The Tabernacle is Built
called an assembly and reminded everyone of God’s commandments. The Sabbath day was to be holy and anyone who
worked on the Sabbath would be put to death. No fires could be made or kept going on the
the people that it was time to build the Tabernacle according to God’s specifications. The people should donate
gifts for this task according to their depth of feeling. Materials like gold, silver, bronze, linen, goats’
hair, wood, oil, stones and spices were needed.
artisans were invited to step forward and offer their services in the construction of the Tabernacle as well as
in constructing the lampstands, the altar, doors, screens, pillars and hangings. The priests’ robes needed to be
made, as this was a priority.
went off and then later returned with numerous materials. Among the offerings were brooches, earrings, signet
rings and other valuables. The men brought acacia wood in plentiful supply and the women used their spinning and
said to the people, “Behold, the Lord has called Bezalel and given him the skills to be our chief designer and
craftsman. He has also called Oholiab to be a project leader, and these two men will teach the others what to
was ready to start, but the people were still bringing gifts. Moses had to tell them that there was more than
enough material already.
tabernacle was then built according to God’s precise specifications. The frames were made of acacia wood
overlaid with gold.
made the Ark of the Covenant of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold. A casing of pure gold enclosed the
Ark. Poles made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold made
the Ark portable. Two facing cherubim made of gold were created with wings to cover the casing of the
constructed was a portable table of acacia wood which was overlaid with gold. The plates and dishes for incense
were made of pure gold as were the bowls and jugs for libations.
There was a
lampstand consisting of seven lamps of pure gold. The incense altar was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold
but the altar for burnt offerings was overlaid with copper. Also made of copper were the utensils for the
burnt-offering altar – pots, basins, forks and firepans.
The Tent of
Appointed Meeting needed to be enclosed in the form of a courtyard. To accomplish this, Bezalel placed curtains
of blue, purple and red linen on each side to form an enclosure.
Commentary on the 21st parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the five books of
Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Well, here we have one of those passages in which Moses holds up God’s
checklist and the people follow your bogus deity’s instructions to the letter. Hardly an exciting passage to
go with a Shabbat service or an evening meal!
MS: What you would notice if
you had the spiritual capacity is that here we have an incredible and spontaneous outpouring of devotion by
the community. The people were united in fervour and came forward to donate an almost endless supply of
materials and valuables for the construction of the Tabernacle. This is truly an inspirational passage and
the people’s capacity for generosity should be an exemplar to other communities.
SAS: That, of course, is exactly the impression you wanted to create when you
wrote it. But those of us with discernment can figure out what’s really going on here. The opening few lines
give the game away, I’m afraid.
Oh no! Another ridiculous interpretation is coming, I fear!
SAS: It’s not ridiculous – it’s logical. How does Moses prepare the people for
his appeal to them regarding the Tabernacle? He reminds them that God’s commandments must be obeyed, and he
points out that those who don’t obey the Sabbath will be put to death. Then he makes an appeal for materials
and help! Well, the implication is clear – you’d better step forward and help because God and the community
leaders will be watching you closely. This is less a straightforward appeal than a bit of clever manipulation
by a skilled leader.
MS: Are you somehow
suggesting that those who didn’t step forward were punished – killed even? If so, I think you’ve taken leave
of your senses.
SAS: I’m not saying they’d have been killed. But let’s be realistic. This was a
small community. Also, it was a very strictly regulated one. Which Jew in their right mind would have ignored
Moses’ call to donate goods? The pressure to give was obviously
extreme, and people responded exactly as they were expected to respond.
MS: So what’s your point,
SAS: My point is that the
spontaneous show of devotion you depict isn’t plausible. In the real world people give only as much as they
have to give and they certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with giving less than was
MS: As a complete stranger to
faith, you predictably fail to appreciate the wonderful spirituality behind this story. These people knew God
and they were zealous in their devotion and enthusiasm.
SAS: I don’t believe in tides
of enthusiasm. I do, however, believe in tides of conformity, especially in this kind of setting where
non-conformity equates to apostasy. Woe betide the non-givers!
MS: Your argument breaks down
very quickly. Both you and I know of Jews who go above and beyond the call of duty in donating to various
charitable causes and helping their fellow Jews in all sorts of situations of need. They do it for the love
of God and for the love of their fellow humans. No one expects it or demands it. Most of the time no one even
knows of their kindness to others – it’s between them and God.
SAS: I know such people and I admire them. Not because they believe in God,
which is irrational, but because they are people who care deeply for their fellow humans – both Jews and
non-Jews if they’re truly righteous people. But the situation you have just outlined is the very antithesis
of your story. In your story the giving is effectively coerced through group pressure and hints of possible
retribution. This is light years away from secret donations of alms to the poor.
MS: The spirit in which the
giving was done is exactly the same. We have, in my story, an early example of popular devotion and piety.
The spirit of God moved people and such was their generosity that the coffers swelled and God’s temple could
SAS: A popular outbreak of
religious fervour amongst all the Jews? Yes, I would call that a miracle. We tend to be a little more
restrained in my experience … But let me take up the point that the precise Tabernacle God wanted was
actually built. That, surely, was never negotiable. Once your character, God, decreed something then it was
automatically carried out. The people had to keep donating until enough material was available. There was a
target and they met it.
MS: Ah, here you err and err badly. The story makes it quite clear that far
more materials than needed were brought forward, so it wasn’t need that determined what was given – it
was sheer and blessed generosity. My argument, I think!
SAS: I don’t think so, my
friend. Supply exceeded demand, I would argue, because Moses and his builders wanted to be sure they had
enough materials. So they kept sending the message, “Give more”. When it became clear that they had more than
enough, they returned the surplus in fair proportion.
MS: You have an answer for
everything, but you are arguing from a position of ignorance and incomprehension. Every devout person reading
this portion will know exactly what spirit of joy and charitableness was abroad amongst the people in their
love of God.
SAS: For “devout” read “gullible”. Most of us Jews find your stories impossible
MS: Shame on you for that!
You scoff at your own heritage and utterly fail to appreciate it!
SAS: Not so. My heritage as a
Jew is the intellectual right to examine everything rationally and comment upon anything as I see
MS: Nothing in the Jewish
religion runs counter to reason and good sense.
SAS: I’d say almost
everything in it does. But there of course we differ.
MS: Fundamentally, my friend.
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
Russian immigration to the USA, the UK, South Africa
and the rest of the world from the 1880s
Pogroms and other forms of persecution led to a huge Jewish exodus from Russia from
the 1880s onwards. The British public was informed of the plight
of Russian Jews by articles appearing in The Times in January 1882, and meetings at Mansion House (1882) and
London’s Guildhall (1890) led to lobbying and fund-raising for Russian Jews. Money to assist emigration from
Russia was sent overseas.
Interestingly, Charles Darwin was one of the 38 notables who signed the requisition
for the Mansion House Meeting in 1882. The Archbishop of Canterbury was a signatory to that requisition as
well as the one for the Guildhall Meeting.
In the UK, the number of Jews increased from 60,000 in 1880 to 250,000 by 1919. Most
of the newcomers settled in London’s East End, but there was also a sizeable Jewish community in Manchester.
Only the Alien Immigration Act of 1905 put a handbrake on Jewish arrivals. Following this legislation, many
of the Jews arriving in British ports were transmigrants bound for other destinations – often New York, Cape
Town or Quebec. Between 1880 and 1914 an estimated million Jews stopped at Britain on the way to other
Prohibitions on Jewish settlers were not always frowned on by Jews in Britain. As in
the USA, there was a fear that large influxes of Russian Jews would increase anti-Semitism and queer the
pitch for Jews already living there. Russian-Jewish immigrants assimilated into English culture successfully
over time. In the 1880s, however, they remained a distinct group whose clothes, food and religion set them
apart from the locals in obviously significant ways. They formed self-contained street communities. While the
new arrivals spoke Yiddish, the settled locals lobbied for English to be spoken by people in these
communities as often as possible.
In the early 20th century Jews in London started moving away from the East
End. Popular destinations included Golders Green, Cricklewood, Hackney, Ilford and Islington. Such relocation
brought about the establishment of synagogues and communities in these areas.
In 1880 the Jewish population in the USA was 250,000. More than two million Eastern
European Jews came to America over the next 40 years. Of those
Jews who left Russia in the 1880s, 90% went to the USA, which became known as “the golden
The average rate of Jewish immigration between 1881and 1892 was 19,000 a year. The
figure almost doubled to 37,000 in the next decade (1892-1903) and more than doubled again after that –
76,000 a year from 1903-1914. Nearly 70% of these Jews settled in New York, Chicago, Boston and Pennsylvania.
Many were unskilled workers who worked long hours in unhygienic “sweat shops”. Many gravitated to the garment
industry and some became prominent unionists.
The Russian Jews on New York’s Lower East Side were characterized by a willingness to
work 16-18 hour days. They were possibly the poorest of all immigrant groups to land at Ellis Island in that
period and those given to prejudiced stereotyping described them as dirty, insular and unlettered. The Jewish
American poet, Emma Lazarus, however, saw in the new arrivals a body of people who would re-energise and
inspire not only Jewish Americans but all Americans. They were an important part of her “tired, poor and
huddled masses” that came halfway across the world to breathe in a new freedom.
Detractors of the Russian Jews in the USA soon had to admit that their new neighbours
were dedicated workers, people of sober habits and temperament and uncommonly devoted to education and
self-improvement. Records from the time show that attendance of Jewish students at public school was better
than any other group of students and their results were better too.
Early Russian immigrants made a significant
contribution to science and industry in the USA. Aircraft engineers Igor Sikorsky and Alexander de Seversky
did important work, as did biologist Selman Waksman and early TV pioneer Vladimir Zworykin. By the 1900s
there were a million Yiddish speakers in New York, and four Yiddish daily papers selling a total of 600,000
In South Africa, there were 60,000 Jews by the end
of the 19th century. Of these about 6,000 lived in Johannesburg, which along with Cape Town
eventually became the centre of Jewish life in that country. The earliest Jewish settlements there were in
the suburbs of Fordsburg, Mayfair and Doornfontein.
The city of Johannesburg was established in 1886 as
a result of the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand. Already, by 1887, Emanuel Mendelssohn had formed the
Witwatersrand Goldfields Jewish Association. He also became the first president of the President Street
Synagogue that he helped to establish.
There were a few major waves
of immigration to Johannesburg. One began during the establishment of the Goldfields. They were mostly English
Jews like Barney Barnato and Sammy Marks, who became incredibly wealthy from the boom around the discovery of
gold. Later, Russian and Lithuanian Jews came in about 1905, and then a later wave in the late 20s and early
30s. There were also Jews from Poland, Germany, Latvia and the Baltic region who came to South Africa, but they
were in the minority compared to the Lithuanians and Russians. The Jewish community consisted of left-wing
intellectuals, as well as traders and merchants who became prominent business people. This bifurcation has
always existed in the South African Jewish community, and may be representative of splits in other Jewish
Immigration quotas and other persecutory measures proved irksome to the community in the years
leading to the Second World War. In the 30s most of the Jews were still dirt poor but this changed in the 50s and 60s. They were
as much business people as they were professionals. By the 1960s most Johannesburg Jews had started moving
into more comfortable homes in the northern and eastern suburbs.
The influence of the Jewish community far exceeded
its numerical strength, and has long included financial, industrial, intellectual and political
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
CHAYA: I think it’s
remarkable how successful the Russian and Eastern European Jews were in every country in which they settled.
The facts speak for themselves. These were intellectually, financially and socially remarkable people and
their descendants have continued the tradition of success.
BEN: How are we to account
for such spectacular success? Great genes or a desperate need to take root and grow after centuries of
oppression and uncertainty?
DAD: Ha ha! There’s no reason
why we can’t say both, is there? We can add a third reason – the opportunity to fit in and make a real
contribution to society as fully fledged members of those societies. We Jews have reason to be grateful to
the USA, Britain and South Africa for giving us the rights and privileges we’ve
CHAYA: Yes, let’s say that,
but let’s also add that there was no earthly reason to deny us such rights. Just because we were horribly
oppressed didn’t mean we should have been effusively grateful when we weren’t
DAD: Fair enough, Chaya. But
in a world saturated with anti-Semitism, it’s appropriate that we appreciate and celebrate those places where
it wasn’t allowed to influence public policies and public life.
BEN: Let’s not give the UK a
clean bill of health. It wasn’t so long ago we were discussing the terrible violence that resulted from
DAD: Again, you’re quite
CHAYA: There is no doubt that
Ashkenazi Jews have done themselves proud. But I am disconcerted to hear that there was resistance in Jewish
communities when fresh boatloads of arrivals appeared. Is this not a form of internal
DAD: Ah, so you notice that
seems to be a pattern with settled migrants and new arrivals? This is an ironic twist, isn’t it? But you have
to look at things from the viewpoint of Jews recently settled into their new country. They correctly intuited
that their existence and prosperity hung by a thread. And those newcomers threatened to wreck
DAD: Well, the newcomers were
green and unsophisticated. They were an embarrassment to the others and threatened to be a liability. They
did not yet know how to fit in and be acceptable to the majority.
CHAYA: I understand that, of course, but that still doesn’t make it the moral
thing to do.
BEN: Or the pragmatic thing
to do either. There is strength in numbers and the stronger the local Jewish community, the
DAD: No one disputes that we
should stand up for one another. All I’m saying is that you can’t blame those Jews who had settled into a
community and didn’t want delicate balances upset. It’s not surprising that they wanted other Russian and
Eastern European Jews to find equally viable shores to settle on.
CHAYA: And I’m saying that
the “first in, best-dressed” philosophy doesn’t wash whatever the circumstances.
BEN: Who knows how we’d act
if we were in similar circumstances? I just say it’s a sad world when you end up debating how Jews should
strategize when faced with the arrival of other unfortunate Jews.
DAD: Well, it is a sad
world in that way. And Jews are not the only immigrant communities that have behaved that way. It’s a much
more general problem.
CHAYA: Sometimes I don’t like
to hear that in moral matters Jews are just the same as everyone else.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Being a Jew is like walking in the wind or swimming: you are touched at all points and
conscious everywhere. (Lionel Trilling)
· Don’t worry about what may happen tomorrow; just correct what you spoiled
· If Man is but another animal species, why has no other species produced even one
· When the doctor called Mrs. Finkelstein to tell her that her cheque came back, she
replied, "So did my arthritis."
· A person plans, and God laughs.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Franz Boas, born in Minden, Germany, received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography. He is famous for applying the scientific method to the study of human cultures and
societies, a field previously based on the formulation of grand theories around anecdotal knowledge. As a
scholar, he emphasized ethnology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics, and he collected data
about cultures, especially those passing from the scene. He decided that everything was important to the study
of culture. Boas is considered one of the founders of historical particularism, which deals with each
culture as having a unique history and argues that one should not assume universal laws govern how cultures
operate. Previously, a belief in Unilineal Evolution had explained cultural similarities and differences among
societies by classifying them into three sequential stages of development: savagery, barbarism and civilization.
Boas left a tremendous impact on the development of anthropology. By claiming that societies cannot be ranked by
their degree of savagery, barbarity or civility, Boas called for an end to ethnocentrism in anthropology. Also
because of his influence, anthropologists began to do ethnological fieldwork to gather sound evidence. His
position that culture must be understood in its own context has been passed on to anthropologists as a basic
approach to cultural analysis.
Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967)
Robert Oppenheimer was born in
New York and was a brilliant student. He received his PhD from the University of Gottingen at the age of 22 with
a thesis on quantum physics. He returned to America to teach at Berkeley and ultimately became known as the founding father of the American school of theoretical physics. He is
best known for his role as the scientific director of the project to develop the first nuclear weapons at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known colloquially as "the father of
the atomic bomb", his efforts probably saved the lives of
hundreds of thousands of American troops. After Hiroshima and
Nagasaki had been bombed the Japanese were forced to surrender unconditionally. After the war, he was a chief
advisor to the newly created United States Atomic Energy
Commission and used that position to lobby for international control of atomic energy and to avert the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. He was married to an ex-Communist and doubts
relating to his left-wing ideas and his outspoken political opinions during the Red Scare caused his security clearance to be revoked during the
McCarthy period, when guilt by association was considered legitimate. Though stripped of his direct political
influence, Oppenheimer continued to lecture, write, and work in physics. A decade later, President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of rehabilitation. He was truly a giant of his