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The Anatomy of a Dwelling

The Anatomy of a Dwelling

The Mishkan as a prototype of time, space and man


"This is what man is all about," writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the Chassidic classic, Tanya. "This is the purpose of his creation and of the creation of all the worlds, higher and lower—that there be made for G‑d a dwelling in the lower realms."

The first such "dwelling" to be constructed — and the one which serves as the prototype for all subsequent efforts to make G‑d at home in the physical world — was the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary built by the children of Israel in the Sinai Desert following the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Fifteen physical substances, including gold, silver, copper, wood, wool, linen, animal skins, oil, spices and gemstones — representing a cross-section of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the physical universe and the human resources invested in their workmanship — were forged into an edifice dedicated to man's service of G‑d, and in which G‑d, in turn, chose to commune with man.

This explains the Torah's uncharacteristically elaborate description of the Mishkan. No less than 13 chapters in the Book of Exodus are filled with the details of the Sanctuary's construction, from the dimensions of every pillar to the colors in every tapestry. In contrast, the Torah devotes one chapter to its account of the creation of the universe and three chapters to the revelation at Mount Sinai, and conveys many complex laws by means of a single verse, or even a single word or letter.

But if the very purpose of creation is embodied by these bracing rods and foundation sockets, tapestries and furnishings, copper stakes and silver hooks, then obviously, each and every detail is of supreme importance to us. It is crucial that we know that the Menorah had 22 decorative goblets hammered into its design, and that each of the Mishkan's 48 wall panels measured 10 cubits in length and 1.5 cubits in width. It is necessary to define (as the Talmud does) the 39 forms of creative work — from plowing to weaving to lighting to writing — involved in the Mishkan's construction. For here lies the prototype for our life's work of making our world and our lives a home for G‑d.

Three Domains

The Midrash and the Biblical commentaries, and particularly the Kabbalist and the Chassidic expounders of Torah, elaborate on this theme, describing the Mishkan as a model of man, of the physical universe, and of creation as a whole. The Mishkan's furnishings or "vessels," for example, are seen as representations of the various organs and faculties of man: the Ark (containing the Torah) corresponds to the mind, intellect and the faculty of speech; the Menorah, to the eyes and the sense of sight; the Table that held the "showbread," to the sense of taste; the Inner Altar on which the Ketoret (incense) was burned, to the sense of smell; and the Outer Altar on which the animal and meal offerings were brought represent the digestive system and other "functional" organs.

In one of the notebook manuscripts (reshimot) discovered after his passing, the Lubavitcher Rebbe summarizes commentaries by Rabbeinu Bechayei, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Ramah), Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (the Shaloh) and others on this subject, demonstrating how the three primary domains of the Mishkan parallel corresponding divisions in creation, in time, and in the communal soul of Israel.

Maimonides describes the universe as consisting of three strata: unrefined matter (the earth and all terrestrial creatures), refined matter (the stars and heavenly bodies), and wholly spiritual beings (entities that are "forms alone, without matter, such as the angels which are not physical bodies but various forms"). Extending this division to the realm of time, we have the six workdays (unrefined matter), Shabbat (refined matter), and the "sabbath of sabbaths" — Yom Kippur — in which we graduate to a state of consummate spirituality. Among the souls of Israel we have the "Israelites" whose lives are dedicated, on the whole, to the business of material life as farmers, merchants, soldiers and statesmen; the tribe of Levi, whose service in the Holy Temple involved the refinement and elevation of the material world; and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), who personified the acme of spirituality attainable by man.

In the Mishkan, these three domains are represented by: 1) the courtyard; 2) the outer chamber of the Sanctuary (the "Holy"); and 3) the "Holy of Holies" — the inner chamber behind the "Veil" or Parochet (see diagram).

The courtyard embraced also the more earthy and "coarse" elements of the Temple service: here the Kohanim washed their hands and feet to cleanse themselves from their contact with the material world before beginning their service or entering the Mishkan proper; here the fat of the Korbanot (animal sacrifices), representing the "excess" materiality in the life of man, was burned upon the Altar; here were deposited the ashes that constituted the "waste" from the Menorah and the Inner Altar. Here were slaughtered the Korbanot, including those whose meat was eaten by ordinary Israelites.

The "Holy," into which only the Kohanim were permitted entry, was the scene of the more "refined" elements of the Temple service: the lighting of the Menorah, the burning of the incense, and the displaying on the Table of the "showbread" eaten by the Kohanim on Shabbat.

Finally, the "Holy of Holies," which housed only the Ark and into which only the Kohen Gadol was permitted entry and only on Yom Kippur, represented the utter transcendence of the material in man's service of G‑d.

The Mishkan included these three domains because the task of "making G‑d a dwelling in the lower realms" embraces all these areas of life: the Jew serves G‑d in his or her most exalted moments; we also serve Him in our effort to elevate and refine our world; and we also strive to make Him "at home" within the most ordinary activities of everyday life.

The Altar and the Ark

Which of the Mishkan's numerous components represents its most basic function? According to Nachmanides, the essence of the "dwelling for G‑d" is its spiritual core. Thus the great commentator writes:

The main object of the Sanctuary is to serve as the resting place of the Divine Presence. This is realized in the Ark, as G‑d says to Moses, "I will commune with you there, speaking to you from above the Kaporet (the Ark's cover)..." This is why the Torah begins its description of the Mishkan with the Ark and the Kaporet (Nachmanides commentary on Exodus 25:1)

Maimonides, on the other hand, defines the Sanctuary as,

A house for G‑d that is designed for the offering of sacrifices... (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 1:1).

Maimonides is saying that the Outside Altar in the Courtyard is the focal point of the Sanctuary, the axis around which everything else revolves!

In other words, there are two possible ways in which to define the concept of a physical place and structure that serves as a "dwelling for G‑d": (a) a place where, and through which, G‑d chooses to reveal Himself to man; (b) a place where, and through which, man serves G‑d.

Of course, the Mishkan was both. It was the place from which G‑d spoke to Moses, where man could witness and experience the presence of G‑d; and it was the place where man offered himself, and the materials of his life, to G‑d. The question is: Which of these two functions is the primary one, and which serves and facilitates the other?

Mystic and Halachist

The Rebbe explains that the different perspectives expressed by Nachmanides and Maimonides reflect the respective streams of Torah thought which these great Sages represent.

To Nachmanides, a noted Kabbalist and mystic, the focal point of the Mishkan lay in its spiritual core. The Holy of Holies which only the most transcendent of souls and the most sacred of times could access; the Ark containing the Tablets of Testimony upon which the Torah in its purest, most germinal articulation was engraved; the Kaporet with its representation of the sublime forms of the Divine Chariot; the divine voice issuing from between the Keruvim — these express the essence of the divine dwelling: a portal into the material world through which G‑d shines a ray of His infinite light. Everything else is to "prepare the ground" for this revelation, to elevate man and his world to a state of receptibility to this light.

To Maimonides, the Halachist par excellence, the essence of the Mishkan resided in the Altar — in the human endeavor to offer up the everyday, material elements of his life to G‑d. Everything else — the pure light of the Menorah, the sublime fragrance of the Ketoret, the holy bread on the Table, even the divine revelations emanating from the Ark — is to enable and assist material man's service of his Creator.

Tent of Meeting

"These and these are the words of the Living G‑d," says the Talmud of disputes between the Sages regarding interpretation of Torah. The mystical vision expressed by Nachmanides and the Halachic perspective put forth by Maimonides are both integral components of the "Dwelling for G‑d" constructed in the Sinai desert, and the "Dwelling for G‑d" we each construct of our lives.

Thus the Torah also calls the Mishkan Ohel Moed, the "Tent of Meeting." Here the Divine, extending itself to earth, and the human and the material, reaching up to heaven, meet.

Here, every human achievement is but a means to make oneself receptive to the all-negating infinitude of the Divine. At the same time, every divine revelation emanating from on high is but an empowerment to man to reveal the G‑dliness implicit within the finitude and materiality of his existence.

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Wolfgang san francisco March 3, 2017

Who is the artist? The picture on top? Reply

yaakov noris lexington,virginia,24450 March 3, 2017

mishkan I was curious about why "stone" was excluded from materials used in construction? Reply

Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum, for Folsom, CA May 14, 2017
in response to yaakov noris:

Stone was the primary material used in the construction of the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. This, according to the Chassidic masters, represents the effect that the Temple had on the entire world - even permeating the inanimate.
The Mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert however, didn't include stone in its construction since it's effect on the world was not as complete. This is reflected in the fact that the structure was not a permanent one and that it moved from one location to another. And in the fact that it did not include stone in its construction. Reply

Anonymous March 3, 2017

Amen! Excellent article and very well written! Thanks for posting! Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for April 14, 2016

While the Rambam does indeed say that "knowing" G-d is the foundation of all wisdom, he still places a strong emphasis on physical action over spiritual transcendence. Reply

Anonymous Boston, MA April 13, 2016

How are they different? But doesn't Rambam say that all of a person's energy should be devoted to one goal- to know G-d-and so therefore (in this way) he's not so different from the Ramban?

He also says that anything we know of G-d we can only know by studying his works, which includes studying nature. (After all the prep work he suggests, a person would go on to study the divine science- maaseh merkavah...). This makes it seem like the person's pursuit in life is the same 'Rambian' one- to know G-d, which he would finally truly do after reaching 'perfection' and learning maaseh merkava, which is only possible because of his earlier prep work in logic, (the 4) mathematics, (the 3) physics, divine science. (It's actually more detailed than that, but I'd need to double check so fyi...) Moral behavior is a perquisite and makes most of all the above possible. Reply

Jaap Zwart The Netherlands February 1, 2014

Freemasonty, Nachmonides and Maimonides It is interesting to see that within Freemasonry there are two main streams of expressing the relationship with the Great Architect: through the light symbolism and through the build symbolism, where the first is mystical in nature and the second more earthly and physical in nature. Another interesting Jewish thing to mention is the saying that through physical action (prayers, mitsva...) the mind will follow and reach the devine state needed for constant communication and bringing forth the presence of God in this world. Hence, even through a couple of very basic examples it is clear that Nachmonides and Maimonides view are parts of the same coin. Great article by the way. Sjalom. Kedushat Hasjem. Birkat Hasjalom. Reply

Mary Harvard, IL/USA March 1, 2012

DWELLING Very up-to-date thoughts. Reply

Anonymous new york city, USA March 12, 2010

The Anatomy of a Dwelling I thank you for bringing this understanding of the Mishkan to me. My new awareness is thrilling. I have just begun, and I have already reached 72 years... Reply

Eli February 23, 2007

Very interesting.
Perhaps I may add: Presumably, the Mishkan was a universal building, serving the nation as a whole. Thus, there needed to be elements within the Mishkan that related to every individual on their level.
So, the righteous Tzaddik, who led a spiritial life quite removed from any mundane activities, found comfort within the Ark, and connected with its connotations.
However, the regular Jewish layman, who spent most of his time "working the land", connected with the 'Altar' idea of service. Reply

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