Monday, July 15, 2013

Women of the Wool – Their Role in the Tabernacle and in Astrophysics

The Torah makes special note of the fact that one aspect of the Tabernacle's construction - the spinning of the goat hair - was done by the women (see Exodus 35:26). I had often wondered why, of all the types of manual labor which went into constructing the Tabernacle, this job (and perhaps others like it, such as weaving or embroidering) was given to the women. It is not necessarily the case that they were more experienced in this work than the men, since for 210 years prior (while slaves in Egypt) the men had been forced to do women's work and vice versa (Sotah 11b). Since spinning wool was traditionally a woman's job, it should emerge that, if anything, the men would have been better trained at this skill than the women.

An answer to my question came to me while watching a lecture from MIT on astrophysics (many of their lectures are made available to the public on their open courseware site). Part of this particular lecture, given by Professor Walter Lewin, describes the early study of x-ray sources in the cosmos when scientists used helium balloons to loft telescopes up to the highest parts of the atmosphere to near-space altitudes in order to make observations. He makes one comment in passing which I felt addresses my question, and so I have copied below a portion of the relevant parts of the transcript from the lecture (which has been slightly edited for clarity). To read the entire transcript, or to watch the video of the lecture, see here. The photos are screen shots of slides from the video recording of the lecture (so they are a little fuzzy).

Transcript: To give you a rough idea of what it took in those days, a telescope typically cost a million dollars, and it would take us two years to build one. The balloons that we needed to launch them were about $100,000 in those days, and the helium that we needed to get it up was about $80,000, and the weight of such a payload, of our telescope, was about 1,000 kilograms. These balloons would go up to 140,000 feet and they were huge, about 500 feet across. It was a risky business in that there was no guarantee of success. You bought the balloons. If they worked, so much the better. If they didn't work, tough luck.
Inflating the helium balloon early in the morning
They were very thin; the balloons are made of polyethylene, and the thickness of the polyethylene was thinner than cigarette paper, so you can imagine how easy it is to damage them, and if you don't damage them during the launch, it's easy to damage them on the way up.
And here you see the inside of the plant in Texas where these balloons were built. 
Assembling the helium balloon.
The balloons were built in extremely long halls, as you can imagine. The segments of the balloon, which fit together like pieces of a tangerine, were attached together with heat sealers. Only women were allowed to do this work because it was well known that men are too impatient and make many more mistakes.

I would offer that this is why the women were the ones chosen to work on the spinning of the goat hair. It was tedious and difficult work and needed to be done properly as befitting the furnishings of God's House. Therefore the women were chosen to carry out this work since what they may have lacked in technical skill (having been out of practice for hundreds of years) they made up for with an innate sense of focus and attention to detail that would ensure a quality product.

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