The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar delineates the specific areas of responsibility assigned to the three Levite families – Gershon, Kehat and Merari – when Benei Yisrael traveled, as each group was responsible for carrying different parts of the Mishkan. The Kehat family was responsible for carrying the most sacred articles of the Mishkan – the ark, the table, the menorah and the two altars. The Torah also mentions that the Kehatites were assigned “ha-masakh ve-khol avodato” – “the curtain and all its work” (3:31). As Rashi explains, this refers to the parokhet, the curtain that hung inside the Mishkan to divide between the outer chamber, where the altar, table and menorah were situated, and the kodesh ha-kodashim – the most sacred chamber, where the ark was placed. The parokhet was included among the articles which were transported by the Kehat family, and we indeed read later in the parasha (4:5) that the aron was covered by the parokhet during travel, and so the Kehatites essentially covered the ark and parokhet together.
Netziv, in his Ha’amek Davar, raises the question as to the meaning of the phrase “ve-khol avodato” – “and all its work” – in this verse. What “work,” he asks, was entailed with the parokhet? The Torah later writes that the kohanim – not the Kehatites – would cover the ark with the parokhet before travel. Seemingly, then, there was no “work” required by the Kehatites with regard to the parokhet. What does the Torah mean when it speaks of the “work” associated with the parokhet?
Netziv answers by noting the Mishna’s comment in Masekhet Shekalim (8:5) that a new parokhet was made every year. (The Mishna actually says that two parokhot were made each year, because the parokhet consisted of two different curtains, as discussed in Masekhet Yoma 51b.) If a new parokhet was woven each year, Netziv writes, then we may presume that this role was assigned to a particular family of Leviyim. It stands to reason, then, that when the Torah speaks of “work” involved in the parokhet, it refers to this responsibility of weaving a new parokhet each year, a task which the Torah here tells us was assigned to the Kehat family.
It should be noted, however, that the Rosh, in his commentary to Masekhet Tamid (29b), raises the possibility that the Mishna refers not to the parokhet hung outside the kodesh ha-kodashim, but rather to the curtain that hung at the entrance to the Beit Ha-mikdash. This curtain would become soiled as a result of the daily exposure to the smoke of the ketoret (incense offering), and therefore needed to be replaced each year. Netziv, in his comments, assumes the second explanation given by the Rosh, that the Mishna speaks of the parokhet outside the kodesh ha-kodashim.
Interestingly, the Tiferet Yisrael (in Shekalim) raises the question of how it was possible that a new parokhet was made each year. The Mishna there in Shekalim observes that the parokhet was very large and exquisite. Requiring a new parokhet each year would thus appear to violate the principle of “ha-Torah chasa al mamonam shel Yisrael” – the Torah ensures not to impose an unreasonable financial burden upon Am Yisrael. The Tiferet Yisrael therefore advances an entirely different reading of the Mishna. He explains the Mishna to mean that an extra parokhet was always available because the parokhet would be taken down to be immersed each year after Sukkot, due to the possibility that it had become tamei. A second parokhet was therefore needed to be hung in the interim while the standard parokhet was being immersed.
Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, in his Chashukei Chemed (Shavuot 11a), suggests maintaining the straightforward reading of the Mishna, that a new parokhet was indeed made each year, explaining that this was necessary because the parokhet was stained by the sprinkling of blood on Yom Kippur. The special Yom Kippur service included the sprinkling of sacrificial blood on the parokhet (Yoma 57a), and thus the parokhet became dirtied each year on Yom Kippur. As it was disrespectful to keep a dirty parokhet, it was necessary to replace it each year, and this justified the expense involved.