Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat VaYakhel- Pekudei 5770/ March 13, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


"Women who excelled in that skill"

Itamar Dagan



The account in this week’s reading of the contributions to the Tabernacle tells of two groups of women who spun thread for the cloth coverings used in the Tabernacle. One group spun threads for the lower covers using a variety of precious raw materials – wool dyed blue, purple, and crimson, and linen fibers (Ex. 35:25).   The other group spun thread for the upper covering out of plain materials – goat hair (Ex.35:26).

In appreciation of this work, Scripture praised the artistry and handicraft of these two groups, but expressed this praise differently for each group.  The women of the first group were called “skilled,” while the second group received exceptional note for their artistry:  they were women who “excelled in that skill.”   Even the Sages noted this special emphasis, observing, “Greater skill was ascribed to those who worked on the upper cloths than the lower ones” (Shabbat 99a).  In their opinion, Scripture viewed spinning goat hair as an artistic achievement requiring greater skill than that which was needed to spin precious materials, therefore it commemorated their work by a more grandiose description.  Many commentators, however, had difficulty accounting for this extraordinary admiration since weaving is a simple craft, not considered skilled labor.  This difficulty was compounded by the fact that in ancient times weaving was traditionally woman’s work. [1]

This difficulty led Midrash ha-Gadol (Margaliyot ed., 35:26) to conclude that “this was more difficult work, since goat hair is extremely fine and stiff.”  In other words, Scripture expressed exceptional praise for the skill of these women because of the nature of goat hair, requiring great expertise in order to spin it into thread. [2]

Another solution to this problem may be found in midrashic traditions holding that spinning thread of goat hair was considered an artistic feat because of the unconventional way in which it was done.  These traditions recount that the women who spun goat thread did not wait for the goat hair to be shorn; rather they spun it while it was still on the goat’s body.   For example, a baraitha attributed to Rabbi Nehemiah, in Shabbat (74b, 99a) says, “rinsed on the goats and spun from the goats.”  Rashi explains that Rabbi Nehemiah’s derasha was addressing a syntactic difficulty in the text:   Scripture says that the women “spun the goats,” (tavu et ha-cizim) without mentioning the word hair, the object of the spinning, hence the conclusion that the spinning was done “on the body of the goats.” [3]

This midrashic addition also appears in two relatively late Aramaic translations of Scripture.   Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (=Targum Yerushalmi) expands homiletically on this verse:  “They would spin the hair of the goats on their body and card [4] it while the goats were still alive.” [5]   An interesting development of this homily appears in the Targum of Chronicles, on the verse, “Caleb son of Hezron had children by his wife Azubah” (Sperber ed., I Chron.2:18).   The name Azubah (meaning “abandoned”) invites a tragic interpretation, and indeed the author of the Targum interpreted her name, connecting it with events in her life: “The Lord, knowing of her disgrace – for she was barren and humiliated – blessed her and made her excel in wisdom so that she skillfully wove the hair on the goats’ bodies, unshorn, to make the cloths for the Tabernacle.” [6]   This targumic tradition identifies Azubah as one of the women who took part in weaving the goat hair, noting that in compensation for her barrenness she had been blessed with artistic talent enabling her to spin goat hair before it had been shorn.

This homily deserves close attention, for the notion that the spinning was done prior to shearing the hair makes one wonder why the women had to resort to this peculiar method of spinning and what benefit they derived from it.  Furthermore, why was wool not spun in a similar manner?  Indeed, the difficulty in understanding this homily caused many later commentators to interpret this Targum homiletically, explaining the women’s actions as showing their proficiency in Halakhah.   Accordingly, the women took care to spin the goat hair before it was shorn in order to avoid halakhic difficulties that might prevent or restrict their participation in the work of spinning. [7]   The drawback of these interpretations is that they turn the women of the generation of the wilderness into talmudic scholars delving into the fine points of earlier and later rabbinic authorities.

To resolve this thorny problem some adherents of the plain interpretation (the way of Peshat) suggested that the hair was spun before being shorn in order to assure that the thread be pure and of high quality.  For example, Rabbi David Pardo held that “the wool or hair is very clean then and does not become dirtied in use.” [8]   This method, he said, was used only for spinning goat hair because it, in contrast to wool and flax, did not need to be dyed and therefore was likely to become soiled.  Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, however, on the basis of scientific knowledge in his day, explained that the quality of the final product suffered when separated from its biological source.   He claimed that spinning the hair while attached to “the source from which it grew” enhanced the beauty of the thread, giving it “greater sheen.” [9]

These commentaries help explain why goat hair specifically was spun in this complicated manner.  Since goat hair was used to make the outer cloths of the Tabernacle tent (Exodus 26:7), for the purpose of covering and protecting the lower cloths (Ex. 26:14), there was increased danger of these exposed cloths being damaged by the desert climate and the touch of human hands.

A totally different exegetical approach appears in an anthology of sermons on the Torah by Rabbi Israel Neiman (Cracow, late 19th century), who offers a psychological-religious explanation for this special spinning technique:

Perhaps the women were at wits’ end in their eagerness to get to work without delay, finding the time dragging as they waited for the 'feathers' [10] to be shorn so that they could get to work. Therefore they wove it while still on the goats.” [11]

The thrust of this interpretation is that the women’s strong desire to participate in the work of making the Tabernacle, coupled with their enthusiasm, prompted them to prepare coverings for the Tabernacle without having to wait a painfully long time for the goats to be shorn.  The group of women whose great skill was so highly praised therefore preferred the more complicated yet quicker method of spinning over the regular, more time-consuming method.  By immediately engaging in the work of spinning, they could give vent to their fervent ardor.

Rabbi Israel Neiman’s explanation is consonant with the well-known observation of the Sages:  “Love upsets the natural order” (Genesis Rabbah, 55.8).  That is, spurred on by love, in this instance for G-d, a person acts in an exceptional way and not in the normal order of things.



[1] See under melakhah, Encyclopedia Mikrait, IV, Jerusalem 1963, p. 998.

[2] Also Ralbag, following him, Perushei ha-Torah le- Rabbenu Levi ben Gershom (R. Y. Levi ed.), Jerusalem 1995, p. 444.

[3] In his commentary on Shabbat 74b, s.v. shatuf be-izim.  Also see the variant in Pesikta Zutreta, Buber edition (Lekah Tov) on Exodus 35:26.   Onkelos circumvented the difficulty of the absence of an object by adding the preposition “from,” rendering the text “from goats", so that the reader understands that it speaks of their hair.  Onkelos translated the earlier passage commanding contributions to be brought for the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:4) in a similar manner:  “and goats” he rendered as “and from goats,” which Rashi explained as follows:   “from goats, i.e., their hair.   Therefore Onkelos translated the text to read ‘from goats,’ meaning that which comes from goats and not the goats themselves.”  Thus Onkelos managed to preserve his principle of adhering as closely as possible to the original text.  Another way of coping with the problem raised by the absence of an object is used in several translations of the Bible (such as the King James), adding an explanatory word:  “goat hair.”

[4] The Hebrew verb used here, n-p- tz, means to beat or shake the wool in order to loosen and remove any dirt stuck in it.  See Nathan b. Yehiel, Arukh ha-Shalem (ed. Alexander Kohut), vol. 6, New York 1945, pp. 365 and 366.

[5] David Reider, Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel al ha-Torah, translated into English…, based on the British Museum manuscript, Jerusalem 1984.

[6] I wish to thank Dr. James N. Ford of the Talmud department for helping me translate this passage precisely.

[7] By using this method of spinning, they said, the women sought to apply to themselves the commandment to build the Temple (R. Joseph Rozin, Tzafnat Pane`ah, Pyotrkov 1903, p. 107); to make it permissible for them to spin the goat hair on the Sabbath as well (R. Moses Teitelbaum, Yismah Moshe, I, Jerusalem 1992, p. 201); to enable women who were impure due to menstruation or childbirth to participate in the spinning (R. Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, Meshekh Hokhmah, I, Jerusalem 1994, p. 154); to enable them to donate their handiwork to the Tabernacle without permission from their husbands (R. Joseph Petznovsky, Pardes Yosef ha-Shalem al ha-Torah, 4, Bnei Brak 1994, p. 798, par. 22); to inform us that wool which is still connected to the animal is not called tzemer (R. Amram Blum¸ Resp. Beit She`arim, Yoreh De`ah, New York 2000, par. 381), and to have their handicraft be called “skilled work” (R. S. Fischer, Derashot beit Yishai [1-2], Jerusalem 2004, p. 399, note 12).

[8] R. David Pardo, Maskil le-David, in Ha- Meorot ha-Gedolim Pentateuch, Jerusalem 1992, on Ex. 25:26, pp. 341-343; R. Yaakov Selnik, Nahalat Yaakov, loc. sit.

[9] See his commentary on Ex. 35:26.  A similar procedure is found in the textile industry.  For making down, goose feathers are plucked from live geese, the assumption being that these feathers are fresher and of better quality than feathers which either were shed by live geese or plucked from dead ones.  This method of plucking is discussed by R. Israel Isserlein, Resp. Terumat ha-Deshen, 2, in the context of the proscription against maltreatment of animals, pesakim u-khtavim, par. 105.

[10] The Sages distinguished between goat hair, which they termed notzah (= feather; as in Hullin 137a and Shabbat 27a) and sheep hair, called tzemer (= wool).  Rashi’s commentary (on Shabbat 27a) explains that goat hair resembles feathers "in that it is not sheared, rather plucked.”     Kohut holds that goat hair is called notzah because it is so fine.   See Arukh ha-Shalem (above, note 4), under netz, p. 372.

[11] Gibborei Yisrael, Przemysl 1889, p. 68.  According to the short biography at the beginning of the book, Rabbi Yisrael Neiman was the chief dayyan in Cracow and a disciple of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Heller, author of Hiddushei Tiv Gittin.