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February 25, 2022 12:03 pm

Shabbat Vayakhel: Oral Law

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo:

There are many ways of looking at the Bible — as history, theology, literature, and archeology. The most significant for Judaism is the interaction between God, the text, and human beings. The accepted narrative is that God somehow transmitted what became a written text and then handed it over, so to speak, to humans to interpret it through the Oral Law. This week’s reading gives us three examples of this process.

The main theme is the construction of the tabernacle and its contents. The original idea was conveyed to Moses, who then passed it on to the craftsmen to execute. But before work begins, the Torah mentions Shabbat, reiterating the law that work should not be done — but it does not define what work is. From this, the Oral Law explains the 40 categories that describe work as ranging from hard physical work to abstract calculations, to whatever society regarded as normal, mundane activity.

But then it adds a specific law — not to burn a fire in one’s home on Shabbat. Fire was included within this original definition, so why add a special command? From this, we deduce various principles that are debated in the Talmud, ranging from punishments to justice. But the rabbis also developed the idea that you can have fire and heat so long as it is prepared before Shabbat begins.

Later in chapter 36 verse 6, there is another abstract qualification that is expanded by the Oral Law — not to transport or carry objects on Shabbat in the public domain. Both of these have become crucial in how we keep Shabbat in our private lives (although they did not apply in the Temple).

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Very often the Torah contains statements or events that need clarification because they cannot be understood without commentary. For example, when the Torah says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” how would a judge have been able to apply this in the case of a one-eyed man who was found guilty of damaging the eye of a normally sighted person? If you took an eye literally, he would be completely blind. And what if the person found guilty of pulling out another’s tooth, had lost all his teeth? Would he go unpunished? The Oral Law looks at the laws before and after this phrase — which all talk about financial compensation — and concludes that this was a metaphorical way of saying there should be fair and equivalent compensation.

A different example of how the Torah needs clarification is in the 38th chapter, verse 8: “And he made the copper bowl with its copper stand out of the mirrors of the women who gathered at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” Who were the women? What was the Tent of Meeting? Was it the tabernacle or the Public Meeting place? And what were the women doing gathering?

The word for gathering, Tsava, has several possible meanings. Women had as much right as men to go to the Tent, which also served as the community and judicial center of the community. Were they simply exercising their rights? The word can also mean petition, and they might have gone there with their complaints and appeals. The same word also means an army, as in Israel today. Could this mean that Israelite women fought alongside the men? It’s possible in theory, but very unlikely.

This is why the Oral Law, through the Midrash, prefers the spiritual idea that women volunteered their mirrors, symbols of vanity, to the spiritual center of Jewish life. This highlights that even the most material of objects can be used for spiritual purposes, and also emphasizes the role that women play in transmitting and perpetuating traditions through their families.

I look at it through the lens of history, and  like to think it is an assertion of women’s power and rights. Although we cannot expect the Torah to speak in the language of #MeToo, one can look back at this and see how progressive it was in its day and what lessons one ought to learn from it now.

Shabbat Shalom.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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