Lecture 41: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XIX) - The Mishkan in the Camp and in Transit (Part III) - The Vessels of the Mishkan During the Journey

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



            In this lecture, we will complete our examination of the journeys and camping of the Mishkan and turn our attention to the location of the vessels during the course of the journey. The lecture will be divided into two parts: the first part will deal with the process of disassembling the Mishkan and with the vessels of the Mishkan over the course of the journey, whereas the second part will deal with the location of the ark during the journey.


I.              Disassembling and Transporting the Mishkan


We noted in the past (see especially lecture no. 20 in last year's series) the transient character of the sanctity of the Mishkan (which is a continuation of the transient character of the sanctity of Mount Sinai). This temporariness expressed itself most strongly during the years that the Mishkan was in the wilderness, when the Mishkan served as a mobile Mikdash, moving frequently from one station to the next.[1] Every journey began with the Mishkan being disassembled and ended with it being put back together, a process which defined anew the sanctity of the camp of the Shekhina, the camp of the Levites, and the camp of Israel. These tasks were cast, as may be recalled, on the Levites:


But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, and over all its vessels, and over all things that belong to it; they shall bear the tabernacle, and all its vessels, and they shall minister to it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle. And when the tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death. (Bamidbar 1:50-51)[2]


            The transport of the Mishkan was divided between the three branches of the tribe. The ark and the rest of the holy vessels were carried by the sons of Kehat on their shoulders.[3]


And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service. (3:31)


            The sons of Gershon carried the curtains that formed the body of the Mishkan:


And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the Tent of Meeting shall be the tabernacle, and the tent, its covering and the screen for the door of the Tent of Meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it for all its service. (ibid. vv. 25-26)


            And the sons of Merari carried the frame of the Mishkan:


And under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the tabernacle, and its bars, and its pillars, and its sockets, and all its vessels, and all that belongs to it. And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pegs, and their cords. (ibid. vv. 36-37)[4]


            The work of the Levites connected to the taking apart and transport of the Mishkan is spelled out in detail in chapter 4 of the book of Bamidbar, and here we see a significant difference between the sons of Kehat and the sons of Gershon and Merari. Whereas the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari were in charge not only of carrying various elements of the Mishkan, but also of taking it apart and putting it back together again,[5] the sons of Kehat were only responsible for carrying the vessels of the Mishkan. Removing the vessels from their appointed places and preparing them for the journey were tasks that fell upon the priests, the Levites taking no part in the process.


            The disassembly of the Mishkan begins in the Holy of Holies:


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. (4:5-6)


            Once the veil was removed, there was no longer any distinction between the heart of the Mishkan, the Holy of Holies, and the Holy, and thus, essentially, the entire structure of the Mishkan could be regarded as having been taken apart. The priests then covered the ark with the veil and with two additional covers: the covering of tachash skins, which was meant to protect the ark and the veil from damage caused by the weather (sun, dust, rain, and the like), and the cloth wholly of blue. Afterwards (ibid. vv. 7-14), the priests prepared the rest of the vessels for the journey, and they too were given two coverings each: a covering of tachash skins and a cloth of blue, purple or crimson.[6]


            The Torah clearly distinguishes between the work of the sons of Kehat, carrying the covered vessels, and the covering of the vessels, which was permitted only to the priests:


And when Aharon and his sons made an end of covering the sanctuary and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward - after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting. (ibid. v. 15)


            Moreover, God once again casts upon the priests responsibility for the welfare of the sons of Kehat:


And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, "Do not cut off the tribe of families of the Kehati from among the Levites; but thus do to them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach the most holy things: Aharon and his sons shall go in, and appoint them every one to his service and to his burden, but they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die." (ibid. vv. 17-20)


            It is the priests' duty to set the sons of Kehat, "every one to his service and to his burden," only after the vessels have been covered, lest the sons of Kehat see "when the holy things are covered" – that is, the covering of the vessels[7] – "lest they die." Opinions differ as to the scope of the prohibition to see the holy vessels being covered. Most Rishonim understand that it relates exclusively to the ark,[8] but Rabbenu Avraham the son of the Rambam writes (Ma'aseh Nissim, letter bet) that this prohibition applies to all of the holy vessels while they were being carried.[9]


II.            The Location of the Ark while in Transit and the Relationship between the Ark and the Cloud


According to what we learned in the previous two lectures, the camp was led by the cloud, whereas the ark, together with the rest of the vessels of the Mishkan, journeyed in the middle of the camp, following the first two banners. As is stated explicitly: "Then the Tent of Meeting shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp" (2:17). Toward the end of the account of Israel's first journey, however, we find the following:


And they departed from the mountain of the Lord three days' journey. And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp. (10:33-34)


            How can this passage be reconciled with what we have seen thus far?


            Rashi (following the Sifrei Bamidbar 82) is consistent with his own opinion (Devarim 10:2; and see lecture no. 5 in last year's series) that there were two arks: the ark fashioned by Betzalel and the ark fashioned by Moshe, in which the tablets of the Law were temporarily stored and in which the broken tablets were later placed. The first ark traveled with the Mishkan in the midst of the camp, whereas the latter ark went out to war with Israel and journeyed before them to search out a resting place.


This explanation, however, does not help commentators like the Ramban, who maintain that there was only one ark (see the aforementioned lecture). According to him, we must explain why the passage in Bamidbar 10 describes a situation that is so different than the situation described earlier. What is the reason for the change, and what is its significance?


            One possibility, adopted by the Ibn Ezra (10:33) and apparently also by the Ramban (ibid., and see Rav Chavel's comment in his edition [note 82 in Torat Chayyim ed.]), is that the order of the journey described at the end of chapter 10 is indeed exceptional and that it was followed only once during the first journey. The rest of the journeys, however, were conducted in accordance with the order described earlier. This solution seems to accord with the plain meaning of the verses – that is to say, that the end of chapter 10 is indeed an account of the first journey, and not a general description of the journeys. One point, however, still requires clarification: Why was the first journey different than the rest?


            Rav Yoel Bin-Nun[10] proposed an explanation based on the famous midrash regarding the two inverted nuns that surround the two-verse passage with which the account of the journey concludes – "Nun And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, 'Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered; and let those who hate You flee before You.' And when it rested, he said, 'Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel' Nun" (10:35-36):


Our Rabbis taught: "And it came to pass when the ark set forward that Moshe said, [etc.]" – The Holy One, blessed be He, provided signs for this section above and below, to teach that this is not its place… For it was taught: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: This section will eventually be removed from here and written in its [proper] place.[11]  Why then was it written here? In order to provide a break between the first calamity and the second calamity. What is the second calamity? "And the people were as murmurers, [etc.]" (Bamidbar 11:1). The first calamity? And they "moved away from the mount of the Lord" (ibid. 10:33), which Rabbi Chama beRabbi Chanina expounded [as meaning] that they turned away from following the Lord.[12] (Shabbat 115b-116a)


            Rav Bin-Nun understands that according to this view in Chazal, "the first calamity that struck the people of Israel immediately following their setting forward from Mount Sinai caused the change in the order of the journey." In other words, the first journey veered from the accepted order, as argued by the Ibn Ezra, but this deviation was not planned; rather, it stemmed from a sudden calamity that struck the people of Israel on this journey. What was the nature of this calamity? Rav Bin-Nun continues:


Chazal explained the sin that caused this calamity – "that they ran away from the mountain of the Lord like a child running away from school." But they did not explain what the calamity was. It might be surmised that this calamity was a war with the Amaleki tribes, who once again raided the camp just before they set forward from Mount Sinai. Since the Amalekis attacked Israel, the order of the journey changed: Instead of the cloud leading the camp toward Eretz Israel, it went to protect them from above. Thus, the festive, ceremonious and distinguished journey from Mount Sinai turned into a journey of war, the echoes of which we hear in the passage of "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward:" "Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered; and let those who hate You flee before You."


            Another possibility is that the two accounts reflect two different aspects of the governance of Israel in the wilderness. Rav Bin-Nun writes as follows (ibid.):


A possible explanation of the contradiction between the two accounts is based on the "theory of aspects," known to us through Rav Mordechai Breuer, z"l: It is possible that one aspect describes the journey by way of a miracle, and the other by natural means. According to the first aspect, the cloud lead, and according to the second, the ark set forward before them to search for a resting place, the cloud protected the camp, and Moshe was in need of the help of Chovev the Midianite.[13]


            Rav Bin-Nun does not develop this second possibility (he is primarily interested in the previous possibility), but this task was undertaken by Israel Rosenson,[14] who sees the cloud and the ark as two different models of sanctity and governance.


            The cloud is a miraculous entity, which no human can summon and whose conduct no one can influence. This quality determines the quality of its governance:[15] miraculous governance, the logic and order of which is not always clear and evident and which sets before the people of Israel the fundamental religious challenge of obeying God. The response expected of Israel to the cloud's governance is: "Then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord" (9:19)! In the framework of this governance, the ark sets forward in the clear and rigid, orderly and well-arranged journey formation of the Mishkan, applying to all the components of the disassembled Mishkan; it sets forward covered and it does not lead, but is rather located in the center.


            According to Rosenson, the integration of the ark in the account of the first journey comes to present the antithesis of the cloud. Let us examine his main ideas on the topic:


The feeling that is likely to arise is that an entirely different model is being presented here… We are clearly dealing here with a different formation that sharply turns the previous order of sanctity in a different direction. If previously the primary concern was concealing the ark during the disassembly stage, and this connects with its being part – as important as it may be, only part – of the sanctified apparatus, here there is an element of independence in its presence and in its action, independence which expresses itself in its standing on its own, detached from Moshe… and at a great distance which intensifies the sanctity demanding distance, and at the same time, prevents it from being seen and, in this sense, also from being used.[16]

This analysis connects with "the mountain of the Lord," i.e., Mount Sinai, which is mentioned here. We noted above that it is almost totally absent from the discussion in our book. We explained that it represents a different model of sanctity connected to the presence of God in nature, whereas here the focus is on the Mishkan, which is the handiwork of man. The connection made in the verse between the independent ark and the mountain strengthens the idea that we are dealing where with a different model. An independent ark that is not chained to the framework of a Mishkan that is built and disassembled, which sets countless rules regarding its state and presence, fits in from the perspective of the model to the situation of the (apparent) lack of Mishkan represented by the mountain.

Moshe's prayer is connected to this background: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, 'Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.' And when it rested, he said, 'Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel'" (10:35-36). It seems that the situation that underlies and moves this prayer is the independent ark – so independent that it is first described without Moshe, and now the first effect of the prayer, before we understand is conceptual meaning, is its connection to Moshe! The need for a prayer reflects the need to return the "lonely" ark to some framework. Even if there is value and significance to an ark that is detached from its context in the Mishkan, it must be part of some other "order" – that will connect it to the religious world of prayer and governance…

The ark stirs up prayer… If we return to the cloud that stands in the background, it is clear that the cloud only gives rise to "keeping the charge." It is the way of the world that keeping the charge is passive; we can only guess that from an educational perspective the passage dealing with the ark comes to add an active dimension to the general system of governance in the wilderness in order to bring to the required balance.[17]




            With this we conclude our examination of the camping and journeys of the Mishkan. The coming lectures will deal with the idea of "the place that God will choose."


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] In Eretz Israel, there were fewer stations, and these served as fixed sites of the Mishkan for longer periods of time. At the same time, the close connection between the Mishkan and the camp of Israel that surrounded it disappeared. One of the consequences of this change – the allowance of meat to satisfy one's appetite according to the position of Rabbi Yishmael – was discussed in lecture no. 33.

[2] Unless specified otherwise, all verses referred to in this lecture are found in the book of Bamidbar.

[3] Even though Gershon was Levi's firstborn, Kehat was given more distinguished status, perhaps by virtue of his grandsons Moshe and Aharon.

[4] The wagons and oxen given by the tribal princes at the dedication of the Miskhan were divided up in accordance with this division (see 7:1-9): Two wagons and four oxen were given to the sons of Gershon, who carried a lighter load, and four wagons and eight oxen were given to the sons of Merari, who carried the heavier elements of the Mishkan; "but to the sons of Kehat he gave none; because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders."

[5] This follows from the plain sense of Scripture, and it is stated explicitly in Baraita De-Melekhet ha-Mishkan, chap. 13.

[6] The different cloths were meant to honor the vessels and give expression to their essence even during the journey. I hope to expand upon the covers of the vessels when we discuss the structure of the Mikdash.

[7] This is followed by Onkelos's translation and is the opinion of most of the commentators who focus on the plain sense of the text. The Chizkuni explains that the words "when the holy things are covered" refer to the taking down of the Mishkan: "When they take down the Mishkan and thus uncover the ark, if their eyes feed on it, they will die." So, too, writes the Ibn Ezra in his first explanation: "This means that when they remove the structure, and take down the veil of the screen, and the ark is revealed." The Ramban also refers to the words of Chazal in Sanhedrin (61b): "This is a warning to one who steals a holy vessel that he is liable for the death penalty… for robbery and theft are called beli'a."

[8] This is the opinion of the Rashbam, the Ibn Ezra, the Ramban, and the Chizkuni. See lecture no.9 in last year's series, where we showed that the word mikdash (and perhaps also kodesh) refers in its restricted sense to the ark. According to these authorities, the prohibition is rooted in the idea that "no man shall see me and live" (Shemot 33:20), or in other factors relating to the ark, such as its being the site of the resting of the Shekhina (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example, explains in his commentary to these verses that the Torah forbids sensual viewing of the holy, because it must be regarded exclusively in a spiritual manner).

[9] For further discussion of this prohibition, see Rav Y. Nachshoni, Hagut Be-Farshiyot Ha-Torah (Bnei Brak, 5744), pp. 568-572. He deals, for example, with the questions of whether the prohibition was only for that time or for all generations, whether it applies only to the Levites or to the priests as well, and others.

[10] VBM, Ra'ayanot al Parashat Ha-Shavua, "Parashat Beha'alotekha – 'Vayehi Bi-Neso'a Ha-Aron'" (http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/yomyom/k/k24.php).

[11] In the continuation, the gemara asks: "And where is its [rightful] place?" And Rav Ashi answers: "In [the chapter on] the banners." Rashi explains that the reference is to the portion dealing with the banners in Parashat Bamidbar. The Ramban (in his commentary to Bamidbar 10:35-36), on the other hand, explains that the rightful place of this passage is immediately following the verse describing the setting forward of the sons of Kehat with the holy vessels (10:21).

[12] Rashi there explains: "From following the Lord – within three days into their journey the multitude lusted and complained about meat in order to rebel against the Holy One, blessed be He." The Tosafot (Shabbat 115a, s.v. pur'anut) and the Ramban (in his commentary to Bamidbar 10:35-36), on the other hand, explain that the reference is to the midrash on the words, "And they set out from the mountain of the Lord" (10:33), that "they joyously set out from Mount Sinai like a child running away from school, saying, Lest He give us more commandments. This is 'And they set out from the mountain of the Lord' – their intention was to remove themselves from there because it was the mountain of the Lord" (Ramban, ibid.).

[13] As is stated in the previous verses: "And Moshe said to Chovav, the son of Re'u'el, the Midyanite, Moshe's father-in-law, 'We are journeying to the place of which the Lord said, I will give it to you; come you with us, and we will do you good, for the Lord has spoken good concerning Israel.' And he said to him, 'I will not go, but I will depart to my own land, and to my kindred.' And he said, 'Leave us not, I pray you; since you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and you may be to us instead of eyes'" (10:29-31). We will not expand upon this in this context.

[14] I. Rosenson, Devarim Ba-MidbarIyyunim Parshaniyim Be-Sefer Bamidbar (Jerusalem, 5764), pp. 112-116. It is important to note that Rosenson does not use the term "aspects" (bechinot), and he seems to view the two possibilities as two models that can be reconciled even on the practical level.

[15] Regarding the governance of the cloud according to the interpretation of Rosenson, see the previous lecture.

[16] This assertion is based on Rosenson's interpretation (not cited here) of the words, "And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them," according to which over the course of the journey the ark distanced itself from the camp a typoligical distance of "three days' journey." In the continuation there, Rosenson proves this from the contrast between our verses and what is written in the book of Yehoshua, which portrays "an entirely clear situation of technical-geographical guidance by way of the ark of the covenant of the Lord:" "When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests of the Lord bearing it, they you shall remove from your place, and go after it, yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure; come not near to it; that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way heretofore" (Yehoshua  3:3-4). He suggests: "In the book of Yehoshua, there is no mention of a miraculous cloud… and therefore the leading of the ark becomes more defined and more concrete, that is, more natural; under these circumstances, the ark becomes the effective leader. According to this we can understand the integration of the ark into our passage as representing the antithesis of the cloud."

[17] We have cited here only part of Rosenson's argument, and it is highly recommended that one read it in its entirety. Over the course of the entire chapter, Rosenson develops important ideas regarding "the guiding factors of the journey," and he concludes the chapter with a discussion of the significance of these factors, with their different characteristics, in connection with his understanding of the idea of sanctity.