The Color Purple . . . and Blue . . . and Red
The Color Purple . . . and Blue . . . and Red
This week's parashah seems, at first glance, to be a rather pedantic listing of the items needed for the construction of the Mishkan . At one level of understanding, it may simply be what it appears to be—specifically, a"shopping list" of items sought from donors. But could there be a purpose in specifying the particular kind of wood, varieties of precious metals, and colors of yarn?
The first items sought are"gold, silver, and copper" (Exodus 25:3). Rashi says that gold and copper were voluntary donations but that silver was an obligatory gift. Other classic commentators, however, indicate that the reason for the order is to allow those at every level of financial means to give an appropriate level of support. The word"offering" is made in the singular ( V'zot hat'rumah ,“And this is the offering") to teach that whether one gives much or little, as long one's heart is directed to heaven, it is considered the same (see Rabbi Baruch Abba Rakovsky on Exodus 25:3, in Itturei Torah, vol. 2, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1995], p. 207). This idea of the intention of giving being critical and of each person donating according to his or her means is a theme that dominates Jewish thought. This concept is even reflected in synagogue architecture. In the Rama synagogue in Kazmierz (Krakow), Poland, there is a slot for tzedakah at the door that opens into the sanctuary. Above the slot are the words"gold, silver, and copper," a not too subtle reminder that a donation of any size is appreciated.
Immediately after listing the metals to be brought, the parashah lists the colored yarns:"blue, purple, and crimson" (Exodus 25:4). Much of the commentary on these colors describes either their derivation or the meaning of the individual color's shading. For example, Rabbi Meir (second century) connects blue to the sea, sky, and"heavenly throne" (Babylonian Talmud, M'nachot 43b). Also commenting on Exodus 25:4, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (twelfth century) sees crimson as a reminder of how sin can be forgiven (alluded to by Isaiah 1:18). And in ancient days, purple as well as crimson, was a sign of nobility, no doubt because of how expensive the dye was to produce (see Lamentations 4:5 and Benno Jacob, Exodus [Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1992], p. 766).
Few, however, comment on the relationship of the colors to one another or why these three specific colors were to be used. The Torah: A Women's Commentary (ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 453) states,"These three colors are probably listed in order of costliness," an echo of the listing of precious metals, although no source is given for this assumption.
I would suggest that the colors have two levels of meaning, both implying the need for separation and unity:
- The colors allude to the masculine and feminine aspects. Red is often associated with women. The color of blood, it is naturally connected with a woman's cycle. Blue, the color of the single string of the tallit , was traditionally worn only by men. And purple? It is the mixture of the two together—a reminder that it is not only the unique ways we seek God, but also what we share in our search that is important.
- These colors relate to the Divine, the human, and the covenantal bond between them. As indicated above, blue is often associated in Jewish sources with God. The color of the sea and sky, it is a reminder of the grandeur and spaciousness of the universe. Red ( adom ) is connected to the earth ( adamah ) to which we as humans ( b'nei adam ) are inextricably rooted. And purple? Again, it's emblematic of where God and we"meet."
The concept of separateness and unity symbolized by these colors is also an allusion to Creation—on the one hand is the unity and uniqueness of man and woman, and on the other the unbridgeable gap between God and ourselves, yet there is a covenantal bond possible between us. There are numerous commentaries that equate the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) to the story of Creation. Thus, Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 3 links Creation and the Mishkan through the similarity of language:"With ten words the world was created . . . and with three it was finished. . . . With the same three, the Mishkan was made." The early Rabbis describe the Mishkan as a microcosm of the universe, with each of the items in it corresponding to another part of the Creation ( B'midbar Rabbah 12:13).
Our lives are"colored," then, by our gender, but there is also much that unites us. Indeed, as men and women we are united in our spiritual connection to God.
There is a final, contemporary allusion to the color purple that suggests a redemptive possibility. The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt Trade Publishers, 1982) , a book by Alice Walker(made into a popular movie directed by Steven Spielberg, as well as a theatrical production presented by Oprah Winfrey), centers on the life of a woman named Celie. The name of the book comes from a discussion Celie has with her friend and lover, Shug, about faith. Describing what God does to please people, Shug says,"I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it." After Celie asks what God does in response to this obliviousness, Shug replies that God creates something else people will see, because God just wants to be loved. Out of this pivotal conversation, Celie develops a deep spiritual connection.
Just as Moses takes note of the Burning Bush, so the color purple, then, may have its place in the Mishkan and clothing of the ancient priests so that people will"notice it." The moment of individual revelation of Moses, which leads to the redemption of the people of Israel, is emblemized in a color to inspire all the people. Every detail of the Mishkan , then, is a reminder to our ancestors, and to us, that Creation is an ongoing reality and redemption an ever-present possibility. Even as we seek those sacred moments from our own unique perspective, we should do so realizing that our lives are tightly woven in relationship to God and to others.
Rabbi Irwin A. Zeplowitz is senior rabbi at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York. He has taught at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, JLearn on Long Island, and the URJ Kallah. He is immediate past president of the Alumni Association of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and was chair of the Joint Commission on Sustaining Rabbinic Education. Rabbi Zeplowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red, and blue, and purple: behold an assortment of colors with which to create a space to behold the Divine Presence. Rabbi Zeplowitz has provided a plethora of possibilities for the choice of these colors with rich and meaningful interpretations. But why offer any colors in the first place?
When I was younger, a new box of crayons would thrill me. The crayons burst with potential of what my hand, heart, and mind might concoct. There was a problem, however. I was no Rembrandt or Picasso. I couldn't even claim aspiring for the wild interpretation of a Jackson Pollack. I could only be me with my colors and attempt at creativity.
The Israelites, fresh from slavery, still recovering from the constraint of servitude, knew a life of being told exactly what they needed to do. At this point in their journey, they face an open wilderness and an opportunity for creativity. Does the following instruction in Exodus 25:9 limit them once again?
K'chol asher ani mareh otcha eit tavnit haMishkan v'eit tavnit kol keilav v'chein taasu." Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it."
It would appear that there should be no deviation, no opportunity to allow the mind to imagine. Exact means exact.
To help us understand a way to look at this potential contradiction, we turn to the Chasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740–1810). In his commentary K'dushat Levi on Parashat T'rumah , Levi Yitzchak first turns to Nachmanides, who poses this question: If this is exactly how the Mishkan was to be done, why didn't Solomon build the Mishkan in his generation exactly as Moses had done? After all, the instructions are unambiguous.
Levi Yitzchak responds by turning to the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 89a:
D'ein sh'nei nevi'im mitnab'im b'signon echad.
"No two prophets prophesy in one particular way."
From this Talmudic teaching that each prophet expresses his message differently, Levi Yitzchak derives that the prophetic voice is unique in each generation. One cannot mirror the other. Likewise when it comes to the Mishkan , building a sacred space, finding a place for God's Presence to be felt and experienced, must also happen in each generation. Levi Yitzchak teaches that each generation must build its own Mishkan.
The former slaves receive a small selection of colors as the first step for their own creativity to flourish as a free nation. They will learn to feel what their heart instructs them without the constriction of bondage. Red, and blue, and purple begin a new journey for this nation emerging out of captivity. Building the Mishkan unleashes their spirits and cracks open their internal power to create. No longer suppressed by the yoke of oppression, they can begin to weave an inspired tapestry that will bring the sacred into the midst of their community.
And we, too, inherit the instruction chein taasu ,“so shall you do exactly"—an instruction to our generation to encounter Judaism anew and create a beautiful place and space for God to dwell in our lives.
Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher is a rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts.
T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
Haftarah, I Kings 5:26-6:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 717-718; Revised Edition, pp. 559-560