Gematria and Peshat
The approach that we have generally followed in this series is to demonstrate that the derivations of our Sages are based on sound understanding of language, idiom, cultural background and wider (not only local) context. With this assumption it is often possible to demonstrate that derivations which on the surface appear to be far from the "real" meaning of the proof-verses are in fact a very defensible and at times the most reasonable reading. There are, however, times when this appears impossible to accomplish. A particularly tough challenge is presented when a major law is derived from nothing more than a gematria; how can one claim that a gematria represents the real meaning of a verse .Nevertheless, on farther reflection, the history and development of a particular derash and its roots pshat may become apparent.
We encounter an example of this phenomena in this week's parsha. As is known, there are 39 forbidden labors on Shabbos. These are derived through a gematria, as follows:
These (ailu- aleph, lamed, hei) are the things that Hashem commanded...Six days shall work be done but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of rest...(Shemos 38, 1-2)
These are the things - Rabbi says to define 39 labors which Moshe told them verbally. (Mekhilta ibid).
R. Chanina D'Sipporin in the name of R. Avvahu: Aleph has a numerical value of 1, lamed of 30 and hei of 5. Things equals 3 (as it consists of 1 thing and plurality of 2), in total 39.The Rabbis of Cesarea said: Aleph is 1, lamed is 30, hei - the rabbis were not inhibited in reading hei as ches (the value of which is 8) - in total 39.
R. Yochanan and Reish Lakish at one time spent three and a half year and derived 39 toldos (corollaries) to each forbidden labor... (Yerushalmi Shabbos 7,2)
I was privileged to hear a lecture by R. Yoel Ben Nun in which he offered the following reconstruction of how gematria came to represent the source for the 39 forbidden labors. All inaccuracies in accurately recalling and presenting his excellent talk are solely my responsibility.
At this point in history there exist various laws regarding labors that are prohibited on Shabbos but they are not organized in any particular groups or categories. Before the Sofrim organize and categorize the received tradition, all received laws are in the same situation. There also exists at this time a related Mosaic tradition that the building of the Tabernacle did not set aside the Shabbos prohibitionsl this tradition is understood to originate or be imbedded in the close proximity between the verses about Shabbos and Mishkan in the beginning of our parsha (See Rashi ibid).
If you count up the number of vessels that are made for the purpose of the Tabernacle, you will find 39 vessels listed in our parsha. Because of the pre-existent identification of Shabbos labors and building the Tabernacle, the number 39 becomes a convenient one to organize the known prohibited labors in 39 groups.
An even more convenient mneumonic is sought and is found in the gematria of the beginning words of the parsha - Eilu, these are the words, =39.
The original derivation is forgotten and only the last step is remembered and preserved. The original derivation can, however, still be unearthed from the location of this gematria at the beginning words of the parsha in the same verse of the teaching that connects the prohibitions of Shabbos and the Tabernacle.
To summarize, even when there seems to be no way to relate a derasha to the plain sense of a verse, this may be simply because the derasha under consideration represents a late mneumonic or homiletical elaboration of the original derivation. The original derivation may be discovered in a cognate Tannaitic passage or unearthed by careful consideration of verses and context. Once that is done, it may be discovered to be much closer to peshat than the end result.
And Betsalel made the Ark..This is what the verse says: Start of your matters will give light (Psalms 119). When the Holy One Blessed be He desired to make the world, he enclothed Himself in light (which was the first thing said to be created in Genesis), as it says: He wears light as a garment (Psalms 103). From the Holy One, the righthouse learned to start with light. When He commanded Moshe to build the Tabernacle, he (in turn) said to Betsalel: begin with the Ark. (Therefore,) Betsalel made the Ark (Yalkut Shemos 37).
The Midrash teaches us that all our projects, even building G-d's abode, must begin with Torah. In a wider sense, it declares that worship must start from and contain within it Hashem's teachings for it is within those that He is enclothed and it is I them that He must be sought.
1 See Torah Temima to Genesis 17,5 (13) for many other examples of hei to ches substitution.
2 See Shabbos 49b for other derivations.
3 As stated in the Yerushalmi Shekalim 5 quoted in Tosafos Kiddushin 30a, s.v Nikreu Sofrim. According to the Yerushalmi, Sofrim is best translated as Enumerators and not Scribes.