Lecture 109: The Building Materials of the Mishkan and Its Vessels (Part II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Mikdash

 

 

LECTURE 109: THE BUILDING MATERIALS OF THE MISHKAN AND ITS VESSELS (PART II)

 

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

            In the previous lecture, we began to discuss the materials used in the construction of the Mishkan. We surveyed the qualities of the various metals, and we discussed the importance of gold in the Mishkan and the significance of pure gold. In this lecture, we will continue our analysis of the materials of the Mishkan and examine the rest of the materials used in its construction.

 

SILVER

 

            In striking contrast to gold, very little silver is mentioned with respect to the Mishkan:

 

            In the structure of the Mishkan – the sockets of the boards of the Mishkan are silver:

 

And you shall make forty sockets of silver under the boards…. (Shemot 23:19)

 

Similarly, the sockets of the pillars of the parokhet are made of silver:

And you shall put [the parokhet] upon four pillars of shittim wood overlaid with gold: their hooks shall be of gold, upon four sockets of silver. (ibid. v. 32)

 

            It is understandable that the sockets of the pillars of the parokhet are made of silver, as they are an integral part of the structure of the Mishkan. This is in contrast to the brass sockets of the pillars of the screen of the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, which to a certain extent belong also to the courtyard, the striking material of which is brass.

 

            It is interesting that with respect to the pillars of the courtyard, the Torah emphasizes in two places –

 

The hooks of the pillars and their joints shall be of silver. (Shemot 27:10)

 

All the pillars round about the court shall be bound with silver; their hooks shall be of silver and their sockets of brass. (ibid. v. 17)

 

            These are the sole instances of silver mentioned with respect to the Mishkan. No silver is found in the curtains, the vessels of the Mishkan, or the priestly garments.

 

            The only silver vessels connected to the service of the Mishkan are the silver trumpets.

 

Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; that they may be to you for a memorial before your God; I am the Lord your God. (Bemidbar 10:1-10)

 

BRASS

 

1. IN THE STRUCTURE OF THE MISHKAN

 

In the pillars of the door of the Ohel Mo'ed:

 

And you shall make for the screen five pillars of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold, and their hooks shall be of gold: and you shall cast five sockets of brass for them. (Shemot 26:37)

 

In the pillars of the courtyard:

 

All the pillars round about the court shall be bound with silver; their hooks shall be of silver, and their sockets of brass. (ibid. 27:17)

 

            The curtains are connected by brass clasps:

 

And you shall make fifty clasps of brass, and put the clasps into the loops, and couple the tent together, that it may be one. (ibid. 26:11)

 

2. IN THE VESSELS OF THE MISHKAN

 

The outer altar:

 

And you shall make the horns of it upon its four corners: its horns shall be of the same; and you shall overlay it with brass. And you shall make its pans to receive its ashes, and its shovels, and its basins, and its forks, and its firepans; all its vessels you shall make of brass. And you shall make for it a grate of network of brass; and upon the net shall you make four brazen rings on its four corners… And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of shittim wood, and overlay them with brass. (Shemot 27:2-10)

 

The pegs of the Mishkan and the pegs of the courtyard:

 

All the vessels of the Mishkan in all its service and all its pegs, and all the pegs of the court, shall be of brass. (ibid. 17:19)

 

The laver and its pedestal:

 

You shall also make a laver of brass, and its pedestal also of brass, for washing; and you shall put it between the Ohel Mo'ed and the altar, and you shall put water in it. (ibid. 30:18)

 

            Now that we have surveyed the use of gold, silver and brass in the Mishkan, we can draw some clear distinctions:

 

  • Gold – Gold was primarily used in various parts of the structure of the Mishkan, both in the boards that define the structure and in the connections between the inner curtains of the Mishkan; in all the vessels found in both the Holy and the Holy of Holies; and in the garments of the High Priest.

 

  • Silver – Very little silver was found in the Mishkan – in the silver sockets of the structure of the Mishkan and the pillars of the parokhet, and in the hooks of the pillars of the courtyard.

 

  • Brass – Brass was used primarily in the courtyard, in the brass sockets, and in the vessels of the courtyard, i.e., in the outer altar and in the laver and its pedestal.

 

This understanding clearly rates the relationship between these three metals from the outside inwards – from the more simple brass located primarily in the courtyard, through the silver, and until the gold, the most precious metal found in the Holy.

 

THE MIKDASH

 

            It is interesting to note that this basic division is clearly found also in the structure of the First Temple built by Shlomo.[1] Regarding the building, Scripture clearly distinguishes between the inside of the Temple, where gold was most prominent (I Melakhim 6:14-38), and the courtyard and the vessels of the courtyard, where brass stood out (ibid. 7:13-47).

 

            Another distinction arising from the verses is that the interior building of the Temple is attributed to Shelomo himself, whereas the building of the vessels in the courtyard, the brass vessels, was performed by a special craftsman:

 

And king Shelomo sent and fetched Chiram from Tzor. He was a widow's son of the tribe of Naftali, and his father was a man of Tzor, a worker in brass; and he was filled with wisdom, and understanding, and cunning to work all works in brass. And he came to king Shlomo and wrought all this work. (I Melakhim 7:13-14)

 

            The parallel to what the Torah says about Betzalel's special wisdom is also interesting. On the other hand, Scripture emphasizes here that Chiram's special skill was working with brass, rather than with silver or gold.

 

SHITTIM WOOD

 

            Shittim wood was found in the Mishkan both in the structure itself and in the vessels.[2]

 

1. IN THE STRUCTURE OF THE MISHKAN

 

And you shall make boards for the Mishkan of shittim wood. (Shemot 26:15)

 

And you shall make a parokhet… and you shall hang it upon four pillars of shittim wood overlaid with gold. (ibid. v. 32)

 

And you shall make a screen for the door… And you shall make for the screen five pillars of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. (ibid. v. 37)

 

            It is very interesting that there is no mention of the material of which the pillars of the courtyard were made (either in the command [Shemot 27:9ff] or in the execution [Shemot 38:9]). Mention is made of their brass sockets, but nothing more than that.

 

            Logic dictates that they too were made of shittim wood like the boards of the Mishkan and like the pillars of the parokhet and the screen of the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, but the reason that the Torah does not specify the material of which they were made requires further examination.

 

2. IN THE VESSELS OF THE MISHKAN

 

And you shall make an ark of shittim wood. (Shemot 25:10)

 

And you shall make poles of shittim wood. (ibid. v. 13)

 

And you shall make a table of shittim wood. (ibid. v. 23)

 

And you shall make the poles of shittim wood. (ibid. v. 28)

 

And you shall make an altar of shittim wood. (ibid. 27:1)

 

And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of shittim wood. (ibid. v. 6)

 

And you shall make an altar for the burning of incense; of shittim wood shall you make it. (ibid. 30:1)

 

And you shall make the poles of shittim wood. (ibid. v. 5)

 

            R. S.R. Hirsch relates to the nature of the shittim wood:[3]

 

A tree is an organic creation, a distinct creation that develops from a tiny beginning, and over a long period of time it advances in its development, it grows and spreads out, it grows wide and tall over the course of its development. Accordingly, there is no better symbol than a tree for natural development and ever greater flourishing, and through great toil hope is realized and continues for a long time. However, the growth and flourishing depend on environmental conditions, primarily the presence of water in sufficient quantity and in close proximity, so that the roots can draw from it. Thus, a tree serves also as a symbol for man who sends out his roots to the words of God and draws the words of the Torah and orders his life in accordance with them. The righteous man draws the word of God from the living waters of the Torah, from "the tree of life" (Mishlei 3:18), and this is the righteous man. Without the words of the Torah, man will wither. "For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its tender branch will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stock die in the ground; yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dies, and is laid low; yea, man perishes, and where is he?" (Iyov 14:7-10). Similarly, the prophet says: "Cursed be the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like the juniper tree in the desert, and shall not see when good comes; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit" (Yirmiyahu 17:5-8). This explanation is written afterwards: "O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake You shall be ashamed, and they who depart from Me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters" (ibid. v. 13). Here the prophet likens man to a tree, and the Holy One, blessed be He, is the fountain of living waters…

Thus we see, that not only is man himself called a "tree," but rather everything that is important in life, e.g., wisdom, healing, whatever requires constant moral nurturing, such as Torah study, that is to say, all the praiseworthy fruits, which a Torah life freshens forever, are called by the term, "tree."

Accordingly, a tree symbolizes ceaseless flourishing and flowering. But the building of the Mikdash requires a particular tree: "shittim wood" (Shemot 25:5). And in the building of the First Temple the tree is called "erez" (cedar): "That they hew for me cedars from the Lebanon" (I Melakhim 5:20). The shittim tree also belongs to the cedar family, as Chazal say: "There are ten kinds of cedar, as it says: 'I will plant in the wilderness erez, shitta, and hadas and oil-tree, I will set in the desert berosh, tidhar and teashur together' (Yeshayahu 41:10).'Erez' is cedar; 'shitta' is pine; 'hadas' is myrtle; 'oil-tree' is balsam; 'berosh' is cypress; 'tidhar' is teak; 'teashur' is larch. This makes seven. When R. Dimi came, he said: To these were added 'alonim,' 'almonim,' and 'almugim.' 'Alonim' are terebinths; 'almonim' are oaks; 'almugim' are coral-wood."

Shitta is the type of tree from which they built the Mishkan and which was also used for the fashioning of the vessels. This tree stands out in its height and its strength. It is the symbol of great power that remains forever fresh and is constantly developing. The strengths of other nations are also likened to the strength of the cedar: "Yet I destroyed the Emori before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars, and he was strong as the oaks; yet I destroyed his fruit from above, and his roots from beneath" (Amos 2:9). Similarly: "Behold, Ashur was a cedar in the Lebanon with fair branches, amid a shadowing forest, and of a high stature, and its top was among the thick boughs" (Yechezkel 31:3). Afterwards, it says of him: "Therefore, thus says the Lord God: Because you have lifted up yourself in height, and he has shot up his top among the thick boughs, and his heart is lifted up in his height; I have therefore delivered him into the hand of the mighty one of the nations; he shall surely deal with him; I have driven him out for his wickedness" (ibid. vv. 10-12).

… Even the prophet of the nations of the world was forced to admit: "Like the winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side, like aloes which the Lord has planted, and cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, moistening his seed plentifully" (Bemidbar 24:6-7). Here, the individual is not the blessed tree, but rather the house and the family, whose flourishing and development stem from God's blessing, and the development is similar to the cedar in its strength and persistence. Presumably, then, the shittim wood in the Mishkan and its vessels symbolizes strong and persistent, fresh and ever-advancing development.

It is interesting to contemplate according to this understanding of shittim wood as symbolizing permanent development and renewal, when on the other hand gold symbolizes stability and fixedness, what is the relationship between the vessels that are made of shittim wood and overlaid with gold, and vessels that are made of gold? In the Holy of Holies – what is the relationship between the ark, on the one hand, which is made of shittim wood overlaid with gold, and the kaporet and the keruvim which are made of solid gold?

In the Holy – what is the relationship between the table and the incense altar that are made of shittim wood overlaid with gold and the candlestick that is made of solid gold?

Likewise, what is the relationship between the kaporet, the keruvim, and the candlestick, on the one hand, and the ark, the table, and the gold alter, on the other? How does stability and strength find expression in the kaporet, the keruvim, and the candlestick, and how does development and renewal that is bounded by the stability of the gold plating find expression in the ark, the table, and the gold altar?[4]

 

            R. Hirsch relates to the special structure of the ark, which was made of shittim wood and overlaid with gold on the inside and the outside, and which contained the tablets of the covenant – tablets of stone.

 

            In his commentary to the command regarding the ark, R. Hirsch says as follows:

An ark of shittim wood: Israel receives the Torah with its, Israel's, eternally fresh ability for development and progress and for this progressive development. The Torah is given complete, concluded; the tablets are stone ones. The two together form a complete cube of stone. Each tablet is six handbreadths long, six handbreadths wide, and three handbreadths thick, so that together they form a solid cube of six handbreadths cubed, a cubic ell (ama), the largest measure of length (see Bava Batra 14a)… We are the tree; we can and we should develop and ennoble ourselves in unending progress through the Torah. Israel receives the Torah to become thereupon "A tree planted by streams of water that brings forth its fruit in its season" (Tehillim 1:3).

And you shall overlay it: The qualities of susceptibility and living ability of development must at the same time be associated with firmness, stubborn persistence, and immutability for all that is noble and good, true and genuine; to the wood, metal; to the tree, gold. The Divine Torah demands both the ability to develop and at the same time firmness in those that receive it, and this noble firmness has to hold good both internally towards itself, and externally to outside influences, "within and without you shall overlay it." The ark consisted of three containers, an inner and outer one of gold, and between these, the one of shittim wood. In inner and outer life, sterling and firm, noble and genuine, free from all dross, resisting all alteration and deterioration, these are the conditions, these are the golden limits within which life from the Torah is to progressively develop like a tree. Inaccessible to all evil, ready for all good, gold and wood – negative commandments and positive commandments – such is the dual nature of the character that makes Israel fit and able to be the containers of the Divine Torah. (Shemot 25:10-11)

 

            It is interesting that nowhere do we find, neither in the structure of the Mishkan nor in its vessels, exposed shittim wood. The shittim wood is always overlaid with some metal. In the brass altar and in the poles of the brass altar, the shittim wood is overlaid with brass, and in all the other structures and vessels, it is overlaid with gold (the ark, the table, the incense altar, the structure of the Mishkan: the boards, the pillars of the parokhet and the pillars of the door of the Ohel Mo'ed).[5]

 

            Accordingly, the shittim wood is the inner material; it is never seen, and it serves as the material that is overlaid with gold (and in the burnt-offering altar, with brass). On the surface, what is visible are the metals that symbolize permanence and stability, whereas the quality of the shittim wood that expresses renewal and freshness is internal and not visible from the outside.

 

            In conclusion, let us cite the words of the gemara in Sukka, which interprets the term "standing" in the verse, "standing shittim wood," in several ways:

 

Chizkiya said in the name of R. Yirmiya who said in the name of R. Shimon ben Yochai: In the case of all commandments, one does not fulfill one's obligation unless [the objects involved] are in the same condition as when they grow, for it is stated: "Shittim wood standing up." So it was also taught: "'Shittim wood standing up' - that they should stand in the manner of their growth. Another interpretation: “Standing up” - that they held their [gold] overlaying. Another interpretation: “Standing up” – lest you may say, “Their hope is lost, their expectation is frustrated,” Scripture expressly states: “Shittim wood standing up” - that they will stand for ever and to all eternity." (Sukka 45b)

 

            In addition to the plain sense of R. Shimon bar Yochai's words – that they address the question how the wood was positioned – his words have often been interpreted in light of kabbalistic teachings.[6]

 

CONCLUSION

 

            We have related to the primary materials and colors found in the structure of the Mishkan, in its vessels and in the priestly garments – blue, purple, scarlet, linen, gold, silver and brass.[7]

 

            It turns out that here too we can see the centrality of gold, the most precious and most common metal in the Mishkan, followed by a very small amount of silver, and brass in the outer section.

 

            It should be noted that there may be room to draw a parallel between the blue, purple and scarlet, on the one hand, and the gold, silver and brass, on the other.[8]

 

            Thus, we have completed our examination of the colors of the Mishkan and of the materials of which it was constructed and their meanings.

 

            In the coming lectures, we shall deal with the directions of the Mishkan and the Mikdash and their meanings, and with this issue we shall complete this year's study of the structure of the Mishkan.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] We shall not deal at length with the details of the Mikdash. We wish only to note the clear parallel between the Mishkan and the Mikdash with regard to the metals.

[2] Prof. Felix in his book, "Teva Va-Aretz Ba-Tanakh," dedicates a chapter to the shittim tree (p.53ff.). In his book, he identifies the shittim tree mentioned in connection with the building of the Mishkan with Acacia Albida, because, among other reasons, it yields straight and wide boards, and because of its very low specific gravity. In addition, its wood tends not to crack, nor does it change its mass when it dries or absorbs water, an important feature for a portable structure like the Mishkan.

[3] R. Hirsch, Ha-Mitzvot Ki-Semalim, pp. 138-140.

[4] This matter requires a separate discussion, and it is my intention to deal with it in next year's series of lectures.

[5] The sole exception, assuming that our conjecture is true, are the pillars of the courtyard, about which, as stated earlier, it is not stated explicitly that they were of shittim wood.

[6] Another midrash which expresses the importance of shittim wood in general and connects several places where shittim is mentioned is brought in the Tanchuma: "Another explanation: They sinned in Shittim, and they were smitten in Shittim, and they were healed in Shittim. They sinned in Shittim, as it is stated: 'And Israel abode in Shittim' (Bamidbar 25) They were smitten in Shittim, as it is stated: 'And those that died in the plague.' And they were healed in Shittim, as it is stated: 'Shittim wood.' You find that they did not move from there until Pinchas stood up and turned away [God's] wrath, as it is stated: 'Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, etc.' The Holy One, blessed be He, said: In the future world, I shall heal the Shittim, as it is stated: 'And it shall come to pass on that day that the mountains shall drop down sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the water courses of Yehuda shall flow with water, and a fountain shall issue from the house of the Lord, and shall water the valley of Shittim' (Yoel 4:18)" (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Teruma, 40).

[7] The list of materials in Parashat Teruma (Shemot 25:3-7) also mentions oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense, and shoham stones and stones to be set in the efod and in the breastplate, but we shall not discuss these matters in this framework.