When it came to transporting the Mishkan – the portable tabernacle in the desert, the Torah1 divided the task between the three families of the Tribe of Levi. The family of Kehat was assigned the duty of carrying the most sacred vessels, and specifically instructed to “carry it on their shoulders.”2 They were responsible for transporting the Holy Ark, the Menorah, the table for the showbreads, and the golden incense altar. The other two families – Gershon and Merari – were provided with wagons to carry the collapsible structure and all the other sacred vessels.

When Maimonides sets out the arrangement for transporting the tabernacle in his monumental code, the Mishneh Torah, he describes it as follows:

When the ark is transported from place to place, it should not be transported on an animal or on a wagon. Instead, it is a mitzvah for it to be carried on one’s shoulders. Since David forgot and had it transported on a wagon, there was an outbreak [of Divine anger] against Uzzah. Rather, it is a mitzvah to carry it on shoulders, as it states: “For the holy task is their obligation. They shall carry it on their shoulders.”

Many aspects of this segment are difficult to understand. Most astonishing is that Maimonides exclusively refers to the Ark being carried on the shoulders, when the Torah3 states that a range of other items were also to be transported by the Kehat family. Clearly, those other items were also carried by shoulder, as the Kehatites were given no wagons. Why does Maimonides only mention that the Ark was hauled by shoulder and make no mention of any of the other vessels? As several prominent commentators4 have noted, this is a striking omission.

Some5 suggest that Maimonides understands that the other vessels were only transported on shoulders while the Israelites were in the desert, and that only the Ark had to be permanently transported by shoulder (even once they crossed into the Land of Israel). The problem is that Maimonides makes no such distinction in his text.

Another problem is that Maimonides doesn’t identify who was supposed to carry the Ark. Was it the family of Kehat, as per above? Or was it the Kohanim (priests), as Maimonides6 suggests elsewhere?7

The Rebbe shows that the issues melt away once we properly understand Maimonides’ intention.

Uzzah’s Mistake

The Rebbe begins by pointing to the curious reference Maimonides makes to Uzzah. Who was he and why is he relevant here?

In II Samuel 6:1-7 we read an account of the Philistines seizing the Ark during a battle. When its presence brought calamity upon them, the Philistines released the Ark. It was eventually loaded onto a new wagon and brought to King David. Along the way, the oxen drawing the cart stumbled, and a man named Uzzah reached out to steady the Holy Ark, which appeared to be about to fall. At that moment, Uzzah was struck dead.

(Commentaries8 explain that G‑d showed His displeasure by having the oxen stumble so that the Ark would be removed from the wagon, but Uzza intervened to keep it there. So although it was King David who made the initial mistake of putting the Ark on the wagon, it was Uzza who tried to ensure that it stayed there, undermining the will of the Almighty.)

Maimonides asserts that the Almighty was displeased that the Ark was being transported by wagon, but why does he attribute Uzzah’s death to this error rather than the more obvious reason that they had violated the Biblical mandate to carry the Ark on their shoulders?

Why does Maimonides divide his statement into two sections, one that the Ark “should not be transported on an animal or on a wagon,” for which he brings proof from what happened to Uzzah, and second that there is an obligation to “carry it on their shoulders,” for which he brings the Biblical verse?

Location, Location, Location

The Rebbe explains that in Maimonides’ view, aside from the obligation to carry the Ark on the shoulder, there is a more fundamental prohibition against moving the Ark on a wagon (or any means of transport, for that matter).

Unlike any other vessel in the Tabernacle, the Ark was designed to be situated in a very specific location. Placed anywhere else, it loses its sacred status.

The Ark’s location when stationary was in the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle’s inner sanctum. When being transported, that location changed to the shoulders of its designated carriers. When the Ark was placed on the wagon by Uzzah, this diminished the Ark’s power in a significant way. Uzza was struck down, Maimonides suggests, because putting the Ark onto a wagon was a uniquely serious affront. Simple failure to carry the Ark in the proper way would not have led to such tragic results.

The Other Vessels

Now we understand why the obligation to carry on the shoulders ceased for all the other vessels once they were no longer sojourning in the desert, but remained for the Ark. And that is why Maimonides focuses on the Ark and omits mention of the other vessels. At the time Maimonides wrote his code, a couple of thousand years had passed since the Tabernacle had been transported. Thus, there was no need to address the transport arrangements that had long been obsolete. He only references the Ark, because how it is carried is intrinsic to its essence.

Nor does Maimonides speak about who transported the Ark, as that also no longer had any practical relevance.

A clear lesson for us today emerges from this ancient law. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments and the Torah scroll. Torah needs to have its designated place, as it is our anchor and lodestar. Torah should not only be treated with reverence and respect, it must also be recognized as the one true fixed feature in our lives. Torah must never be treated as a piece of furniture that can be transported by wagon, but as a precious child that we carry on our person.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 28, Parshat Naso III.