Terumah: Language and Translation

“And they shall make [v’asu (third person plural)] an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and cubit and a half high. Overlay [v’tzipita (second person masc. singular)]…Cast [v’yazkakta (second person masc. singular)] four gold rings… Make [v’asita (second person masc. singular)]…” — Exodus/Shemot 25:10-13

Why is the third person plural — “they shall make” — employed in verse ten while all the other verbs in making the Tabernacle and its accoutrements are second person masculine singular, as in “[you, male individual] make”?


Contemporary Translation

I don’t know of a commentary directly noting that use of the third person plural here has the effect, grammatically, of including males and females in construction of the all-important ark — and, by extension, Torah study and Torah implementation* — while the second person verb forms generally used in the tabernacle instructions, as throughout Exodus/Shemot, address a masculine singular “you.”

However, this week’s portion begins with “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts: you shall accept gifts for Me from every person [kol ish] whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:2). The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (TWC) ** notes here that later verses — Exodus/Shemot 35:22, 35:29 and 36:6 — explicitly include men and women, thus arguing for the translation as “every person,” rather than as the more usual “every man.”

In her “Post-Biblical Interpretations” in the same volume, Ruth Gais (rabbi of Chavurat Lamdeinu) also references comments from Ramban (aka Nachmanides, 13th Century CE) — see section below — on the involvement of “all Israel” in the work (see TWC, p. 468). In addition, however, Ramban comments on Exodus/Shemot 35:22 that the women actually went first, in the bringing of the gifts for the Tabernacle.

Ramban’s reading of the women’s precedence is based on another grammatical point. The text reads: “And they came [va’yabo-u], the men [ha-anashim] with/because of the women [al-nashim], all whose hearts moved them….”


Varieties of Traditional Readings

In her essay, “The ark and its poles,” (in New Studies in Exodus/Shemot), Nechama Leibowitz** explores the third-person-plural vs. second-person-singular topic. While she quotes her usual range of traditional and contemporary commentators, she minces no words in outlining her view of some:

As we have noted the slaving adherence to the literal wording of the text can often blind one to its real inner meaning. This, for instance, is what Ibn Ezra has to observe on the text:

Since the text originally stated: “they shall make Me a sanctuary,” it begins here with the wording; they shall make an ark”

Cassuto similarly observes in his commentary to Exodus (p. 328):

The reversion to the third person plural instead of the 2nd person singular is meant here to link up with the phrase: “the children of Israel shall make Me a sanctuary,” and, first of all, they shall make an ark.

We may justifiably wonder at these literalists…Does not the very faithfullest interpretation of the text, the plainest sense in its profoundest connotation, imply that here we have the singling out of the ark for a special role, the enlisting, in contrast to all the other appurtenances, of all Israel in its making? Must we not admit that the Midrash has plumbed the depths of the text’s plainest and literal sense?

Leibowitz quotes three midrashic sources:

1) R. Judah said in the name of R. Shalom: “Let all come and occupy themselves with the ark so that they should all qualify for the Torah.

2) Ramban (Nachmanides) explained that “all the Israelites should participate in the construction of the ark because of its supremely sacred role in housing the tablets of the Law,” through donation, direct help or “directing their minds to it.”

3) Or Ha-chayyim (Chayyim Ibn Atar, 18th Century CE) stresses that all Israel is required to complete the ark, just as no one Israelite alone can implement the whole Torah: Some laws pertain only to priests or Levites, for example, while a priest would not redeem his own firstborn.

In an endnote to the essay (not included in the on-line version), Leibowitz also quotes Midrash Tanchuma (early medieval commentary):

We find that when the Holy One Blessed be He instructed Moses to build the Tabernacle He used the expression ve-‘asita “thou shalt make” but with regard to [the ark] He said: ve-‘asu “they shall make.” Why? The Holy One Blessed be He wished to stress that the command applied to each and every Israelite alike. No one should have the excuse to say to his fellow: I contributed more to the ark. Therefore I study more and have a greater stake in it than you! (continued below*)


*Bonus Midrashic Note

Proving that the best stuff is often in the footnotes, the quote from Midrash Tanchuma continues:

For this reason the Torah is compared to water, as it is stated: “Ho, whoever is thirsty come to the water” (Isaiah 51:1). Just as no one is ashamed to ask his fellow to give him a drink so no one should be ashamed to ask his junior to teach him Torah. No one should be able to say: I am a Torah scholar and the Torah is my hereditary privilege because my ancestors too were scholars whereas you and your forbears were not scholars but were proselytes. That is why it is written (Deut. 33:4): “An inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” Whoever is part of the congregation of Jacob including even proselytes who devote themselves to Torah — they are just as important as the High Priest (i.e., they acquire hereditary right by being included in the congregation.” — Leibowitz, New Studies in Exodus/Shemot, p.495

** Please see Source Material for complete translation and commentary citations.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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