The Ark in the Mishkan - A Meeting Place; The Ark in the Mikdash - A Place to Store the Tablets

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy





by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik




Lecture 130: The ark in the Mishkan – a meeting place;

The ark in the mikdash – a place to store the tablets


Rav Yitzchak Levi





            As a continuation of the previous shiurim in which we dealt with the ark in the Mishkan, in this shiur, I wish to summarize an eye-opening article by Prof. David Henshke.[1] Prof. Henshke suggests that there is a clear and sharp distinction between the purpose of the Mishkan and the purpose of the Mikdash. Within this framework, he relates directly to the issue that we dealt with in the previous two shiurim - namely, the relationship between the ark described in Shemot in the context of the description of the Mishkan and the ark mentioned in Devarim that was to be used to store the tablets.


            Henshke's article is a comprehensive study that addresses other issues as well. Since a substantial portion of the article relates to the ark, we will first summarize what he says and then relate to various aspects of his position. We have chosen to address his article in this shiur because it contains a fundamental statement regarding the relationship between the Mishkan and the Mikdash, relating to the relationship between the ark with the kaporet and keruvim, which served as God's seat in the Mishkan, and the ark of wood, which was designed to house the tablets that was found in the house of God.


The Mishkan a place of meeting


            Various sources indicate that the Mishkan was not a "residence" for the Shekhina, but rather a place where God met with Moshe and the people of Israel.


            1. The Torah explains in various places that the Ohel Mo'ed was a place of meeting. Regarding the burnt-offering altar and the bringing of the daily offering, the verse states:


This shall be a continual burnt-offering throughout your generations at the door of the Ohel Mo'ed before the Lord, where I will meet you, to speak there to you. (Shemot 29:42)


Regarding the ark and the kaporet, it is stated:


And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel. (Shemot 25:22)


Regarding the incense altar, the verse states:


And you shall put it before the parokhet that is by the ark of the Testimony, before the kaporet that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you. (Shemot 30:6)


Regarding the ingredients of the incense, it is stated:


And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the Testimony in the Ohel Mo'ed, where I will meet with you; it shall be to you most holy. (Shemot 30:36)


Regarding the test involving the staffs following the rebellion of Korach, the verse states:


And you shall lay them up in the Ohel Mo'ed before the Testimony, where I will meet with you. (Bemidbar 17:19)


            It is clear from all these verses that the Mishkan served as a place of meeting.


            2. In several places, we are told that the cloud rested on the Mishkan, rather than in it (Shemot 40:35; Bemidbar 9:18, 22).


            3) The purpose of the Mishkan was that God's Shekhina should rest in Israel, rather than in the Mishkan (Shemot 25:8, 29, 45-46).


            From God's perspective, God met with Moshe and Israel, and gave them the Torah and mitzvot. From Israel's side, Israel prepared a Mishkan so that God may dwell in their camp, and in that way they gave expression to God's presence among them. In practice, God's dwelling expressed itself in His meeting with the people of Israel, as in actuality He did not reside in the residence which had been prepared for Him.


The Mikdash – an eternal place of residence


            When the people of Israel will settle in their land, God will have a house and a place in which to dwell. The proofs for this assertion include the following:


1.            Already in the Song of the Sea, the Torah states:


You shall bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which You have made for You to dwell in, in the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established. (Shemot 15:17)


Similarly, with respect to the bikkurim, the Torah refers to the Mikdash as God's house:


The first of the first-fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. (Shemot 34:26)


            2. Throughout the book of Devarim, nowhere does it say that God dwells in a house. Rather, mention is made of "the place that God shall choose." God chooses to set/cause His name to rest there. The Shekhina rests in a particular place, not in a house.


            3. When the people of Israel arrive in Jerusalem, the verse states:


This is My resting place forever; here will I dwell, for I have desired it. (Tehillim 132:14)


I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a settled place for You to abide in for ever. (I Melakhim 8:13)


            What we have here is not only a transition from a portable Mishkan to a fixed Mikdash; rather, a house for God is now being established, a place for Him to abide in, instead of a tent of meeting and site of service. This house is established after God chooses a place, and it is therefore precisely at this point that King Shlomo says:


“Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?” (I Melakhim 8:27)[2]


            After having presented this fundamental distinction, I wish now to deal with several issues, regarding which this difference between the Mishkan and the Mikdash finds expression.


1. The dedication of the Mishkan in contrast to the dedication of the house of God


            Despite the parallels between the account of the resting of the Shekhina in the Mishkan (Shemot 57:34-35) and the account of the resting of the Shekhina in the house of God (I Melakhim 8:10-11), there are several important differences.


            a. In Shemot, the cloud covers the Mishkan and rests upon it and the glory of God fills the Mishkan, whereas in Melakhim, it is the cloud itself that fills the house of God. This difference can be understood as follows. In the Mishkan, the cloud waits above the tent for the glory of God, which fills the Mishkan and meets with Israel, and when that meeting is over, the glory of God rises from there in His cloud and returns to heaven. In the Mikdash, on the other hand, the cloud does not wait above the house, but rather it itself fills the house of God: "Then spoke Shlomo, ‘The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness’" (I Melakhim 8:12).


            b. The parallel accounts of the dedication of the Mishkan (Vayikra 9:23-24) and the dedication of the First Temple (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 7:1-3) indicate an important difference. In the Mishkan, the glory of God is seen by all the people, this being the purpose of the Mishkan – the place where God reveals Himself to and meets with Israel. In the Mikdash, on the other hand, the Shekhina came down to dwell in the house of God and to find there eternal rest; the glory of God filled the house and the people of Israel saw the descent of the glory of God into the house.


2. The meaning of the difference between the two accounts of the ark


            In continuation of the distinction described above, we can explain the difference between the two accounts of the ark – the one in Parashat Teruma and the other in Parashat Ekev.[3]


            a. In the Mishkan, the Ohel Mo'ed that houses the tablets of the Testimony, God meets with Moshe from between the keruvim, which are on the kaporet that covers the ark. Here, the ark – that is, the heart of the Mishkan - stands in the Holy of Holies, overlaid with pure gold and covered with the kaporet and the keruvim.


            From the time that God chose a place in which to dwell, the Shekhina dwelt in that place permanently and for all time, as the prophet Yirmiyahu said:


In those days, says the Lord, they shall say no more, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord,” nor shall it come to mind, nor shall they remember it; nor shall they miss it, nor shall that be done any more. At that time, they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord… (Yirmiyahu 3:16-17)


            The throne of the Lord is now all of Jerusalem, and there is no longer any need for the ark. At this time, the ark is merely a container for the tablets, and not the throne of God or a place of meeting.


            b. When there is a Mishkan, in a time of war, the ark leaves the tent and leads the army of Israel into battle, for the Shekhina does not rest in the Mishkan, but among Israel. Thus, when Israel leaves the camp for war, the Shekhina and its throne go out with them.


            This was not the case in the Temple in Jerusalem after the ark was brought into the house of God. From that time on, the Shekhina dwelt in its eternal place and there was no longer a need for the ark.


            According to this understanding, the role of the ark in the permanent Mikdash was merely that mentioned in the book of Devarim - to be a place to store the tablets - for in the permanent place of the Mikdash, God chose the place itself. This has several important ramifications, as accordingly, there is no difficulty in the fact that the ark was stored away in the days of Yoshiyahu or that throughout the Second Temple period there was no ark. Similarly, it explains why the Rambam does not mention the ark.


3. The pilgrimage festivals


There was no obligation to make a pilgrimage to the Ohel Mo'ed in the wilderness – there was no house of God and there was no "place chosen by God" (so says the Ramban in his commentary to Devarim 12:8). The obligation to undertake a pilgrimage only began with the building of the house of God in Jerusalem. This was because in the wilderness, the revelation of the Shekhina was continuously present, and there was nothing special about the three pilgrimage festivals. But from the day that God dwelt in His place, all year long He was hidden from view, and only three times a year did God open His house and receive Israel as His guests to see and to be seen.


            According to this, during the period of the Ohel Mo'ed in the wilderness, the entire year enjoyed the status of the three pilgrimage festivals with respect to Israel's closeness to the Shekhina.


4. Impurity


            According to the plain sense of the verses (Bamidbar 19: 13, 20), the fact that a person remains in a state of ritual impurity defiles God's sanctuary, even if there is no actual connection between the impure person and the Mikdash. According to Halakha, a person is under no obligation to purify himself unless he wishes to have a direct connection with the Mikdash or consecrated things.


            This may be understood as follows. During the period of the wilderness, someone who remained in a ritually impure state defiled the Mishkan even without entering into it. During this period, God dwelt in Israel and a relationship of encounter and meeting existed at all times between Israel and God, who revealed Himself to them and dwelt among them. But from the day that God began to dwell in His house, the ritual impurity of Israel related to God's Shekhina, which was hidden in its residence, and as long as a ritually impure person did not enter into God's house, he was not obligated to purify himself.


5. The altar


            In the Ohel Mo'ed that served as a meeting place and as a direct continuation of the assembly at Mount Sinai, God revealed Himself to Israel and met with Moshe from between the keruvim, and Israel served God at the altar, just as at Mount Sinai God revealed Himself to Israel at the top of the mountain and Israel offered sacrifices at the foot of the mountain. Therefore, the Torah repeatedly emphasizes that the altar and the sacrifices were at the door to the Ohel Mo'ed (e.g., Shemot 29:44, 40:29; Vayikra 1:3, 5). The door to the Ohel Mo'ed and the Ohel Mo'ed constituted a single domain.


            In the house of God, the altar and the Holy of Holies were separate entities. The sacrificial service was no longer performed in connection with the meeting with God's Shekhina that revealed itself between the keruvim. Rather, God sat concealed in His house, and a separate domain was at Israel's disposal in which to perform their service, opposite the house of God.


            According to this understanding, the building of the Mikdash included all the vessels needed for the service performed inside, which was for the sake of God, whereas the outer altar did not serve God, but rather Israel, and the service performed there was for the sake of Israel - to achieve atonement for them. The altar was not a vessel of the house of God, but rather a vessel of the people of Israel, who worshipped in front of the house of God.


            This is the reason why according to the Ra'avad (in his stricture to Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, positive commandment 20) there are essentially two commandments: a positive commandment to build a house for God, which includes all the vessels, and a positive commandment to build an altar for Israel.


            This is also the reason why in the house of God, the Ulam separated between the courtyard, in which stood the altar, and the Heikhal (I Melakhim 6:3). According to this, the Ulam is not part of the Ohel Mo'ed.


6. The parts of the Mishkan and the Mikdash


            In the house of God, the division between the various parts of the Mikdash was sharper than in the Mishkan. Between the Holy and the Devir – the Holy of Holies – there was a wall made of stone, a cubit deep. In the Mishkan, in contrast, the Holy and the Holy of Holies was separated only by the parokhet.


The reason for this is that in the permanent Mikdash, God's Shekhina dwelt in its residence in the Devir, the inner and concealed chamber. There was thus a clear division of domains between the Holy – the outer chamber – and the Devir.[4]


The general argument is that all the parts of the Mishkan constituted a single unit, from the Holy of Holies to the outer altar. The entire structure constituted a meeting place between the Shekhina, on the one hand, and Moshe and all of Israel, on the other, and the Shekhina could also reveal itself outside (as, for example, in Vayikra 9-10). In contrast, in the house of God, the Shekhina dwelt in the innermost chamber, and the relationship between the inner and outer chambers was through partitions that were much more substantial than in the Mishkan (the wall separating between the Holy of Holies and the Holy and the Ulam, which separated between the Heikhal and the courtyard, and the independent status of the outer altar).


We can certainly understand that when God does not dwell in the place itself, but merely comes there to meet with Moshe and all the people of Israel, the distinction between the various parts of the structure is secondary, and there is a clear connection between the various parts. But when God comes to live in His house, certain bounds, limits and partitions must be put in place. Now, each part of the structure stands on its own and is more sharply separated from the other parts, because God is hidden away in an inner chamber, and everything found outside of it serve as entrance halls and exterior chambers.


The various Descriptions of the resting of the Shekhina and the role of the ark


            God's Shekhina is described in different ways in the different books of the Torah. In this section, I wish to demonstrate that the different descriptions of the resting of the Shekhina relate to different periods, and that corresponding to these different periods there were also different stages regarding the ark.


            According to the book of Shemot, the Shekhina relates to the structure that is defined by its walls, whereas according to the book of Devarim, the Shekhina relates to a place with geographical boundaries.


            In this context, the Meshekh Chokhma has an interesting comment:


In the Mishkan, the sanctity depended on the building; sometimes it was fixed in one place, while at other times it was fixed in another place. This was not the case in the Mikdash, where the sanctity depended on the place, and sacrifices could be brought even if there was no building. (Bamidbar 7:1)


            In other words, in the Mishkan, whose place kept changing, the sanctity was not connected to the place, but to the building, wherever it was found. In the Mikdash, on the other hand, the sanctity was connected to the place. The Mikdash did not endow the place with sanctity, but rather it was erected there because of the inherent sanctity of the place.


            It seems, therefore, that we can distinguish between three periods:


            1. In the Mishkan in the wilderness – God did not dwell in a particular place, but rather He met with Moshe in the Ohel Mo'ed, and the resting of the Shekhina was a consequence of the location of the Mishkan there. Therefore, there was only sanctity that was defined by partitions of the Mishkan.


            2. In the Mishkan in Eretz Yisrael in Shilo – For the first time, a place was chosen for the resting of the Shekhina, and according to this, the resting of the Shekhina was the reason that the Mishkan was erected there, this being sanctity of the place (and not sanctity defined by partitions). But because the selection of Shilo was only temporary and for its own time, God merely walked among the people of Israel (II Shemuel 7:6), but He did not dwell there in a permanent manner.


            3. In the Mikdash in Jerusalem – The selection of the place was for all times, and therefore it says, "I have surely built You a house to dwell in, a place for You to abide in forever" (I Melakhim 8:13), a verse which parallels what it says in the Song of the Sea: "In the place, O Lord, which You have made for You to abide in, in the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established. The Lord shall reign for ever and ever" (Shemot 15:17).


            Corresponding to these three periods regarding the Mishkan, we can point to three different periods with regard to ark as well:


            1. In the first stage, the Ohel Mo'ed was the Mishkan of the Testimony, the place where the tablets of the Testimony were found in the ark. This place was intended for God's meeting with Moshe from between the keruvim that were on the kaporet that covered the ark. Here, the ark was the very heart of the Mishkan, resting in the Holy of Holies, overlaid with pure gold, and covered with the kaporet that had the keruvim. Without an ark, there was no Ohel Mo'ed – in a time of war, the ark left the tent and God Himself went out before the hosts of Israel.


            2. In the second stage in Shilo, God's meetings from between the keruvim to give the Torah and mitzvot came to an end, and there was no longer any room for the ark as God's throne and seat of His Shekhina. The seat by its very essence was portable. For the first time, the Shekhina rested in a place. The ark rested in the Holy of Holies, and its absence from the Mishkan in Shilo would have removed its status as an Ohel Mo'ed. Since the selection of Shilo was only temporary, the presence of the ark determined the extent to which the place was the place chosen by God. Fundamentally, then, during this period it was not necessary for the ark to go out to war, and therefore its going out at the battle at Even-ha-Ezer against the Pelishtim was an exception, and it involved a sin.


            3. In Jerusalem during the third stage, there was no need for an ark as a meeting place to teach Torah or as the throne of God, and since Jerusalem was permanently chosen, there was no need for a sign for the continuation of the selection. At that time, the book of Devarim's understanding of the ark was fully realized. Therefore, Shlomo did not make a new ark, as he did with all the other vessels. The ark was no longer one of the vessels of the Mikdash.


            Nevertheless, the ark was brought into the Holy of Holies in order to begin the period of the eternal selection of Jerusalem. The lengthening of the poles cancelled the element of their mobility. Shlomo prepared a place to store away the ark in the Holy of Holies (as is explained by the Rambam in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 4:1) with the addition of two new keruvim that stood on the ground. It would seem from the plain sense of the verses that only the two new keruvim were found in Shlomo's Holy of Holies.


            During this stage, there was essentially no need for the kaporet with the keruvim because God did not sit above the kaporet between the keruvim. Rather, Jerusalem was the seat of God. Hence, according to the plain meaning of the verses, the kaporet with the keruvim was not brought into Shlomo's Devir, and only the keruvim that stood on the ground were found there. According to the Rishonim who say that the kaporet was in fact brought together with the ark into the Holy of Holies, this was primarily in its role as cover for the ark, and not because it served as the seat of the Shekhina.


            This understanding also explains why at the erection of the Mishkan the ark was the first vessel brought inside, whereas when the Mikdash was built, the ark was the last vessel brought in. According to the approach presented here, in the Mishkan, the ark was the foundation of the entire Mishkan, whereas in the Mikdash, the house was complete even without the ark. The ark was only brought inside so that the Shekhina would rest in the place and the place would become sanctified forever, and then there would be no further need for the ark.


            During this period, we no longer hear about the ark or that it was taken out to war. Now, it was used exclusively to store the tablets, and it could be stored in any place that was fit to store them. There was no obligation that the ark be found specifically in the Mikdash, and so it not surprising that during the Second Temple period, the ark was not taken out from the place where it had been stored away. This is also the reason that the Rambam notes only the place where the ark was stored away, for the mitzva does not apply for future generations; it was cancelled from the time that there was a place chosen by God.


            This is succinctly stated in Midrash Ha-gadol:


The ark is for the tablets, and it is not one of the vessels of the Mikdash. (Shemot 25:8)


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] David Henshke, "Mishkan ha-Edut u-Beit ha-Bechira, le-Beiruro shel Nigud," Megadim 11 (Tammuz 5750), pp. 23-62.

[2] According to this approach, this question arises here because now we are dealing with a place in which God was to abide in, and not just a place for the Shekhina to rest.

[3] In his article, Henshke expands on the significance of the outer Ohel Mo'ed (Shemot 33:6-11), but we will not discuss that issue here.

[4] In his article, Henshke expands upon several aspects of the Yom Kippur service and the mitzva of the incense, but we will not discuss these issues here.