Lecture 102: The Colors in the Mishkan

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

 

 

LECTURE 102: THE COLORS IN THE MISHKAN

 

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            In previous lectures, we considered various aspects of the structure of the Mishkan: the location of its vessels and its division into different chambers and their spiritual meanings. Now that we have dealt with the geometric aspects of the Mishkan and the way the structure suited the conditions of the wilderness, in the coming lectures, we will discuss the various colors found in the Mishkan and the materials used in its construction.

 

            In this context as well, we will work under the assumption that the fact that different colors and different materials were used for different parts of the structure points to an internal ranking between them that accords with the splendor of the colors and the value of the metals.

 

            In addition to the colors found in the structure, vessels, and coverings of the Mishkan, we will also relate to the colors of the coverings of the vessels when the Mishkan was in transit in the wilderness, as described by the Torah at the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar, as well as the colors used in the curtains of the Mishkan and in the priestly garments.

 

THE COLORS OF THE MISHKAN[1]

 

            A substantial part of the inner covering of the Mishkan, the various screens (the screen of the gate of the courtyard, the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, and the parokhet dividing between the Holy and the Holy of Holies), and of the priestly garments was white linen (shesh) and wool, which was blue (tekhelet), purple (argaman), and scarlet (tola'at shani).

 

            The materials are usually mentioned in the Torah in the order: blue, purple, scarlet and linen (Shemot 25:4), expressing the relative ranking of the various colors.

 

            In several places, the Torah mentions that the Mishkan was made of blue, purple and scarlet. Thus, for example:

Moreover, you shall make the Mishkan with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet…. (Shemot 27:1)

 

It is not clear whether the Torah is referring here to the colors themselves or to wool that is dyed these colors.

 

            The plain sense of the verses suggests that this refers to the colors themselves. This follows from the Aramaic translations (ad loc.), as well as Divrei Ha-yamim II 2:5; when Shlomo asks for workers with expertise in these matters, it appears that he is referring to the color.

 

            On the other hand, there are verses where the reference seems to be to a cloth or a bar dyed or painted blue:

 

And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of testimony with it: and they shall put on it the covering of tachash skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue…. (Bamidbar 4:5)

 

Who were covered with blue, captains and rulers, all of them charming young men, horsemen riding upon horses. (Yechezkel 23:6)

 

And Mordekhai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a wrap of fine linen and purple… (Ester 8:15)

 

            Indeed, Rashi explains the term tekhelet to mean: "Wool dyed with the blood of the chilazon [a kind of shellfish]" (Shemot 25:4).

 

TEKHELET – BLUE

 

I.          THE PARTS OF THE MISHKAN THAT CONTAINED TEKHELET[2]

 

            In the structure of the Mishkan, we find blue in the following places:

 

The inner curtain:

 

Moreover, you shall make the Mishkan with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet; with keruvim of artistic work you shall make them. (Shemot 26:1).

 

Loops of blue:

 

And you shall make loops of blue upon the edge of the one curtain that is at the edge of the first coupling… (Shemot 26:4)

 

The parokhet:

 

And you shall make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, with keruvim shall it be made of artistic work. (Shemot 26:31)

 

The screen of the door of the tent:

 

And you shall make a screen for the door of the tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of an embroiderer. (Shemot 26:36)

 

The screen of the gate of the courtyard:

 

And for the gate of the court shall be a screen of twenty cubits, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, wrought with embroidery; and their pillars shall be four, and their sockets four.[3] (Shemot 27:16)

 

In the priestly garments, we find blue in the following garments:[4]

 

And they shall make the efod of gold, of blue, and of purple, of scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of an artist. (Shemot 28:6)

 

And the finely wrought girdle of the efod, which is upon it, shall be of the same, according to its work: namely, of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. (ibid. v. 8)

 

And you shall make the breastplate of judgment the work of an artist: after the work of the efod you shall make it; of gold, of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine twined linen, shall you make it. (ibid. v. 15)

 

And they shall bind the breastplate by its rings to the rings of the efod with a lace of blue, that it may be above the finely wrought girdle of the efod and that the breastplate not be loosed from the efod. (ibid. v. 28)

 

And you shall make the robe of the efod of blue[5]… And beneath upon the hem of it you shall make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about its hem; and bells of gold between them round about. (ibid. vv. 31-33)

 

And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave upon it, like the engravings of a signet: Holiness to the Lord. And you shall put it on a blue lace. (ibid. 36-37)[6]

 

            We find blue in the coverings of the vessels that were used when the Mishkan was in transit in the wilderness with respect to the ark of testimony, the table, the candlestick, and the golden altar:

 

And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of testimony with it; and they shall put on it the covering of tachash skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in its poles. And upon the table of showbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put on it the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and the jars for pouring out: and the continual bread shall be on it: and they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet, and cover the same with a covering of tachash skins, and shall put in its poles. And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the candlestick of the light, and its lamps, and its tongs, and its pans, and all its oil vessels, with which they minister to it: and they shall put it and all its vessels within a covering of tachash skins, and shall put it upon a bar. And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of tachash skins, and shall put in its poles.[7] (Bamidbar 4:5-11)

 

            With respect to these covers, there is a fundamental difference between the ark and the rest of the vessels. Regarding the ark, the blue covering is spread over the covering of tachash skins, and it is described as a cloth wholly of blue. In contrast, regarding the other vessels (the table, the candlestick, and the golden altar), the blue covering is usually the first covering spread over the vessels themselves; there is sometimes an additional covering above them (in the case of the table, a covering of scarlet, and in the case of the altar, a covering of purple), and above them a covering of tachash skins.

 

            It should also be emphasized that the coverings of blue are found only for the altar and the vessels located in the Holy, but not in relation to the outer altar located in the courtyard.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF BLUE

 

            This initial examination of the use of blue and the appearance of this color in the Mishkan reveals that this is the most important color in the entire Mishkan. As we have seen, the blue appears in the Mishkan and in the various screens (the screen of the gate of the courtyard, the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, and the parokhet dividing between the Holy and the Holy of Holies), in the coverings of the inner vessels of the Mishkan (the vessels in the Holy and in the Holy of Holies), and in the special garments worn by the High Priest (in the efod, in the breastplate of judgment, in the lace binding the breastplate to the rings of the efod, in the robe of the efod, in the pomegranates of blue on the robe, and in the golden plate).

 

            Now that we have seen the importance of the blue in the various elements of the Mishkan, we will try to understand the spiritual significance of this color.

 

            Garments of blue and purple were considered especially expensive garments that were worn only by distinguished kings and people whom the king wished to honor. The symbolism of blue in Scripture is primarily connected to the beauty of the color, its quality, and its dear price. In the world at large, blue was used in the dying of garments and curtains connected to priestly service and sanctity, and it bestowed them with royal splendor.[8] (It should be noted that there is a great similarity between blue and purple. Both have a common source (sea snails), a similar production process,[9] and in Scripture they often appear as a pair.[10])

 

            The Tosefta in Menachot 9:16 states as follows: "Blue is only valid when it comes from a snail. If it does not come from a snail, it is invalid."

 

            The insistence on blue that comes from a sea animal, and the rejection of vegetable dye of a similar color accounts for its dear price and for its use in royal garments.

 

            The Ramban, in his discussion of the mitzva of tzitzit, explains the significance of blue:

 

Rather, the remembrance [of the commandments] is through the blue thread, which alludes to the all-inclusive attribute, which is ba-kol, and which is the aim of all. Therefore, he said, "That you may look upon it, and remember kol (all)," which is the commandments of God. This is what the Rabbis said: [Why was blue chosen rather than any other color?] Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles heaven, and heaven resembles the Throne of Glory, etc. The likeness is in the name, as also in the shade of the color, which is the termination of all colors [and which leads one from the blue in the fringes to the blue of the sea, etc., and finally to think of Him who is on high], for in the distance all colors appear to be that shade. That is why it is called tekhelet. (Commentary to Bamidbar 15:38)

 

            The Ma'or Va-Shemesh (ad loc.) explains that from a distance, everything in the world has the appearance of blue. R. Meir Abusaula adds that it is the ultimate of all appearances.

 

            In several places, Chazal likened blue to other things: the sea, heaven, and the Throne of Glory:

 

This teaches you that blue resembles [the color of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the color of] the grass, and the grass resembles [the color of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the color of] the Throne of Glory, as it is written, "Then I looked, and behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the keruvim there appeared over them something like a sapphire stone, like what appeared to be the shape of a throne" (Yechezkel 10:1). (Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:3)[11]

 

Because blue resembles [the color of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the color of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the color of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said, "And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness" (Shemot 24:10), and it is written, "The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone" (Yechezkel 1:26).[12] (Sota 17a)

 

            R. Chanan Porat offers a fine description of the essence of blue:[13]

 

Blue has the power to arouse feelings of depth and of height, sparks and purity; the blue that we see in the depths of the sea is a reflection of the blue of heaven, and the blue of heaven is rooted in the dimension of distance that touches upon the hidden world that is beyond our view, and paints everything with the color of blue. Blue is the "color of distance" that is all-inclusive, and from here is its power to arouse yearnings for far-off things and worlds on high.

 

            In the midrash Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer (chap. 14) and in Midrash Ha-Gadol (end of Parashat Shelach), we find a different understanding:

 

R. Yehuda the son of R. El'ai says: Why was the Torah strict about blue? Because blue resembles [the color of] sapphire, and the staff of God was of sapphire. This teaches you that whenever Israel would look at this blue, they would remember all those signs and wonders that the Holy One, blessed be He, performed by way of that staff, etc.

And the Sages say: Why was the Torah strict about blue? Because blue resembles [the color of] sapphire, and the tablets [of the law] were of sapphire. This teaches you that whenever Israel would look at this blue, they would remember what was written in the tablets, and observe them. And similarly it says: "And it shall be to you as a fringe, that you may look upon it and remember" (Bamidbar 15:39).

 

            While many of the derashot of Chazal regarding blue are connected to tzitzit, this derasha brings two views as to why the Torah is strict about blue. R. Yehuda explains the connection between blue and sapphire as based on the staff of God. Accordingly, the blue serves as a reminder of the signs and wonders that were performed with that staff. According to the Sages, the tablets of the law were made of sapphire. Thus, blue brings those tablets to mind, and as a result leads to the observance of what is written on those tablets. This, of course, is reminiscent of the mitzva of tzitzit, the gazing upon which is meant to bring a person to remember all the mitzvot.

 

According to both understandings, the essence of the blue is contemplation of that Divine appearance as it was revealed to man, whether in the staff or in the tablets of the law. Common to both of them is the idea that the blue serves as a reminder of Divine revelation - that Divine appearance and providence that reveals itself in the world.

 

The midrash in Bamidbar Rabba (4:14) asks why the inner vessels were covered in blue, and answers that a cloth of blue would be spread over all the vessels located in the Holy because the Shekhina rests there, similar to the Shekhina's place in heaven, which resembles the color of blue.

 

In general, the description of the coverings of the vessels while the Mishkan was in transit is especially interesting, and it allows us to distinguish between the various vessels. Thus, for example, it is interesting that only the ark and the table were covered with three coverings.[14]

 

Regarding the fact that the ark of the covenant was covered with the parokhet (Ramban: its screen), a covering of tachash skins, and on top of that a cloth of blue (as opposed to the rest of the vessels, regarding which the covering of tachash skins was spread out on top of the cloth of blue), the midrash states:

 

The ark is dear like the heavenly Throne of Glory… Even when they journeyed, they would not spread over it a cloth of purple or a cloth of scarlet, but only a cloth wholly of blue. Why? Because blue resembles [the color of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the color of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the color of] the Throne of Glory… This teaches you that the ark resembled the Throne of Glory. And therefore it says regarding it: "Wholly of blue" – that all of it resembled it. And since the ark was similar to it, therefore the cloth was on top – facing heaven, which was similar to it, which you do not find regarding the other vessels… And furthermore, regarding the ark it says: "Wholly of blue," which is not stated regarding all of them. Why "wholly of blue"? Because it is the most important of all the vessels of the Mishkan. (Bamidbar Rabba 4:13)

 

            That is to say, the similarity between the ark itself and the Throne of Glory which it resembles lies in the color of blue, and the similarity between the blue and heaven explains why the cloth of blue is spread over the other coverings of the ark, so that it should face heaven.

 

            The Ramban adds:

 

Because of the importance of the ark, the covering of tachash skin was not visible [at all] upon it, for they covered [the ark firstly] with the parokhet as a screening partition, and then they covered both of them [the ark and the parokhet] with the covering of the tachash skin [as a protection] against the rains, and above them all they spread a cloth all of blue, so that this distinguished garment, which was the like of the very heaven for clearness, should be seen upon it. But as for all the other vessels – the table, the candlestick, and the altars – the covering of the tachash skin was visible over them. (Commentary to Bamidbar 4:6)

 

The ark is the main vessel intended for the resting of the Shekhina – in it are found the tablets, the broken tablets, and a Torah scroll, and God speaks to Moshe from between the two keruvim. Based on Chazal’s understanding that the color blue resembles the color of the Throne of Glory, it is easy to understand why the ark is the main vessel covered with blue.

 

In addition, the fact that blue is found in the garments of the High Priest, in the covering of the Mishkan, and in the various screens, but it is found neither in the garments of the ordinary priests nor in the courtyard, strengthens the understanding that in its very essence it is connected to the revelation of the Shekhina, as it finds expression in the Holy by way of the High Priest.

 

It is interesting that regarding the Temple built by Herod during the Second Temple period, the gemara says:

They said: He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building. Of what did he build it? Rabba said: Of yellow and white marble. Some say, of blue, yellow and white marble. Alternate rows [of the stones] projected, so as to leave a place for cement. He originally intended to cover it with gold, but the Rabbis advised him not to, since it was more beautiful as it was, looking like the waves of the sea. (Bava Batra 4b)

 

            It is very interesting that the Sages' suggestion that Herod not cover the Temple with gold was meant to give the building the appearance of moving waves at sea. Is there a connection between the color blue and the colors of the Temple at the end of the Second Temple period? In addition, the idea of resembling waves implies movement, and perhaps alludes to God's direct providence, our absolute dependence upon Him, and the living presence of the Shekhina.

 

R. S.R. Hirsch explains the symbolism of the color blue:

 

Even one who disagrees with our understanding of the symbolism of the colors would certainly agree with us that blue is the fundamental color of the Mikdash and of the High Priest's garments, and that blue symbolizes heaven and that which Israel received from heaven. As Chazal said: "How is blue different from all the colors? Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles heaven, and heaven resembles the Throne of Glory, as it is stated: ‘And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness’ (Shemot 24:10). And it is written: ‘The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone’ (Yechezkel 1:26)’ (Menachot 43b). Accordingly, no other color than blue is capable of symbolizing the special relationship between God and Israel. The thread of blue in our garments symbolizes that we play the role of a High Priest on earth, and it symbolizes "And you shall be holy men to Me" (Shemot 22:30), and it symbolizes "And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (ibid. 19:6).[15]

 

According to R. Hirsch, the blue in many ways symbolizes the presence of heaven on earth, the essence of the entire Temple - God's presence on earth.

 

In the next lecture, we shall continue our discussion of the colors found in the Mishkan.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] We will not expand here upon the practical aspects of the colors, their identification, and their derivation. These issues are discussed in Tzefiya – Chikrei Mikdash 5, Tekhelet Argaman Tola'at Shani, published by Makhon Ha-Mikdash (Jerusalem, 5756).

[2] We note here the various places where blue appears, on the assumption that its presence is significant wherever it is found.

[3] The Mishkan, the parokhet, the screen of the door of the Ohel, and the screen of the gate of the courtyard all contained blue, purple, scarlet and fine twined linen. Here, we will deal exclusively with the blue; the other colors will be discussed later.

[4] We have noted in the past the mutual relationship between the garments and the various parts of the Mishkan; this also finds expression in the color blue.

[5] It is worthwhile noting that only with respect to the robe of the efod does it say "wholly of blue." In a certain sense, this  parallels the fact that the ark was covered with a cloth wholly of blue. In this context, there is room to consider whether there is a parallelism between the vessels of the Mishkan and the garments of the High Priest, and whether it is possible to rank them according to the materials of which they are made or the covers with which they are covered.

[6] I wish to note the most important parallel between the gold plate (tzitz) worn by by the High Priest and the fringe (tzitzit): "And that they put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue" (Bemidbar 15:38), regarding which all of Israel is commanded in the aftermath of the sin of the spies. This parallel is of a very essential nature, and it requires a separate lecture. Without going into the details, I wish only to emphasize that the entire people of Israel is "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation," and therefore they too wear a sort of priestly garment, containing a thread of blue, so that when they see it, they remember all the commandments. Just like the High Priest, who represents the priesthood, has a tzitz with a blue thread, so too, every individual in Israel has a garment with a blue thread.

[7] There is a difference in the detailed account of the cover of blue with respect to each of the vessels (for example, over the table and the golden altar, they would spread a cloth of blue, whereas regarding the candlestick, they would take a cloth of blue and cover the candlestick and its lamps). These differences were analyzed by R. Etan Sandorfi, in his "Kissuyei Kelei Ha-MishkanHa-Meshutaf Ve-Ha-Meyuchad," Ma'alin Ba-Kodesh 3 (Sivan, 5761), pp. 86-100.

[8] The blue thread on the garment of every individual in Israel (tzitzit) has importance against this background as well. See Israel Rosensohn, "Ha-Tekhelet, Ha-Re'alya, Ha-Halakha, Ve-Ha-Simliyut," Al Atar 6 (Shevat, 5760), p. 99ff.

[9] We shall not deal here with the studies of these colors. Regarding blue, a collection of the main sources and discussions may be found in R. Menachem Burstein, Ha-Tekhelet (Sifriyat A. Gitler: Jerusalem, 1988). Regarding tekhelet specifically, the matter depends upon the identification of tekhelet and the way it is produced. According to modern research, the source of tekhelet is a mollusk from the Murex family. Regarding the color of the thread, there is disagreement: some argue for the color purple, others for blue, and yet others for turquoise.

[10] In the robe, in the lace that binds the breastplate, and in the tzitzit we find blue alone, without purple.

[11] It is interesting that the same source says about tzitzit: "It was taught in the name of R. Meir: "It does not say 'that you may look upon it [ota, in the feminine],' but rather 'that you may look upon it [oto, in the masculine].’ This teaches that whoever observes the mitzva of tzitzit, it is as if he received the face of the Shekhina."

[12] I. Rosensohn brings the words of Philo regarding the colors of the materials used in the Mishkan and in the priestly garments (Philo, Life of Moses, Book II, 18): "Moreover, he chose the materials of this embroidery, selecting with great care what was most excellent out of an infinite quantity, choosing materials equal in number to the elements of which the world was made, and having a direct relation to them; the elements being the earth and the water, and the air and the fire. For the fine flax is produced from the earth, and the purple from the water, and the hyacinth colour is compared to the air (for, by nature, it is black), and the scarlet is likened to fire, because each is of a red colour." Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews III, 17:7 adopts a fundamentally similar position.

[13] Chanan Porat, Me'at Min Ha-Or, Bamidbar (Sifriyat Bet-El, Sivan, 5768), p. 134.

[14] Without a doubt, this teaches the importance of the table in comparison to the other vessels in the Holy, and this fits in well with the fact that in Scripture's accounts of the vessels in the Holy, the table is always described before the candlestick and the incense altar. Further examination is required as to the spiritual significance of this precedence.

[15] R. S.R. Hirsch, Ha-Mitzvot Ki-Semalim (Mossad HaRav Kook: Jerusalem, 5744), Ohel Mo'ed, pp. 91.