Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778
Women’s daily labors in the time of the Torah and in light of International Women’s Day
In Parashat Vayakhel we may find a particular kind of description that is not commonly found in the Torah. We have, in this week’s parashah, details of women’s daily lives and activities. We usually read in the Torah details about the work of men in military service, in the Tabernacle, in agriculture, and other areas. We have some information about individual women like Rebecca and Rachel who were in charge of taking water from the well. However, it is not common to have information about women’s daily activities as a group.
Parashat Vayakhel begins telling us that Moses convoked the “whole Israelite community” and asked them for donations to build the Mishkan, the tabernacle. Unlike other portions of the Torah, it is written in this week’s parashah:
“Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the LORD, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants—gold objects of all kinds.” (Sh’mot 35:22)
We find here that is written that men and women brought offerings for the building of the Mishkan, which means that women did have their own possessions and they were recognized as having free wills of their own. They could freely take from their possessions to make an offering to God. Thus, not everything was the property of their husbands as we read in other passages. They had their own possessions and the possibility to decide what they wanted to offer.
We find a second point in this parashah regarding women’s daily lives:
“And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen. And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair. And the chieftains brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense.
Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the LORD, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD.” (Sh’mot 35:25-29)
We find here information about some of the women’s special skills and talents at that time, which enabled the entire community to reach their goal. With their own hands, they spun multicolored yarns and varied fabrics into articles to be used in the Mishkan. These women transformed, with their hands, raw material into sacred objects.
Therefore, we may say that women participated in the building of the Mishkan, giving their handiwork, time and possessions. We should affirm that they had played a vital role in that sacred endeavor.
In the Book of Proverbs, describing the virtuous woman, we have some further details of women’s daily labors:
She looks for wool and flax and sets her hand to them with a will.
She is like a merchant fleet, bringing her food from afar.
She rises while it is still night, and supplies provisions for her household, the daily fare of her maids.
She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it; she plants a vineyard by her own labors.
She girds herself with strength and performs her tasks with vigor.
She sees that her business thrives; her lamp never goes out at night.
She sets her hand to the distaff; her fingers work the spindle.
She gives generously to the poor; her hands are stretched out to the needy.
She is not worried for her household because of snow, for her whole household is dressed in crimson.
She makes covers for herself; her clothing is linen and purple.
She makes cloth and sells it and offers a girdle to the merchant.
She is clothed with strength and splendor; she looks to the future cheerfully.
Her mouth is full of wisdom, her tongue with kindly teaching.
She oversees the activities of her household and never eats the bread of idleness.
Her children declare her happy; her husband praises her,
“Many women have done well, but you surpass them all.”
Grace is deceptive, Beauty is illusory; It is for her fear of the LORD that a woman is to be praised.
Extol her for the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the gates.” (Proverbs 31: 10-31)
It is not a coincidence that I focus on this topic during this week. As you may know, March 8th is designated as International Women’s Day and has been observed since the early 1900s. It is a day to recognize women’s rights, freedom, and achievements, among other things.
For many centuries, women’s daily labor—like tending children, preparing clothes and food, caring for the sick and old people, etc.—has not been recognized as legitimate labor. Although women have been working very hard, steadily and tirelessly, their work was an invisible labor compared to the valued remunerated work of men.
This week’s parashah, during the week of the International Women’s Day, recognizes specially women’s daily labors and the importance of their having their own possessions and using them freely according to each woman’s judgment.
I would like to dedicate this message to all the women from the past and present who work hard every day with patience and dedication for the welfare of their beloved ones and their communities. And, as we honor them, we invite all men to follow women’s deeds and labors and share these important labors, necessary and vital for the wellbeing of our lives and our communities.