire we could understand religious passion and dedication. Through human feelings we could understand our relationship with God.

Rabbi Akiva said: ... The world would have justified its existence if only for the day on which Shir Ha-shirim was given to Israel; for all the other books (of the Tanakh) are holy but Shir Ha-shirim is the Holy of Holies! (Mishna Yadayim 3:5).

Shabbat Shalom.