The Architect of the Tabernacle


In Ex. xxxi. 1-6, the chief architect of the Tabernacle. Elsewhere in the Bible the name occurs only in the genealogical lists of the Book of Chronicles, but according to cuneiform inscriptions a variant form of the same, "Ẓil-BêI," was borne by a king of Gaza who was a contemporary of Hezekiah and Manasseh. Apparently it means "in the shadow [protection] of El." Bezalel is described in the genealogical lists as the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (I Chron. ii. 18, 19, 20, 50). He was said to be highly gifted as a workman, showing great skill and originality in engraving precious metals and stones and in wood-carving. He was also a master-workman, having many apprentices under him whom he instructed in the arts (Ex. xxxv. 30-35). According to the narrative in Exodus, he was definitely called and endowed to direct the construction of the tent of meeting and its sacred furniture, and also to prepare the priests' garments and the oil and incense required for the service.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

The rabbinical tradition relates that when God determined to appoint Bezalel architect of the desert Tabernacle, He asked Moses whether the choice were agreeable to him, and received the reply: "Lord, if he is acceptable to Thee, surely he must be so to me!" At God's command, however, the choice was referred to the people for approval and was indorsed by them. Moses thereupon commanded Bezalel to set about making the Tabernacle, the holy Ark, and the sacred utensils. It is to be noted, however, that Moses mentioned these in somewhat inverted order, putting the Tabernacle last (compare Ex. xxv. 10, xxvi. 1 et seq., with Ex. xxxi. 1-10). Bezalel sagely suggested to him that men usually build the house first and afterward provide the furnishings; but that, inasmuch as Moses had ordered the Tabernacle to be built last, there was probably some mistake and God's command must have run differently. Moses was so pleased with this acuteness that he complimented Bezalel by saying that, true to his name, he must have dwelt "in the very shadow of God" (Hebr., "beẓel El"). Compare also Philo, "Leg. Alleg." iii. 31.

Bezalel possessed such great wisdom that he could combine those letters of the alphabet with which heaven and earth were created; this being the meaning of the statement (Ex. xxxi. 3): "I have filled him . . . with wisdom and knowledge," which were the implements by means of which God created the world, as stated in Prov. iii. 19, 20 (Ber. 55a). By virtue of his profound wisdom, Bezalel succeeded in erecting a sanctuary which seemed a fit abiding-place for God, who is so exalted in time and space (Ex. R. xxxiv. 1; Num. R. xii. 3; Midr. Teh. xci.). The candlestick of the sanctuary was of so complicated a nature that Moses could not comprehend it, although God twice showed him a heavenly model; but when he described it to Bezalel, the latter understood immediately, and made it at once; whereupon Moses expressed his admiration for the quick wisdom of Bezalel, saying again that he must have been "in the shadow of God" (Hebr., "beẓel El") when the heavenly models were shown him (Num. R. xv. 10; compare Ex. R. 1. 2; Ber. l.c.). Bezalel is said to have been only thirteen years of age when he accomplished his great work (Sanh. 69b); he owed his wisdom to the merits of pious parents; his grandfather being Hur and his grandmother Miriam, he was thus a grand-nephew of Moses (Ex. R. xlviii. 3, 4). Compare Ark in Rabbinical Literature.

Boris Schatz

Boris (Zalman Dov Baruch) Schatz was born to a traditional Jewish family in a small village near Kovno, Lithuania, and as a young man pursued religious studies in Vilna. It was there that Schatz first engaged with the two ideals that would permanently impact his life: art and Zionism. Dividing his days between yeshiva and art school, Schatz also joined a local Zionist group. He continued his art studies in Warsaw and Paris, enjoying a moderate level of artistic success as a sculptor.

In 1895, at the invitation of the King of Bulgaria, Schatz relocated to Sofia, where he taught at the Art Academy and became enmeshed in the project to create a national Bulgarian artistic identity. Schatz left Bulgaria in 1903 after his wife abandoned him for one of his students. That same year, the Kishinev pogrom roiled the entire Jewish world and pushed many into a strong embrace of Zionist ideology. In Schatz, it rekindled a Jewish consciousness that was reflected in his artistic production, now greatly expanded by the use of Jewish themes and characters.

During the years he spent in Bulgaria, Boris Schatz was particularly impressed by the development of home industries for the production of art. He reasoned that if Bulgaria, a small agricultural nation, could maintain a school with numerous departments for the development and commercial distribution of arts and crafts, a similar model could work for Jewish pioneers in Palestine. The dream of creating a new Jewish artistic ethos in the Land of Israel led Schatz to travel to Vienna in 1904 and seek out the blessing of the founder and leader of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl. Following Herzl's death later that year, Schatz re-presented his idea to several leading Zionists in Berlin who assumed responsibility for the project and its funding.

Schatz arrived in Palestine in early 1906, accompanied by only two teachers and two students. He immediately embarked on the daunting tasks of recruiting students, finding an appropriate building, and creating workshops. In the coming years, the school would grow to encompass numerous instructional departments, dozens of craft workshops, and a museum, all under the rubric "Bezalel."

Visual arts in Israel

Visual arts in Israel refers to plastic art created in the Land of Israel/Palestine region, from the later part of the 19th century until today, or art created by Israeli artists. Visual art in Israel encompasses a wide spectrum of techniques, styles and themes reflecting a dialogue with Jewish art throughout the ages and attempts to formulate a national identity.[1]

Early art in the Land of Israel was mainly decorative art of a religious nature (primarily Jewish or Christian), produced for religious pilgrims, but also for export and local consumption. These objects included decorated tablets, embossed soaps, rubber stamps, etc., most of which were decorated with motifs from graphic arts.[2] In the Jewish settlements artists worked at gold smithing, silver smithing, and embroidery, producing their works in small crafts workshops. A portion of these works were intended to be amulets. One of the best known of these artists, Moshe Ben Yitzhak Mizrachi of Jerusalem made Shiviti (or Shivisi, in the Ashkenazic pronunciation, meditative plaques used in some Jewish communities for contemplation over God's name) on glass and amulets on parchments, with motifs such as the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Book of Esther, and views of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.[3] Objects of applied art were produced also at the "Torah ve-Melakhah" ("Torah and Work") school founded in 1882 by the Alliance Israélite Universelle.[4] This school opened departments for the production of art objects in Neo-Classical and Baroque styles, produced by combining manual labor with modern machines.

A large body of artistic work was produced by European artists, primarily Christian painters, who came to document the sites and landscapes of the "Holy Land". The motive behind these works was orientalist and religious and focused on documentation – first of the painting and later of the photography – of the holy sites and the way of life in the Orient, and on the presentation of exotic people.[5] Photographs of the Holy Land, which also served as the basis for paintings, focused on documenting structures and people in full daylight, due to the limitations of photography at that time.[6] Therefore an ethnographic approach is in evidence in the photographs, which present a static and stereotypical image of the figures they depict. In the photographs of the French photographer Felix Bonfils such as, for example in his prominent photographs of the Holy Land in the last decades of the 19th century, we even see an artificial desert background, in front of which his figures are posed At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, local photographers began to appear, the most important of whom is Khalil Raad, who focused on an ethnographic description of the reality of the Holy Land, in large part colonialistic. In addition there were other photographers, many of them Armenian, who worked as commercial photographers in the Land of Israel and neighboring countries.

In the 1920s, many Jewish painters fleeing pogroms in Europe settled in Tel Aviv.[7]

Israeli Art

Part of what makes the art scene in Israel so unique is that the country blends so many varying influences from all over the Jewish world.


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Though the modern State of Israel has officially been independent only since 1948, its unique blend of dynamic arts and different cultural traditions has been around for some time longer. Part of what makes the art scene in Israel so unique is that the country blends so many varying influences from all over the Jewish world. In the case of folk arts, for example, a wide range of crafts can be found flourishing–from Yemenite-style jewelry making to the embroidery and other needle crafts of the Eastern European Jews. Over the last half-century, as artisans have mixed and mingled and learned from one another, a certain “Israeli” style of folk art has emerged, reflecting all of the cultures who make up the modern state.

In the fine arts, there has also been a desire to create an “Israeli” art. From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when significant numbers of Jews began fleeing Europe and settling in the Land of Israel with Zionistic dreams, the fine arts have occupied a prominent place in Israeli life. Artist Boris Schatz came to Jerusalem in order to establish the Bezalel School–named for the Biblical figure chosen by God to create the first tabernacle. A university-level academy known today as the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, the flourishing of the school typifies the country’s support of its artists.

Unlike the United States, where the virtue of public art continues to be debated, the Israeli government makes clear its support of visual artists and their contributions to society. In Israel, the role of public art helps to express and define the concerns of a common, yet diverse, culture. In a country that struggles daily to protect its inhabitants, art is considered to be a necessity, rather than a luxury. Perhaps it is the distinct Israeli-style “live for today” philosophy that makes the appreciation of art more vivid than in other, “safer” countries.

Not that Israel’s artists have always had an easy time defining themselves in relation to the rest of the art world. Early Israeli painters like Nahum Gutman tried to create a unique “Hebrew” style of art–capturing the excitement of establishing a Zionist state–while maintaining his influences from Modern European art. Other great Israeli artists such as Reuven Rubin had to leave Israel for periods of their life in order to receive the recognition that they desired; Rubin’s first major exhibit was held in the United States, thanks to his friend, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Not all successful Israeli artists have portrayed Jewish or Zionist themes in their work. One of Israel’s best-known artists, for example, Yaacov Agam, is known for his unique expression of optical art. Indeed, as life in Israel became more established, the diversity of Israeli artists increased. As Israeli artists became accepted into the international art scene, their work took on the various styles and aesthetic approaches reflected in the wider art world.

Just as the politics of two Israelis can be as far apart on the spectrum as imaginable, so are the political ideologies of its artists, whose works might include everything from anti-war statements to paintings of national pride. Israeli art has matured to express the range of opinions and emotions circling in Israeli life; therefore, there is no one style, ideology or medium that defines an Israeli artist today.

But what each Israeli artist has in common is that they are fortunate to come from a culture that values the work of artists and continues to support creation of the arts as an integral part of its unique social fabric.

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