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Female Roles in the Tabernacle

The tabernacle, the mishkan, was G-d’s home among his people. And the role of women, while easy to overlook, is detailed in the text. True, women did not serve in the functioning mishkan, but they contributed materials to it – and more.

The key hint is from the phrase when things are being connected: “אִשָּׁ֤ה אֶל־אֲחֹתָהּ֙”, or “each woman to her sister.” This is an off formulation when “each to each” is also available within the language. Indeed, even “each man to his brother” is found in the description of the mishkan, referring to the orientation of the cherubim on top of the ark. (I wrote about “each man to his brother” here, arguing that the cherubim are a corrective for the first man and the first brother in the Torah – Cain and Abel).

So why are these parts of the mishkan given in the feminine? Here are the examples:

Five of the cloths shall be joined each woman to her sister, and the other five cloths shall be joined each woman to her sister. (Ex. 26:3)

Make fifty loops on the one cloth, and fifty loops on the edge of the end cloth of the other set, the loops to be opposite each woman to her sister. (Ex. 26:5)

And make fifty gold clasps, and couple the cloths each woman to her sister with the clasps, so that the tabernacle becomes one whole. (Ex. 26:6)

What do they all have in common? Cloth. The women made all the threads used in the cloth!

And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair. (Ex. 35:25-26)

And where is the cloth found? It is used to enwrap the tabernacle, to encircle it and surround it. The cloth the women make forms the cocoon within which G-d resides among his people. Women create the environment within which things can grow!

The cloth and the walls of the mishkan then, are analogous to a Jewish wedding ceremony, where the bride circles around the groom, starting to form the walls that make it possible for a Jewish family to form and grow, the conditions that turn a mere residence into a home.

This also explains why the phrases is “each woman to her sister.” The other time this phrase is found is Lev 18:18

Do not take [into your household as a wife] a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other’s lifetime.

But of course, we know of a man who married two sisters: Jacob. And those sisters were indeed rivals:

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”

And

And Rachel said, “A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed.”

In which case, just as the “each man to his brother” can be understood as a corrective for Cain and Abel, the first brothers in the Torah, “each woman to her sister” can be seen also as a corrective for the rivalry of Rachel and Leah. In which case the beauty of the curtains of the mishkan are that they come from the hands of women who worked with each other, who built together, instead of competing with each other.

The simple lesson is this: G-d’s presence can be found in a home in which women work together, where they build beautiful things together in partnership.

This is validated elsewhere in the Torah as well: Moses’ sister, Miriam, clearly chooses to work with Pharaoh’s daughter in saving Moses’ life and ensuring he was sustained until he was weaned, even though Pharoah’s daughter knew full well that the child was supposed to be killed: “Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?’” This cooperation saved Moses, and helped to save the Jewish people as well.

Similarly, the Jewish midwives who worked with each other to save lives and build Jewish homes were rewarded specifically: “It was, since the midwives held God in awe, that He made them homes.” This can be understood many ways – but one such way would be to suggest that the midwives who partnered to build Jewish homes were rewarded by being able to similarly make G-d’s own home!

P.S. There is one other “woman to her sister” in the Torah, and it is found not in the curtains but in the planks that, along with the curtains, formed the wall of the tabernacle. “Each plank shall have two tenons, parallel each woman to her sister; do the same with all the planks of the Tabernacle.” Though women did not necessarily supply the wood for the planks as they had spun the thread for the curtain, nevertheless the planks, together with the curtains, provided the enclosure for the entire mishkan, the walls of G-d’s home on earth.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

Comments are welcome!

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