Ki Tissa: Betsalel

See, I have singled out by name Betsalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of wisdom, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of craft. (Shemot 31:1-5)

Amid the mud and heaps of straw
he pictured shapes and patterns,
his nimble hands enacted
the blue-prints of his mind.

He mastered mixing mortar
to the requisite consistency
and laid the bricks adeptly
in regulated lines.

He stared at soaring monuments
that towered in the skies
estimating angles
with his engineer’s eye.

From where, though, did he learn
to hammer silver, gold and bronze;
to fashion gems, and chisel wood;
embroider, spin and weave;
imbuing sacred objects
with a word-defying grace?

Alone, he stands, unmoving
in the shadow of God’s wings:
a vision floats before his eyes
and wisdom fills his heart.

As light rays are refracted
through a crystal’s many sides
he disperses God-sent knowledge,
to realize His design.


In Parashat Ki Tissa, we learn about Betsalel, a phenomenally gifted artist, who takes over from Moses in the building of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. In the commentary of the JPS, the Etz Hayim notes on the phrase in which God tells Moses about Betsalel, “I have endowed him with a divine spirit” (Shemot 31:3) that Moses had supposed that he would have to build the sacred vessels for the Tabernacle himself. God now advises him that despite his own great spiritual endowment, there are other Israelites with the requisite skills who will fashion the sacred artifacts intended to draw the people close to God. Furthermore, to produce commonplace articles requires only the ability to follow instructions, but to construct holy vessels that will channel the mind towards the sacred, divine inspiration is also required.
We learn that Betsalel is multi-talented: he is knowledgeable about every type of craft: he works in silver, gold and copper; he can cut precious stones and carve wood; he designs, embroiders, weaves.
He seems to be a prodigy, as the Talmud in Sanhedrin 69b tells us that he became the master designer and builder of the Tabernacle at the precocious age of 13!
In a commentary on the parasha from 2014, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/ki-tissa/5774/arts-and-crafts-commentary-parashat-ki-tissa, Dr Alan Cooper points out that there are two major aspects of the Torah’s account of the construction of the Mishkan that seem to defy explanation. The first is from where did this nomadic people, moving through the desert, acquire all the precious materials required to undertake the building of this ornate edifice. (Dr Cooper notes, “A conservative estimate of the material requirements would include an unspecified amount of acacia wood (what the Septuagint calls “wood that does not rot”), more than a ton of gold, more than three tons of silver, and at least two and a half tons of bronze, along with considerable quantities of dyed fabrics, animal hair, skins, hides, precious stones, oil, and spices.” And the second issue questions who among this band of erstwhile slaves and those who wandered with them, could possibly possess the requisite skills to fashion these materials into the Mishkan and its vessels?
Dr Cooper says that this week’s parasha answers the latter question when it announces the “divine appointment of the principal artisan who will carry out the grand project.”
The Ramban observes: “Ordinarily it would have been impossible for there to be an expert Israelite craftsman. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, consigned to hard labor, and experienced with bricks and mortar, so there hardly would have been anyone skilled in fine craftsmanship. They had neither observed it nor apprenticed in it, so no one was trained. Even someone skilled in a single craft would have forgotten it while preoccupied with the labor of bricks and mortar. How much more so one who had been perfectly skilled in all manner of craftsmanship, with precious metals, stone, wood, and textiles! Therefore, it was a wonder that there was found amongst them such a great wise-hearted man who knew how to work with silver and gold, and in cutting of stones and in carving of wood, a craftsman, an embroiderer, and a weaver. For even amongst those who study before the experts, you cannot find one who is proficient in all these crafts. And even those who know them and are used to doing them, if their hands are continually engaged in work with lime and mud, they lose the ability to do with them such artistic and delicate work.”
Rabbi Cooper continues that Rabbeinu Bahya observes that Betsalel’s creative gifts are of a particularly godly character: “The sages expounded (B. Berachot 55a): Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which heaven and earth were created. Here it is written, “I have imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), insight (tevunah), and knowledge (da’at),” and elsewhere it is written, “The Lord founded the earth by wisdom (chochmah); He established the heavens by understanding (tevunah); by His knowledge (da’at) the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew” (Proverbs 3:19–20).
The artist who “creates” the Tabernacle — a world in microcosm — possesses the same metaphysical attributes by which God created the world (chochmah/tevunah/da’at, according to Proverbs). God’s gracious gift of those attributes to Bezalel effectively turns the artisan into a Creator, one who is “qualified to transform inert, profane matter into a semblance of the celestial.” ”

In a further commentary on Ki Tissa from 2012, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=8153, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz notes that as the Torah itself reports, Betsalel’s prodigious abilities are “not simply skills he has acquired along the way, but he has been singled out by God, endowed with natural talent which is nothing short of God’s spirit residing in him.” She adds that two Medieval commentators, Rashi and Ramban, advance this view.
Rashi teaches that each of the three words used to describe his gifts relates to another facet of his skill. Chochmah – wisdom, is the learning acquired from others. Rabbi Peretz says, “Wisdom is the plain, factual knowledge, the sort of stuff that one can find in encyclopedias, or in the case of the artisan, this is the mechanics of the artistry that one person can teach another: what tools to use, techniques for metals, and the like.” Tevunah, insight, is grasping something “through one’s own intelligence from within that which one has already learned. This is the original thinking that one has through learning from others. In other words, by learning the mechanics from others, Bezalel was able to add to that knowledge, innovating new skills and expertise inspired by that which he learned from others.” Da’at, or knowledge, however, is “ruach Elohim – the holy spirit of God. For the artist, this is what we usually refer to as inspiration, the indescribable, intangible spirit that moves the artist to fashion a unique creation.”
Dr Peretz too, relates to the improbability (as Ramban’s commentary reminds us) that Betsalel should have acquired such giftedness. She says, “No one would have expected Bezalel, a recently released slave, to possess such innate talent in crafts to which he had no exposure. But, says Ramban, he also possessed sacred knowledge that only Moses possessed up until this point in the life of the Jewish people: “Moreover, he [Bezalel] was a great sage in wisdom, and in ability, and in knowledge to understand the secret of the Tabernacle and all its vessels, why they were commanded and to what they hinted.” “Therefore,” Nachmanides concludes, “God said to Moses that when he sees this wonder he should know that, I filled him with the spirit of God (Exodus 31:3).” ”
She concludes, “Bezalel, it seems, understood that the highest aspiration for his God-given talent was to put it to good use in creating the tabernacle, and therefore, bring others closer to God. That is the truest sense of ruach Elohim – when the holy spirit of God inspires a person to share his or her talents, offering a gift to the world that would otherwise be missing. Such was the case with Bezalel…”

In another commentary on Ki Tissa from 2013, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/ki-tissa/5773/art-torah, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz suggests that too frequently, “the arts are underappreciated in the Jewish community.” He notes that “a common misperception…equates the visual arts with idolatrous practice.” But, he says, here, embedded in the parasha we learn of the individual who is responsible for fashioning the Mishkan and all its beautiful vessels.
Rabbi Berkowitz, too, highlights Rashi’s differentiation between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. He says, though, that as one acquires wisdom from others, it requires that “…one must be in the midst of and connected to a community to be imbued with chochmah, wisdom. One may not be an island unto one’s self. Wisdom comes from shared experience and symbiotic interaction.” He continues, “Rashi explains understanding as a sense born of one’s own heart and soul. Understanding (tevunah) flows from the heart of a human being. Once a lesson is learned and internalized, understanding and insight follow.” And finally he addresses knowledge. “The gift of knowledge, Rashi asserts, is the result of God’s inspiration. Knowledge (da’at) reflects the sacred spirit at the heart of God. Horizontal experience then leads to vertical inspiration. That is to say, the wisdom of community leads to a deeper understanding of self and ultimately to knowledge of God’s Presence.”
Rabbi Berkowitz concludes, “Taken collectively, these three attributes (wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) also make up the spirit of the artist. Once these qualities meld, a tabernacle or, more literally, a dwelling place of God comes to fruition. In his timeless commentary, Rashi teaches us far more than solely about the building of the biblical Tabernacle. He teaches us about the unique soul of the artist and the endless potential to experience the divine through the handiwork of a human creator.”

Finally, in a commentary on Vayakhel-Pikkudei from 2015, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/vayak-hel-pekudei/5775/artist%E2%80%99s-insight, Rabbi Lilly Kaufman addresses the relationship between Betsalel and his mission. She says, “We tend to think of Bezalel as an obedient craftsman, rather than as an original artist. He did not originate the tabernacle design, he merely interpreted God’s plan and executed it with precision…” However, she cites a Midrash recounted in the Talmud, in Berachot 55a, “R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan: Betsalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses; Go and tell Betsalel to make Me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels, Moses went and reversed the order, saying, Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Betsalel said to him: “Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels? Moses replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God and knew!”
Rabbi Kaufman suggests that Betsalel has a “spiritual artistic wisdom.” She says, “Moses himself acknowledges that Bezalel is close to God, noting that his very name is betzel El, in the shadow of God. Is there something about the artist which outshines our greatest law-giver at this moment, according to the rabbis?”
She continues, “A great artist, sublimely in tune with the Creator, senses a deep order and a great, joyous energy in Creation, and seeks to capture these in his own work. Bezalel knew that Moses could not be presenting God’s views correctly because he was an artist in tune with God….It is a little surprising that the midrash in Berakhot assigns scriptural accuracy to the artist Bezalel rather than to Moses. Perhaps its author was very fond of Bezalel, the meticulous craftsman, deeply acquainted with natural materials, with the artisans who shape them, and the people who bring them to God. Perhaps they [the rabbis] sensed that Bezalel parallels their own work, which engages the many gifts — of skill, wisdom, volunteer effort, and monetary contributions — brought with love by God’s people. Perhaps great art and great rabbinic thought are not so far apart after all.”

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