The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Daf Shvui No. 66

Parashat Vayakhel

Heavenly Art

Dr. Dov Schwartz

Department of Philosophy


A. Portrait of the Artist as a Religious Man

Parashat Vayakhel describes in detail the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the fashioning of its vessels. The Mishkan in the desert fulfilled the same purpose that would later be filled by the Temple; it was the spiritual center of the People of Israel, the pinnacle of the service of G-d. Constructing this important center demanded the total involvement of an artist who excelled at drawing, knew the art of sculpture, and was a craftsman experienced in casting, engraving and "all manner of artistic work" (Ex. 35-33). His task would be to create 'divine art'. Our sages taught: "A candebrum of fire came down from Heaven" (Menachot 29a). According to this midrash, Art is the imitation (Greek - mimesis) of an absolute ideal. The artist's obligation was to study the heavenly models which had been shown to Moses when he was on Mount Sinai and give them a human, artistic interpretation. Just as the Mishkan was the height of religious service, so was it also the height of achievement of the visual arts in the generation of exodus.

What characterized the artists who created the Mishkan? Undoubtedly, in order to turn the sublime 'divine art' into a reality it was necessary to enlist men of inspiration and talent. Considerations of genealogy or political status are irrelevant to artistic creativity. While one man chosen to construct the Mishkan had family connections with Moses, Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Judah, another was chosen from an insignificant tribe, Oholiav of the tribe of Dan. This teaches us that talent is not necessarily hereditary, and is certainly not a result of social or religious status. Certainly, Bezalel and Oholiav were talented artists. However, Scripture reveals to us that talent and capability are not the only characteristics necessary for creativity in a religious milieu. We can observe an additional characterization of Bezalel: "He has filled him with a divine spirit (literally: spirit of G-d) of wisdom, understanding and knowledge and in all manner of workmanship" (Exodus 35:31). Scripture here tells us that the artist is not necessarily known as one who breaks the accepted norm and defies conservatism. On the contrary, he is representative of the religious norm on its highest level. The artist is blessed with "a divine spirit", which is interpreted in one version of the Targum Onkelos as: "And I will fill him with the spirit of prophecy before the Lord".

The principle that lofty creations of art do not demand of the artist to violate religious frameworks, already appears in the beginning of our parashah. Rashi in the name of the Mekhilta explains why Parashat Vayakhel, which is devoted entirely to the building of the Mishkan, begins with a specific admonition concerning observance of the Sabbath (Exodus 35:1-5): To teach us that the construction of the Mishkan does not nullify the Sabbath. Clearly 'divine art' can be created while preserving the framework of religion and perhaps a masterpiece of this caliber is even enhanced by holding fast to it. The Torah sees art as a direct result of the "divine spirit" which fills the artist.

B. The Cherubim - On Artistic Possibilities in the Religious Framework

According to the commentators, special attention was paid to the making of the Ark; Bezalel labored on its creation personally. Covering the Ark were two cherubim, wings spread out, facing each other (Exodus 37:9). Although making statues was prohibited because of the prohibition against idolatry, the religious framework found the proper, exalted expression for sculpture: the cherubim.

An additional aspect of the cherubim, though irrelevant in terms of the present , gives testimony to the richness of the creative possibilities in religious life. Much has been written about the apologetics of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari (1,97), for the Sin of the Golden Calf, but it seems that no one recognized one of the important conclusions to be drawn from his argument. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi 'justified' the sin of the people on the grounds that Man needs a tangible agent in order to recognize the spiritual abstract, and therefore Israel demanded a tangible agent of this nature when Moses disappeared on Mount Sinai and failed to return. However, one should be more specific and ask: what is the nature of the tangible agent? Rabbi Yehudah Halevi answers: "The spirituality of a star among the stars...". He refers to a group of scholars in Haran in the ninth century who based their magic on astrology. According to these concepts, which originate in the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, it is possible to attract the spirituality of a star and bring it to settle on earthly objects. The power of the star and its spirituality grant real, material advantages. The way to attract this power, in general terms, was to create a model similar to the star or constellation, which would draw down its spirituality. Modern man would surely view this approach as a kind of witchcraft, but in the Middle Ages many philosophers and scientists saw the idea of bringing beneficence down to the earth as an integral part of their scientific view. Part of the education of physicians at the universities of Paris, for example, included healing through the 'bringing down' of spirituality.

In Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's Opinion, all the needs the nation of Israel while they were wandering in the desert were met with the help of Moses. With Moses gone, the people feared extinction in the desert, and therefore made the calf to attract the powers of a star. In this way, their material needs would be provided for and they would survive. Note the exegetic tradition that the Golden Calf represented the zodiac sign of Taurus (see Ibn Ezra's comment on the Sin of the Golden Calf).

According to Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, the error the people made was in choosing the magical means by themselves rather than waiting for the word of G-d. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi goes on to say that there are permitted forms and images to attract spirituality from above. So he writes in the Kuzari: "There was nothing foreign in the image which He (the Almighty) commanded in the cherubim." This means that according to Rabbi Yehudah Halevi certain forms of magic were permitted within the framework of the service of G-d.

Obviously the scientific world-view today does not recognize magic or astrology as science, and justifiably so. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi was relating to ideas in his own generation, the 12th century. In every culture and in every period, Judaism makes allowances for creative and artistic freedom. The cherubim are another indication that creativity in the realm of sculpture and in the realm of the scientific understanding of magic of the Middle Ages did not exceed the prescriptions of the religious framework. On the contrary, according to Biblical translators and commentators, the greatest creators and artists of the Bible received the "divine spirit" and possibly also the gift of prophecy. There is no doubt that the portrait of the artist as a religions person is complex and multifaceted. One of the tasks faced by our generation is to re-emphasize the idea that art in a religious framework is not only possible, but that it must demand the attention of the best of our creative talents.

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