A few years ago, I visited the Israel Supreme Court, a rather magnificent building which has been highly acclaimed by architects worldwide. The tour-guide lead us around the building drawing our attention to all the architectural detail. She explained to us that the vision of the planners was that the very stone and plaster, the curved lines and picture windows would all somehow transmit the message of the Jewish notion of “Justice” to all who entered its doors. In the tour it was absolutely fascinating to see how the architects had succeeded in incorporating these ideas visually and structurally. The attention to detail was impressive. Through the building itself they had ensured that the Supreme Court building itself would be an intrinsically Jewish courthouse.
This architectural concept lies at the heart of our parsha. We are introduced to the world of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – with a baffling array of detail. Dimensions and construction materials; woods, gold, silver, tchelet and argaman wool, to name but few. We – the attentive readers of the Torah – are aware that, like the Supreme Court, all these materials and forms chosen have a singular aim. They are directed at conveying; in colour and in smell, in texture and in form, the special message of the Mishkan.
The Mishkan is a place, THE place, in which man meets God. And the symbolism which stands at the core of this focal national-religious institution belie the very foundations of Jewish thinking, Jewish service and Jewish faith. Many fundamental ideas within the God-man encounter are encoded within the intricate details of this portable sanctuary. Hence, our quest is to dig deep above and beyond the measurements and dimensions, to understand the ideas behind the Mishkan itself.
In our shiur last year, we focussed upon the role of the “aron” (Ark of the Covenant) and we compared its role as opposed to the central altar or mizbeach. This year, we will look at the special triple covering that was placed as a roof over the Mishkan structure. We shall soon see that these simple coverings hide some rather important messages for us.
SOURCES AND QUESTIONS FOR CHAVRUTA STUDY:
- BASIC: THE STRUCTURE OF THE PARSHA/THE MSHKAN.
Go through the parsha listing the various items of the Mishkan which are described.
Try to identify a scheme /logic as to the way our parsha is structured.
CLUE: Kodesh kodoshim, Kodesh, Azara (outer courtyard).
- In our shiur, we are going to be talking about the coverings for the Mishkan.
See Chap 26:1-14.
Identify each of the three coverings:
What were their names?
What materials did they consist of?
Were they all visible to the casual observer?
THE SHIUR SECTION:
We begin with a few opening comments regarding the ordering of the parsha as a whole and an introduction to the geography of the Mishkan itself.
THE ORDER OF THE PARSHA – THE STRUCTURE OF THE MISHKAN.
The very ordering of topics within the parsha reflects quite exactly, the floorplan of the Mishkan. The placing of each item and detail in the Biblical text mirrors the map of the Mishkan itself. Here is a rough listing of the structure of Parshat Teruma and … by extension the structure of the Mishkan.
25:1-9 The call to donate materials. Purpose of the Mishkan
RITUAL OBJECTS OF THE “HOLY OF HOLIES”
25:10-22 The Ark
RITUAL OBJECTS OF THE “HOLY”
25:23-25:29 The Table of the showbread.
25:31-40 The Menorah
STRUCTURAL DETAILS OF THE “TENT” – “HOLY” & THE H. OF HOLIES
26:1-14 The cloth coverings of the Mishkan
26:15-30 The wood structure of the Mishkan
26:31-37 The parochet – curtain between the Holy and H.of Holies
RITUAL OBJECTS OF THE COURTYARD
27:1-8 The sacrificial altar
STRUCTURAL DETAILS OF THE COURTYARD
27:9-19 The boundary of the outer courtyard (the posts and cloth “walls”)
As is evident from the outline above, that the ordering of the details in these chapters is systematic. The description of the Mishkan works from inside outwards. It begins by describing the inner area known as the Holy of Holies and it moves outwards to detail the outer chamber and courtyard. For each “area” or “zone” of the Mishkan, first the “kelim” – vessels or ritual articles – are described, followed by the construction details of the environment in which they reside. I think that the ordering; the description of the kelim BEFORE that of the structure; gives over the notion that the kelim, rather than the impressive structure, are the focus of the Mishkan. Put a different way; it is the service of the Mishkan that is the essence and not the tabernacle itself.
(Maybe one short word of introduction would be in place here for the uninitiated. The Mishkan or tabernacle contains three basic areas or zones: the courtyard, the Kodesh (Holy), and the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies). The division of these three zones represents a progression from the profane to the sacred in incremental ascending scales of holiness. The outer area is the courtyard which is unroofed. It is here that the main sacrificial altar (mizbeach) stands and all Israelites who are in a state of ritual purity can gain admission. Within the courtyard is a covered structure – an area with restricted entry – which contains two sections. First is the “holy” to which a regular Israelites could not enter, only kohanim and leviim. Within this area was an inner chamber – the Kodesh Kodashim. Only the High Priest would enter this chamber, on the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur .
The incremental levels of holiness are reflected also by the materials used. In the Kodesh and the Kodesh Kodashim, the ritual objects are made from gold, the boards are plated with gold and the coverings are an ornate weave of intricate, decorative fabric. But in the outer courtyard, the altar is constructed from bronze, and surrounded by plain wood posts in bronze sockets, supporting simple white twisted linen divisions. The washing laver in the courtyard is also bronze.)
There are three coverings over the “tent” (containing the kodesh and the kodesh kodashim): The Mishkan, the Ohel and the Michseh La’Ohel.
The first cover is a weave of rich threads woven in cherub patterns. Ten strips of material are woven which are then sewn together (5 strips are sewn together) to produce two very large (42 ft x 30 ft) pieces of fabric. These two pieces are joined together by 50 gold clasps which fasten the two sheets. This is laid as the “ceiling” of the Mishkan.
On top of this is the Ohel. It is slightly larger and therefore it entirely covers the covering below it. This covering is made from goat’s hair – much like the Bedouin tents that one can see in various places in the desert nowadays. Once again these strips of fabric (eleven this time) are sewn into two “sheets” of material and then fastened by 50 copper clasps. Notice how the Ohel consists of cheaper, more ordinary materials in comparison to the Mishkan cloth.
The third covering lies on the top of the other two. However, whereas the other cloths drape completely over the sides of the Mishkan, covering its walls , this cloth lies on the horizontal only. It lies only “above” ie. on the top of the Mishkan. It is made from rare animal skins (the translations vary … rams? dolphins? seals? unicorns?) and was apparently an exceptionally rare commodity.
The phraseology here is informative. After all, two key words are used here: Mishkan and Ohel. Both are used in other places to describe the Tabernacle. When we think about these very different terms, we might emerge with very different connotations. The word Mishkan is an expression of God’s dwelling amongst Am Yisrael: “Make me a Mikdash and I will dwell (veSHaKHaNti) amongst them.” (25:7) We sometimes talk of Mishkan Ha’edut(28:21) – the Mishkan as a testimony . The “Ohel” , however, is frequently found as Ohel Moed – a place for the meeting between man and God. Are these words indicative of different fun of the Mishkan? Is one meaning more intense than the other? Does one word indicate an “inner covering” and the other word, an “outer covering”? This question is one that I have wondered about for quite a while and I have no firm answer to. I let you think about this one for yourselves.
There are those who have wished to see some deeper significance in these coverings. I bring one example from the Kli Yakar – one of the classic homiletic commentaries on Chumash. The Kli Yakar is talks about the bottom Mishkan covering with its ten strips of cloth making two sections joined by clasps. He notices that the connection point between the sections falls exactly at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, thus one section is limited to the outer area of the sanctuary and one is exclusively in contact with the Kodesh Kodashim. He says:
“…The Mishkan structure is built corresponding to the world itself. Hence it is made from ten pieces of cloth to symbolise the ten utterances  with which the world (all worlds) was created.
Through the fifty clasps the higher world joins the lower world, for five of the cloths correspond to the first five of the ten commandments (dealing with God) and the other five (dealing with society) correspond to the lower world … Ponder on the fact that the dividing curtain between the kodesh and the kodesh kodoshim lies directly underneath these fifty clasps …
Man being a hybrid of the Godly connected to the physical body is the very means by which the upper world might become connected to the lower world. It is he who can create peace between the worlds … that there be no resistance between them. … the Temple too is in the place which can join together heaven and earth for that is the very place in which God has established His abode in the lower world. Yaakov saw in his vision of the ladder – a ladder planted in the ground with its top reaching the heavens – how the mid-point of the ladder was aligned with the site of the Temple. …Likewise in this holy structure, we find combinations of extremes and that is the idea of the fifty clasps which connect the cloths; five over the Kodesh Kodashim, representing the upper worlds and five over the Kodesh which is representative of the lower world all clasped together. This is what Chazal said (Yerushalmi Megilla 1:12) that the clasps appeared in the ceiling of the Mishkan as stars in the night-time sky; because stars represent a middle world between the lower and higher worlds…”
This interpretation is somewhat Kabbalistic and rather complex, but it gives us some idea as to how the symbolism of these sections of the Mishkan have been analysed.
THE HIDDEN MISHKAN
It is clear from the pesukim that the beautifully ornate Mishkan covering is completely covered over by the simple Ohel. One wonders why? Why would the Torah want such rich colours woven in a beautiful keruvim design if it would be hidden from view? Rashi comments:
“From here we see that a person should be careful with beautiful objects.”
i.e. it was covered over so that it would not get dirty from the sand dust and rain (as per Chavel’s note – see Torat Chayim).
This might be true, but thinking this over we realise that when one looked at the Mishkan from the outside all one saw was the outer Ohel covering. The boards inlaid with gold, the ornate cloths were hidden from view. In fact we can go a stage further. Did a regular Israelite ever see the beautiful vessels of the Mishkan? Did they have an opportunity to view the aron, or the golden table, or the Menora? They were all hidden from view! Only a kohen would enter the Kodesh where they were situated. And when these kelim were in transit, they were all covered up. (see Bamidbar ch.4) It is quite incredible that whereas we have all these models of the aron and the other kelim of the Mikdash and we have beautiful colour photographs to look at the detail, the B’nei Yisrael NEVER EVER saw these things! They never saw the golden boards of the Mishkan, nor the aron, nor the Menora. What did they see? A Bedouin tent!
Is there a logic to this?
THE SIN OF THE GOLDEN CALF
It is interesting that many commentators connect the sin of the Golden Calf with the Mishkan. They do this because they see the establishment of the Mishkan as a response or a remedy to the sin of the Golden Calf. How so?
According to some commentators, the Golden Calf was not Avoda Zara – the worship of another deity. The Kuzari, for example, claims that the worshipers of the calf did not believe the calf to be an actual god but rather they saw in the calf a physical manifestation, a symbolic representation of Hashem, the One God. The calf was not a rebellion against God, a worshipping of an alternative power, but was rather an alternative more corporeal and palpable form of worship.
“God forbid that Aaron should commit idolatry! Also Israel did not request idolatry… [they wished] the divine presence manifested in a corporeal manner” (Ibn Ezra, 32:1)
“Some individuals were prompted to request for a tangible object of worship in the manner of the other nations without rejecting God who had taken them out of Egypt, merely asking that it should be placed before them to gaze upon when relating to God” (Kuzari 1,97).
What these texts are saying is something quite simple. The ancient world religions were based on tangible symbols of gods. It was difficult for the mind to conceive of an abstract god without an object in front of the person which represented that god. This was a primary feature of paganism and this worship of icons or idols was common. There was a concept behind the images, but in the mind of the common person, it was impossible to connect with a concept without its personification or material representation.
So, the egel hazahav, was doing the same thing according to the Kuzari. The people needed a tangible route to God. Their sin was that they did it in a forbidden way. All images are forbidden in Judaism (see the second of the Ten Commandments for example) and they are a short-cut to Pagan worship. The people might have sought a method in which to connect to God, but this had to be through God’s approval.
Enter the Mishkan. Now the Mishkan also had images. It had – for example – the keruvim.  The aron in some way acted as a vehicle for God’s word – see 25;22. How was the aron going to act as the representative of God’s ideas without itself becoming an object of worship?
I think that the answer is quite simple. The people NEVER EVER SAW the aron. It was hidden from the people in a “Bedouin tent.” In fact, none of the golden symbolic objects were viewed by Am Yisrael, certainly not on a regular basis.
So then why have them?
We mentioned the problem of abstraction in the mind of the ancient world. They found it hard to perceive of a power without its tangible form. But God desires that we perceive him abstractly. That we realise that he exists without body and form.
How could God educate the people of Israel to understand the principle of abstraction? How could God lead Am Yisrael to an understanding of Himself, without symbols?
Make the Ritual objects. Design them replete with rich symbolism of God and His spiritual world. And then, hide them away. Everybody knows they are there. But they cannot be seen. Isn’t this just like abstraction? The ideas are there, but not the objects. In this way, the object cannot become an object of worship in itself. At most, the values that underlie the object will be understood and internalised, but the danger of avoda zara is avoided.
In addition, the nation begins to develop “abstract thought” at a basic level. They understand that there are values that exist within the mind WITHOUT a corresponding physical manifestation of those values.
Just like God.
Maybe that is why we have a Mishkan in which all the gold and silver, the form and dimensions are written but not seen. We see a simple humble dwelling place, not a grand palace for the shechina. But in our minds we know what is inside and – more importantly – what it symbolises.
 There is some disagreement as to what the Mishkan might be testifying to. See Rashi, Ibn Ezra on Shemot 38:21 and also Shemot Rabba 51:4
 See Avot 5:1
 See Rashi on Shemot 20:20 where he raises the question as to why the Keruvim could be allowed – aren’t they images too?