Who is the greatest artist of them all? The Gemara in Megillah (14a) as well as in Brachot (10a) informs us that the greatest artist of them all... is Hashem. Sculptors may create fantastic statues and artists can paint the greatest pictures of people, but only Hashem has the power to imbue them with breath and the living spirit, making all their parts work in harmony.
What is Judaism’s attitude toward art and artisans? Are their talents and skills valued? How important is art and craftsmanship in the grand scheme of Torah values? What do our holiday and daily observances tell us about this topic?
For the past several weekly portions, the Torah repeatedly refers to the artisans who crafted the Tabernacle as the wise-hearted men and women. These were the men and women who made the curtains, completed the handicrafts and even dyed and spun the yarn. In this week’s parsha of Vayakhel we read that “Moshe summoned Bezalel, Ohaliav (his deputy) and every wise-hearted person whose heart Hashem endowed with wisdom, everyone whose heart inspired him to approach the work, to do it” (Shemot 36:2). Bezalel reportedly was only 13 years old at the time (Sanhedrin 69b). Bezalel was said to be a highly gifted master artisan, showing great skill and originality in engraving, wood carving and weaving. The Torah continuously refers to artisans with respect and noted that their work was highly appreciated.
The Ramban points out that due to the conditions during the Egyptian period of slavery spanning hundreds of years, there were no cultivated Jewish artisans. The Egyptians did not train them nor did they allow them to develop the finer skills. Nevertheless, there were still Jews who, though not formally trained, had natural abilities and talents in the finer arts. All these Jews could rely on was their inspiration and creativity. Yet, Hashem promised that if these inspired artisans volunteered to do the holy work of building the Mishkan, their hearts would be endowed with wisdom in the finer arts and they would succeed with their creativity.
We read how Hashem commands Moshe to consult with the artisans of the generation and create textiles, weavings and jewelry for the kohanim. They also created the furnishings, the Altar and the curtains that adorned the Mishkan (tabernacle). The Gemara in Pesachim (117a) also reminds us that architecture and the building crafts were essential in the Temple service. Music was an important element in the Temple service as well and was typically seen as an aid to attaining prophetic inspiration.
The Jewish holidays and cycles of life are especially filled with symbolism and artistry. Most traditional Jewish homes have a decorative challah cover with the Hebrew words embroidered “In honor of the Sabbath and Yom Tov.” We find additional symbolism in play throughout the holidays and the ceremonies throughout the year. We decorate our sukkot during the holiday. We utilize ornamental Seder plates on Pesach. We use decorated Torah mantels and embroidered parochet curtains for the Aron Kodesh in shul. We have colorful atarot on our “talleisim.” We have decorated Megillat Esther scrolls. Many of us have seen beautiful chuppahs at weddings. We also make note of adorned bris pillows and “vimpels.” Even our yarmulkes come in all sorts of colors and fabrics, many times denoting which sect of Judaism we ascribe to. In ancient days, each tribe had its own specially decorated flag.
Jewish tradition is filled with art, jewelry and embroidery that often holds symbolic meaning. Artistry and craftsmanship are important to Hashem and are well represented throughout the Torah, the holidays and the symbolism of our people. The Torah begins with the words “Bereishit bara Elokim.” This can be translated as “In the beginning, God created.” We need to value the creativity that artistry embodies and appreciate how it contributes to the furtherance of our culture, heritage and religion. As we appreciate the artistry of others and the role that art plays in our heritage, may we similarly be inspired with a wise heart to further our own individual talents and creativity in the service of Hashem.
By Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic clinical psychologist and is the president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He can be contacted at [email protected]