Terumah: The Outer World

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Scarlet Blue Purple Wool
25 Feb 2009

For the first time, (but certainly not the last), Jews are asked to donate.

In all, three donations are required to start up the Mishkan. First, an appeal for raw materials, a second call for the silver sockets, and a third one for a communal sacrifice fund (1). The latter two were united in that they required mandatory equal donations (1/2 shekel) while the first appeal was for nidvat leiv, donations of the heart. While the latter two required coins, the former requested variant materials and lots of them; the extensive list is presented in our parsha:

This is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver and copper.-blue [wool], dark red [wool], crimson [wool], fine linen, and goats [hair]. Red[-dyed] ram’s skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood. Oil for the lamp. Spices for anointing-oil, and for the incense of aromatic spices. Shoham stones, and filling stones for setting [into] the ephod and breastplate.

In God’s house, everything – from the raw materials to the furniture (its placement and measurements), carries inherent and symbolic significance (2). Let us ask then a simple question:

How many materials did the Mishkan need and of what significance is that number?

Since the Torah presents the list, it shouldn’t be that hard to answer, and yet consider the following two midrashic sources:

1. Shir Hashirim Rabah,[ 4:25]:

She [the Community of Israel] presented to Him [God] thirteen things, and He presented to her thirteen. She presented to Him thirteen, as enumerated in the book of Exodus: And this is the offering… gold, and siIver, (3). He presented to her thirteen, as explained in Ezekiel (XVI, 10- 12): I clothed thee also with richly woven work (R. Simoi said: This is purple;) And shod thee with sealskin: in return for the sealskins [of the tabernacle]…

2. Zohar, 2:135

Gold symbolizes New Year’s Day, the day of “gold”, because it is a day of judgement,. .. Silver symbolizes the Day of Atonement, .. Brass is symbolic of the days of the Sacrifices of the Feast of Tabernacles “Blue” (techeleth).. Passover, .. “Red-purple” (argaman) .. with Pentecost.. “Scarlet” .. the fifteenth day of Ab, .. So far six symbolic elements have been enumerated; the rest symbolize .. These are nine, corresponding to nine days of Repentance …

A unifying theme of the midrashim: Numbers do matter! An obvious problem: the variant count – an issue which we shall return to shortly.

Rashi, working within the rubric of Shir Hashirim Rabah states: “All thirteen items mentioned here were required either for the construction of the Mishkan or for the priestly vestments, if you examine them carefully (4).”

Rabbeinu Bechayei’s amazing “15” tour, however takes its cue from the second midrashic source. For him, the number is deeply significant in that it incorporates (among other items):

a. name of God (Kah, yud hey) needed to create this and the next world [cf. Menachos 29b]
b. the number of words + vowels in the 1st and primary Creation verse of the Torah
c. number of praises in Yishtabach before we arrive at His great name
d. number of stairs that separate the outer courtyard from the inner courtyard
e. the number of Dovid’s Shir Hamaalot psalms
f. the number of words in the birchat kohanim
g. the number of praises that follows the Shema

In a phrase, fifteen is the number for an intense spirituality of connection – the bridge between lower and higher kedusha.

So who is right? Rashi or Rabbeinu Bechayei. Neisi sefer v’nechzi. Let us simply count! Are there 13 materials or 15?

A simple analysis would seem to bear out Rabbeinu Bechayei: Gold, silver, and copper = (3). Blue wool, dark red wool, crimson wool, linen, and goat’s [hair] = (5). Red-dyed ram’s skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood = (3). Oil for the lamp, spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet-smelling incense = (2). Shoham and setting-stones = (2).

And Rashi’s thirteen? Solutions abound:

A fourth answer, that of the classic Rashi supercommentary, Mizrachi, resonates. It is also picked up by Rav Schwab, who leaves us with a tantalizing closer. To their mind, the issue that separates Rashi from Rabbeinu Bechayei: Are the dyed sheep wools one or three? To Rashi wool is wool and to Rabbeinu Bechaye a different color constitutes a new item. It would now appear that Rashi’s approach is the more logical one – for why should the color of wool define it as a distinct item?

Yet Rav Schwab explains that in building the mishkan, we find that the Torah constantly stresses form over material. In that regard, blue wool, red wool and purple wool are three different items (6). He then concludes with a teaser:

For in the world of kedusha, it is form, not material/content that is primary.

Here, the mind objects. Is it possible that the spiritual world elevates the external world of form over that of inner content?

Perhaps it’s like this: Undoubtedly, the spiritual quest requires emotion and spirit; yet in the epic struggle between holy and profane classically depicted as the battle between body and soul, it is ultimately form that defines victory.

Consider that on a basic material level, umotar haadam min habeheima ayin, that which distinguishes man from animal is biologically insignificant – nor does the tzaddik (pious) have a distinct physique from that of the rasha (wicked). I find it almost unfathomable to consider that the heilige Chofetz Chaim and l’havdil (to compare) the unspeakably wicked Hitler shared the same century, continent, and a 99% genetic similarity. Righteousness per se, is not the domain of a particular genetic predisposition.

Ergo, the man/animal and man/man distinction lies not in the basic stuff; it is the form that we give to our content that ultimately defines sanctity. To paraphrase Ramban (7), it is not the leiv tov – but the ma’aseh tov. It is not the cardiac Jew, the passionate Jew at heart, that carries the day, for without form, solid material can twist and turn in all the wrong directions. It is ultimately deed not creed that defines the successful spiritual endeavor and serves to shape one’s spirituality.

To the extent that the Mishkan symbolizes the heart (bilvovi mishkan evneh), we must not forget the mizbeiach; for it is in that altar, that symbol of avodah/action (u’limshkan mizbeiach asim) that we have the ability to achieve our goal of a constantly renewing, subtle and more refined form of Divine servant.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Cf. Rashi, 25:2, Tikchu and Rashi, 30:15. The first is mentioned here, the 2nd is referenced in Shemos 38:26, the third in Bamidbar, 1:1
2. Consider the following sampling of symbolisms for the Mishkan itself, all well documented in the sources:A. Mishkan as the house in the marriage between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. B. Mishkan as the nexus between this world and the next C. Mishkan as a continuation of the Sinai experience [portable Matan torah] D. Mishkan as a kapparah for the Golden Calf sin E.. Mishkan as a the human body
3. and brass; and blue, and purple, and scarlet… (Ex. XXV, 3-7)
4. Rashi, 25:2 , tikchu. Cf. Rashi, Yechezkel, 16:13 who alludes to the midrash shir hashirim
5. this point is the clear implicit p’shat of the the midrash Shir HasHirim Rabah which omits the oil and spices
6. Rav Schwab notes a few further oddities. In listing the materials, the Torah uses the ancillary name for linen (sheish – not pishtan); curiously it omits the word wool in describing the goats’s hair as izim. Rav Schwab’s notion of form over content illuminates as sheish, as opposed to pishtan, implies spun linen while the izim accentuates the requirement manner that the goats hair need be spun while still attached to the goat’s head. In a later piece, he notes that the Torah seems to mingle purpose and content, i.e., the Torah does not merely list oil, rather it is oil for lighting, nor is it simply spices – but it is besamim l’shemen hamishcha etc. R. Schwab’s approach will work to address this issue as well.
7. Bereishis, 22:1

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.