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The Abrabanel on the Mishkan and Idolatry

Rav Yaakov Beasley
In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner z"l.



After the drama of the giving of the Torah in Parashat Yitro and the covenant of its acceptance in Parashat Mishpatim, highlighted by Bnei Yisrael's dramatic "na'aseh ve-nishma" and Moshe's ascent on the mountain, we are shocked to begin the next parasha with a listing of materials and instruction more suited for an architecture textbook.  For the next several chapters, the Torah provides us with the exact and precise directions for the construction and assembly of every section of the Mishkan in almost mind-numbing detail.    More serious questions arises for the more astute reader, questions best framed by the Abrabanel in the beginning of the his commentary to the parasha:


1.     Why did Hashem command us regarding the construction of the Mishkan by saying "I shall dwell among them," as if He were a circumscribed corporeal body limited in place, when this is the exact opposite of the truth?  He is not corporeal, He is not a material force, and He has no relation to place.  Of Him it is said (Yehsayahu 66:1) "The heaven is My throne and the earth is my footstool - where is the house that you may build for Me?  Where is the place of My rest?"  And Shlomo Ha-Melekh stated "Behold, the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built" (Melakhim Aleph 8:27)!

2.    Regarding the Keruvim that Hashem commanded to be placed on the seat of mercy, surely this would seem to violate the precept of "You shall not make a graven image!"  How could He command them to do that which they had been specifically warned against?

3.    Regarding the table and the showbread, what need was there for the commandment to place twelve loaves on that table with frankincense, and that no man should eat of them the whole week until the seventh day?  Was this for the need of Him on high?!  The bread was not consumed there, while Hashem had no need of it, since it is He who gives bread to all living things!


How can we deal with the apparent contradiction between the demands in this week's and next week's parashiot with the apparent and strident prohibitions against creating any physical likeness or image of Hashem?  Even the creation of a physical dwelling place appears to violate this principle!  This question was first asked in the Midrashic literature:


Elihu said:  "Hashem, we cannot find Him, excellent in power! (Iyov 16:23)" Perhaps, God forbid, this is blasphemy?   But this is what Elihu meant:  We shall never find Hashem's strength fully displayed towards any of his creatures, since he does not make burdensome demands on His creatures, but rather comes to each in accordance with his capacity [ability] … When Hashem said to Moshe: "Make Me a Mishkan," Moshe exclaimed in amazement:  The Glory of the Holy One, Blessed be He, fills the upper and lower heavens, and yet He says, "Make Me a Mishkan!!" … Said the Holy One, Blessed be He:  I do not think as you, but twenty boards to the north and twenty to the south, and five to the west, and I shall contract My presence and dwell amongst them.  (Shemot Rabbah ad. loc.)


The whole matter … of the Mishkan – what were they for?  Said Bnei Yisrael before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the world!  The kings of the gentiles have a tent, a table, candlesticks… and the likes of these are the trappings of sovereignty.  For every king needs such.  Yet You, who are our King and Redeemer, should there not be before You the trappings of sovereignty, till it be known to all the inhabitants of the world that You are the King?!

Hashem said to them:  My children!  You are flesh and blood need this; but as for Me, I need it not, since before Me there is neither eating nor drinking.  I have no need of light, as My servants prove, for the sun and the moon give light to the whole world and I enrich them with My light, and I shall watch over you for good, in virtue of the merits of your forefathers.

Bnei Yisrael replied to the Holy One:  Master of the world!  We do not seek the forefathers, for You are our father … Said the Holy One to them:  If so, make that which you desire, but make them as I command you … (Midrash Aggada Teruma)


Both of the midrashim above regard the commandment to build the Mishkan and its vessels as a concession to the limitations of human conception of corporeality.  However, a difference exists between them.  In the first midrash, the Mishkan constitutes the Divine prescription for humanity, while in the second midrash, it is a Divine response that required human initiative.   The first emphasizes Hashem's educational wisdom, based on His knowledge of the needs and character of humanity.  Only those charges that are congruent with man's abilities are commanded.  The second midrash emphasizes instead the limitations of men, who cannot maintain an abstract conception but demand its materialization.  However, the desire of humanity to maintain direct and lasting contact with the Divine remains.


What the midrash described in the form of a dialogue between Bnei Yisrael and Hashem the later commentators expressed in more philosophical terms.  The 15th century commentator, Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, suggests a similar purpose to the mishkan, but he adds an important dimension that understands the weakness alluded to earlier as a different one entirely:


The Divine intention behind the construction of the Mishkan was to combat the idea that Hashem had forsaken the earth, and that His throne was in heaven and remote from humanity.   To remove from their hearts this erroneous belief, He commanded them to make a Mishkan, as if to imply that He dwelt in their midst, so that they should believe that Hashem dwelt among them and that Divine Providence was ever present.


The fear that the Abrabanel alludes to is the same one that motivated the following comment of the Ibn Ezra (quoting Rabbi Yehuda Halevi) on the wording of the first of the Ten Commandments:


R. Judah Halevi, may he rest in honor asked me; Why did the text read: "I the Lord am thy God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt" and not: "Who made heaven and earth and made you, too"? This was my answer to him. Know that not everyone is capable of attaining the same level of faith. Some believe in God on the basis of hearsay. Those in authority tell them it is written in the Torah given by God to Moses. Should a heretic question their faith, they are dumbfounded because they do not know what to answer. One who aspires to master the sciences, which are stepping stones to the desired goal, will see the work of God in the animal, mineral, and vegetable around him, in the human body, the workings of every limb... he will master astronomy and the laws of nature. The ways of God will lead the philosopher to knowledge of God. This is what Moses meant when he said: "Make known to me Your ways and I shall know You" (Shemot 33:13). The Almighty stated in the first commandment: "I the Lord am Your God." Only a person of deep intellectual attainments will be satisfied with this formulation. The message of "I (am) the Lord" will satisfy the intellectual elite of any nation.

Now God had performed signs and wonders in Egypt till He brought them out from there to become their God. Thus said Moses (Devarim 4: 34): "Has God tried to take one nation from another?" In other words, God did for Israel what He did for no other people. Moses referred to the impact of the miracles the Almighty performed in Egypt when he stated (Devarim 4: 35): "You were made to see that you might know that the Lord is God." Everyone saw them — both the scholar and the laymen, old and young. He also added to the impact through the revelation of Sinai when they heard the voice of God (Devarim 4: 36) "From the heavens did He cause you to hear His voice, to instruct you."

Finally he referred to the absolute conviction that there is no God besides Him, to be attained by the believer through clear proofs; "Know this day and keep in mind that the Lord He is God, there is no other." "I the Lord" was meant for the intellectual: "who brought you out" for the non-intellectual.


But Judah Halevi's answer is completely different (the following summary follows Isaak Heinemann):  All other medieval authors, in presenting Judaism, pass from the general to the particular. They dwell first on the justification of faith in God and consider thereby to have proven the justification of religion as a contact with God and as a belief in historical revelation.  But Halevi does not start with natural phenomena and from there proceed to the Creator. The fact of revelation, recognized in ancient times and in our own day, is the proof of the belief in God; the attribution of organic wonders to a cosmic intelligence is, first, less convincing and acceptable, and second, only leads to a God of metaphysics and not a God of religion who is concerned for the individual and expects a definite reaction from him.


Fundamental for Halevi is the distinction between Aristotle's God, to whom "speculation alone conduces," and the God of Abraham, for whom "the soul yearns." Moses does not invoke the Creator in pressing Pharaoh to let the people go but the "God of the Hebrews."


Unlike the Ibn Ezra, Halevi teaches us that metaphysical conceptions of God are a poor substitute for the real thing and are designed for those who are incapable of rising to the level of faith. Note that Halevi does not explain the phrase ehyeh asher ehyeh, the name that Hashem presents at the burning bush, in philosophical abstract terms, as does the Rambam ("the existing that is existent"), but: "The existing one, existing for them whenever they seek me." Let them seek no stronger proof than My presence among them and accept me accordingly." If this is the true connotation of ehye asher ehye, then God made Himself known both to Moses at the first revelation and Israel on Sinai as the One who was always in contact with them: "I the Lord am thy God who brought you out of Egypt".  (Citation from Nechama Leibowitz on Parashat Yitro, at


In simple terms, for Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the fear of deism is greater than the fear of atheism.  For humanity, living in a world without a god is not as fearful as a world with a god who exists but is content to allow the world to proceed randomly by its own devices.  This, according to the Abrabanel, helps us rise above any scruples that we may have about transgressing the creation of graven images.  The visible sign that Hashem's Providence and caring stays with us always is always enough.


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