Torah STEM

Behold, I have appointed by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And I will fill him with a spirit of the L-rd – with wisdom, understanding, knowledge and [extending to] every craft. (Sefer Shemot 31:2-3)

I. Betzalel’s appointment

In Parshat Ki Tisa, Hashem appoints Betzalel to supervise the construction of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – and its vessels. Why did Hashem assign this task to Betzalel? Why was Moshe not directed to supervise the creation of the Mishcan?

Midrash Rabbah explains:

When Moshe ascended to the heavens, The Sacred One, blessed be He, showed him all the vessels of the Mishcan…. Moshe came to descend, he reasoned that he would make it. The Sacred One, blessed be He, summoned him. He said to him: Moshe, I made you the king. It is not proper for the king to do anything. Rather, he decrees, and others do. So too, you do not have the authority to do anything. Rather, say to them, and they will do. (Shemot Rabbah 40:2)

According to the midrash, Hashem did not allow Moshe to participate in the creating of the Mishcan. Hashem had appointed Moshe king over Bnai Yisrael. The king’s responsibility is to supervise and direct the projects of the nation. He does not labor with the people. Moshe was directed to instruct Betzalel. Betzalel and his craftspeople would fabricate the Mishcan and its vessels. 

There is another possible explanation for the appointment of Betzalel. 

And Moshe said, “Thus says Hashem, ‘At approximately midnight I will go forth within Egypt. And all firstborn in the land of Egypt will die – from the firstborn of Paroh who [is destined] to sit on his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone and the firstborn of the cattle.’” (Sefer Shemot 11:4-5)

II. The plague of the firstborn

In the above passages, Moshe tells Paroh that Hashem will bring upon Egypt the plague of the firstborn. This plague will kill all the firstborn of Egypt. It will strike Paroh’s son and extend even to the families of maidservants. Also, the firstborn cattle will be killed. Moshe does not reveal the specific time of the plague’s onset. He says that it will begin at approximately midnight.[1] 

The Talmud explains that Moshe knew the plague would take place exactly at midnight. Why did he say it would take place at approximately midnight? The Talmud responds that Paroh’s astrologers were tasked with monitoring the passage of time. They would note the time of the initiation of the plague. However, their methods were not precise.

Moshe reasoned that if he declared the plague was to begin at precisely midnight, these astrologers might erroneously determine the plague began just before or after midnight. They would mistakenly declare that Moshe’s prophecy had been false. To avoid this, Moshe stated that it would begin at approximately midnight. By not providing an exact time for the initiation of the plague, Moshe prevented these astrologers from attacking his credibility.[2]   

III. King David’s invention

The Talmud offers an alternative explanation for Moshe’s phrasing. Hashem told Moshe that the plague would take place at the precise moment of midnight. However, Moshe did not want to make this claim. He was not able to calculate or determine the exact moment of midnight. He did not want to make a claim that he could not substantiate. Therefore, he told Paroh that the plague would take place at approximately midnight. 

The Talmud points out that King David arose each night at precisely midnight to study Torah. How is it possible that David was able to calculate the exact moment of midnight but the master of all prophets – Moshe – could not? The Talmud responds that David was not able to determine exact midnight. However, an ingenious invention served as his alarm clock. A lute hung above David’s bed. At midnight, the northern wind blew through his chamber and sounded the lute. David awoke at the sound of the lute and studied Torah.[3] 

This discussion is interesting and provides an important insight into the Torah’s perspective on wisdom. The Talmud’s discussion begins with a premise. It is impossible that David was wiser than Moshe. If Moshe could not calculate the exact moment of midnight, it is not possible that David could. The Talmud concludes that David was aided by an ingenious device that awoke him at midnight. He was not wiser than Moshe. He had an alarm clock!

Presumably, David discovered and engineered this alarm clock.[4] If Moshe was wiser than David, why was he unable to invent some similar device? Two other comments of the Talmud provide an answer to this question.

And I have given [to work] with him Ahaliav, son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan. And in the heart of every one of a wise heart I have given wisdom. (Sefer Shemot 31:6)

IV. The knowledge of the Mishcan’s artisans

In the above passage, Hashem tells Moshe that he appoints Ahaliav to support Betzalel in the construction of the Mishcan. Also, Hashem tells Moshe that he has imparted wisdom into the hearts of the wise who will assist Betzalel and Ahaliav in the fabrication of the Mishcan and its vessels. 

The Talmud comments on this passage:

Ribbi Yochanan said: The Sacred One, blessed be He, gives wisdom only to one who has wisdom… as it is written, “And in the heart of every one of a wise heart I have given wisdom.” (Mesechet Berachot 45a)

According to Ribbi Yochanan, these master craftspeople did not develop their skills and knowhow through apprenticeship, training, and experience. The artisans who assisted Betzalel and Ahaliav were granted wisdom from Hashem. However, Ribbi Yochanan explains that a careful reading of the above passage reveals that Hashem did not grant His Divine gift of wisdom to the unskilled and ignorant. He bestowed His gift of wisdom upon those who were already wise. Hashem’s gift of wisdom expanded the knowledge and capacities of those who had a predisposition for this wisdom. One who was not an artisan and did not possess the inclination toward an artisan’s work did not receive this Divine gift. What was this wisdom that was a prerequisite to receiving Hashem’s gift and what type of wisdom did these artisans receive?

A second comment of the Talmud further develops this idea:

Rav Yehudah said: Betzalel knew how to join the letters with which the heavens and Earth were created. It is stated here [concerning Betzalel], “And I will fill him with a spirit of the L-rd – with wisdom, understanding, knowledge.” (Sefer Shemot 31:3)   And it is written there [concerning creation], “With wisdom Hashem established the land and established the heavens with understanding.” (Sefer Mishlei 3:19) And it is written, “And with His wisdom the depths were split.” (Sefer Mishlei 3:20) (Mesechet Berachot 45a)

Rav Yehudah explains that Betzalel had a very special knowledge. He understood how to manipulate the letters with which Hashem created the universe. Rav Yochanan is speaking allegorically. What are these “letters” to which he refers? He explains his message through referencing passages. Betzalel is described as endowed by Hashem with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. These three terms are used by King Solomon in describing the creation of the universe. Hashem used wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Rav Yehudah is explaining that Hashem granted Betzalel profound understanding of the character of the material world and the capacity to manipulate it. These are the instruments through which Hashem fashioned the material universe.

Betzalel, Ahaliav, and those who helped them were talented artisans. Each possessed a sense for how to manipulate the materials from which the Mishcan and its vessels would be fabricated. Hashem granted these inspired and talented individuals with more knowledge and understanding. Betzalel was granted the most profound knowledge – a unique understanding of the character of the material with which he would work to create the Mishcan and its vessels. The special knowledge of Betzalel and his artisans was an understanding of how the elements of the material world can be used and manipulated to fashion complex vessels and precise components that would compose the Mishcan

V. Two areas of knowledge

Now, let us return to the Talmud’s discussion of Moshe and David. Moshe and David were masters of different areas of knowledge. Moshe was the greatest of the prophets. He was a conceptual thinker. He understood even the most abstract concepts of the Torah. He even attained the most complete and comprehensive knowledge of Hashem accessible to human beings. Also, David was a master of these areas of knowledge. But he was not Moshe’s peer in this area. 

David’s special gift was the type of knowledge he shared with Betzalel, Ahaliav, and their assistants. He was an engineer and inventor. He understood how to manipulate the material world to create new devices.  This is not the profound wisdom of Moshe. But he used it to serve Him. He created an alarm clock. Its alarm alerted him each day that midnight had arrived, and he arose from his bed to study Hashem’s Torah. 

David and Moshe were masters of different areas of wisdom. Moshe was the insightful, abstract, conceptual thinker. He was not the inventor or engineer. This was David’s gift.

This distinction between Moshe’s and David’s respective areas of expertise suggests an alternative explanation for Betzalel’s appointment. Why did Hashem appoint Betzalel to lead the artisans in the creation of the Mishcan and its vessels? Why did He not entrust His servant Moshe with this task? Betzalel was selected by Hashem to create the Mishcan and its vessels because he shared David’s special gift. He was an inventor and engineer. 

[1] This translation – approximately midnight – is suggested by the Talmud. In his commentary on the passage, Rashi suggests that this is not the simple meaning of the phrase. Its simple meaning is “when the night divides in half” –at midnight.  

[2] Mesechet Berachot 4a.

[3] Mesechet Berachot 3b.

[4] Rashba quotes Rav Hai Gaon. He seems to maintain that the invention was created by David. However, an alternative interpretation of the Talmud’s comment is that David’s alarm clock was an accidental discovery.