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Ordering Principles of the 'Mishkan'

Rav Michael Hattin
In memory of Joseph Y. Nadler and Evelyn Glick Bloom z"l.



With the beginning of Parashat Teruma, the Book of Shemot begins its most lengthy narrative section, a section that will not be properly conclude until the end of the book itself.  Although interrupted along the way by a series of arresting episodes that may or may not be directly related to this larger topic, the major thrust of the account is to describe and detail the 'Mishkan.'  This edifice, often translated as 'Tabernacle' based upon a Latin root that addresses its tent-like qualities, was the portable shrine that the people of Israel constructed to accompany them during their wanderings.  The purpose of the structure, composed of easily disassembled transportable elements, is suggested by its Hebrew names; besides 'Mishkan,' the Torah also sometimes refers to it as 'Ohel Moed' or 'the Tent of Meeting.' 


'Mishkan' comes from the root 'ShaKhaN,' which means 'dwelling,' and the appended prefix (the letter mem) indicates 'the place of.'  Thus, translated literally, the Mishkan suggests the 'place of God's dwelling' or 'His presence' and aptly describes the building's primary function: to serve as the stage for the experience of God.  This central objective is further amplified by the building's other name, for 'Tent of Meeting' refers specifically to the possibility of encountering or 'meeting' the Divine at that place.  Thus, Ramban (Thirteenth century, Spain) perceptively understood that the singular experience of the Revelation at Sinai of which we just read, an event seemingly unique and unrepeatable, could actually continue reverberating through the medium of the Mishkan.  This so-called 'Tent of Meeting' represented the possibility of preventing the Sinai encounter from dissipating, for, as the Ramban writes at the beginning of Parashat Teruma, the "essence of the Mishkan was the notion that God's glory, manifest at Mount Sinai, could be continuously felt in a more intimate way."  The Revelation at Sinai, where God had spoken to the people of Israel and revealed His Torah, could therefore be not only remembered and commemorated as an historical moment in time, but also actually relived by feeling His ongoing presence at the Mishkan.


This week, we shall examine the general outlines of the building, its hierarchical arrangement, and the primary vessels that it contained, all described in this week's Parasha.  We shall take the liberty, as the Torah itself does, of conveniently bifurcating the account of the Mishkan's construction from its description of the regally clad Kohanim or priests who ministered to God in its courts.  Although we may justifiably analyze the building and its vessels in their own right, it must be borne in mind that a comprehensive and complete discussion of the subject of the Mishkan must include the account of the human element that animates its otherwise static spaces.




As a complete architectural scheme, the Mishkan consisted of two primary elements: the portable building and its surrounding courtyard.  The rectangular building, constructed along the east-west axis, was composed structurally of a series of gilded acacia wood planks that were ingeniously set into silver sockets and held together by a combination of rings and bars.  It was itself partitioned into two sections.  The inner space or so-called 'Holy of Holies,' measuring a perfect cube of ten cubits and housing nothing save for the Ark of the Covenant, was divided from the outer area by an impressive and heavy curtain of precious, embroidered fabric.  The outer area or 'Holy,' measuring ten cubits in width and twenty in length, contained three important vessels: the Table to the north, the Menorah to the south, and the Golden Altar of Incense in between.  The more tenuous roofing material of the whole edifice consisted of finely woven fabrics covered by more sturdy animal skins and gave the space its tent-like appearance.


This building, its entrance to the east screened off by another curtain, was positioned within a larger courtyard measuring fifty cubits in width and one hundred cubits in length.  Spatially, however, the Tabernacle building was not centered within the length of this outer courtyard, but rather offset to one of its sides.  Effectively, the outer courtyard, demarcated by linen curtains held aloft by acacia pillars set into bronze sockets, was divided in half by the building's positioning.  Thus, there was a perfectly square area of fifty cubits length by fifty cubits width to the east of the Tabernacle, while the building's entrance itself was positioned along the imaginary line that constituted the central north-south axis of this rectangular courtyard. 


We may summarize the dimensions as follows: lengthwise, beginning with the western curtain of the courtyard, there was a space of 20 cubits until the western wall of the building, 30 cubits of the building's length (20 + 30 = 50), and a further 50 cubits until the eastern curtain (50 + 50 =100).  Widthwise, from the northern curtain of the courtyard, there was a space of 20 cubits until the Tabernacle's northern wall, 10 cubits of the building's width, and a further 20 cubits until the southern curtain (20 + 10 +20 =50).  The only ritual vessels housed in the courtyard were the bronze Altar for animal sacrifice, approached by a gently inclined ramp, and a polished bronze Laver containing water for the ceremonial washing of the Kohanim before they commenced their service.




The above arrangement points to one broad, straightforward organizing principle: hierarchy.  The sacred spaces of the Mishkan were structured according to their relative sanctity.  At the core stood the Holy of Holies.  The Holy served as its vestibule and the courtyard beset it like a frame.  This clear hierarchical division and further amplified by the utilization of materials.  The most precious fabrics and metals - the sky blue, purple, and scarlet dyes and well refined gold, were restricted to the building proper and to its vessels: the Ark, Table, Menorah and Altar of Incense.  We find Silver only in the sockets upholding the gilded boards that enveloped the building.  The more mundane textiles and lesser metals, the fine linen and the bronze, were employed in the outer courtyard and its associated vessels: the Bronze Altar and the Laver.


The rectangular shape of both the building and the surrounding courtyard accentuated an axis of approach that emphasized increasing inviolability, climaxing in perfectly silent seclusion with the Divine Presence in the 'Kodesh Ha-kodashim.' We may contrast this architectural scheme with one in which square and circular areas define a central or unique point in space, because in so doing they tend to de-emphasize the direction or process of approach.  A square or circular plan sets all outer sides equidistant from the center, highlighting its importance, but minimizing all else.


A rectangular plan, however, inherently implies directionality, since one axis is more lengthy than the other. This is true in the case of the Mishkan, where direction and approach are charged with transcendent meaning.  The east-west axis is intentionally highlighted, entrance curtains are deliberately placed, access to the site is purposely guided, all of which makes it impossible to bypass any outer space in a premature quest to enter the building's inner recesses. The experiential narrative of this spatial and architectural sequence suggests that the inscrutability of the Absolute cannot be fathomed except at the culmination of an involved parallel process of spiritual progression. 


Ramban's astute remark about the Tabernacle recalling Mount Sinai is more than a homiletical and literary flourish.  A careful comparison with the Revelation at Sinai, where God commanded Moshe to prepare the people with ablutions (Shemot 19:10) while they maintained a safe distance from the holy mountain that was otherwise set off (Shemot 19:12-13), confirms Ramban's explanation exactly.  At Sinai, the process of approaching God's presence consisted of incremental physical and spiritual preparations.  In the meantime, God's mountain or presence had to remain out of reach, and even at the moment of Revelation, Sinai's peak was shrouded in thick and impenetrable clouds.  Ramban's comparison of the Mikdash with the Revelation offers us a profound understanding of what it means to sincerely draw near to God's Presence and to stand in humility and awe before Him, while still remaining cognizant of the inescapable fact that His true essence remains forever shielded from our prying, but dim, mortal eyes.




What is true about the spaces themselves must also be true of the vessels associated with those spaces.  The Ark was the Tabernacle's most precious object, followed in descending order by the set of the Table, Menorah and Golden Altar, and finally by the bronze Altar and Laver of the outer courtyard.  The parasha's narrative of construction, listing the detailed directives for fashioning these vessels, reflects this hierarchy.  The Torah first enjoins the people concerning the Ark, and only then concerning the Table and Menorah.  The building is then spelled out before the text describes the bronze Altar and the outer courtyard.  An exception to the role is that the guidelines for fashioning the golden Altar do not appear until the very end of the construction account (see Shemot 30:10), after the lengthy descriptions of the priestly garments.  In the parallel listing of Parashat Ki Tisa, however, where God spells out the construction plan to Moshe and the people of Israel and designates Bezalel as the Chief Artisan, all of the elements are mentioned in their correct order: "…Let them fashion all that I command you.  The Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Testimony and its cover … the Table … pure Menorah … and Incense Altar … the Sacrificial Altar … and the Laver" (Shemot 31:7-9).


The detailed description in Sefer Bemidbar (4:1-16) of the Mishkan's periodic dismantling in preparation for journey furnishes further proof for the hierarchy of the vessels.  There, the most hallowed vessels – Ark, Table, Menorah, golden Altar and bronze Altar – were dismantled in descending order so that they could commence their journey ahead of the main camp.  That way, the Tabernacle could be erected in its new location and these precious vessels positioned within it before the Israelites arrived.  Significantly the Ark was first wrapped in protective skins and then covered with a 'wholly' blue wool cover.  The Table was wrapped in blue wool, then covered in scarlet, and finally wrapped in skins.  The Menorah and Golden Altar were wrapped in blue wool only, and then covered in skins.  The bronze Altar, in contrast, was covered by purple wool and then protected like the other vessels with a cover of skins.  The implication is clear: The vessels travel accoutrements represent a hierarchy of insignia; only the Ark traveled while visibly enwrapped in the glory of the prized blue, while the bronze Altar was protected with less precious purple cloth.  The intermediate vessels - the Table, Menorah and golden Altar - are themselves ordered according to an internal descending hierarchy.  The Laver's complete absence from this list indicates its lesser status among the vessels.




Having seen that both the Tabernacles architecture and its furnishings can form to a consistent hierarchy of importance, we should naturally expect the accompanying service of the Kohanim to indicate a similar stepped spiritual reality.  The service that transpires around the Ark is likely of a more sacred dimension than that of the Table, Menorah or golden Altar, whose service in turn should be more significant than that of the outer courtyard's bronze Altar.  This striking possibility finds proof in the case of the Ark, for the Torah clearly indicates that the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark, was off limits to everyone except the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), who might enter it on but one day of the year: the awesome day of Yom Kippur (see Vayikra chapter 16).


The implication for the other vessels and for their associated forms of service is startling, for it suggests that not only did the different spaces of the Tabernacle intimate different forms of worship, but different degrees of proximity to the Deity as well.  Thus, the sacrificial service that involved the slaughter, skinning, dismemberment and burning of designated animals was restricted to the Bronze Altar of the courtyard and was never practiced within the building of the Tabernacle.  Although the blood of the sacrifice was occasionally dabbed upon the horns of the golden Altar or sprinkled before the dividing curtain or even between the staves of the Ark, this practice itself was limited to unusual and highly sanctified sacrifices, a special group of offerings within the category known as the 'Kodshei Kodashim' ('Most Holy'). 


As for the Table, its primary purpose was to hold the loaves of the Show Bread, while the Menorah was kindled with the purest of olive oils.  The golden Altar was primarily used for offering incense.  In all three cases, the type of 'service' that pivoted around the vessel involved products of the soil (wheat, oil, herbs) rather than living creatures.  Concerning the Ark, this effect was even more pronounced, for there was no daily service of ritual acts that was carried out in its presence.  Thus, the progression of the architectural SPACE that we noted earlier, mirrored exactly in the heightened degrees of SANCTITY, must be intimated by the TYPE of worship as well: the more 'coarse' and visual sacrificial service is but an introduction to the refined symbolic service attached to the vessels of the Table, Menorah and Golden Altar.  These in turn defer to the silent and spiritual climax of standing before the Ark while stripped of almost all ceremony, and instead cloaked with only absolute surrender to God. 


Perhaps we have found circumstantial evidence for Rambam's (Maimonides, twelfth century, Egypt) controversial claim that the sacrificial service was in fact secondary to the real objective of the Bet Ha-miskdash (Sacred Temple) – to slowly but surely break the people's dependence upon idolatry by instilling within them the higher and more advanced notion of serving God with the heart.  Although Rambam's formulation in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), which we have discussed at length in previous years, addresses the broad evolutionary sweep of the sacrificial idea in human history, the essence of his argument may in fact be intimated by the spatial relationships that are at the basis of the Mishkan's plan, and by the hierarchy of sanctity and spirituality that such a plan implies.  The outer courtyard and its activities are conceivably only the beginning of approaching God's presence, and the service of the bronze Altar may be regarded as indicating the necessary but insufficient preparations for experiencing His glory.  The heightened levels of God-awareness and sensitivity to His presence, associated with the Ark and the Holy of Holies, are not beyond the spiritual grasp of the masses, but are often outside of their sphere of concern.  Most of us are quite content to serve God from the 'outer courtyard,' in a dimension where conditioned ritual reigns.  How many of us will proceed further, not to abandon those special acts that are the expressions of God's will, but rather to observe and embrace them with the absolute sincerity and profound contemplation on the Divine that alone can usher us into His overwhelming presence?


Shabbat Shalom


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