Who Fashioned the Vessels of the Mishkan (II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy




This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Carole S. Daman of Scarsdale in memory of Tzvi Hersh ben David Arye z”l – Harlan Daman



Lecture 118: Who fashioned the vessels of the Mishkan? (II)

Rav Yitzchak Levi



            In the previous lecture, we began to deal with the question of who fashioned the vessels of the Mishkan. We reviewed the various commands relating to the vessels and we examined the relationship between the roles of Moshe and Betzalel, as well as the relationship between their roles and that of the rest of the people involved in the work. In this lecture, we will continue our discussion of this issue.




The Ibn Ezra and the Ramban disagree regarding who made the sacred vessels. The Ibn Ezra (Shemot 37:1) argues that it was Betzalel who made all the sacred vessels, while the Ramban maintains that Betzalel could not have made all the vessels. The Ramban argues as follows:


"And Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda made all that the Lord commanded Moshe" (Shemot 38:22) – The meaning of this is that everything was done through his direction, for he acted as instructor to all the wise men, and they all did their work in his presence and showed him all that they had done, just as it is said, "And he has put in his heart that he may teach" (ibid. 35:34). But all the wise-hearted men also did the work, as it is said, “And every wise-hearted man among them that wrought the work made the Mishkan." In the opinion of our Rabbis, the verse is intended to praise Betzalel and to say that even those things that his master Moshe did not tell him, he understood through his own mind in exactly the same way that they had been told to Moshe at Sinai. Thus, the intention of Scripture is not to state that Betzalel did all the work, but that in all which was done through him, he fulfilled all that the Lord commanded Moshe. It is for this reason that Scripture does not state in connection with anything that was done until now, "as God spoke to Moshe," for this would have implied, "As Moshe said by the word of God," and he [Betzalel] changed their order from that which Moshe had told him.


            According to the Ramban, it was all the wise-hearted men who did the actual work, whereas Betzalel instructed them how to do it, as it says: "And He has put in his heart that he may teach." It is clear to the Ramban that Betzalel did not do all the work by himself; the statement that he “made all that the Lord commanded Moshe” is said to his credit – even those things that Moshe did not tell him, he understood on his own in exactly the same way that they had been told to Moshe at Sinai. Scripture emphasizes that Betzalel fulfilled all that God had commanded Moshe.


Elsewhere, the Ramban relates to the various accounts of the construction of the Mishkan and to the alternations between singular and plural in the commands regarding the Mishkan:


"And every wise-hearted man among them that wrought the work made the Mishkan of ten curtains." The Torah repeated the description of the work of the Mishkan five times. It mentions the whole of it at the time of the command in detail and in general terms. First, it says (Shemot 25:10-28:43): "And you shall make it thus," "and you shall make it thus," and then it mentioned all things in a general way (ibid. 31:6-11), "And they will make all that I have commanded you; the Ohel Mo'ed, and the ark of the Testimony," until "according to all that I have commanded you shall they do."

The reason [why the command is repeated in a general way] is that God commanded Moshe that he should tell Betzalel and Aholiav and all the wise men about the work in general terms, and only afterwards should they begin to do it, for they would not be suited for the sacred work until they had heard the scope of the whole undertaking and understood it all, and only then could they accept it upon themselves, when they knew how to finish it. At the time of the actual construction he described it to them first in the general way as mentioned here, saying (ibid. 31:6-11), "Let every wise-hearted man among you come, and make all that the Lord has commanded: the Mishkan, its tent, etc." The statement of the details, however, is missing here; for surely Moshe had to say to the wise men who did the work: "Make the Mishkan of ten curtains, each curtain of such-and-such a length and such-and such a width," and so on with the whole work. This procedure [of Moshe's telling the workers the exact details of the measurements] Scripture does not mention, for it is understood that he told them everything in order, since they made each part exactly as prescribed.

And the reason why Scripture does not mention it is that it was not necessary for Moshe to go with them into the smaller details as they are mentioned at the command (ibid. 25:10-28:43) and the construction (ibid. 36:8-39-42); instead, he told it to them briefly, as if to say that they should make the Mishkan of ten curtains, five opposite five, and they themselves understood that they had to make loops corresponding to clasps of gold in order to couple the curtains together. Similarly, with the rest of the work, he hinted to them the matter in brief, and they understood everything. It is for this reason that Scripture does not dwell at length on this detail [of Moshe's instruction to the workers], since its hints [at the same time] at their wisdom, understanding, and good sense. After this (ibid. 36:8-39:42), Scripture describes again the whole work in a specific way as at first (ibid. 25:10-28:43), stating, "And every wise-hearted man among them that wrought the work made the Mishkan; and he made curtains of goats' hair, and he made the boards, etc."

Now it would have been sufficient in this whole subject (ibid. 35:6-20) for Scripture to have said, "And Moshe told the whole congregation of the children of Israel all the work which God had commanded him," and then say, "And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moshe, so did they. And Moshe saw all the work, and behold they had done it, as the Lord had commanded, even so they had done it. And Moshe blessed them" (ibid. 39-43). Scripture, however, wanted to state that Moshe mentioned to the whole congregation of the children of Israel and the wise men who were there all the work in general, for he intended thereby to stir the people to donate sufficiently for the large work, and in order also that the wise men should hear [the entire scope of the work] and would know if they could undertake to do everything as he had been commanded. Then Scripture mentions in detail the whole work in order to tell us that all the wise men worked on the Mishkan. It is with reference to this that Scripture states here, "And every wise-hearted man among them that wrought the work made the Mishkan of ten curtains."

The verses stating, "And he made curtains of goats' hair, and he made the boards," mean: "And every wise-hearted man made the curtains of goats' hair," [not Betzalel alone]…

Then Scripture again states without elaboration, "And he made the table, and he made the candlestick." In the opinion of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, this alludes to Betzalel, who made all the sacred vessels. But this is not my opinion, for in the case of the court of the Mishkan, it likewise says: "And he made the court." Rather, this refers back to every wise-hearted man as mentioned in the making of the Mishkan.

After Scripture completed the account of the construction of the Mishkan in general and particular terms, it mentions their bringing it to Moshe in a general way,  stating, "And they brought the Mishkan to Moshe, the tent, and all its vessels" (ibid. 39:33) in order to tell of their wisdom, in that they brought everything in order and no one brought his work to Moshe until the whole work had been completed, as Scripture says: "Thus was finished all the work of the Mishkan of the Ohel Mo'ed." After it was finished thy all gathered and showed it to Moshe in order, saying at first: "Our Rabbi, here is the Tent and here are its vessels," and afterwards they said: "Here is the ark and here are its staves," and so on with everything.

Now [in this whole section of Vayakhel], Scripture does not state that the Mishkan and its vessels were made "as the Lord commanded Moshe." But in the next section of Eleh Pekudei, with reference to the garments of the priesthood, it mentions such a statement at each item (ibid. 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31). The reason for this is that the whole work of the Mishkan is included in the verse mentioned at the end (ibid. 38:22), "And Betzalel the son of Uri… made all that the Lord commanded Moshe." Perhaps it is because of the change of the order, as our Rabbis have mentioned.

In general, then, all this repetition in the account of the Mishkan is a sign of love and distinction, showing that God desires the work, and He mentions it in his Torah many times in order to increase the reward of those who engage themselves in its study. This is similar to what the Rabbis have said in the midrash: "The ordinary conversation of the servants of the patriarchs' homes is more pleasing to the Holy One, blessed be He, than even the Torah discourses of their children, for the section about Eliezer [as he recounts his journey], comprises two or three columns in the Torah.


            The Ramban understands that the order of events was as follows: First, Moshe was commanded to explain to Betzalel, Aholiav, and all the wise-hearted man all the work in all its details until they understood it perfectly, and only afterwards were they to start the actual work. According to him, in actual practice, Moshe did not spell out all the details, but rather explained it to them in a succinct manner, and they fully understood everything on their own.


            Accordingly, Moshe received the original command to make the Mishkan, the vessels, and the priestly garments, but the actual work was done by Betzalel, Aholiav, all the wise-hearted men and the women.


            Throughout the account of the construction of the Mishkan, the Torah emphasizes that everything was done as God had commanded Moshe. However, after everything is made, the Mishkan is brought to Moshe and Moshe is commanded to erect it – it is Moshe who actually erects the Mishkan.


            The midrashim emphasize these points.   On the one hand, it is not the “way of a king” to do the work itself; rather, a king commands and others do. On the other hand, because of Moshe's dedication in ensuring that all the work would be done precisely as God had commanded, as God had shown Moshe on the mountain, he merited that the work would be attributed to him.


            The Or Ha-Chayyim adds that since it is Moshe who issues the commands, it is regarded as if he himself did the work. Even though the actual work was done by Betzalel, Aholiav and all the wise-hearted men, this applies only to the priestly garments and the vessels of the Mishkan. The erection of the Mishkan was done entirely by Moshe himself.




            As we have seen, the commands to build the Mishkan were addressed to Moshe, even though it was not Moshe who did the actual work. The one exception is the ark, the command regarding which is formulated in the plural, "And they shall make an ark of shittim wood," and not in the singular. This stands in contrast to the commandments regarding the kaporet, the keruvim, and the other vessels, regarding which it says: "And you [singular] shall make."


            With respect to the execution as well, the ark stands out in distinction from the other vessels, for regarding the ark it is explicitly noted that it was made by Betzalel, something that is not stated by any of the other vessels.


            How are we to understand this difference? In what way is the ark different from the rest of the sacred vessels?


            The midrashim offer different answers to these questions. The following midrashim, for example, attribute the difference to the fact that ark houses the Torah:


R. Yehuda bar Shalom said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Let them all come and occupy themselves with the ark so that they should all merit the Torah. (Shemot Rabba 36:3)


The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded all of Israel to make it, so that no one should have a point of attack against his fellow, saying: I gave much toward the ark, therefore I learn much. And I have more in it than you, as you gave only little towards the ark; therefore you do not have a part in the Torah. (Tanchuma Vayakhel 8)


            These midrashim assert the important principle that the Torah belongs to all of Israel and that no one has a greater part in it than any one else.


            In this context, the Ramban writes:


"And they shall make an ark." The plural [and they shall make] refers back to the children of Israel mentioned above. But afterwards, Scripture states: "And you shall overlay it" (v. 11), "and you shall cast for it" (v. 12) – all in the singular – as Moshe is the leader of all of Israel. It is possible that [in using the plural, "and they shall make"], He is indicating His wish that all Israel should share in the making of the ark because it is the holiest dwelling place of the Most High, and that they should all merit thereby [to knowledge of] the Torah. Thus, the Rabbis have said in Midrash Rabba: "Why is it that with reference to all the vessels it says: 'And You shall make,' and in the case of the ark it says, 'And they shall make'? R. Yehuda the son of R. Shalom said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let all the people come and engage themselves in the making of the ark, so that they should all merit [knowledge of] the Torah.” The “engaging themselves” of which the Rabbi speaks means that they should each offer one golden vessel [for the making of the ark, in addition to their general offering for the building of the Mishkan], or that they should help Betzalel in some small way, or that they should have intent [of heart in the making thereof.] (Ramban, Shemot 25:10)


            The Ramban first explains the difference with respect to the use of the singular or the plural based on the Mekhilta, which says that Moshe was the leader of all of Israel. He then mentions the midrash that we saw above and adds that each person contributed one golden vessel for the ark, assisted Betzalel in some way, or had this in mind. In this way, they all participated in the fashioning of the ark.


            The Kelei Chemda explains:


Even someone who yearned in his heart to help Betzalel in the fashioning of the ark fulfilled the mitzva of making the ark. It therefore says: "And they shall make an ark," that every member of Israel should have a part in it. (Kelei Chemdah, Parashat Pekudei 159)


            It is important to note that even though the initial command to build the ark was stated in the plural, in Parashat Ekev, Moshe is commanded: "And make for yourself [singular] an ark of wood" (Devarim 10:1). The midrashim had difficulty with this contradiction and offered several solutions:


·           One solution is found in Yoma 72b: "From here, one learns that the inhabitants of his city are obliged to do the work of a scholar for him."

·           A second solution is found in Yoma 3b: "Here it refers to a time when Israel act in accordance with His will; there it deals with a time when they do not act in accordance with His will." That is to say, "when they act in accordance with His will," I want their service, the service of all of Israel. But "when they do not act in accordance with His will," I want your service, but not theirs.




And Betzalel made the ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half was its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. (Shemot 37:1)


            Another question that arises in connection with the ark is why Betzalel's name alone is associated with the ark.


            Rashi, following the Tanchuma (Buber), says: "Because he gave himself over to the work more whole-heartedly than the other wise men, it is called after his name." The Ramban explains the matter differently:


In the case of the ark, however, Scripture mentions specifically, "And Betzalel made the ark," in order to say that the greatest craftsman among them made the ark alone. The reason for this is that he was filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and understanding, and in knowledge, so that he could contemplate its meaning and make it with the proper intention. For in the actual making of the ark there was no great craftsmanship entailed, there being among the other work things which required greater skill than that of the ark. [Hence, we must conclude that Betzalel was required to make the ark on account of its significance.] Then Scripture again states without elaboration, "And he made the table, and he made the candlestick." (Ramban, Shemot 37:17)


            In other words, according to the Ramban, the reason that Betzalel made the ark by himself is that Betzalel was the greatest craftsman among them.


            The Midrash Tanchuma states:


"And Betzalel made the ark:" We do not find with respect to any of the other vessels of the Mishkan that Betzalel did anything, save for the ark, but all the other work with respect to the other vessels was done at his word and with his counsel. Why was only his work mentioned with respect to the ark, that he did it with his own hands? Because the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He, is there, for it is there that He constricts His Shekhina. And for this reason, he was named Betzalel, for he made the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He (tzel El), between the two keruvim, as it is stated: "And there I will meet with you, and I will speak to you." (Tanchuma, Vayakhel 7)


            Later in the Tanchuma (Buber), we find:


"And Betzalel made:" Did Betzalel make it by himself, that each time it says: "And Betzalel made"? Rather, because he devoted himself greatly to the work of the Mishkan, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not withhold his reward, and He makes him known each time – "And Betzalel made." (Tanchuma, Vayakhel 11)


It is interesting that the midrash claims that it says, "And Betzalel made" several times. In reality, these words are found only once in the Torah, and that is in connection with the ark. It is possible that the midrash agrees with those commentators who say that every time it says "And he made" in connection with the building of the Mishkan, the reference is to Betzalel (as opposed to those who maintain that the reference is to all the wise-hearted men).[1]


The Meshekh Chokhma likewise relates to this issue:


"And Betzalel made the ark:" Betzalel is not mentioned with respect to all the other vessels, because the rest of the vessels were made also by others in the First Temple and in the Second Temple, and so also in the future. But after the ark was hidden away, they did not make another one, for one must not make other tablets, and it is only the ark of Betzalel that exists for future generations, and nothing else. And perhaps the Torah was particular that they should not make for future generations [another ark and keruvim], but only that which Betzalel made. And it is also possible because they said: "When the heathens entered the Temple and saw the keruvim whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, they carried them out and said: These Israelites, whose blessing is a blessing, and whose curse is a curse, occupy themselves with such things! And immediately they despised them" (Yoma 54b). And thus they expounded in the Mekhilta, on the verse, "You shall not make with me gods of silver" (Shemot 20:20), that if they made them of silver, it is as if they made silver gods (Mekhilta Yitro, parasha 10). If so, God (blessed be He) was concerned that perhaps after having sinned with the calf, when someone will make the ark, he will think some alien thought that is inclined toward idolatry. He therefore chose Betzalel, whose grandfather had been killed for objecting to the fashioning of the calf. If so, by nature and by nurture, he hated all those who incline toward vanity, and any picture, image, or likeness, so as not to come to any alien thought whatsoever. It therefore says, "And Betzalel made," for he alone made the ark without any help. This explains why before they made the calf, God said: "See, I have called by name Betzalel… and I have filled him… to work in all manner of workmanship" (Shemot 31:2-3). And when Moshe said this to Israel, it says, "to make all manner of thoughtful work" (Shemot 35:33). Since this was after the calf, the work had to be pure also in thought, that one not have in mind any picture, image, or likeness. This is "thoughtful work," that the thought must be pure, clear, and clean. (Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 37:1)


The Meshekh Chokhma first directs our attention to a fascinating point regarding the ark. When the Mikdash was built, all the other vessels were replaced by new vessels, but the ark was still the ark that was made by Betzalel; even when the ark was hidden away (in the days of king Yoshiyahu and throughout the period of the Second Temple), they did not make another ark. This might explain why the Torah emphasizes that Betzalel made the ark, for the ark made by Betzalel was the only ark for all generations; it has an eternal dimension. Since they may not make another ark other than that made by Betzalel, the making of the ark is attributed to him.


But the Meshekh Chokhma brings another explanation. He argues that had it not been Betzalel who made the ark, the person who made it might have contemplated idolatrous thoughts. Betzalel was chosen to make it because his father had been killed when he objected to the making of the Golden Calf. This also explains why it says, "And Betzalel made," for he alone made the ark without any help, and why the verse refers to "thoughtful work," which must be done with pure, clear, and clean thought.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] See Torah Sheleima, Shemot 37:1, in the notes.