A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, email@example.com
Parshat Va-Yakhel 5758-1998
Ve-'asah: Past or Future?
Dept. of Bible
At the end of Chapter 35 of Exodus, verses 30-35, Moses informs the Israelites that Bezalel and Oholiab were singled out by G-d to head the work on the Tabernacle. Then Chapter 36 begins with the Hebrew words ve-asa Bezalel..., which apparently means, "Then Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons ... carried out all that the Lord had commanded." In other words, chapter 35 ends with Moses "singling out by name"(35:30) Bezalel and Oholiab, and chapter 36 starts with the account, in the past tense, of the work which they performed.
This reading, which is also supported by the chapter divisions, is problematic. 1) As we have seen, at the end of Chapter 35 Moses lists the names of the people (v. 30), and their talents and qualifications (vv. 31-35), but he does not tell the Israelites the most important thing: why were these people called and appointed, and to what purpose would their talents serve?
2) Chapter 36 begins with ve-asa Bezalel, ostensibly indicating the beginning of the work. Immediately thereafter, however, in v. 2, we read that "Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab... to undertake the task and carry it out;" thus, prior to this verse they were not cognizant of the task destined for them. The verses that follow (3-7) tell of the necessary materials being gathered to build the Tabernacle. Only after this list, in verse 8, does the actual work begin: "Then all the skilled among those engaged in the work made the tabernacle..."
This seeming disorder and lack of logic actually applies not to the text itself, but to the division into chapters 35 and 36. The numbered chapters are known to be of medieval Christian origin, which entered the Jewish world by way of concordances (for use in polemics against the Christians), and later through early printed versions of the Bible, an unfortunate addition that became a source of error for later generations.
In truth, chapter 36, verse 1 is really the culmination and the entire point of the presentation of the major artisans before the Israelites, because it defines the task given them and what they are to do. The verse should be translated, as in the new JPS translation, "Let, then, Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons...carry out all that the Lord has commanded(36:1)." In this way, it is the end of 35:30-35. The church official who divided the text into chapters did not understand the verse this way, and therefore separated it from chapter 35 and used it to introduce a new subject in chapter 36.
This error stems from the Septuagint translation of ve-asa Bezalel (36:1) in the past tense, Kai epoiese beseleel. It was translated similarly in the Syriac Peshitta and the Latin Vulgate, as we rendered it in the very first paragraph above. It seems they were misled by the seemingly past tense form of ve-asa, and did not appreciate that a vav, commonly known as the vav ha-hippuch, plus a verb in the past, with the subject (Bezalel) immediately following, always denotes the inverted past, which actually refers to the future. This use of the letter vav to invert the tense, and not as a connecting vav meaning "and," was generally understood by early translators. In this case, however, after Moses' lengthy presentation of the artisans to the Israelites, perhaps the translators wished to hasten to the actual building of the Tabernacle, and hence made this verse the first in the coming chapter, thereby misleading future generations.
Such an error is quite feasible and fully to be expected, as Ibn Ezra notes in his short commentary (not printed in most editions of Mikraot Gedolot) on Exodus 36:1: "Ve-asa Bezalel refers to the future; the reason being that G-d so ordered." The commentaries by Samuel David Luzzatto and Casuto on this verse discuss this error, caused by the division into chapters, and explain the correct way to understand the verse. Luzzatto also refers the reader to Rashi's commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 12a (s.v. ve-ratzah), where Rashi uses the word ve-asa as it appears here to illustrate his point, that an inverted past can serve as an imperative or as a jussive, meaning "Let them...". From Rashi's comments here we may deduce that medieval Jewish exegetes understood that ve-asa in our verse referred to the future.
It is perplexing, therefore, that the Aramaic translations made and preserved by Jews, contain this error. Targum Onkelos, as it has come down to us, including the versions in the Sperber edition, renders this word in the past, as does the Neophyti Targum discovered in Rome about forty years ago. The Targum attributed to Jonathan b. Uzziel has both a past and a future form; the future, which is correct, entered editions of Mikraot Gedolot. The rendering of this word in the Targumim is discussed by Luzzatto in his book, Ohev Ger (p. 87, 1885 ed.), where he mentions a source from the year 1411, in which Targum Onkelos renders ve-ya'bed, in the future. The rendering of this verse in Aramaic Targumim and in Jewish exegesis in general is discussed at length by M. M. Kasher in his Torah Shelemah (vol. 23, p. 34).
The way ve-asa at the beginning of chapter 36 is translated and interpreted serves as an index of the quality and precision of various translations and commentaries on the Torah, such as the classic translations of Luther into German (1523-1534), and of King James into English (1611), where this word is rendered in the past, following the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the chapter divisions. Many later translators, including Jews, followed this lead, such as Mendelsohn into German (1780), and The Jerusalem Bible (1985) into English. The King James Revised Version (1885), however, corrected the error and rendered ve-asa as a future form. Most modern translations and commentaries, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, render this in the future tense.
We conclude with a thought for the present. Much has been written about the distortion caused by our using the Christian division of the Bible into chapters (and even books), which contains misunderstandings, as illustrated here, and fundamental departures from the Jewish outlook, as in the chapter beginnings of Genesis 2 and 27.
The desire to change the chapter divisions to follow Jewish tradition has been no more than wishful thinking, insofar as the vast body of scholarship on the Bible and related fields, both in Hebrew and other languages, uses the standard chapter and verse to reference passages. However, just as the technological development of printing saddled us with a non-Jewish division into chapters, so too, computer technology may free us from this division. Suitable software put on the computer, or even a pocket calculator, could at the touch of a button translate from one system of division to another, thus solving the problem.