Lecture 31: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XV) - From the Revelation at Mount Sinai to the Mishkan

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

 

            In the previous lecture, we examined the differences between altars and pillars, on the one hand, and the Mishkan, on the other. We pointed to three principal causes of the change between the two: the transition from individual service to communal worship, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the sin of the golden calf.

 

            In this lecture, we will deal with the transition from Mount Sinai to the Mishkan and try to understand the relationship between the command at the end of Parashat Yitro regarding the building of an altar and the command regarding the construction of the Mishkan.

 

I.          The Transition from Mount SInai to the Mishkan

 

The direct connection between the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Mishkan finds expression in many ways. We will briefly note three of them:[1]

 

1) The direct passage of sanctity from Mount Sinai to the Mishkan. Scripture limits the sanctity of Mount Sinai until the sounding of the horn:

 

And you shall set bounds to the people round about, saying, "Take heed of yourselves, that you not go up onto the mountain, or touch the border of it…" when the horn sounds long, they shall come up to the mountain. (Shemot 19:12-13)

 

            The Ibn Ezra comments (ad loc.):

 

For the Glory remained on the mountain until the Mishkan was built, as it is written: "And the1. Glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:34). Then [God] spoke with Moshe in the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps then Moshe sounded the shofar, and granted permission to go up now that the Glory had departed.

 

            This is also the position of Rashi in Ta'anit 21b (s.v. el mul ha-har ha-hu):

 

The Shekhina did not depart until the second set of tablets were given on Yom Kippur, and also the entire winter while they were engaged in the building of the Mishkan the Shekhina rested on the mountain; and it was from there that all the mitzvot were given amidst thundering and lightning on the day that the Ten Commandments were given until the first of Nisan when the Mishkan was erected, and the Shekhina departed and moved from the mountain and rested on the kaporet… And it was regarding this point in time that he permitted them in the account of the first set of tablets to go up…

 

            From the words of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra it follows that the sanctity of Mount Sinai remained in place until it moved to the Mishkan, which was constructed at the foot of the mountain. According to this approach, the mountain remained in its holy state from the sixth or seventh of Sivan until the dedication of the Mishkan at the beginning of Nisan in the following year – a period of slightly less than ten months.

 

            The transfer of sanctity from Mount Sinai to the Mishkan is not merely a technical matter; it reflects the fact that the sanctity of the Mishkan continues and substitutes for the sanctity of Mount Sinai.

 

2) The parallel between the revelation of sanctity and God's Shekhina on Mount Sinai and in the Mishkan is discussed at length by the Ramban, the most prominent proponent among the Rishonim of the idea of the Mishkan as a perpetuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai (and the flip side of the coin: Mount Sinai as the forerunner of the Mishkan). We already saw his position (lecture no. 20 in last year's series), but owing to the importance of the matter, we shall cite it once again.

 

In his commentary to the end of Shemot (Shemot 40:34; and similarly in his commentary to Vayikra 1:1), the Ramban notes the parallels between the description of the resting of God's Shekhina on Mount Sinai and the description of the resting of the Shekhina in the Mishkan at the end of Shemot:

 

"And the Glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 20:34) – Because its midst was filled with the Glory, for the Glory rests in the midst of the cloud that is in the midst of the Mishkan, as it is stated at Mount Sinai, "to the thick darkness where God was" (20:17)… And the reason is that [Moshe] should not go there without permission, but rather He would call him and he would go into the midst of the cloud, as he had done at Mount Sinai: "On the seventh day He calle1.27d to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud" (24:16), and it says: "And Moshe went into the midst of the cloud" (ibid. v. 18).

 

In his introduction to the book of Bamidbar, the Ramban compares the setting of bounds in the Mishkan to the setting of bounds at Mount Sinai:

 

…And now He will set the bounds of the Mishkan while it will be in the wilderness in the way that He had set the bounds at Mount Sinai when the Glory was there. He commanded, "And the stranger who draws near will die" (Bamidbar 1:21), as He said there, "But he shall surely be stoned" (Shemot 19:13). And He commanded, "But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die" (Bamidbar 4:20), as He warned there, "Lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze" (Shemot 19:21). And He commanded, "And you shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar" (Bamidbar 18:5), as He said there, "And let the priests also, who come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves… the priests and the people…" (Shemot 19:22, 24).

 

            The Ramban's most fundamental and detailed discussion of the topic is found in his well-known explanation of the commandment to build the Mishkan (Shemot 25:2):

 

And the mystery of the Mishkan is that the Glory that had rested on Mount Sinai should rest upon it in a concealed manner. As it is stated there: "And the Glory of the Lord rested upon Mount Sinai" (Shemot 24:16), and it is written: "Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His Glory and His greatness" (Devarim 5:21); so, too, it is written regarding the Mishkan: "And the Glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:34)… And the Glory which had appeared to them on Mount Sinai was always with Israel in the Mishkan. And when Moshe came, the Divine Word that had spoken to him on Mount Sinai came to him. And as it is stated at the giving of the Torah: "Out of heaven He made you hear His voice, that He might instruct you, and upon earth He showed you His great fire" (Devarim 4:36); so, too, it is written regarding the Mishkan: "Then he heard the voice speaking to him from off the covering that was upon the ark of Testimony, from between the two keruvim: and it spoke to him" (Bamidbar 7:89)… He who carefully examines the verses dealing with the giving of the Torah and understands what we wrote about them will understand the mystery of the Mishkan and the Mikdash

 

            That is to say, the permanent and hidden revelation in the Mishkan was a direct continuation of the one-time revelation in the sight of all of Israel on Mount Sinai.

 

            R. Samson R. Hirsch writes similarly in his commentary to Shemot 40:18:

 

In the same way as we were told above in Shemot 24:6, referring to Sinai, "And the Glory of the Lord rested upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it," so now, when the Torah had found a home in human circles, this was henceforth to be the place for the revelation of the Glory of God on earth. It was, as the revelation-psalm sings: "Hashem bam, Sinai ba-kodesh" (Tehilim 68:18) - God has come into their midst and Sinai is henceforth in the Sanctuary.

 

3) God's speaking to Moshe from between the two keruvim is a continuation of His speaking to him on Mount Sinai. We already saw what the Ramban said on this matter. I wish to bring another source that illustrates this idea:

 

"And the Lord called to Moshe, etc." (Vayikra 1:1)… Should you say: When He spoke to Moshe, He spoke in a low voice, and therefore he was able to hear – He spoke to him in the [same] voice as when He gave the Torah… And so it says: "And when Moshe was going into the Tent of Meeting to speak with him, then he heard the vice speaking to him" (Bamidbar 7:89) – the voice that he had heard when the Torah was given. (Tanchuma Vayikra 1)

 

            Despite the similarity, attention should be paid to the significant difference between the revelations.[2] The mountain is shrouded in natural sanctity, a consequence of God's revelation; this sanctity has its own limits – the mountain has a top and borders (Shemot 19:12, 20); no one is permitted to draw close to the site, other than Moshe, for the sake of the revelation; the mountain represents the work of God, and its sanctity is totally unconnected to the effort of man. In the Mishkan, on the other hand, the work of man plays an essential role: man builds it, and it is he who organizes and defines the clear hierarchy of the zones of sanctity. Man's participation in the building of the Mishkan creates a model of sanctity that is not natural, but rather a consequence of human endeavor.

 

            In this sense, there is a certain similarity – despite all the many differences[3] – between the natural sanctity of Mount Sinai and the manner in which idolaters deify nature: "They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills" (Hoshea 4:13); "in which the nations whom you are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree" (Devarim 12:2); and many other places. There is, then, a connection between the natural worship that preceded the Mishkan, as we saw in the previous lecture, and the one-time revelation at Mount Sinai. And it is not by chance that with the entry into Eretz Israel, the Torah issues a severe warning (ibid., later in the chapter) not to adopt this type of natural worship, but rather to serve God in the Mishkan, and later in the Mikdash, in one specific place, "the place that the Lord your God shall choose" (ibid. v. 5).[4]

 

II.         The Relationship Between The Command Regarding The Building Of An Altar In Parashat Yitro And The Command Regarding The Construction Of The Mishkan

 

            As we stated in the previous lecture, we wish now to examine the exegetical dimension of the transition from altars and pillars to the Mishkan. At the end of Parashat Yitro, immediately following the account of the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah speaks of the building of an altar of earth and an altar of stone:

 

An altar of earth you shall make to Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings, and your peace offerings, your sheep, and your oxen. In all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you. And if you will make Me an altar of stone… (Shemot 20:21-22)

 

            Several chapters later, the command regarding the building of the Mishkan begins, including an altar that appears to be entirely different from what is mentioned in Yitro:

 

And you shall make an altar of shittim wood… and you shall overlay it with brass… and you shall put it under the ledge of the altar beneath… hollow with boards shall you make it. As it was shown you in the mountain, so shall they make it. (Shemot 27:1-8)

 

            What is the relationship between these commandments? Why does the command at the end of Yitro come as a separate command, apparently unconnected to the command regarding the Mishkan? Which altar are we dealing with, and when was it in use? Surely, as a matter of principle, once the Mishkan was built, it was forbidden to offer sacrifices outside of it!

 

            We shall bring below the three main exegetical approaches to this issue.[5]

 

1)            Rashi: The Altar of Earth is the Altar of the Mishkan

 

Many commentators identify the altar of earth in Yitro with the altar mentioned in connection with the Mishkan. This identification first appears in the Mekhilta:

 

"An altar of earth you shall make to Me"… Rabbi Natan says: An altar filled with earth you shall make to Me, as it is stated: "Hollow with boards shall you make it" (Shemot 27:8). Isi the son of Akiva says: An altar of brass filled with earth you shall make to Me. (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishma'el, Yitro, Massekhta De-Ba-Chodesh, parasha 11)

 

            Rashi (Shemot 20:20, in his second explanation), the Chizkuni (ibid.), and others[6] follow in the footsteps of the Mekhilta.

 

            Why does the Mekhilta see the two altars that the Torah describes in such different manners as identical? Clearly, the Mekhilta's understanding is based on the assumption that the altar should be viewed as one of the vessels of the Mishkan, and not as a vessel external to it. The question still remains: Why, then, does the Torah set aside a separate passage describing the altar preceding the passage which contains the command regarding the Mishkan? We may find an answer to this question in the words of the Midrash Ha-Gadol at the end of Parashat Yitro:

 

Great is the [sacrificial] service, for Scripture opened with it: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me, and you shall sacrifice on it." And similarly you find in the Tent of Meeting that it opened with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "And the Lord called to Moshe, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying, 'Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, If any man of you bring an offering to the Lord'" (Vayikra 1:1-2). And similarly you find that when they entered the Land, they opened with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "Then Yehoshua built an altar to the Lord" (Yehoshua 8:31). So, too, in the future, they will open with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "I will go into Your house with burnt offerings" (Tehillim 66:13). And similarly you find that when they went out of the exile, they opened with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "And they set the altar upon its bases" (Ezra 3:3).[7]

 

            The midrash notes the principle that repeats itself throughout Scripture[8] that "we open with the [sacrificial] service," i.e., we begin with the altar, and only then do we continue with the building of the sanctuary. The spiritual significance of this principle is that the Shekhina rests upon Israel as a consequence of man's striving and turning toward God.

 

2)            The Rambam: The Altar of Earth Was Intended For the Period During Which Bamot Are Permitted

 

In the framework of the mitzva to build the Temple (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment 20), the Rambam explains that the command, "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," indicates that during certain periods – when bamot are permitted – the altar has independent standing:[9]

 

Regarding the altar, it is stated, "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," this verse implies that it is an independent commandment in addition to the commandment regarding the Mikdash. The matter is as I shall explain. According to the simple meaning of the verse, it is dealing with the period during which bamot are permitted; during this period, we are permitted to build an altar of earth anywhere and to sacrifice on it. The Sages already said that the idea is that He commanded to build an altar that is connected to the ground and that it should not be detached and portable as it was in the wilderness. This is what is stated in Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael in its explanation of this verse: When you enter the land make to Me an altar that is connected to the ground.[10]

 

            According to this explanation, which seems to fit in with the simple reading of the text, we fully understand the need for two separate commands, as the two passages deal with two altars that are entirely different in their essence, structure, function, and purpose. The altar of earth is the altar used during the period when bamot are permitted, whereas the brass altar is part of the Mishkan.

 

3)     The Seforno: The Altar of Earth – Used For the Sacrificial Service Prior to the Sin of the Golden Calf

 

In a previous lecture (lecture 29 in last year's series), we discussed at length the position of the Seforno, according to which the Shekhina's constriction to the Mishkan was be-di'eved, and the command, "An altar of earth you shall make to Me… in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you," reflects the situation that preceded the sin of the golden calf – the ideal situation, where the service of God was much more popularly oriented, conducted in many places and by way of representatives of each and every family.[11]

 

***

 

            The upcoming lectures will deal with the verse, "in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you and I will bless you," and with the allowance of bamot.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

[1] For the relationship between the sanctity of Sinai and the sanctity of the Mishkan and the Mikdash, see also lecture no. 20 in last year's series.

[2] This point was emphasized by I. Rosenson, Devarim Bamidbar – Iyyunim Parshaniyyim Be-Sefer Bamidbar (Jerusalem, 5764), pp. 30-31.

[3] There are, of course, many differences: God's command regarding the mountain's sanctity; its limitation in time; the fact that it is exclusively for the sake of the revelation; and others.

[4] We shall devote a separate lecture to clarify the issue of "the place." A separate lecture will also be dedicated to the allowance to offer sacrifices on the bamot (altars outside of the framework of the Mishkan) during certain periods.

[5] We shall not deal here with the relationship between the altar of earth and the altar of stone in the command in Parashat Yitro.

[6] Thus, the Netziv (Shemot 27:1) accounts for why the command regarding the building of the brass altar opens with the words, "ve-asita et ha-mizbe'ach," rather than "ve-asita mizbe'ach."

[7] Cited in Torah Sheleima, Yitro 521, in the name of Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (ed. Rav Hoffman).

[8] To the examples brought in the midrash we might add that the building of the First Temple began with the erection of an altar in the threshing floor of Aravna on Mount Moriya.

[9] See note 4.

[10] From what is stated in the continuation of the passage, it may be understood that the command regarding an altar of stone relates to the fixed altar in the Mikdash.

[11] A full discussion of the Seforno's position can be found in the aforementioned lecture.