This is the season when the weekly Torah portion returns several times to the subject of the Tabernacle the Israelites built after leaving Egypt. Building the Tabernacle was a community project that involved sewing, weaving, and embroidery, among other crafts. I thought this would be a great time to post an excerpt from the introduction to my book, Sew Jewish, which explores how this foundational creative project can inspire our own work today.
“The first official Jewish sewing project in history was the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting, which the Israelites built after emerging from slavery in Egypt. The tent housed the Ark of the Covenant with the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. It was a place for the priests to perform their duties and a place for Moses to meet with God.
Following instructions detailed in the Torah and explained by God to Moses, the Israelites sewed coverings of animal skins to drape over the top of the tent’s wooden walls. They spun wool to weave curtains, and they embroidered the curtains with images of angels.
“Let them make Me a sanctuary,” God told Moses, “that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Most commentaries on this Torah passage assume that it was the tent itself that enabled God to dwell among the Israelites. But one of my favorite commentaries takes a closer look at the words God uses here. It’s not the tent itself that enables God to dwell among the Israelites, the commentary concludes, but the Israelites’ act of making it.
As someone who’s spent countless hours sewing, that idea resonates with me, as I’m sure it does for anyone who has created something by hand. By bringing something into existence with our own hands, we become invested in it. A God who could part the Red Sea surely could have given the Israelites a completed Tabernacle—or given us a completed tallit or challah cover for that matter. But by making something ourselves the product takes on more meaning than it would if someone gave it to us or we bought it ready made.
In the three or four thousand years since the Israelites built the Tabernacle, Jewish life has expanded and grown richer, and so have Jewish needlecrafts. For this book, I’ve selected 18 projects that touch the heart of Jewish life. You’ll find projects to take you through the calendar of Jewish holidays, to celebrate weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, and to bring warmth to your home. Some of the projects connect directly to Biblical commandments, such as the tallit and the mezuzah case. You’ll find ritual objects for your home, such as the Passover matzah cover and hand washing towel. You’ll find projects that link to Jewish tradition and identity, such as the kippah and wedding huppah, and to folk practices, like the hamsa. And you’ll find items that express traditional Jewish communal values, like the tzedakah jar for collecting money for charity and a cuddly kids’ blanket to introduce the letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet to the next generation. Some of these projects are the first of their kind that we’ve seen rendered in fabric, like the mezuzah case and the tzedakah jar wrap. Two of them, the mezuzah case and tefillin bag, have the potential, according to Jewish teaching, to become holy objects.
All of these projects are here for you. Make them your own. The tradition is in your hands.”
Maria Bywater is the author of Sew Jewish available from Amazon.com and in PDF format from Etsy.