A Copper Laver Made from Women’s Mirrors
In the description of items to be constructed by the chief artisan, Bezalel, Exodus 30 describes the laver (or basin):
שמות ל:יח וְעָשִׂיתָ כִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְכַנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת לְרָחְצָה וְנָתַתָּ אֹתוֹ בֵּין אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּבֵין הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְנָתַתָּ שָׁמָּה מָיִם.
Exod 30:18 And you shall make the laver of copper and its base of copper, for washing, and place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water there.
The text continues with the importance of priests using the laver and washing their hands and feet before doing any service at the altar, but no further details about how the laver should be constructed are offered. And yet, in the later description of the furnishings of the sanctuary, we find an additional, curious detail:
שמות לח:ח וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Exod 38:8 And he made the laver of copper and its base of copper, from the mirrors of the ministering women [ha-marʾot ha-tzovʾot ’asher tzav’u] at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
Where did these mirrors [marʾot] come from? Why were they not mentioned back in chapter 35, with the list of all the raw material donated towards the making of the Tabernacle, or in the original instructions to make the basin (30:18)? And who are these women crowding around the Tabernacle [ha-tzovʾot ’asher tzav’u ]? Or is it the mirrors [marʾot] that are the subject of the verb?
Before trying to answer these questions and making sense of the phrase, we should begin by parsing the two unusual terms.
The first of these unusual words, marʾot (מַרְאֹת, sg. מראה), is a hapax legomenon, meaning that it is found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, it is easy to parse. It derives from the root “to see” (ר.א.ה), and means “mirror.” A similar linguistic construction for mirror is the Akkadian term namaru, which comes from the root amāru, “to see.”
Based on archaeological findings dating from the mid-2nd millennium until the 7th c. BCE, we know that ancient mirrors were traditionally slightly convex and made of copper, bronze, or brass (both alloys of copper)—highly polished to allow for the reflection of a face. Images from Ancient Egyptian painting and carvings suggest that they were used by both men and women who spent a great deal of time working on their appearance, especially in the application of makeup.
More complicated is the meaning of the word ha-tzov’ot, a feminine plural participle from the root צ.ב.א. The root appears twice in this verse, first referring to the women and second describing what these women did. The root צ.ב.א is often associated with the military, “soldiers, troops or companies,” but can also refer to the performance of cultic tasks.Neither of these usages reflects the traditional arena of women.
The Ministering Women [tzovʾot] in Shiloh
Only one other mention of tzovʾot appears in the Bible, in the context of the sanctuary at Shiloh (1 Sam 2:22):
שמואל א ב:כב וְעֵלִי זָקֵן מְאֹד וְשָׁמַע אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּן בָּנָיו לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכְּבוּן אֶת הַנָּשִׁים הַצֹּבְאוֹת פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
1 Sam 2:22 Now Eli was very old. When he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the ministering women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
Although the text makes no mention of mirrors, we are again told that the tzovʾot were at “the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” Thus, both texts are likely describing the same category of women.
Moreover, the reference to a tent of meeting here is unique; other places in 1 Samuel refer to the cult center in Shiloh as a temple (היכל) or a house (בית), i.e., an actual building with doors and doorposts. This unusual choice of language functions to connect the Samuel account to Exodus and its Tent of Meeting.
The inverse is also the case; Exodus’ reference to women who serve or appear in some capacity “at the entrance of the tent of meeting” connects the laver to the description in 1 Samuel. In fact, the explanation for the laver in Exodus fits poorly into its context since it seems anachronistic. Exodus 38 is about the building of the Tabernacle for the first time, so how could there have been tzovʾot doing anything “at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting,” if there was as yet no Tent of Meeting? Thus, Exodus 38:8 should be understood as reflecting a later period when the women did serve in the Tent of Meeting in Shiloh (1 Sam. 2:22); it was then retrojected back here in the making of the Tabernacle furnishings.
What were these women doing at the Tent of Meeting?
Some scholars have tried to understand the term as a “work force” or “task force,” suggesting that they may have engaged in weaving fabric, tanning hides, or cleaning services. Yet this interpretation ignores their placement at the “entrance to the tent of meeting,” which according to Edward Greenstein, “defines the service as ritual rather than menial.”
Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews, recounts:
They [the sons of Eli] also were guilty of impurity with the women that came to worship God at the tabernacle, obliging some to submit to their lust by force, and enticing others by bribes.
Josephus here suggests that the women had come to worship or make offerings, perhaps after giving birth (see Lev 12). Targum Onkelos has the same understanding in Exodus 38:8:
…במחזית נשיא דאתין לצלאה בתרע משכן זמנא.
…with the mirrors of the women who came to worship at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.
The understanding of these women as worshipers in Josephus and Onkelos is to be expected, since why else would women be there? Nevertheless, it seems more likely that “ministering women [tzovʾot]” were female cultic functionaries, as the verb צ.ב.א implies serving in an official capacity, as it does with the Levites in Numbers:
במדבר ד:כב נָשֹׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם. ד:כג מִבֶּן שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה עַד בֶּן חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה תִּפְקֹד אוֹתָם כָּל הַבָּא לִצְבֹא צָבָא לַעֲבֹד עֲבֹדָה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Num 4:22 Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans. 4:23 Record them from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who are subject to service in the performance of tasks for the Tent of Meeting.
במדבר ח:כד זֹאת אֲשֶׁר לַלְוִיִּם מִבֶּן חָמֵשׁ וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה יָבוֹא לִצְבֹא צָבָא בַּעֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. ח:כה וּמִבֶּן חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה יָשׁוּב מִצְּבָא הָעֲבֹדָה וְלֹא יַעֲבֹד עוֹד.
Num 8:24 This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; 8:25 but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more.
The term צ.ב.א here parallels the standard term for service, ע.ב.ד, thus implying that the women who tzavaʾ-ed at the Tent of Meeting performed a ritual service like the Levites.
Mirrors Symbolizing Women
Why were these women’s mirrors, of all things, chosen to represent them? The mirror, both as object and symbol, became ritually metonymic for woman and femininity in some Ancient Near Eastern sources. In Egyptian, the word for mirror was ankh, which also means “life,” and the term has strong female associations, as Janet Everhart explains:
The ankh was originally a female symbol associated with images of goddesses in the ancient Near East. Many hand-held mirrors from the ancient Near East were shaped remarkably like the ankh, and the symbol is widely used in contemporary culture to designate “woman” or “female.” 
This association between mirrors and femininity is expressed in an ancient Hittite cure for impotence, as Jane Everhart recounts:
From extant Hittite literature, a ritual to cure impotence clearly identifies the mirror as a symbol of womanhood. In this ritual, the “sacrifice” is the man who possesses “no reproductive power or has no desire for women.” The woman leading the ritual places a “mirror and a distaff” in the sacrificer’s hand. He passes under a gate, and when he comes through the gate, she takes away the mirror and distaff and gives him a bow and arrow. The woman says, “See! I have taken womanliness away from you and given you back manliness. You have cast off the ways of a woman, now show the ways of a man!”
But is there anything specific about the “ministering women [tzovʾot]” or their service that might tie them together with mirrors?
Ritual Guards at the Entrance: Ackerman
Susan Ackerman argues for such a connection. She suggests that the “ministering women [tzovʾot]” may have played the role of guardians at the entrance to the tent of meeting, an idea preserved by the Vulgate’s 4th c. Latin translation of ha-tzov’ot as “women who stood guard [excubabant].” Ackerman links these ministering women to the vast archaeological evidence in the ancient Near East, where female figurines (usually two) flank the entrance to Canaanite and Egyptian shrines. These figures operate as “divine agents” that ward off evil at the threshold, the liminal “betwixt and between” place (Victor Turner’s term), where danger threatens to encroach from outside.
In line with Ackerman’s approach, Janet Everhart points to some comparative evidence such as women’s cultic role at a shrine in fourteenth-century Susa and the role of Arabic women associated with the kubbe (5th-6th century B.C.E.), a structure strikingly similar to the ark, which they accompanied (mounted on camels) into battle. The tzovʾot, then, may be understood as Israelite female guardians, attendant on the tent of meeting and ark, even accompanying it into battle.
Mirrors with Apotropaic Power
Ackerman further explains that as guardians on the threshold, the tzovʾot would have deployed instruments with apotropaic power, capable of warding off evil: the copper mirrors. Like Perseus’ shield of polished bronze, which he used to slay the gorgon Medusa by reflecting back her own horrific image, or the fatal mirroring of Narcissus who died unable to wrench himself away from his own reflection in a pool of water—these mirrors may have been believed to carry apotropaic power.
Ackerman speculates that the “mirrors might protect their possessors from demons and ghosts by using the reflections of those beings’ own frightful countenances to repel them?” The women would thus have served as a kind of vanguard and their mirrors—“unconventional feminine weaponry”—played the role of powerful Perseus-like shields.
A Mirror Image Story?
In addition to the above suggestions, a third possibility presents itself. Mirrors have long been associated with vanity, from the Greek myth of Narcissus to the wicked queen in “Snow White” and J. K. Rowling’s “Mirror of Erised.” Vanity, in turn, is inextricably linked with self-love and erotic desire. The copper mirrors of the “ministering women [tzovʾot]” may also bear these associations, especially when we consider the Exodus verse in light of the account in Samuel.
The key detail we are told in Samuel is that Eli’s corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas, have sexual relations with these women. Thus, whatever the function of the tzovʾot may have been, whether they were ceremonial guards, cultic prostitutes, vestal virgins, or even priestesses, the point of the story is that Eli’s sons were abusing their power over these women, just as they were abusing their power over the Israelites by taking large portions of the sacrifices for themselves (1 Sam 2:12-17).
The reference to the mirrors of the tzovʾot may be a remnant of a lost story that also involved some sort of problematic sexual encounter, though this time, the story may have blamed the women in some way. This lost account would then have ended with the mirrors being confiscated and turned into ritual objects just as Korah’s incense trays were (Num 17:4-5). This would also explain why the list of donated materials makes no mention of mirrors: they were confiscated rather than donated.
The verse in Exodus thus, preserves a memory of the mirrors being forcibly relinquished, and then hammered down or smelted into the wash basin for the priests; the women’s role as secondary cultic functionaries was apparently taken up by the Levites, who also “minister [tzavaʾ]” at the Tent of Meeting (as per Num 4 and 8 discussed above).
The two tzovʾot stories would then have parallel functions. In Samuel, the story explains why the Elide priests are no longer prominent. In Exodus, the original story would have explained why the tzovʾot were decommissioned. This story was expunged from Israelite memory, only the vestigial explanation for why the laver was made of mirrors remaining.
Obscuring the Tzovʾot
In sum, the Priestly authors of Exodus 38 were uncomfortable either with the role these women played in the cult or with some purportedly problematic behavior on their part, and we cannot recover the prehistory of the text, understanding their original role. Other than the story of how Eli’s sons took advantage of them, all we have left is the name of their position (tzovʾot), where they served (Tent of Meeting), and what happened to one of their implements, their mirrors.
Exodus 38:8 should be relocated to a later period when the women did serve in the Tent of Meeting (1 Sam. 2:22 as evidence); it was then retrojected back here in the making of the Tabernacle furnishings, suggesting that the women’s role in the cult was repressed and (perhaps) their mirrors confiscated.
Critical and Midrashic Methodologies
This analysis utilizes the historical-contextual or critical method, drawing on biblical context, philology, comparative Ancient Near Eastern texts, and archaeological findings to deduce the role of the women who ministered at the entrance to the tent of meeting. The goal is reconstructive. It often entails a very fine, laser-like reading that teases apart the whole text, looking for fissures in the biblical verse (i.e. anachronisms or lacunae) in order to point to its dislocation. Information is lost and we excavate, with all the tools at our disposal, to reconstruct the original concepts and institutions that stand behind the text.
Midrash also entails a close reading and attention to fissures in the text, but with the goal of harmonizing the biblical verse within the whole. The rules in midrash, however, are looser, more mythic, less historically grounded, and the philological work in midrash is creative.
The Mirrors of Redemption in Midrash
The narrative expansion of the biblical text in midrash accounts for some of the same intertextual resonances, gaps, and anachronisms that the critical approach addresses, while drawing on all sorts of embellishments not found in the text. The most expansive version of the midrash accounting for the origin of the mirrors is found in the Tanḥuma-Yelamdenu (a homiletical compilation of teachings of Palestinian provenance from the 7th-9th c. CE, based on the triennial Torah reading cycle).
The midrash opens with the lectionary verse, “These are the records of the Tabernacle…” (אלה פקודי המשכן; Exod. 38:21) but quickly narrows down to the most perplexing verse in the Torah reading (38:8). Here the exegetical “hook”—the meaning of ha-tzov’ot, the origin of the mirrors, or why they are mentioned here—is not made explicit. Rather, the midrash simply relocates it to the scene in which all the Israelites are bringing their gifts to the making of the Mishkan and radically retells the origins of the “hosts of Israelites” that left Egypt.
Among other things, the midrash wishes to explain the uncanny fertility of the Israelites. How, over the course of four generations or just over 200 years, did the Israelites grow from a motley group of twelve families, Jacob and his seventy male descendants (Exod. 1:5), to the throng of 600,000-strong males who left Egypt?
The midrash begins with a step backwards, claiming that Pharaoh attempted to curtail the Israelites population growth through harsh labor (in the biblical text) and enforced severance between husband and wife (not in the text).
אתה מוצא בשעה שהיו ישראל בעבודת פרך במצרים גזר עליהם פרעה שלא יהיו ישנים בבתיהן שלא יהיו משמשין מטותיהן
You find that when the Israelites suffered harsh labor in Egypt that Pharaoh decreed they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives.
As Gila Fine notes, Pharaoh’s despotic control is not only through demeaning labor and work conditions, but also by depriving them of love, eros, which is at the root of human dignity.This insight fits with what we say in the Passover Haggadah in its parsing of Deuteronomy 26:7:
וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ. זוֹ פְּרִישׁוּת דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ
“And He saw our suffering” – this refers to their celibacy.
Women Take Initiative
Here the women take the initiative (as they do throughout the first two chapters of Exodus) when the tyrant tries to throttle the life force out of the Israelite people:
אמר רבי שמעון בר חלפתא מהו היו בנות ישראל עושות יורדות לשאוב מים מן היאור והקב”ה היה מזמין להם דגים קטנים בתוך כדיהן והן מוכרות ומבשלות מהן ולוקחות מהן יין והולכות לשדה ומאכילות את בעליהן שם שנא’ (שמות א:יד) בכל עבודה בשדה
Said R. Shimon b. Ḥalafta: What did the Israelite women do? They would go down to draw water from the river. Whereupon the Holy One Blessed be He prepared small fishes for them inside their jars. They would cook some, sell some and buy with the proceeds wine and go out into the fields and feed their husbands there, as it says “with all work of the field” (Exod. 1:14)
In defiance, women use their feminine wile. Where there are no miraculous interventions in the opening of the Book of Exodus, the midrash invokes the presence of God, who causes swarms of little fish (a near-ubiquitous symbol of fertility) to swim into the women’s jars. In a kind of sympathetic magic, just as fish swarm (shrtz) so too would the Israelites (va-yishretzu, v. 7).
Mirrors and a Game of Seduction
משהיו אוכלין ושותין נוטלות המראות ומביטות בהן עם בעליהן זאת אומרת אני נאה ממך וזה אומר אני נאה ממך
After they had eaten they took out their mirrors and looked into them together with their husbands. She said: I am more beautiful than you [אני נאה ממך]. He said: I am more beautiful than you [אני נאה ממך].
Once they sell some of their fish and prepare what is leftover for the “feast of temptation,” they venture out to the fields and initiate a charming, competitive erotic game with their husbands. Like the lover and beloved in the Song of Songs engaged in a repartee praising the other’s beauty in a pastoral setting—the open field or glade, the locus of arousal—here the man and woman are invited to gaze in admiration at one another.
Yet, surprisingly, she is not praising him, but herself: “I am more beautiful than you.” He, perhaps exhausted, bedraggled, caked in filth, is then urged to one-up her: “I am more beautiful than you.” Perhaps ironic or humorous, the women invite their husbands (in competitive play) to see themselves as “beautiful”. In the distorted burnished copper of the mirror, she teases him into seeing himself as other than what he might feel—a dehumanized slave. Through the seductive mirror game, he is aroused and his sense of self restored.
Women Who Produced Hosts
ומתוך כך היו מרגילין עצמן לידי תאוה ופרין ורבין והקב”ה פוקדן לאלתר
As a result, they would arouse them to sexual desire and they became fruitful and multiplied, the Holy One Blessed be He forthwith remembered them there (i.e. blessed them with issue),
What proceeds is an expansive interpretive play on this verse, where the rabbis speculate just how many births there were. Each woman bore twins, sextuplets (based on the 6 expressions of fertility in Exod 1:7), a dozen, or even 600,000—the whole host of Israel—in her womb. The midrash then turns back to the mirrors and their importance in this process:
וכל המנין האלו מן המראות וכתיב בהן ותמלא הארץ אותם (שם) וכאשר יענו אותו כן ירבה וכן יפרוץ
All this great number [of children] was thanks to the mirrors. It is written regarding them: “and the land was filled with them” (Exod 1:7) “but the more they afflicted them the more they multiplied” (Exod 1:12).
בזכות אותן המראות שהיו מראות לבעליהן ומרגילות אותן לידי תאוה מתוך הפרך העמידו כל הצבאות
Through the merit of those same mirrors which they showed their husbands arousing their sexual desire in the midst of the hard labor, they raised up all the hosts,
שנאמר (שם יב:41) “יצאו כל צבאות ה’ מארץ מצרים” ואומר “הוציא ה’ את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים על צבאותם”
as it is stated “…all the companies/hosts [kol tzevaʾot] of YHWH went out from the land of Egypt” (Exod. 12:41) and “…YWHW brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company [al tzivʾotam]” (Exod. 12:51).
As Zornberg states, “The hosts of Israel, the secret of redemption: it is all done with mirrors.”
Moses Rejects the Mirrors
Having emphasized the importance of the mirrors and their connection to the “companies” (צבאות) of Israel, the midrash proceeds to explain their place in the building of the tabernacle and its accoutrements.
כיון שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה לעשות את המשכן עמדו כל ישראל ונתנדבו מי שהביא כסף ומי שהביא זהב או נחשת ואבני שוהם ואבני מלואים הביאו בזריזות הכל
As soon as the Holy One Blessed be He told Moses to make the Tabernacle, all Israel came along to contribute. Some brought silver, some gold or brass, onyx and stones to be set. They readily brought everything.
אמרו הנשים מה יש לנו ליתן בנדבת המשכן עמדו והביאו את המראות והלכו להן אצל משה
Whereupon the women said: What have we to contribute to the offerings of the Tabernacle? They came along and brought the mirrors and presented themselves to Moses.
כשראה משה אותן המראות זעף בהן אמר להם לישראל טולו מקלות ושברו שוקיהן של אלו המראות למה הן צריכין.
When Moses saw the mirrors, he was furious with them. He said to Israel: “Take sticks and break the legs of those who brought them. What use are such mirrors?”
As noted above, the description of the laver in ch. 30 says nothing about the need to make them out of mirrors, nor are mirrors listed as objects that had been donated in chapter 35. Nevertheless, the midrash takes the verse in 38:8 about mirrors, and reconstructs an account of women who congregated around the Tabernacle with their provocative donation of mirrors.
In this midrashic account, Moses, at a loss to understand why the women are bringing mirrors, reacts very negatively.
God Defends the Women
Moses’ harsh reaction forces God to get involved and explain the significance of the mirrors to Moses:
א”ל הקב”ה למשה משה על אלו אתה מבזה המראות האלו הן העמידו כל הצבאות הללו במצרים.
Said the Holy One Blessed be He to Moses: “ Moses! You look down on them! It was these mirrors which raised up all these hosts in Egypt!
טול מהן ועשה מהן כיור נחשת וכנו לכהנים שממנו יהיו מתקדשין הכהנים.
Take them and make out of them the basin and its stand for the priests in which they can sanctify themselves,”
When God defends the women’s donation of the mirrors against Moses’ violent (and prudish) rejection, their significance as icons of vanity is transformed into emblems of resistance, even transformation.
Marʾot ha-Tzovʾot – “Mirrors of Hosts”
The midrash ends with the midrashic hook:
שנאמר ויעש את הכיור נחשת ואת כנו נחשת במראות הצובאות אשר צבאו באותן המראות שהעמידו את כל הצבאות האלה,
As it is stated, “And he made the basin and its stand of bronze out of the mirrors of the ministering [women] that raised up hosts [ha-marʾot ha-tzovʾot ’asher tzav’u]” – those same mirrors which raised up all the hosts (tzvaʾot).
The basin is not made, as the peshat reading of the verse renders it, “from the mirrors of ministering [women] (tzovʾot)” but from the mirrors that raised up the hosts (ha-tzvaʾot’asher tzav’u); the mirrors being the source of the uncanny fertility and subject of the redemptive transformation for all the hosts that left Egypt.
The Midrashic Reconstruction
In contrast to the historical-critical method, midrash is associative, drawing on common tropes like the “righteous seductress.” Moreover, it uses creative grammar, where the subject of the verb shifts, personifying the mirrors themselves as change-agents who “raise up the hosts of Israel.”
In the theology of this midrash, God is seen to be on the side of women, with their audacious mission to let “life find a way,” while Moses is rebuked for rejecting the mirrors. When God defends the women’s donation of the mirrors against Moses’ violent (and prudish) rejection, their significance as icons of vanity is transformed into emblems of resistance, even transformation.
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March 4, 2018
July 1, 2020
Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).
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