Lecture 97: The Structure of the Mishkan and Its Courtyard - The Difference Between the High Priest and an Ordinary Priest

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy






In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef ve-Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.





Rav Yitzchak Levi



            One of the fundamental distinctions in the Mishkan is the distinction between the structure of the Mishkan itself and the courtyard. Whereas the structure is closed, the courtyard is open; while entry into the structure is limited to the priests, ordinary Israelites are permitted to enter the courtyard.


            In this lecture, we will expand upon the differences between the Mishkan and the courtyard and the parallel between them and the High Priest and the ordinary priests.




            Many verses clearly distinguish between the Ohel Mo'ed and the altar. Regarding the wearing of the priestly garments, for example, the Torah states:


And they shall be upon Aharon and upon his sons when they come in the Ohel Mo'ed or when they come near to the altar to minister in the holy place, that they bear not iniquity and die; it shall be a statute for ever to him and his seed after him. (Shemot 28:43)


            Regarding the sanctification of the Mishkan:


And I will sanctify the Ohel Mo'ed, and the altar; I will sanctify also both Aharon and his sons, to minister to Me in the priest's office. (Shemot 29:44)[1]


            Regarding the washing of hands and feet:


When they go into the Ohel Mo'ed, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire to the Lord. (Shemot 30:20)


            Regarding the entry of priests with physical defects:


Only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come near to the altar, because he has a blemish, that he profane not my Holy places; for I am the Lord do sanctify them. (Vayikra 21:23)


            As for keeping the charge of the sanctuary:


And they shall keep Your charge and the charge of all the tent; only they shall not come near the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, that neither they, nor you die… And you shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar, that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel… Therefore, you and your sons with you shall keep your priest's office for everything that concerns the altar and within the veil, and you shall serve. I have given your priest's office to you as a service of gift; and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death. (Bamidbar 18:3-7)


            It is clear from all these sources that the Torah clearly distinguishes between two spheres of activity: the Ohel Mo'ed/within the veil and the altar. These correspond to the fundamental distinction described above between the roofed structure and the open courtyard.






            The Torah clearly distinguishes between a High Priest and an ordinary priest regarding the significance of their priestly garments. This emerges from several verses, some of which we shall cite below:


And the holy garments for Aharon the priest, and the garments of his sons to minister in the priest's office. (Shemot 31:10)


And you shall put upon Aharon the holy garments, and anoint him, and sanctify him, that he may minister to Me in the priest's office. And you shall bring his sons and clothe them with coats; and you shall anoint them, as you did anoint their father, that they may minister to Me in the priest's office. For their anointing shall be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations. (Shemot 40:13-15)


            The Torah makes a clear and sharp distinction between the garments of the High Priest, which are holy garments, and the garments of Aharon's sons, ordinary priests, whose mission is to minister in the priest's office.


            The Netziv in his commentary sharpens this point:


Regarding the garments of the ordinary priests, they were not commanded to make them in order to sanctify them, but in order to minster to God in the priest's office, that is, for their own sake. (Ha-Amek Davar, Shemot 28:6)


Since it was necessary that Aharon should sanctify himself and conduct himself with piety and abstention, set apart from the rest of Israel, and this would only be possible if he were distinguished in the eyes of the people, so that they should know and understand that he is at a higher level than them and not think it arrogance – for this reason it was advantageous for the garments to be in the eyes of Israel "for glory and beauty." And they understood from this that God delights to honor him, and that he is fit to be a chariot of the Shekhina. The same is true regarding every High Priest. This stands in contrast to the priestly garments of an ordinary priest, which were not for glory and beauty, except for the turbans on their heads, as I shall explain below on verse 40. But the High Priest was fit to be different in all his ways. (Shemot 28:2, s.v. le-khavod u-le-tiferet)


The Netziv distinguishes between the holy garments of Aharon and the garments of his sons. The garments of the High Priest were meant "to minister to Me in the priest's office” – for its sake, for sanctity – while among the garments of an ordinary priest, only the turban was for glory and beauty, but not the other garments.




            Another interesting point connected to this idea is the connection between the garments of the High Priest and the curtains of the Mishkan:


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


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. (Shemot 28:15)


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


There is then an interesting parallel between the materials out of which the garments of the High Priest and the Mishkan were made, as well as the manner in which they were made – the work of an artist. This parallel is not only a technical parallel, but is rather an essential matter that teaches about the essential connection between the High Priest and the Mishkan – the inner curtain. In an earlier shiur, we discussed the relationship between the High Priest and the Holy of Holies,[2] and it seems that this point arises once again here from a comparison involving the priestly garments.




            We also find a parallel between an ordinary priest and the hangings of the courtyard:


And you shall weave the coat of fine linen, and you shall make the miter of fine linen, and you shall make the girdle of embroidery. And for Aharon's sons you shall make coats, and you shall make for them girdles, and turbans shall you make for hem, for honor and for beauty. (Shemot 28:39-40)


And you shall make the court of the Mishkan; for the south side southward there shall be hangings for the court of fine twined linen of a hundred cubits long for one side. (Shemot 27:9)


Just as there is a connection between the High Priest's garments and the Mishkan, there is also a connection between the ordinary priest's garments and the hangings of the courtyard. The ordinary priest is more closely connected to the outer portion of the Mishkan.




            A quick examination of the verses shows that the main elements of service performed in the Heikhal are performed by Aharon the priest:


And Aharon shall burn upon it sweet incense every morning; when he dresses the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aharon lights the lamps at evening, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. (Shemot 30:7-8)


And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually. Outside the veil of the Testimony, in the Ohel Mo'ed, shall Aharon order it from evening unto morning before the Lord continually; it shall be a statute for ever in your generations. (Vayikra 24:1-3)

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Aharon, and say to him, When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the candlestick. And Aharon did so; he lighted its lamps over against the body of the candlestick, as the Lord commanded Moshe. (Bamidbar 8:1-3)


            As opposed to these verses, with respect to the lighting of the perpetual light, mention is made of Aharon and his sons:[3]


In the Ohel Mo'ed outside the veil, which is before the Testimony, Aharon and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord; it shall be a statute for ever to their generations on behalf of the children of Israel. (Shemot 27:21)


One possible explanation is that when the verse speaks here about Aharon's sons, it is referring not to an ordinary priest, but to the son of Aharon who will succeed him as High Priest. The Ibn Ezra, for example, understands the verse in this way:


And the words "Aharon and his sons" mean that Aharon the High Priest or one of his sons who stands in his place shall order it. (Shemot 27:21)


            This understanding is very clear in connection with the wafer (chavitin) meal-offering:

And the Lord said to Moshe, saying: This is the offering of Aharon and of his sons, which they shall offer to the Lord on the day when he is anointed: the tenth part of an efa of fine flour for a meal offering perpetual, half of it in the morning, and half of it at night… And the priest of his sons that is anointed to his place shall offer it. It is a statute for ever to the Lord; it shall be wholly burnt. (Vayikra 6:12-15)


            In addition, the Torah writes that entry into the Holy necessitates the wearing of a robe with pomegranates and bells of gold. ("And it shall be upon Aharon when he comes to minister: and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, that he die not;" Shemot 28:35). It stands to reason that were an ordinary priest to enter into the Holy, he too would have to wear a robe the sound of which could be heard when he goes into the holy place. Since there is no reference to such a robe, it is clear that an ordinary priest would never enter the Holy in order to perform a service there.


            In this sense, the High Priest belongs in his very essence to the Ohel Mo'ed, and he therefore may not leave the Mikdash. The High Priest belongs to the Ohel Mo'ed and represents it, which is not the case regarding an ordinary priest, who may defile himself by coming into contact with a close relative who died and who leaves the Mikdash in order to do so.


            In contrast to the High Priest who serves in the Holy, his sons the priests, and in later generations ordinary priests, serve in the courtyard – at the altar. A division exists between the realms of service between the High Priest and ordinary priests, which parallels the distinction between the garments of the High Priest and those of the ordinary priest. The garments correspond to their realms of activity – those of the High Priest to the Mishkan and those of the ordinary priest to its courtyard.


            According to this understanding, the High Priest is at a special level not shared by the ordinary priest. This distinction may be rooted in the assembly at Mount Sinai:[4]


And the Lord said to him: Go, get you down, and you shall come up, you, and Aharon with you; but let not the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break forth upon them. (Shemot 19:24)


Here too a distinction is made between Moshe and Aharon, who may go up the mountain, and the rest of the priests and the people, who are forbidden to do so. As has been noted at length in previous lectures, the Mishkan served as a continuation and perpetuation of the assembly at Mount Sinai for later generations. Accordingly, in the Mishkan, Moshe and Aharon are permitted to enter the Holy, but Aharon's sons the priests may not.


            It is important to note that in later generations ordinary priests did indeed serve in the Holy. Several solutions were suggested by the Rishonim to resolve the discrepancy between the plain sense of the verses and the halakha as decided by Chazal:


1) In two places in his commentary, the Ramban explains that the service is attributed to Aharon because he was the first to perform it and he was zealous in his performance of it:


"And Aharon shall burn upon it" – This mitzva is not limited to the High Priest, but rather it applies even to ordinary priests, as is the case with the lighting of the lamps that is found next to it, regarding which it also says: "And when Aharon lights the lamps" (v. 8). But it is not limited to the High Priest, as is stated above: "Aharon and his sons shall order it" (27:21). I do not know why it mentions Aharon in both cases, rather than the priest. Perhaps because of what the verse says below: "And Aharon shall sprinkle upon the horns" (v. 10), which is limited to Aharon, or in order to allude that Aharon should start with the incense and with the lamps. And so too it says at the end of Emor: "Aharon shall order it" (Vayikra 24:3), and it does not mention his sons, because he should start with it. (Shemot 30:7)


To say that he would light it all his days, even though the mitzva is valid by way of his sons, as it is stated: "Aharon and his sons shall order it" (Shemot 27:21). But he was zealous in this great mitzva which alludes to a supernal matter and sublime mystery. Perhaps this was alluded to him by the verse, "Outside the veil of Testimony, in the Ohel Mo'ed, shall Aharon order it from evening unto morning" (Vayikra 24:3), for God chose him in his lifetime. And for this reason it says here as well: "Speak to Aharon: When you light the lamps" (v. 4), and it does not say: "Speak to Aharon and his sons: When you light the lamps." (Bamidbar 8:3)


2) The Chizkuni in his commentary proposes that the reference is not specifically to the High Priest:


"And Aharon shall burn upon it" – not necessarily Aharon, for surely the incense can be brought even by an ordinary priest, from the fact that the verse hangs the incense upon the lamps, as it is written: "When he dresses the lamps, he shall burn incense," and we find regarding the lamps, that they are fit even [when lit] by an ordinary priest, as it is written: "Aharon and his sons shall order it." (Shemot 27:21)


3) The Meshekh Chokhma relates to the special status of the High Priest:

"And the veil shall be for you as a division between the holy place and the most holy" (Shemot 26:33). This might relate to what is stated in I Divrei Ha-yamim 23:13: "And Aharon was separated, that he should be sanctified as most holy." And this is what it says that the veil should separate for you between the holy and the most holy, for Aharon who is commanded to enter within the veil is "the most holy," but someone who is only "holy" is forbidden to enter within the veil.

And this is what says: "And it shall be for you as a division," for from the perspective of God who dwells between the keruvim there is no difference, for "the whole world is full of His glory;" only from your perspective is there a difference. (Shemot 26:33)


            Elsewhere, the Meshekh Chokhma explains that the verse attributes the burning of the incense and the dressing of the lamps to Aharon because he was the first to perform these services:


And regarding the candlestick, it says: "Aharon shall order it" (Vayikra 24:3). That which regarding the candlestick it says "Aharon," and similarly regarding the incense [it says] "Aharon" (Shemot 30:8-10), even though they are fit with ordinary priests, is because on the eighth day of milu'im, Moshe performed the service, as Rashi explained at the end of [Parashat] Pekudei on the verse: "And he offered upon it the burnt-offering" (Shemot 40:29), that all the communal service was performed by Moshe. And therefore regarding the fashioning of the candlestick in Parashat Teruma there is no mention of its being lit, and regarding the fashioning of the table it says: "And you shall set upon the table showbread before me always" (Shemot 25:30) – for Moshe did it the first time. And so explained Rashi at the end of Pekudei on "And he lighted the lamps" (40:25), as it is written: "When he dresses the lamps, he shall burn incense on it" (30:6), which means that this burning and the dressing of the lamps was performed by Aharon already the first time. And so it is written at the end of Tetzaveh: "Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs of the first year" (29:38) – that this was offered by Moshe on the eighth day of milu'im. "And Aharon shall burn upon it… and when Aharon dresses the lamps" (30:7-8) – that Aharon did this even the first time. And therefore it says here: "And you shall set them," "And you shall put pure frankincense," for this Moshe had to do immediately during the week that the Mishkan was set up. This stands in contrast to the incense and the lamps, regarding which it says "Aharon," to allude that Moshe must not do it, only Aharon and his sons. And regarding the showbread it says: "And it shall be Aharon's" (v. 9) – he should eat it, even though Moshe did [the service]. This is simple. (Vayikra 24:5, s.v. ve-lakachta solet)


4) An interesting explanation is brought by the Seforno. In contrast to the previously cited Rishonim, the Seforno relates to the wilderness as a period of time with special spiritual meaning that parallels what was accepted for future generations regarding Yom Kippur. According to him, this is the reason that in the wilderness Aharon burned the incense and lit the lamps, just as in future generations these services would be performed on Yom Kippur exclusively by the High Priest.


"Aharon shall burn it" – Even though the lighting of the lamps and similarly the burning of the incense is valid in future generations [when performed] by an ordinary priest, as was received by the Sages, of blessed memory – nevertheless, regarding both of them it says "Aharon." For during the entire period of the wilderness, the Mishkan every day was like the Mishkan in future generations on Yom Kippur, about which it is stated: "For I appear in the cloud upon the ark cover" (Vayikra 16:2). And this is because regarding all the days of the wilderness, it says: "For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and the fire was on it by night" (Shemot 40:38). And therefore it was fitting that the burning of the incense and the lighting of the lamps which are performed inside should be performed by the High Priest, as is the case for future generations on Yom Kippur. (Vayikra 24:3)




            Based on what we have learned in this lecture, it is possible to propose a clear division of the Mishkan:


            On the one hand, there is the closed structure in which the service is performed exclusively by the High Priest (in the wilderness, exclusively by Aharon), while on the other hand, there is the open courtyard, where the service is performed by ordinary priests (in the wilderness, the sons of Aharon). One part of the structure is an inner, concealed chamber, and it is impossible to see what it contains without entering inside, whereas another part is open to view, and it is possible to see what is taking place in it.


            This division also establishes that the realm of the Mishkan is holy, whereas the realm of service in the courtyard is the ordinary priest's realm of activity. In this sense, the courtyard containing the burnt-offering altar is the place that prepares for entry into the Mishkan itself, into which an ordinary priest does not enter.


            This distinction also accords with the relationship between the materials used in the Mishkan and the materials found in the courtyard. The materials used in the Mishkan are more distinguished and expensive. Thus, for example, it is a striking fact that the sockets in the courtyard were made of brass, as opposed to the sockets of the Mishkan, which were made of silver. So too the hooks and joints of the pillars of the courtyard were made of silver, whereas the boards of the Mishkan were made of shittim wood and plated with gold. So too the burnt-offering altar in the courtyard was made of brass, whereas the vessels found in the Heikhal were made of gold (the candlestick) or plated with gold (the table and the incense altar).


            The difference in materials clearly points to the fact that the structure of the Mishkan is different from and more sanctified than the courtyard. Gold and silver are more precious than brass, just as the curtains of blue and purple and scarlet and fine twined linen the work of an artist are more precious than the hangings of the courtyard that are made of fine twined linen.


            There is an interesting relationship between the various coverings of the vessels that were used when the Mishkan was in transit in the wilderness, as they are described in Bamidbar 4. The vessels found in the inner section had a covering of blue, whereas the outer altar had a covering of scarlet. The different coverings allude to the fundamental distinction between the vessels in the structure of the Mishkan and under its curtains and the outer altar in the open courtyard.


            Thus we see that the distinction between the Mishkan and the courtyard, between the High Priest and an ordinary priest, clearly corresponds to the differences in the materials found in each area. Accordingly, the outer and open courtyard leads to the closed and more sanctified Mishkan.




            When we examine the spiritual meaning of this division, it seems that several points should be noted:


            Firs, according to this proposal, there is no difference between the Holy and the Holy of Holies. Both of them are part of the structure of boards covered with the curtains.


            In light of this, it may be suggested that the entire structure is a revelation of the resting of the Shekhina, whereas the courtyard containing the outer altar is the place where man serves God in His house. According to this division, it is interesting that despite the fact that the Heikhal houses vessels that the priest uses in his service on a daily basis, the place is regarded as the site of the revelation of the Shekhina.


            Great importance is attached to the relationship between the place where the service is conducted and the place where the Shekhina rests, and therefore the Torah clearly emphasizes the location of the burnt-offering altar at the entrance of the Ohel Mo'ed.


            There is room to raise the possibility[5] that there is an essential difference between the Mishkan and the courtyard.


            The Rambam in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (positive precept 20) counts the mitzva of building the Mikdash, and includes within it the fashioning of the vessels. The Ra'avad objects: "Why did he omit building an altar of whole stones?" According to the Ra'avad, the other vessels are not counted as separate mitzvot, for they are included in the mitzva of building the Mikdash, but the building of the burnt-offering altar must be counted as a separate mitzva.


            It may be suggested that in the First Temple, as opposed to the Mishkan, the burnt-offering altar stood as a independent entity, separate from the rest of the Mikdash. According to the Rambam, the mitzva regarding the Temple includes all the vessels found in it. Preparing God's house includes all its vessels and furnishings, and anything needed for any of the services performed, as it were, for the sake of God in His place of residence.


            This is not true about the outer altar, which served not God, but rather Israel, in that it achieved atonement on their behalf. It was not a vessel that was part of the house of God, but rather one of the vessels of Israel, who served God in front of his house.


            Accordingly, there are two commandments: the commandment to build a house for God including all its vessels, and the commandment to build an altar for Israel.


            This understanding, according to which there is the house of God and its vessels on one side, and the altar for the service of Israel on the other, finds support in the words of David in Divrei Ha-yamim, when the site designated for the Temple is revealed to him: "And David said: This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt offering for Israel" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:1).


            As opposed to this reality in the Temple, Prof. Henschke argues that in the Mishkan, the altar stood (as emphasized by the Torah) at the entrance of the Ohel Mo'ed. We are not dealing here with two separate domains, but rather with meeting. The mitzva of building the Ohel Mo'ed includes the building of the brass altar, the service upon which was also part of the meeting.


            It should first be noted that it is not necessarily the halakhic determination that bestows the spiritual meaning, as that may rise from the verses themselves.


            On the other hand, there is room to consider the extent to which the burnt-offering altar is actually one of the furnishings of the royal palace, or whether its location in the courtyard reflects its belonging to what the people of Israel are commanded to do - not in the structure, but rather outside it - so that it is not an essential furnishing of the palace.


            The palace includes only those vessels that are found inside the structure, but not that which is found in the courtyard.


            In the Torah's description of the Mishkan, there is no doubt that the fact that the altar is something the exact image of which God showed to Moshe turns it into a vessel for the resting of the Shekhina. This is a clear continuation of the assembly at Mount Sinai, where God appeared to Israel at the top of the mountain, and Israel offered sacrifices to God on an "altar under the mountain" (Shemot 24:4).


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] It is possible that the Torah alludes here to a clear connection between Aharon and the Ohel Mo'ed and between his sons and the altar. We will expand upon this idea below.

[2] Lecture no. 94: "The Screens, the Entrance to the Courtyard, the Entrance to the Ohel Mo'ed, and the Veil."

[3] The parallel verse in Vayikra 24:3 speaks only of Aharon, but not of his sons, and similarly in Shemot 27:21.

[4] So too suggests R. Meir Shpiegelman in his shiurim.

[5] Prof. David Henschke, in his article, "Mishkan Ha-Edut U-Bet Ha-Bechira Le-Beirur Shel Niggud," Megadim 11 (Tammuz 5790), p. 52, n. 109, suggests this approach of the Ra'avad in his strictures to the Rambam's count of the mitzvot. Henschke relates to the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, not in the Mishkan.