Back to Blogs

Parshat Terumah – A woman’s part in building the Temple

Adar I 5784 | February 2024


This week’s parsha introduces the national endeavor to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), an endeavor undertaken again in the days of King Shlomo and during the Return to Zion, and that we hope to return to once again..

What is the place of women in this national project?

There are two aspects to examine in the Torah. On the one hand, God commands Moshe, “Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take a terumah (donation) for me, take my donation from every person whose heart is willing.”[1]

Indeed, people of every type answer the call: “Everyone whose heart carried them came, and all whose spirit willed them brought the Eternal’s donation…  Men as well as women came, everyone with a willing heart brought… And every craftswoman spun with her hands, and they brought what they had spun, the blue and purple and crimson yarns, and fine linen. And all the skilled craftswomen spun the goats… Every man and woman whose heart willed them to bring of the crafts that the Eternal commanded them to do through Moshe, the Children of Israel brought as a gift to the Eternal.”[2]

These verses highlight the contributions made by women. Another contribution is mentioned when describing the construction of the Mishkan, “He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper from the mirrors of the serving women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.”[3]

On the other hand, when it comes to collecting money designated for the Mishkan we’re told: “When you count the heads of the Children of Israel by their mustering… every man who is mustered from twenty years and above shall give the Eternal’s offering. The rich shall not give more and the poor should not give less than the half-shekel, to give the Eternal’s offering in expiation for yourselves. And you shall take the expiation money from the Children of Israel and give it to the service of the Tent of Meeting…”[4]

Only men over twenty gave the half-shekel offering for the “service of the Tent of Meeting,” the same men who are generally counted for the military.[5] The beginning of Parshat Pekudei teaches that this population gave the half-shekel donation when the Mishkan was first constructed, as well as once a year and when they were mustering the army.[6] This teaches us that women were not part of the mandatory donation collected when the Mishkan was first built and for its regular functioning.

Indeed, halakhically women and children are exempt from the yearly half-shekel donation, although “if they donate it is accepted.”[7] Meaning it’s not obligatory, but they may volunteer to donate the half-shekel, which is used throughout the year to buy communal offerings.[8] Similarly, in general women, like men, may bring their own voluntary offerings or donations to the House of God.

What part do women play in the mitzvah to build the House of God?

Based on a gemara in Shavuot, Rambam rules that the mitzvah to build the Temple is limited to daytime: “The Temple should not be built at night, as it says, ‘And on the day he erected the Mishkan’ – the Mishkan is erected during the day and not at night. Building may be done from sunrise until dark (three stars)… and building the Temple does not supercede Yom Tov.”[9] Rambam also notes: “Everyone is obligated to build and equip with their body and money, men and women, like the Temple in the desert. And children studying Torah should not stop to build.”[10]

The juxtaposition of these laws disturbed the commentaries on Rambam. Since the building is limited to daytime on regular weekdays women should not be obligated, according to the principle that women are exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot.

Several possible explanations have been posited. Some surmise that women are not necessarily obligated, but they are included in the voluntary element of the donations. Others accepted Rambam’s statement and thought that women were obligated to donate the materials, which were permitted to be made at night, but were exempt from the construction, which was limited to the day.[11] Sefer HaChinukh intimates that women are obligated in communal mitzvot, even if they are time-bound.[12] Others assert that the mitzvah to build the Temple is not really time-bound, as it is a one-time mitzvah, once it is completed the mitzvah is fulfilled and ceases to be obligatory, so that even if building is not permitted at night, it doesn’t mean the mitzvah is time-bound to the day either.[13]

Women are exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot?

With all due respect, it seems there’s another way to approach this Rambam. The concept of women’s exemption from mitzvot aseh she’ha’zman grama appears in a mishna in Kiddushin: “And any mitzvat aseh she’ha’zman grama – men are obligated and women are exempt.”[14] The gemara notes there are several exceptions to this rule, and vacillates between explaining that “we don’t learn from general rules” and searching for a source for the general rule.[15]

In Rambam’s commentary on the mishna he teaches: “You already know that we have a rule that we don’t learn from generalizations, and they said that anyone who wants says this about the majority [of cases]. But there is no rule for which positive mitzvot women are obligated to perform and which they are not obligated; rather these laws are transmitted orally and they are accepted tradition.”

Rambam teaches that there is no concrete rule exempting women from all positive time-bound mitzvot, rather there are lists of mitzvot that were passed down as part of the tradition – lists of mitzvot women are exempt from and those they are obligated to perform. Consequently, the phrasing “to build and equip with their body and money, men and women, like the Temple in the desert” is clear. Rambam refers to the tradition we have that describes the women’s donations, the material goods and physical actions they volunteered to build the Mishkan in the desert. This tradition teaches us that this mitzvah, whether or not it is “time-bound,” applies to women as well as men.

It seems that Rambam sees the description in our parsha as a precedent that teaches us that women are an integral part of the construction of the Temple, and perhaps even obligated. The entire Temple is built from donations of money, building materials, craftsmanship (and craftswomanship), and manpower (womanpower). The Torah repeatedly emphasizes that women were full partners.

Throughout the generations, only men were obligated to donate the yearly half-shekel donation that funded the communal offerings, as the verses clearly state. Nevertheless, the foundation of the mitzvah seems to be the volunteer spirit that moved people to give of their talents, time, and possessions to build the Temple. This voluntary donation remains in the mitzvah of the half-shekel donation, as women may volunteer to give to the regular, fixed Temple service.

[1] Shemot 25:2. Ramban Shemot 35:1.

[2] Shemot 35 21-29.

[3] Shemot 38:8 and Rashi.

[4] Shemot 30:11-16.

[5] For example, see Bamidbar 1:2-3. This half-shekel census is used to count those eligible to go out to war, but this census also determines numbers for redeeming first borns for Levites serving in the Mishkan.

[6] Shemot 38:25-27: “The silver of the congregation’s census was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels in the sanctuary shekel… The one hundred talents were for casting the sockets of the sanctuary and the sockets for the curtain, one hundred sockets for one hundred talents, each talent a socket.”

[7] Mishna Shekalim 1:3-5, Rambam on Shekalim 1:7. For more on this topic see “Should women give the half-shekel?”

[8] Mishna Shekalim 4:1 and Rambam’s commentary.

[9] Hilkhot Beit HaBechira 1:12, based on TB Shavuot 15b.

[10] ibid

[11] According to Ritva Kiddushin 36a “v’Ika d’kashya lei” women may volunteer  but are not commanded. Rabbi Chaim Faladji, Har HaMoriah, Responsa Divrei Malkiel 5:99, Kehillot Yaakov on Shavuot 9 women are commanded to prepare the materials but not to actually build it. For more sources and the discussion see Rabbi Eitam Henkin “Chiyuv Nashim b’Binyan ha’Mikdash,” la’Yisharim Naava Tehila 5771, pg. 25-29.

[12] Sefer HaChinukh Mitzvah 95 does not state that only men are obligated, but rather: “This mitzvah is not incumbent on the individual, but rather on the entire community.” For more discussion on the topic see Rav Y. Shaviv, “Nashim b’Mitzvot ha’Tzibbur – Bniyat ha’Mishkan k’Mashal.”

[13] Responsa Beit Yitzchak Orach Chaim 5, Tzitzit 3:7, based on Turei HaEven.

[14] 1:7.

[15] TB Kiddushin 34b-35b.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.