Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: “Chochmat nashim banta beita“- The wisdom of a Woman Builds her Home
Is the spinning of yarn mentioned in this week’s Parsha laudatory or derogatory?
Adv. Tamar Oderberg is an attorney at Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline
“And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen. And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair.”
Our Parasha describes what the entire nation of Israel had contributed to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This raises a question: what was the nature of the female wisdom mentioned in these verses? Why would the text single out the activities of the women at this point?
Some of the commentators describe the pshat, or the face value interpretation of the text, suggesting that the wisdom of the women of those days was tied to the loom, and it was generally accepted that yarn was spun using a loom and a spindle. Thus, the wisdom of the women, described here, refers to the fact that they had hand-spun the fabrics. Some commentators posit that even the wealthier women, which had handmaidens who could have spun the yarn on their behalf, had spun the yarn themselves, because they were so eager to perform this commandment. Other commentators stress that the exceeding wisdom of the women wasn’t necessarily tied to the use of their looms, which is considered a rather mundane activity, but rather to the spinning of goat-hair, which is a unique skill.
I feel that the connection between the women and spinning and concepts such as wisdom and the possession of a warm heart is indicative of something even more profound. King Solomon praised women for their expertise at spinning, as we find in the “Eshet Chayil” (Woman of Valor) poem: “She sets her hand to the distaff; Her fingers work the spindle.”
We also find, in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Yoma 65b), the following text:
A wise woman asked Rabbi Eliezer: Since all bore equal responsibility for the incident of the Golden Calf, due to what factor were their deaths not equal? He said to her: There is no wisdom in a woman except weaving with a spindle, and any woman who was wise-hearted spun with her hands.
The Gemara emphasizes that she was a wise woman, and various commentators believe that Rabbi Eliezer’s response, namely, that the wisdom of women “is in the loom”, was said derogatorily. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, however, sees Rabbi Eliezer’s words as praiseworthy of women. How so?
The essence of a woman’s wisdom is in the creation of thread, which is designed to connect two or more objects. The wisdom of spinning is used to connect threads as part of the process of building Hashem’s house – “The wisdom of a woman builds her home”. Our parsha deals with the construction of Hashem’s house, and clearly, when a regular house is built, it is the woman who, through her wisdom, creates the family framework and connects the different parts of the family (examples of this abound in the stories about the four matriarchs and other women in the Bible).
However, wisdom doesn’t operate alone in our parsha – it is joined by the heart. When the two connect, a new level of wisdom comes into play. This wisdom isn’t external, that is, wisdom that can be acquired through our minds alone. Nor is it a mundane artistic skill. It is the internal wisdom of the heart, something that today we call “emotional intelligence”. Women are gifted with this emotional intelligence, which lets them build the house of Hashem, the Tabernacle.
Having just celebrated Purim, we can ask, who better demonstrates this principle than Queen Esther, who possessed the gift of “wisdom of the heart”? Esther was able to devise a brilliant plan and show Ahasuerus exactly who had desired to annihilate her nation and her homeland. Yet she never forgot her heart, entreating Mordechai to “assemble all of the Jews, fast over me…”. This is wisdom of the heart: the mental wisdom that produces a well though out plan to topple Haman, coupled with the heart and the unity and rebuilding of the entire Jewish people. This was despite the fact that the Jewish people “were scattered and dispersed among the other peoples.”
Though she managed to rebuild the Jewish people, she paid a heavy price. She married someone she didn’t desire, and even had to stay married to him all the way to the end. It is therefore quite symbolic that the Fast of Esther – the day that the Jewish people was rebuilt – was chosen as International Aguna Day. We must never forget that every woman has the right to use the wisdom of the heart to build her home; but she should only do so freely, happily and joyfully.