Iyunim - Weekly insights on the Parasha with commentaries by Nehama Leibovitz, za"l

The Recapitulations

The last two Sabbath readings of Shemot (Exodus) revert to the subject of the Tabernacle. The details outlined so painstakingly in Terumah and Tezaveh and part of Ki-tissa engage our attention once again. Sometimes the subject is treated in a very general way without going into details of design or construction, as Moses did, when he first called on the people to respond to the Divine appeal to contribute materials of the Tabernacle (35, 5-19). At others, every stage of implementation is detailed as in the recounting of the accomplishments of Bezalel and his fellow-craftsmen in producing the various items of furniture for the Tabernacle. Here the whole gamut of activities is recapitulated – the materials, the design, measurements and manufacture (36, 8 – 38, 20). The Tabernacle requisites were specified by name when they were presented to Moses (39, 33-41) and listed once more when God gave Moses command to erect the Tabernacle and place each item of furniture in position. They are listed again in the course of the account of the execution of this command. All this repetition is puzzling. Here is Abarvanel’s formulation of the difficulty:


We find that the Torah records on five occasions in both a detailed and general way the construction of the Tabernacle and all that was involved. The most puzzling repetition is the one where Moses said to Israel: "And let every wise man among you come and make all that the Lord hath commanded, the Tabernacle, its tent…" (35, 10) enumerating in detail all the things which God had commanded them to do. It would have been sufficient for the verse to have ended with the words: "and make all that God hath commanded". Why was it necessary to list the articles once more?

On the recapitulation in Pekudei Abarvanel observes:

Instead of laboriously repeating that they brought to Moses, the Tabernacle, the tent and all its vessels etc. etc. listing once again all the vessels in turn, surely it would have sufficed to write: "Then they brought to Moses the complete work of the Tabernacle. Moses surveyed all the work, observed that they had carried it out just as the Lord had commanded, so had they done. And Moses blessed them". Why keep on recapitulating the details?

Rashi and his school (Rashbam, Bekhor Shor, Hizkuni etc.) do not concern themselves with this problem. Spanish Jewish commentators, on the other hand, pay a great deal of attention to it. Their answers are various.

Ramban differentiated between the general listing of the items comprising the Tabernacle and the detailed specification of their design and production:

Moses had to outline to the congregation exactly how much was involved in the Tabernacle so that their contribution would be to commensurate with the needs. Theses were great and to demonstrate them he exhaustively listed all the items --: "the Tabernacle, its tent cover, beams etc. The repetition of the definite article: "the Tabernacle, the ark, the table etc. implied those items whose detailed specifications would be subsequently transmitted to the craftsmen involved. Now he merely listed them by name for the benefit of the congregation.

Ramban subsequently (on 36, 8) proffers a detailed explanation of the five recapitulations that he discovered in the narrative.

The construction of the Tabernacle, in the course of its fivefold repetition is treated both generally and specifically. First, in Terumah: make this and make that –in detail, followed, second, by a general outline (31, 6-11). The Divine instructions were conveyed to Moses in this form for the benefit of Bezalel, Aholiab and their fellow-craftsmen. They had to be given a complete though general picture of what was involved to enable them to plan their work properly. Third, when describing how Moses actually transmitted the instructions he had received to the people and the skilled craftsmen, the text contents itself with a general listing of the items involved which is not in itself complete (35, 10). "they came and carried out all the Lord had commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent, cover etc.". But many of the details as outlined in God’s original instructions to Moses in Terumah are omitted—such as the curtains and their measurements. Obviously from the fact that they are subsequently referred to when the completion of each item of the Tabernacle is described we may be sure that they got the message. The text wished to imply that Moses actually alluded to every item but did not need to tell them exactly what to do. Moses had only to mention the need for five pairs of curtains and the designers immediately understood of their own accord how they should be fitted with hooks and eyes etc. The lacunae in the text convey to us the full extent of their personal skill and initiative.

Next the execution of the project is described in exactly the same painstaking detail as the original instructions which God had commanded him and subsequently that he surveyed and approved of the finished product. All the intervening chapters recapitulating the details of design, the lists of items etc. could well have been omitted.

What the text wished to emphasise was that Moses repeated in general outline what was involved for the purpose of arousing the people to make their contributions commensurate with the needs, as well as to give the craftsmen an adequate picture of the project they were being asked to undertake. The latter would then decide whether they were capable of undertaking it and if so plan its execution accordingly.

The execution is reported verbatim, recapitulating all the stages and details imparted in the original instructions. The general and detailed accounts of the execution of the project are followed by a summary report of the completed work presented to Moses: "They brought the Tabernacle to Moses, the tent and all its furniture, its sockets and bars…" (39, 33). The reason for this recapitulation is to convey the fact that they presented it, complete in the proper order. No one brought his finished work along until the whole project was complete, in the proper order. No one brought his finished work along until the whole project was complete, as the text observes (in the verse preceding that recording the bringing: "When all the service of the Tabernacle of the tent of meetings was completed" (39, 32). Once it was completed, but not before, they all assembled and presented all the items in the proper order.. First they announced: "Master, here is the tent and here its furniture’, followed by: Here is the Ark and here its poles" and so on.

So much for Ramban’s motivation of the recapitulations and abridgements indulged in by the text in its treatment of the construction of the Tabernacle. He concludes by offering a general explanation of the numerous repetitions both in their verbatim and abbreviated form:

They reflect the love and esteem with which the Tabernacle was viewed by the Almighty, the numerous recapitulations being designed to increase the reward of those engaged in it. The same idea is contained in the rabbinic dictum: "the table –talk of the Patriarch’s servants was more precious to the Holy One blessed be He than the Torah of their descendants. The story of Eliezer runs into two or three folios…"whereas the fundamentals of the Torah itself are often conveyed to us only through the clue of a redundant word or letter. Obviously then their table-talk was more precious to Him than the Torah of their descendants.

Or Ha-hayim echoes Ramban:

The reason for the repetition in the story of the Tabernacle’s construction is similar to that advanced by our sages with regard to the recapitulations of Abraham’s servant Eliezer in Genesis (24, 39). Since the story was so precious to him, it was recorded twice over. Similarly the story of the Tabernacle was recorded twice because it was beloved by Him.

The foregoing commentators both equate the recapitulations in our Sidra with those in Genesis 24. The differences between them, however, are not lightly to be ignored. In the latter, the recapitulation form an integral part of the narrative. The variations in wording between the original story and the reports given by the servants are numerous and of obvious significance. Eliezer underlines, even exaggerates any detail that might impress Rebecca’s family, lightly passes over and even suppresses anything that might repel them. In our Sidra the recapitulations are almost verbatim (the minor differences will be treated further on). The explanation offered by Ramban or Or Ha-hayim will not satisfy the curiosity of the student. Why should this particular narrative be more highly valued than those conveying the very fundamentals of Judaism.

Ralbag introduces the problem by stating the hypothesis that we ought to accept no redundancies in Holy Writ. The very perfection of the Torah should preclude the assumption of superfluous wording. Why could not the Torah have disposed of the whole construction of the Tabernacle with the words; "Bezalel carried out the whole project of the Tabernacle as God had commanded Moses…?" Ralbag reluctantly admitted that he had failed to find an adequate answer for these and suchlike recapitulations which abounded in Scripture. He nevertheless did offer one general motivation for the recapitulations. They were a stylistic device: "the way writers in those days at the time of the Giving of the Torah used to tell their tales. The prophet merely followed the narrative conventions".

Only in the last 150 years with the development of the literary historical approach do we find this type of explanation being advanced. Cassuto, for instance, explains the recapitulation in terms of the narrative conventions of the ancient east. It is usual for an account of the execution of a certain series of acts previously outlined to repeat verbatim the acts that were executed and not to report merely that they were executed. The difference between Ralbag and modern scholars is that the latter based their findings on actual records discovered in their days. Ralbag, on the other hand, merely suggested this might be so without having any independent data on which to base it.

Just the same, Ralbag’s explanation is not adequate (the same applies to Cassuto and others). The question remains: Why did the Torah choose to follow the convention of verbatim recapitulation in matters that seem purely technical, whereas in identical contexts of command and execution, it often omits completely either one or the other?

Ralbag evidently sensed the inadequacy of his own explanation since he propounded various other solutions. In the second of theses he suggested that the Torah deliberately indulged in apparent inconsistency and anomalous narrative treatment, dealing in summary fashion with subjects that obviously called for more detailed treatment and elaborating where brief mention would have sufficed as a method of focussing and foregrounding. The sole motivation of this inconsistency was to prompt the reader to search for an appropriate explanation of the brevity or elaboration, in each and every case. Ralbag’s two explanations complement each other, and do not warrant Abarvanel’s cavil:

I have noted Ralbag’s suggestions. All of them together add up to one big nought.

The allegorists whose views we cited in our discussions of Terumah obviously found no hint of redundancy in the recapitulations of mere "technical" details. On the contrary, every item, every contour of the design, every figure in the measurements was charged with symbolic and mystical significance. Here is a contribution of Hirsch to the subject;

Let us bear in mind that the Tabernacle and its appurtenances, are symbols, and that no symbol is valid unless it has been expressly made for that. Thus even the sacramental validity of the writing on the parchment in a Scroll of the Law which has no other meaning outside the symbolic depends solely on having been written by the scribe for its express holy purpose. In addition, the scribe must write the names of God in Scriptures for the express purpose of the holiness of His name, a purpose which must be uttered by his lips at the time of writing. Since all the vessels in the Tabernacle –the Ark, the table, the candelabra, the curtains, the vestments – possess an immediate literal application as articles of daily use, all the more so do their symbolic implications completely depend on the consciously sacred purpose informing their construction.

The Biur (Mendelssohn) adopts a somewhat different approach:

When the Almighty chose His people, He foresaw in His wisdom, that they would require all kinds of skills in the pursuit of their common life together in their own land. These skills may be divided into the following categories: (1) essential—without which man cannot attain happiness such as those required to procure him food, clothing and housing; (2) useful skills required for the maintenance of the roadways and bridges, and for the production of articles of daily use in metal and other materials; (3) artistic skills which introduce pleasure into human life and ornament it, such as those involved in embroidery, art sculpture, etc. All these employments are to the credit and advantage of the nation so long as they do not exceed the bounds of disrection and do not border on extravagance. Over-indulgence in all the above fields is detrimental, particularly in the case of artistic skills which can destroy the state since they lead to the pursuit of pleasure, effete living, envy and strife and ultimate anarchy. It is possible that just as God commanded His people to dedicate the first fruits of their persons, soil and cattle to Him (cf. The dictum of our sages: "there exists nothing, the first-fruits of which are not dedicated to heaven"), so he desired that they offer to him the first fruits of their thoughts and abilities and dedicate them to His service in the form of the Tabernacle, its appurtenances and vestments. This would be instrumental in sanctifying all their affairs since they would remember the Lord in all their deeds and would not go astray in pursuit of luxury and vanity.. "For a skill which was not employed in the Tabernacle cannot be accounted a skill", and it is not right for a God-fearing Jew to occupy himself with such.

The above explanation does not then dwell on the allegorical significance of each and every vessel and attempt to provide a symbolic correspondence in the spiritual world for all the objects mentioned. Instead the instructions to build the Tabernacle, to work in wood, metal gold and silver may be compared to the ordinances of the first-fruits and first-born in which the worshipper dedicates his goods to the Almighty in acknowledgement of his creator’s bounty. In this case it is not the products of man’s work and skills that are dedicated, but the most precious of his endowments, his skill and mental capacities. Before the Israelites settled down in their homeland, before they managed to build their own house and vineyard, they were called upon to dedicate their skills and abilities to God, that the first-fruits of their work should be for the sake of Heaven.

The full exploitation of human skill is highly esteemed by the Torah which evidently does not approve the ideal set by Jonadab the son of Rechav , cited in Jeremiah 35, 6. Man had been charged by God at creation with the task of conquering and civilising the world by his skills. The dangers of over-exploitation, of extravagance and demoralisation which are concomitants of man’s misuse of his powers underly the instruction to build the Tabernacle:

No regulations were prescribed by the Almighty governing the development of human skills laying down what was to be considered essential, desirable or extravagant, since this was a matter dependant on ever changing circumstances, God did not therefore wish to fix any preconceived limits. When the children of Israel would enter their homeland and rest from their enemies and prosper, they would have more opportunity to engage in various labours and would certainly have no need to renounce artistic, ornamental pursuits. It may be noted that till the day of Solomon, the Ark of the Lord was housed behind a curtain and when Solomon ruled and Judah and Israel dwelt each man under his vine and silver and gold were plentiful in Jerusalem, the Almighty commanded them to build a Temple. The king too built a palace and all kinds of magnificent edifices, an ivory throne...We may note the attainments of those days and would that matters had not exceeded those limits! But subsequently the love of pleasure and luxury exceeded all bounds, and we know what happened. No definite limit can be prescribed in these matters which must be decided in accordance with the prevailing circumstances. The surest safeguard is, however, contained in the following admonition of our Sages: "let all thy deeds be for the sake of Heaven". Through observance of this principle man will be able to distinguish between good and evil and not be ruled by his passions. The Almighty therefore did not prescribe any limits but commanded that they dedicate all their deeds and thoughts to Him and consecrate the first-fruits of their work to the Lord blessed be He and blessed be His name, who has singled us out form the peoples and given us true law and goodly statutes for is to love Him and fear Him always.

The Torah did not therefore content itself with recording the instructions to build the Tabernacle, but repeated each detail of their execution. This was done in order to stress the symbolic significance of each detail, the dedication of each labour to God in preparation for life in the Promised Land.




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07 Sep 2005 / 3 Elul 5765 0