“Bezalel’s Artistic Legacy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, is one of the few instances (cf. parshat Ki Tisah, Exodus 31:1-6) in which the Torah reveals its attitude toward art and artistry, when it lists the abundant talents of Bezalel, the Tabernacle’s master craftsman. As we shall see in the following verses, the Torah’s positive attitude toward Bezalel is clear and unequivocal.

In Exodus 35:30, Moses speaks to the children of Israel, and declares: “Re’ooh kah’rah Hashem be’shaym, Bezalel ben Uri ben Chur le’mah’tay Yehudah.” Behold, G-d has called by name, Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur of the tribe of Judah. Bezalel is not simply appointed by Moses, he is called by G-d by name to supervise the construction of His Tabernacle. This “calling” indicates clearly that Bezalel is no ordinary artisan. This, of course, is confirmed by the verse in Exodus 35:31 in which Moses says of Bezalel: “Vah’ye’mah’lay oh’toh roo’ach Eh’lo’kim, be’chach’mah, bit’voo’nah ooh’v’dah’aht, ooh’v’chal me’lah’chah,” G-d has filled him [Bezalel] with His G-dly spirit, with wisdom, insight, knowledge and with every craft.

Indeed, the range of Bezalel’s talents are stunning. He is a master craftsman and a knowledgeable designer. He is a skilled worker with gold, silver, copper, and knows how to cut precious stones, carve wood and weave tapestry. The Ramban says that the expression used by the Torah (Exodus 35:30) “Re’ooh kah’rah Hashem be’shaym Bezalel,” attesting to the fact that G-d has called Bezalel by name, implies astonishment. “Let everyone see,” says G-d, “Bezalel’s prodigious talents!” After all, says the Ramban, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for more than one hundred years. The only “skill” they were able to master as slave laborers was the ability to make bricks and mortar. The Israelites surely never learned to work with gold, silver or precious stones. In fact, during their back-breaking slavery they most likely rarely saw these valuable materials. And so, it is clear that Bezalel’s endowments are not natural, but rather the result of “roo’ach Ehlokim,” the Divine spirit that rested on him. His talents were undoubtedly a gift of G-d.

According to the rabbis in Tractate Sanhedrin 60b, Bezalel was only 13 years old when he was chosen to supervise the tabernacle’s construction. His tender age underscores the fact that his talents were not natural, but rather the result of a Divine gift. The Be’er Mayim Chaim maintains that the verse, “Lah’daht la’asot et kol me’leh’chet avodat ha’kodesh” (Exodus 31:1), which states that Bezalel was endowed with the talents that were necessary for all the “holy works,” implies that Bezalel’s talents were only valid during the time that he worked on the sacred “holy works”– the Tabernacle furnishings. In fact, according to the the Gaon of Rogatchov (Rabbi Yoseif Rosen, 1858-1936) in his work Tsofnat Pa’aneach, as soon as the Tabernacle was completed, Bezalel’s talents vanished. Bezalel’s assistant, Oholiyav, however, whose talents were natural, did not lose his skills, and was able to pass them on to succeeding generations.

The rabbis also note that in Exodus 35:30 the Torah text not only identifies Bezalel as a descendent of Uri, but also mentions that he was the grandson of Hur of the tribe of Judah–three generations, something most unusual in the bible. Oholiyav, on the other hand, is only identified as the son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan–the usual two generations. The commentators indicate that this distinction points to the long history of commitment and sacrifice on the part of Bezalel’s family. It was, after all, according to tradition, Bezalel’s grandfather, Hur, who gave up his life trying to stop the people from sinning with the Golden Calf. And now, his grandson has similarly chosen to devote his life to G-d, by building G-d’s sanctuary.

Judaism has a long history of valuing beauty, as demonstrated by the religious idea of hidur mitzvah–encouraging Jews to make the mitzvot more and more beautiful. Nevertheless, Judaism’s attitude towards art has been, at best, ambivalent. Despite the fact that the Torah in parashat Vayakhel seems to give a clear endorsement of the wonderful works of Bezalel and Oholiyav, the Torah appears to be apprehensive about art. This reticence is primarily due to the fear of violating the Second of the Ten Commandments that prohibits making images of other gods. Two-dimensional art, although tolerated, was often considered too distracting to display in the synagogues. Judaism’s ambivalence resulted in what one scholar calls “an exaltation of ethics over aesthetics, which for many centuries was the hallmark of Jewish existence.” Nevertheless, handwritten manuscripts of religious books were frequently adorned with lovely artistic figures and letters. Similarly, spice boxes for havdalah and menorot for Chanukah, have been common objects of art for many hundreds of years.

Even though from the context of the biblical passage it would seem that the prohibition against certain art forms would only apply when the image is made for the purpose of worship, sculpture is frowned upon. Therefore, three-dimensional art (e.g. sculpture) fell out of favor for much of Jewish history, for fear that it would lead to the worship of images. The Code of Jewish Law–the Shulchan Aruch (Yorah Dayah 141:4-7)–rules that it is permitted to paint, draw or weave figures of human beings in a tapestry, but not to make statues of the complete human form. It is, however, permitted to sculpt an incomplete human figure, for example the head alone or the torso alone. Basically, Jews were absolutely determined to avoid anything that smacks of idolatry.

In light of Judaism’s historic ambivalence towards art, the admiration in which Bezalel was held, is particularly unique. In the Middle Ages, when art was dominated by the Christian church and almost all of art was of a religious nature and included many icons, any Jewish passions for artistry were surely diminished. Except for very personal art, almost all forms of art fell out of favor. Since the enlightenment and the emancipation, however, art has started again to play a more dominant role in Jewish life. In fact, it seems as if Bezalel has come back to life once again!

Bezalel was not only unique because of his multiple talents and varied skills. In Exodus 35:34, after the Torah lists his many skills, it also says of Bezalel “Ooh’le’ho’rot nah’tan be’lee’bo,” that G-d gave Bezalel the ability to teach, to pass on his skills to others, to other artisans in his generation. Indeed, when we behold the beautiful contemporary artwork that emanates from Israel and from Jewish artisans in other locations, we feel moved to say “thank you” to Bezalel for transmitting that art form to others and keeping it alive.

May you be blessed.