This week, Women in Judaism offers the second in a two-part series examining
the women of the Exodus and their extraordinary clarity, commitment and
enthusiasm. These women forge a path of righteousness that continues from
Egypt to this day towards the ultimate redemption. Our essay will focus on
their good deeds, and on how these good deeds relate to the concept of
In the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6) the women of the desert
generation distinguish themselves as a group and, in so doing, redirect the
misguided actions of their husbands. When forty days after receiving the
Torah, the men ask their wives to contribute jewelry for creation of a golden
calf idol, the women refuse on grounds that the Torah prohibits idol worship
(Pirkei D' Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 45). They break ranks with their spouses -
and commit to what they know is right in God's eyes. In response God rewards
Jewish women of all time with the monthly holiday of rosh chodesh.
Later, when the Jewish people are about to enter Israel, the women again
clarify a basic misperception on the part of their husbands. The men in this
generation are afraid that the distractions of work and everyday life in the
new land will erode their close relationship with God. The women, by
contrast, remain convinced that this spiritual bond will persist since God,
Himself has sanctioned their move to Israel. Ultimately, God brings untimely
death upon the men, while he brings the women into the land.
A third example of how the women of the Exodus correct the mistakes of their
husbands is in the story of a man by the name of Korach (Numbers, Chapter
16). Korach and several hundred followers rebel against the leadership of
Moses in the desert. One of Korach's supporters is On, son of Peleth, whose
wife takes action to prevent her husband from joining Korach's growing ranks.
As Korach's group moves from house to house enlisting support, the wife of
On serves her husband wine until he falls asleep. She then stations herself
at the door of their home - head uncovered and hair exposed. Jewish law
forbids a married woman to venture outside without covering her hair and, as
such, On's wife, sitting outside hair uncovered, renders her entire home -
and husband - unapproachable.
Numbers (16:32) relates that Korach and his followers ultimately lose their
lives ("The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households,
and all the people who were with Korach...). On, son of Peleth is spared
this fate in spite of his inclination to join Korach, thanks to his wife.
Beyond correcting certain misjudgments their husbands make, the women of the
Exodus themselves act with clarity and enthusiasm. One example of their
conduct is the way in which they contribute to construction of the Sanctuary,
God's dwelling place in the desert.
The Sanctuary travels with the Jewish people as they make their way through
the wilderness. At each stop along the way it is re-assembled, and then
dismantled when the nation moves on. The structure is both opulent and
portable - with walls, doors and roof of tapestry and skins, and vessels from
precious metals. The Jews, themselves, donate most of the materials for the
Sanctuary. In general, when one member of a household makes a donation, the
gift is considered to be on behalf of the entire family. In the case of the
Sanctuary, however, the women, as a group, express their enthusiasm by making
an independent contribution:
"The men came along with the women; everyone who is generous of heart brought
bracelets, nose-rings, rings, body ornaments - all sorts of gold ornaments...
Ramban and Ohr HaChaim elucidate the phrase, "the men came along with the
women," by explaining that the women offer their own jewelry to the Sanctuary
and the husbands accompany them in a show of support. The commentators
observe that the Torah pays tribute to the women, by relating this fact.
Since the Sanctuary, its vessels and the priestly garments are things of
great beauty and public exposure, the project is an opportunity not only for
generosity of a high order, but also for the personal and civic distinction
that often results from funding a major edifice or monument. In a move that
suggests a desire to avoid this specific type of attention, a group of women
make a gift that, while important as any, is decidedly understated and hidden
from public view.
This group fabricates from goat hair the innermost layer of the Sanctuary
roof (Hebrew: "yeriot") - a layer entirely hidden from public view. As an
internal source of support sustaining an entire edifice, the "yeriot"
reflects the modesty, strength and wisdom of the Jewish woman. Elaborating
on this theme, the 19th c. commentator, R' Samson Raphael Hirsch explains how
the layer of goat hair is a metaphor for the contribution of the Jewish woman
to her people:
"This [layer of goat hair], after all, was the essential part which held the
whole together, was the real [tent] and the making of a [tent] is where the
quintessence of womanhood is concentrated, so that in this they displayed
both careful thought and their sense of true womanhood, their [wisdom]" (The
In the hands of the women, even the fabrication of the yeriot becomes an
expression of their eagerness to build the Sanctuary. Jewish law mandates
that, when engaged in building the Sanctuary or something in it, an
individual must not be in a state of ritual impurity. Any number of
situations may cause this type of impurity. These include contact with a
dead body; being under the same roof with a dead body; touching certain
animals; and certain bodily discharges.
In their desire to work without interruption, the women of the Sanctuary
contrive a way to weave the yeriot regardless of whether or not they are in
an impure state. To explain: according to Torah, if any aspect of a living
thing remains attached to its life source, it remains pure even if touched by
an impure person. As regards the yeriot, therefore, if the goat hair as it
is woven remains attached to the goat, the weaver may, herself, be in a state
of impurity without compromising the purity of the yeriot. The women come up
with a way to comb and spin and even weave the fleece while it is attached to
the goat. Their method - which requires skilled craftsmanship, infinite
patience and a high level of organization - enables the women to work full
time on the yeriot, beyond a point at which even Jewish law would provide
reason for them to stop.
While the woman of the Sanctuary are clearly impressive, why are their good
deeds connected specifically to the idea of redemption?
The Rambam states that at redemption the world will appear much as it does
now, but with full recognition of God and absence of impediments to His
service. One who awaits redemption, therefore, would be aware of current
obstacles and eager to overcome them. Accordingly, the redemption from Egypt
takes place in the merit of the women of that generation who - undeterred by
slavery and hardship - find routes to Jewish continuity, where others may
have long called-off their search. The women continue to express this
commitment even after the redemption from Egypt, through the distinct ways
they contribute to the Sanctuary and to the general spiritual clarity of the
Today's Jewish woman faces her own impediments to clarity, to awareness of
and connection to her heritage and to closeness with God. Nonetheless she,
like the women of the Exodus has the potential to redeem both herself and the
Jewish nation. On a spiritual level she need only believe in a better
future. On a practical level she need only never give up.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2002 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.