Rabbi Bernie Fox





Each Craftsman Was Required To Grasp the Entire Project of Fabricating the Mishcan


Every talented individual among you shall come and make all that Hashem has commanded.  (Shemot 35:10)

Beginning with Parshat Terumah, the Torah deals with the construction of the Mishcan.  However, Parshat VaYakhel represents a transition in the discussion.  To this point, the Torah describes instructions that Hashem gave to Moshe.  Now, the Torah changes the focus of the discussion.  The Torah describes Moshe’s presentation of the instructions to Bnai Yisrael and the actual construction and assembly of the Mishcan.


In our pasuk, Moshe addresses the nation.  He calls on all the talented craftsmen to join in this endeavor.  In the following passages, Moshe provides a general description of the project.  He lists the components that will be created and assembled.  Why does Moshe provide this inventory of the items to be created?  It would seem more appropriate for Moshe to list the skills that will be required!


Nachmanides offers an interesting response.  He explains that Moshe was commanded to describe the items to be fabricated.  The individual craftsmen were not qualified to participate in the project until each knew the breadth of the project and its various components.  Each was required to understand the entire project and perceive the manner in which it would be accomplished.[1]


This seems to be a strange requirement.  Most of these participants had a specific role in the construction of the Mishcan: some craftsmen created the curtains; others fashioned the upright boards that supported the tent; the metal workers fashioned the sockets into which these boards were fitted.  It is reasonable that each worker should understand his specified task.  However, why should each be required to grasp the entire project?


In order to explain Nachmanides’ comments, it is important to appreciate that the Mishcan was constructed as an integrated whole.  The identity of Mishcan did not emerge with the assembly of the components.  Instead, each component was created as part of the entity of Mishcan.  This entity includes the structure of the Mishcan and the vessels within.  Therefore, in creating a socket, the craftsman was not fashioning a mere insignificant item that, upon assembly, would become part of the Mishcan.  At the time of creation, he was fashioning a portion of the integrated Mishcan.


We can now understand Nachmanides’ observation.  It is obvious that in order for a craftsman to participate in this project, he must be qualified to execute his responsibility.  His responsibility was not to merely create a socket or weave a curtain.  His job was to create the socket or curtain as part of the Mishcan.  There is a major difference between these two responsibilities.  In order to create a socket, the craftsman need only understand the design specifications of the socket.  He does not need to understand or appreciate the entire project and the role of his socket within the whole.  However, to create a socket that is an integrated component of a Mishcan, a far more imposing qualification is requisite.  The craftsman must understand the entire project and the role of the socket within the entirety.  With this broader and more comprehensive knowledge, he can execute his task with a vision of his component’s significance in the overall project; he can create a socket that is part of the integrated whole.  This is the reason Moshe described the entire project to the craftsmen.  Only after the craftsmen had conceptualized the entire “blueprint” were they qualified to participate in the project.


Nachmanides observes that this insight explains another set of passages.  In Parshat Pekudey, the Torah describes the presentation of the components of the Mishcan to Moshe.  The Torah recounts, in detail, the order in which the components were presented.  What is the purpose of this elaborate account?  Nachmanides explains that the account of the presentation demonstrates that the craftsmen understood the relationship of the various components within the whole of the Mishcan.[2]  Each component was presented in the proper order in relation to the other parts.  In other words, this account demonstrates that the craftsmen succeeded in fashioning the components as part of an integrated whole.






An Exact Inventory Was Kept of the Collections for the Mishcan


And the materials were sufficient for all of the work that was to be done and there was extra. (Shemot 36:7)

The Mishcan was constructed from materials donated by the people.  The exuberance of the nation was so great that the contributions exceeded the needs.  Moshe notified the people that more than enough materials had been received.  There was no need for additional donations.

The pasuk indicates that Moshe did not suspend donations when the exact amount of material required for the project had been received.  Instead, allowed the donations to continue until a surplus of materials was created.  It might be assumed that this was unintentional.  Moshe needed to be sure that adequate supplies were available.  He monitored the inventory of the collected materials but realized that his computation of the collection might not be perfectly accurate.  The actual inventory of some materials might have exceeded his reckoning of the amount collected. In some instances, the inventory might have been slightly overestimated.  In order to be certain that the inventory of materials was adequate, he allowed collections to continue until he felt the precise requirements were exceeded.  He wanted to allow for a margin of error in the tally of the collections.

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno comments that this was not the reason for accumulating excess materials.  Moshe was not uncertain of the accuracy of his accounts.  He intentionally allowed supplies to be collected that he knew were in excess of the amount needed.  Why did Moshe collect more than was necessary?  Sforno responds that he did not want the craftsmen constructing the Mishcan to be frugal in the use of the materials.  Frugality might diminish the quality of the final product.

Sforno is teaching a practical lesson.  Parsimony is likely to result in a less-than-optimal product.  To create something special, we must be ready to pay the price.  However, there is possibly another concept implicit in Sforno’s comments.


Sforno explains that the sacredness of the Mishcan was enhanced by the unique attention given to its construction.  The craftsmen were totally committed to the fulfillment of Hashem’s will.  Therefore, every component of the Mishcan was a perfect reflection of the will of Hashem. 


This concept suggests an additional meaning to Moshe’s determination to avoid frugality.  The command to construct the Mishcan required strict adherence to the specifications.  The craftsmen were permitted to consider no other factor. Had the craftsman given any thought to the adequacy of the supply of materials, and how he might compensate for its deficiency, the notion of “compromise” would have invariably entered into the design.  Therefore, the legal requirements of the command required that the materials exceed the actual needs.

Although the above passage indicates that Moshe did not end the collection of donations until a slight surplus was collected, the commentaries remark that an exact tally was kept of the donations.  The purpose of this accounting was twofold: first, it was essential to secure sufficient materials; second, Moshe did not wish to collect more than was reasonably needed for the project.  A slight surplus was necessary, but not an unjustified excess.


The importance of collecting sufficient materials is obvious.  However, the Chumash emphasizes that Moshe was equally concerned with not collecting an unnecessary excess of materials.  Once the needed materials were donated and the necessary surplus reserve had been created, Moshe immediately directed Bnai Yisrael to stop bringing donations.  Why was this issue so crucial?  Why was Moshe so deeply concerned with not accepting additional donations?


The commentaries offer various explanations.  We will consider one of these responses.  Gershonides explains that Moshe’s concern was based on a principle found in the Talmud.  In Tractate Ketubot, the Talmud explains that a person should not donate more than one-fifth of one’s assets to charity.[3]  Maimonides extends this principle to the performance of all mitzvot.  A person should not spend more than one-fifth of his wealth on the performance of any mitzvah.  For example, this limit applies in purchasing an animal for sacrifice.  Maimonides’ explanation for this restriction is that a person should avoid being dependent on others for support.  Therefore, one should not risk impoverishing himself.[4]


Gershonides explains that Moshe’s concern was based on this principle.  He did not want the people to bring more than was needed.  He did not want anyone to become impoverished out of zeal to contribute to the Mishcan.


Gershonides offers an important insight into the restriction against spending an excess of one-fifth of one’s wealth in the performance of a mitzvah.  He agrees with Maimonides’ explanation of the restriction that one should not risk poverty and loss of independence in performing a mitzvah.  However, Gershonides asserts that there is a more fundamental explanation of the restriction.  He explains that the Torah prohibits the performance of a mitzvah in a manner that leads to evil.  Becoming impoverished through contributing to charity, or performing a mitzvah, is a negative—or evil—outcome.  Gershonides further explains that such an evil outcome discourages others from performing the mitzvah.[5]





The Detailed Description of the Construction of the Mishcan


And he made the sacred oil for anointing and the pure incense using the technique of a perfumer.  (Shemot 37:29)

In VaYakel and Pekuday the Torah retells the construction of the Mishcan and the vestments of Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol.  Virtually every element is described in specific detail.  However, there are two notable exceptions.  These two items are mentioned in our pasuk.


The Shemen HaMishchah was the oil used for anointing the kohanim and the Mishcan.  This anointing was part of the process of conferring sanctity on these individuals and the Mishcan.  The instructions for creating the oil are outlined in Parshat Ki Tisa.  There, the Torah explains that the Shemen HaMishchah was created through introducing specific fragrances into pure olive oil.[6]


The Ketoret was the incense burned in the Mishcan.  In Parshat Ki Tisa, the Torah discusses the compounding of the Ketoret.  The Torah lists the elements contained in the Ketoret and their proportions.  The parasha also describes the preparation of the incense.[7]


In Parshat VaYakhel, the manufacture of these two items is not recounted at length.  The quoted above passage contains the entire discussion.  The Torah merely states that these items were created as required.


VaYakel and Pekuday discuss the manufacture of the Mishcan and the garments of the kohanim.  The Torah, in previous chapters, also provides details on the construction of these items.  Although VaYakel and Pekuday meticulously describe the actual manufacture of the Mishcan and the garments, the Ketoret and the Shemen HaMishchah are excluded from this intensive review!  The question is obvious.  Why are these items not reviewed in our Torah portion?


Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam offers a fascinating response.  He explains that the Shemen HaMishchah and the Ketoret differed from the other items described in the parasha.  They required a high level of processing and, once produced, did not resemble their original components.  The Shemen HaMishchah was created through burning various fragrances.  The oil then absorbed the smoke from the fragrances.  The final product did not include the substance of the original aromatic elements.  Only their fragrance remained in the oil.  The Ketoret was created through thoroughly grinding the original elements.  The individual elements could not be identified in the final compound.  Rabbaynu Avraham posits that because the original elements of these two items were not identifiable in the final product, their manufacture is not described in detail.[8]


Rabbaynu Avraham's response requires analysis.  He presents a fundamental distinction between the Shemen HaMishchah and the Ketoret as compared with the other elements of the Mishcan and the garments.  However, a question still remains: Why is this distinction important?  Why does the Torah only review the manufacture of items in which the constituent components remain evident?


It seems that the purpose of our Torah portion is to communicate a visual image of the components of the Mishcan and the garments of the Kohanim.  This is accomplished through describing their manufacture. Describing the manufacture of the Ketoret and the Shemen HaMishchah would not contribute to creating a visual image of these items in their final form.  Therefore, the creation of these items is not discussed in detail.


This insight helps resolve another issue.  The Torah describes the construction of the Mishcan and the garments in excruciating detail. We now know that this was done to create a visual image.  Why is this image necessary?


The Torah includes six-hundred thirteen mitzvot.  Most apply at all times.  However, the mitzvot relating to the Mishcan are an exception.  The Mishcan and the Temple do not currently exist.  Exile from the Land of Israel and the destruction of the Temple deprived these mitzvot of their physical expression.  As a consequence of exile, an important portion of the content in the Torah does not exist in material form.  These mitzvot will not be fulfilled again until the rebuilding of the Temple.


This creates a paradox.  The taryag mitzvot – the six-hundred thirteen commandments – are eternal.  They must be real to every generation.  How can the mitzvot related to the Mishcan remain alive even when there is no Bait HaMikdash?  The Torah addresses this problem.  These mitzvot are preserved through creating a detailed visualization.  The Mishcan does not exist in physical form.  However, it is still real to the student reading the Torah.  In this manner these mitzvot are preserved for all time.






Exact Measurements in Jewish Law


Every man whose heart lifted him came forward.  And every person whose heart moved him brought the offering of Hashem for the creating of the Ohel Moed, all of its components, and the sacred garments.  (Shemot 35:21)

Hashem commanded Bnai Yisrael to build a Mishcan – a Tabernacle.  The Mishcan was constructed from materials provided and contributed by Bnai Yisrael.  Our pasuk describes the response of the nation to Moshe’s request to supply these materials.  In his comments on this passage, Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel explains that the craft-people who built the Mishcan were guided by the spirit of prophecy.[9]  Why did they require this spirit of prophecy to perform their tasks?   In order to answer this question, we must identify and understand a fundamental paradox within the commandment to build the Mishcan.


One of the interesting issues discussed repeatedly in the Talmud is whether we can rely on the accuracy of measurements.  A simple case illustrates this issue.  On Succot we are required to live in a succah.  The most fundamental element of a succah is its roof.  The roof must be composed of branches or a similar substance.  We cannot use a metal poles or even wooden poles that have been manufactured to the extent that they are regarded as utensils.  The Mishne discusses a succah whose sechach – roof – is composed of a combination of suitable and unsuitable material.  The two materials are placed on the roof in an alternating pattern so that the quantity of the suitable material is exactly equal to that of the unsuitable material.  The Mishne rules that this succah is acceptable.  The Talmud observes that, according to some authorities, in order for a structure to be regarded as a succah, only half of its roof must be covered with suitable sechach.  A majority of the roof need not be covered with suitable sechach.  The Talmud concludes that it is apparent the Mishne supports this position.  The implication of this discussion is that if we assume that we cannot relay on exact measurements of the two substances, the structure cannot be regarded decisively as a suitable succah; if we cannot be sure that the suitable sechach is exactly equal in quantity to the unsuitable material, then the succah whose sechach is composed of alternating suitable and unsuitable materials is not an acceptable succah.[10]


Underlying this discussion is an interesting dispute among the Sages of the Talmud.  The Sages disagree as to whether we can assume that measurements are exact.  Some Sages maintain that we can make this assumption.  Others argue that we cannot make such an assumption.  If we assume that measurements can be exact, then the structure described in the Mishne is a suitable succah, without qualification.  However, if we assume that measurements cannot be regarded as exact, then the structure would not be suitable unless an additional quantity of sechach is added.  This additional quantity of sechach would assure that the sechach was at least equal to the unsuitable substance.


The same dispute extends to the measurement of events as being simultaneous.  The Sages who contend that measurements can be regarded as exact also assert that when two events appear to have happened simultaneously, they have, in fact, occurred at the same moment.  The Sages who do not accept measurements as being exact also deny that two apparently simultaneous events can be regarded as truly having occurred at the same moment.


At first glance, this dispute seems difficult to understand.  It is empirically evident that it is remarkably difficult to extract an exact measurement for any given quantity.  Even if a measurement seems to be exact, more careful examination will indicate that it is not.  Certainly, it is nearly impossible to conclude that two events are precisely simultaneous.  Therefore, it would seem that the more reasonable position is to assume that measurements are not exact.


We can gain insight into this dispute through another discussion in the Talmud.  In Tractate Bechorot, the Talmud attempts to resolve the dispute between the Sages on this issue.  The Talmud suggests that the dispute can be resolved through considering the Torah’s commandment to build a Mishcan.  The Torah provides exact measurements for each of the elements of the Mishcan.  Precise dimensions are delineated for the Aron (the ark), the Shulchan (the Table that held the Shew Bread), and every other component of the Mishcan.  The builders of the Mishcan were required to build their components to these exact specifications.  They could not deviate from any of the specified dimensions.  The Talmud initially asserts that this proves we can rely on the precision of measurements!  However, the Talmud subsequently rejects this proof.  It explains that although it is true that the Torah commands us to build the Mishcan and its components to exact dimensions, the dimensions described by the Torah were not precisely achieved.  Instead, the builders did their best to construct the Mishcan and its components according to these dimensions.  Despite these efforts, the innate imperfection of any human measurement prevented them from achieving success.  Although the Mishcan could not be fabricated to precise specification, the product created through the best efforts of builders was acceptable.  [11] 


This discussion is difficult to understand.  The Talmud’s discussion begins by assuming that the Torah required the Mishcan to be built to precise measurements.  This is offered as a proof to the opinion that measurements can be regarded a precise.  However, as explained above, it is virtually impossible to make an exact measurement.  How could the Talmud initially assume that the commandment to create the Mishcan required fabrication of the components to their exact specified dimensions?  How can the Torah command us to perform the impossible? 


This question suggests an important insight into the Sages’ dispute regarding the precision of measurements.  As previously indicated, the Mishcan presents a paradox: We were required to build the Mishcan according to exact specifications, yet, precise measurement is virtually impossible!  There are two obvious approaches to resolving this paradox. 


One possibility is that the dimensions outlined in the Torah represent targets.  They are impossible to precisely achieve, but in constructing the Mishcan, the builders were provided with a model towards which they were required to strive.  The actual Mishcan was not an exact embodiment of this model.  It is the closest possible actualization of the model.


The second possible resolution of this paradox is that the specifications must be achieved.  An approximation is not adequate.  However, the Torah accepts an empirical standard for all measurements.  In other words, if a measurement is empirically met, the Torah regards the measurement as precise.


Let us now return to the discussion in the Talmud.  The Talmud initially asserts that the requirement to build the Mishcan and its components to exact specifications indicates that we can rely on the precision of measurements.  This proof can now be understood.  The proof is based upon the assumption that the Torah’s standard of measurement is empirical.  If the builders of the Mishcan carefully measured their work and all of their empirical measurements indicated that the design specifications had been met, then the standard of measurement was satisfied.  In other word, if empirical measurement indicated that the Mishcan had been build exactly to specification, then according to the Torah’s standards the Mishcan was regarded as built exactly according to its specifications.


However, the Talmud rejects this argument.  It suggests that empirical measurements are not regarded as precise.  Instead, in providing exact specifications for the Mishcan, the Torah created design targets.  The Torah recognizes that these targets cannot be precisely achieved. The Mishcan was acceptable because it was the closest possible embodiment of the required dimensions.


This analysis provides an explanation of the dispute between the Sages.  The Sages recognize that it is virtually impossible to achieve precise measurements.  The Sages who contend that measurements can be regarded as exact do not dispute this issue.  However, they contend that in establishing measurements, the Torah only requires that the measurements be held to an empirical level of precision.  When the measurement has been empirically achieved, the Torah’s requirement is satisfied.  However, the Sages who maintain that precision is impossible argue that the measurements of the Torah are exact requirements that cannot be satisfied at an empirical level of precision.  If this is the case, they must assume that Torah’s specifications for the Mishcan are intended as design targets but not absolute standards.


The Talmud offers another resolution of the paradox of the Mishcan.  The resolution is quite enigmatic.  It consists of a passage from Divrei HaYamim—Chronicles.  King David instructed his son Shlomo to build the Bait HaMikdash – the Temple.  He provided Shlomo with precise instructions.  He explained to Shlomo that he was providing him with precise written instructions that he (David) had received from Hashem through prophecy. [12], [13]


The Talmud does not comment on the passage or explain its relevance to the paradox.  However, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik – the GRI”Z – offers an interesting explanation of the Talmud’s comments.  He suggests that although it is virtually impossible to make a measurement with exact precision, it is not innately impossible.  In attempting to make a precise measurement, we are typically defeated by the imprecision of our measuring tools and the limitations of the human senses. However, if these limitations can be overcome, a precise measurement is possible.  Based on this assertion, the GRI”Z explains the Talmud’s comments.  David told Shlomo that he had received through prophecy exact specifications for the Bait HaMikdash.  He assured Shlomo that the building of the Bait HaMikdash would be guided by the same Divine inspiration.  Through this inspiration, they would achieve a level of precision not normally possible. 


According to the GRI”Z, the Talmud is suggesting that even the Sages who maintain that exact precision is normally impossible to achieve would acknowledge that the Mishcan and its components were built with exact precision.  The builders were guided in their efforts by divine inspiration.  This guidance enabled them to achieve a level of precision that is normally not attainable.


We can now understand Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel’s comments on our passage.   The craftspeople who built the Mishcan required the spirit of prophecy in order to complete their task.  This spirit of prophecy guided them and assured their success in achieving the precise specifications required for the Mishcan and its components.[14]

[1]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 36:8.

[2]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 36:8.

[3]   Mesechet Ketubot 50a.

[4]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Erchin VeCharamin 8:13.

[5]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p. 444.

[6]   Sefer Shemot 30:22-33.

[7]   Sefer Shemot 30:34-36.

[8]  Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 37:29.

[9] Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uzial, Tirgum on Sefer Shemot 35:21.

[10] Mesechet Succah 15a – 15b.

[11] Mesechet Bechorot 17b.

[12] Sefer Divrei HaYamim I, 28:19.

[13] Mesechet Bechorot 17b.

[14] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Netivit Rabotaynu (Jerusalem 5762), Volume 1, pp. 415-416.