The Trembling of the Veil: Weaving the Talmudic Tapestry

Last night I finished seven and a half years of daf yomi when I concluded Masekhet Shekalim. Perhaps appropriately, the last pages of Shekalim hearken back to Yoma, the first masekhet I learned when I started this cycle in the spring of 2006. The final chapter of Shekalim deals with items of uncertain purity status that are discovered in Jerusalem. What happens if you find spit lying on the sidewalk, as per the first Mishnah of the perek – do we assume that it belongs to someone who is pure or impure? This leads to a discussion of what to do when various holy objects in the Temple become impure, including the Parokhet, the woven tapestry that divided the Heikhal (sanctuary) from the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies). In Shekalim (21b), as in Yoma (72b), the rabbis describe the parokhet in elaborate detail, and as I read their words, I cannot help but remember that both “textile” and “text” come from the Latin word texere, to weave, such that it is not just the parokhet but also the Talmudic page that are being celebrated as masterpieces of intricate craftsmanship.

First the rabbis debate the nature of the weave of the parokhet, which the Torah describes as “a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson strands, and fine twisted linen” (Exodus 26:31). The rabbis of the Mishnah assert that it was a handbreadth thick, and it was woven of 72 strands, and each strand was made of 24 crimson, blue, purple, and fine linen threads. But then the Talmud cites a baraita stating that in fact each strand was made of 32 threads, based on a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible’s use of משזר, twisted linen. Adding a further twist to the debate, a third sage asserts that each strand was actually made of 48 threads – and thus the parokhet is woven into an increasingly elaborate tapestry as the Talmudic text unfurls.

This has been true, too, of my experience of learning daf yomi. If any page ever seems simple and straightforward upon first read, it is generally because I have not studied it carefully enough.  אם קרית לא שנית, ואם שנית לא שלשת….  Only as I look closer and begin to unravel the various strands of argumentation do I begin to appreciate the rich texture of the material. Where do the rabbis get 24 threads? Because had each strand been made of one thread, the Bible would simply have said חוט, a thread; had it been made of two threads, the Bible would have said חוט כפול, a double thread; had it been made of three threads, it would have said שזור, an entwined braid. But it said משזר, which must be double the שזור, and so there were six threads. Moreover, the Bible lists four different strands – crimson, blue, purple, and linen, and so we must multiply six by four, and so we end up with 24. This is quite a thick weave. Indeed, the Mishnah states that the Parokhet was so heavy that it took three hundred priests to lift it and carry it to the ritual bath when it needed to be immersed for purification purposes. I confess that often I found myself unable to untangle the more knotty Talmudic debates, and I was fortunate to have Rashi hemming most of the masekhtot I learned. I am grateful, too, for Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who helped me with much of the heavy lifting, as well as Rabbi Shalom Rosner, whose podcasts revealed to me the text in its true colors.

The Mishnah goes on to relate that the Parokhet was made of 82,000 myriads. The Talmud’s term is “ribo,” which, according to Rashi, relates either to the cost of the veil’s production, or to the number of threads from which it was made. But the Munich manuscript for the text of Masekhet Sheqalim 8:5 reads ומשמונים ושתים ריבו’ נעשית, which is probably a shorted version for ריבות, meaning young maidens. Indeed, some commentators argue that the reason the parokhet required ritual immersion (by 300 priests) was due to the fear that one of the weaving girls began menstruating without noticing it, and consequently defiled the veil. In her Feminist Commentary on Maskhet Tamid, Dalia Marx cites an early Christian pseudepigraphic composition dated to the mid-second century which relates that the Virgin Mary was among those women chosen to make the parokhet for the Temple. But whether or not Mary was involved, it’s clear that many other women were, as the Bible itself tells us: “And all the women that were wise-hearted spun with their hands, and brought that which they had spun: the blue, the pruple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart raised them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair” (Exodus 35:25-26). As one of an increasing number of women whose hearts raise them up in wisdom to study Talmud, I draw inspiration from the fact that women had a hand in weaving the parokhet textile, even if they are absent from the margins of the Talmud text.

Continuing its description of the parokhet, the Talmud at the end of Shekalim states that the weave of the tapestry was double-sided; in this sense it was analogous to the text of the Ten Commandments on the two tablets, which could be read from either side. This conclusion is drawn from the juxtaposition of two Biblical verses, such that here too, it is the text that informs the textile. One verse says “work of the embroiderer” (Exodus 26:36), and one verse says “Work of a skillful person” (Exodus 26:31). This refers to the two facets of the parokhet, which are debated by the sages: Was there a lion on one side and a lion on the other side? Or a lion on one side and an eagle on the other? Regardless, there was one image that would have been seen by the high priest as he parted the parokhet to enter the holy of holies, and another image that he would have seen when he exited.

The parokhet looked different from each side, and in this sense it is not unlike various Talmudic passages which I encountered multiple times in my daf yomi study. Academic scholars of Talmud use the term “maqbilot,” meaning parallels, to refer to Talmudic passages that appear in identical or similar form in various Talmudic contexts. Thus, for instance, the description of the parokhet appears not just in Sheqalim, but also in Hulin (90b) and Tamid (29b). And so I studied this passage not just now, at the conclusion of my daf yomi study, but also during my maternity leave after my son was born, when the parokhet reminded me of the various hand-woven blankets we’d received as baby gifts, and then again when we decided we were ready to have another child, when we thought about how to partition our second bedroom to make room for a new baby. As such, the parokhet was a veil marking my passage into various stages of life. Academic scholars consider how the text is informed and often even changed by its context; the same is true, perhaps, of the personal context in which I have encountered these passages. The text seems to change with each encounter because it resonates in a new way, and I, in turn, am changed by each encounter with the text.

As a double-sided divider, the parokhet was both a way in and a way out, and thus it seems fitting to me that I encountered the rabbis’ description of it first in Yoma, when I was on my way in to the study of daf yomi, and now in Shekalim, as I exit this first cycle. I am reminded of the inscription on Dexter Gate, which I used to walk through countless times a day when I was a college freshman: “Enter here to gain in wisdom,” reads the side leading into Harvard Yard; “Depart to serve better they country and thy kind,” reads the side leading into the busy traffic of Massachusetts Avenue. The Parokhet, like the inscription on Dexter Gate, serves as a reminder that every point of entry is also a point of exit, and every end is also a beginning. This is why graduation ceremonies are called “commencement,” and this is why the traditional formula recited upon completing a large learning project such as daf yomi reads, “We will return to you, and you will return to us.” And so today I cracked open my worn volume of Yoma to continue learning, because the point of daf yomi is not the day one finishes, but every day in which one learns. How appropriate, then, that I started with Yoma, a term that refers to Yom Kippur (i.e. “The Day,” that is, the most important day on the Jewish calendar) but which literally means just “day,” as in every day — because every day is an opportunity to grow in the wisdom of Torah.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be some majesty in this moment. Yeats titled his memoir “The Trembling of the Veil” after a quote from Mallarme, who said that his epoch was troubled by the trembling of the veil of the Temple. I feel a tremor as I pass through this veil of the conclusion and commencement of my learning, aware, perhaps, of just how much my world has been rocked by the texts I have studied. I am overcome by a desire to share some of what I have been privileged to learn, and to invoke that learning to better serve my country and my kind. Perhaps fittingly, the rabbis teach at the end of Shekalim that after the parokhet was woven by 82,000 virgins and then immersed by 300 priests, it was spread out to dry on the tallest place on the Temple Mount כדי שיראה העם את מלאכתה שהיא נאה, that is, for the entire nation to admire the beauty of its craftsmanship. And so here are my words, which are also the words I have studied and the words of those from whom I have been privileged to study, woven together and spread out before you with trembling hands.

2 thoughts on “The Trembling of the Veil: Weaving the Talmudic Tapestry

  1. Avi says:

    Beautiful post. Interestingly, I once heard that the word masechet also comes from the word weaving. A masechet basically gives placement and context to all the particulars of a topic (for example Shabbat etc) so that a meaningful vision can be constructed of that topic. I also recently read that the word cosmos derives its meaning from a similar root as well – something to do with weaving, patterns and meaning.


  2. Tamar Orvell says:

    Magnificent. Thank you. I love how you usually weave in your posts the personal, national, and international experience, wisdom, and perspective. I wonder what you mean, by “my kind”: “I am overcome by a desire to share … to better serve my country and my kind.”

    הדרן עלך .. והדרך עלן


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