The Ark in the Mishkan - A Meeting Place; The Ark in the Mikdash - A Place to Store the Tablets (Part II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy





by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik





Lecture 131: The ark in the Mishkan – a meeting place;

The ark in the mikdash – a place to store the tablets
(pART 2)

Rav Yitzchak Levi





            In the previous shiur, we began discussing Prof. Henshke's article and the distinction that he draws between the ark's function in the Mishkan and its function in the Mikdash.


            In this shiur, I wish to continue our analysis of this article. Prof. Henshke himself relates to many different matters, but in this shiur, we shall relate only to those parts that touch upon the issues that we have raised.




1. The Mishkan as a Meeting Place


            Prof. Henshke's assertion that the Mishkan served as a meeting place is clearly correct. Nowhere is it stated that God dwells in the structure of the Mishkan itself, nor is use made in connection with the Mishkan of the term "bayit" (house) or "yeshiva" (sitting, dwelling). On the other hand, it is stated many times that God dwells among the people of Israel. Moreover, apart from Moshe Rabbeinu, nowhere do we find that God meets with man from above the kaporet between the two keruvim. This phenomenon is unique to Moshe in the Mishkan.


            However, several questions may be raised about this assertion:


·                     If the Mishkan served merely as a meeting place, why was it necessary to build an entire structure in which God did not live? Why, for example, would an altar not have sufficed for such a meeting, in keeping with the way that God revealed Himself to the patriarchs throughout the book of Bereishit?[1]


·                     According to this understanding, the people of Israel prepare a dwelling place for God, but God does not dwell in it. If so, why was the structure needed, if the nature of the revelation was very similar to the revelation at Mount Sinai?[2]


·                     Was it merely a technical or practical matter that the Mishkan could be taken apart and moved, or was this all intended so that the meeting between God and Israel should take place in a structure containing chambers and vessels in order to give Israel the feeling of God's presence and closeness to them?


2. The cloud at the dedication of the Mishkan and at the dedication of the house of God.


            How does this point find expression when we compare the dedication of the Mishkan with the dedication of the house of God?


            On the one hand, regarding the Mishkan it is noted that the cloud covered the Ohel Mo'ed and that the cloud rested on the Mishkan, whereas regarding the house of God it says that the cloud filled the house of God. This is a true and important distinction, but at the same time, the Torah notes twice that "the glory of God filled the Mishkan," and this seems to fully parallel what is stated regarding the Mikdash (I Melakhim 8) - that "the glory of God filled the house of God." What is meant by the term "the glory of God"? Does this refer to the cloud itself or to the fire?[3]


            Is it possible to view the cloud as a general revelation of God, characteristic of the journey in the wilderness, but which has no direct connection to the matter of meeting?


            It is very interesting that the cloud is mentioned many times in the books of Shemot and Bamidbar, but not in the book of Vayikra (with the exception of the cloud of incense on Yom Kippur), which is the book that describes the Mishkan in its static, rather than its mobile state.


            In the wilderness, the cloud symbolized the presence of the Shekhina, and all the people of Israel in the camp of Israel around the Mishkan saw the revelation of God in the cloud. In the fixed structure of the house of God, the cloud entered its permanent place, and apparently after it entered the house of God, it was not seen again. Is this connected to the transition from meeting place in the Mishkan to a house/dwelling place in the house of God, or to the transition from temporariness to permanence?


            In addition, if the Mishkan functioned primarily as a meeting place, why doesn't the Torah clarify this from the outset and say: "And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may meet there with the people of Israel"?


3. The significance of the structure


            It should be noted that Prof. Henshke does not raise the possibility that the structure of the Mishkan was built in the form of a residential tent characteristic of shepherds in the wilderness, as God did not at all live there. It may be suggested that the entire objective of the Mishkan was that God's presence should be felt in the place. According to Henschke, the structure of the Mishkan did not serve as a residence, but as a meeting place, and therefore it could not serve as the model of a house, because there was no intention that God should live there. The emphasis is rather that through the structure, God dwells among the people of Israel.


The significance of the Mishkan


            Based on all that has been said above, it may be said that the Mishkan served first and foremost as a place of meeting. But what is the spiritual significance of the fact that God required that a structure be built that is similar to the residential units found in the wilderness, containing vessels that serve as household utensils?


            Is it possible that the Torah speaks about God dwelling among the people of Israel rather than in the Mishkan itself because the Torah wishes to avoid any assignment of materiality to God, and it does not want to limit its description of the Shekhina's presence to a structure? What, in any event, is the precise meaning of the need for a house (tent and Mishkan) for the sole sake of a meeting place?


            Prof. Henshke argues that the structure was meant to express the presence of God among Israel from the perspective of Israel, whereas the meeting was meant to express this from the perspective of God.


            The people of Israel invite God to the residence that they had prepared for Him in their midst, but for the time being, God does not accept this invitation; His dwelling in Israel is realized in His meeting with them.


            Even if we understand that the structure was meant for Israel, according to our understanding, in addition to the meeting that takes place in the Mishkan, we also find the building of a tent with chambers and vessels that express God's presence among the people of Israel, in the sense of a residence.




1. A place for Him to dwell or a place for Him to set His name


            Without a doubt, the terms that are used with respect to the Mikdash strongly support the understanding that the Mikdash served not only as a meeting place, but as the dwelling place of the Shekhina, but here too we must clarify the matter.


            When the Shekhina rests in the house of God, the cloud is in the house and not only over it, and shlomo himself says to God, "I have surely built You a house of habitation, a place for You to dwell in for ever" (I Melakhim 8:13). shlomo surely means to say that he expects to see the Shekhina dwelling in the Mikdash. It is interesting, however, that when God relates to shlomo's prayer (I Melakhim 9:3), He does not say that the place is a place for Him to dwell in forever, but rather: "I have hallowed this house, which you have built, to put My name there for ever; and My eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually." The purpose of the house is to serve as a place for God to set His name, as a clear fulfillment of the Torah's promise throughout the book of Devarim that God will choose a place "to set His name there" or "to cause His name to rest there."


            On the other hand, God continues with the words: "And My and My heart shall be there perpetually," which certainly expresses God's direct providence.


            In any event, beyond the desire here as well to avoid any attribution of materiality to God, we are dealing with the choosing of a place, but not a place for God to actually dwell in. We are dealing with the setting of His name, with His eyes and heart being there perpetually.


In this context, it is interesting that it is here that shlomo first raises the question: "But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built!" (I Melakhim 8:27). Why does this question arise here?


·                     Does this question stem from the fact that God constricted His Shekhina to a particular house? If this is correct, what is the difference between the Mishkan in the wilderness and the Mishkan in Eretz Israel?


·                     Or perhaps the question is connected to the fact that for the first time, we are dealing with a fixed physical place – in other words, fixing the house in a particular place, and not within the walls of a structure (Mishkan or house). If this is true, does this mean that God has a place of dwelling, a place of residence only when the sanctuary is in a fixed place, or does this stem from the fact that the tent/Mishkan turned into a house? It would seem that according to this approach, we can explain the change based on the fact that now there is a fixed place, irrespective of the question of whether it is a place of meeting or a place of dwelling.


2. The relationship between the selection of the place and its sanctity in Shilo and in Jerusalem


            Prof. Henshke argues that as soon as a place was chosen, whether in Shilo or in Jerusalem, the choosing of the place had an immediate effect upon the sanctity of the place.


            It seems to me that this point is clearly true with respect to Jerusalem and Mount Moriya, but it is difficult to make the argument with respect to the stations of the Mishkan prior to Jerusalem in Eretz Israel, including Shilo. This is because in its essence, Shilo was like all the other stations of the Mishkan, a continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. There, the sanctity was conditioned on the place functioning as a sanctuary. When the revelation came to an end or the place was no longer used as a sanctuary, the sanctity ended.


            Just as at Mount Sinai, "When the horn sounds long, they shall come up to the mountain" (Shemot 19:13) – when the revelation came to an end, the sanctity of the place ceased and the people of Israel were able to go up to the mountain – so too, with the various stations of the Mishkan, including Shilo, the sanctity of the place existed as long as the place actually served as a Mishkan. With its destruction, the sanctity of the place ended.[4]


            This issue is connected in a most essential way to the question, according to the plain sense of the verses, of what is defined as the place chosen by God, and whether Shilo, according to the plain sense of the verses, is included, as was understood by Chazal.


3. A change in the status of the ark


            Another interesting point relates to the status of the ark and to the distinction that Prof. Henshke draws between its status in the Mishkan as a meeting place and the throne of God, and its status in the Mikdash, where it served primarily as a container for the tablets of the Testimony. One of his arguments is that over the course of the First Temple period, the ark is not at all mentioned. It is only mentioned when it was brought into the Temple at the time of its dedication (I Melakhim 8:3-9) and when it was stored away in the days of Yoshiyahu (II Divrei Ha-yamim 35:3). This, according to Henshke, was apparently due to its less important function during this period.


            First, let us examine the possibility of a connection between meeting place and the seat of the Shekhina, as it were, above the keruvim.


            Second, working on the assumption that after the time of Moshe the ark is never again referred to as a place of meeting between the two keruvim, what is the meaning of the expression, "the Lord of hosts, who sits upon the keruvim," and in what context is that expression used?


            An examination of this expression reveals that it is used in the Mishkan in Shilo in connection with the sons of Eli (I shmuel 4:4), in the transfer of the ark from Kiryat-Ye'arim to the city of David by King David (II shmuel 6:4; I Divrei ha-Yamim 13:6), and in the prayer of King Chizkiyahu (II Melakhim 19:15; Yeshayahu 37:16).[5] Based on this examination, we can note two points:


·                     First, that this expression does not appear at all with respect to the Mishkan in the wilderness, and it first appears in Eretz Yisrael when the Mishkan is in Shilo.


·                     Second, that this expression appears during the period that the Mishkan was in Shilo, after the destruction of Shilo when the great bama was in Giv'on and the ark was by itself in Kiryat-Ye'arim, and also in the permanent Mikdash in Jerusalem.


Regarding the Mikdash in Jerusalem, it is very difficult to assume that the expression "the Lord who sits upon the keruvim" refers to the keruvim of shlomo. Those keruvim were separate from each other and did not constitute a single unit, but rather stood one next to the other along the width of the Holy of Holies. It therefore seems that we are dealing with the keruvim found on the ark made by Betzalel. This means that these keruvim were found in their place on the ark in the Holy of Holies and King Chizkiyahu relates to them.


It is difficult to see something unusual here, and it seems that it points to the fact that even in the days of the First Temple, the keruvim were found in the Holy of Holies. The expression implies that God who is the Lord of the hosts also sits upon the keruvim. God's kingdom finds expression in his sitting on the keruvim.


In addition, in the words of Prof. Henshke we find a correspondence between the keruvim serving as a place of meeting and as the seat of God's kingship. In his view, it was only during the period of Israel's wandering in the wilderness that the ark was the throne of God who sits upon the keruvim. Since there was no sanctified place, but rather it was only the inner space of the Mishkan that was sanctified, God's throne could not be on the ground in a particular place. Of necessity, the Shekhina rested on the ark that was moved about in the space of the tent. But when God chose a place to dwell in, the Shekhina rested on that very place, and from that time on, the resting of the Shekhina had the character of a permanent rest, as opposed to the portable character of the ark that was carried by way of poles.


The question is: what is the inner connection between a place of meeting and the throne of God? It would seem that a meeting place reflects a more temporary reality. At first, when the connection between God and the people of Israel in general and Moshe in particular was based on a miracle, when all the circumstances in the wilderness were miraculous, the connection was one of meeting, of direct speech between God and Moshe. Later, when Israel was permanently settled in its land and the Temple was found in Jerusalem, the entire Temple served as a place that symbolized, more than anything else, God's kingdom in the world. In such a situation, the ark served as God's throne. In this sense, there is no greater expression of the permanence of the Shekhina.


In this context, I wish to propose a different understanding of the fact that when the ark was brought into the Holy of Holies in the time of shlomo. We read: "And they drew out the poles so that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place, before the sanctuary, though they were not seen outside" (I Melakhim 8:8). According to our understanding, this does not point to the diminished status of the ark, but on the contrary, to its being fixed in its place. It symbolizes the permanence of the resting of the Shekhina in Jerusalem, rather than the diminished status of the ark.


Regarding the choosing of the place, Prof. Henshke argues that with the establishment of a permanent house of God in Jerusalem, there was no longer room for an ark in the Mikdash; from that time on, the ark's sole function was to contain the tablets.


One of his proofs is that after the ark was stored away in the days of Yoshiyahu, Yirmiyahu says:


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)


            It seems, however, that this verse, which was stated at the time that the ark was stored away in the days of Yoshiyahu (II Divrei Ha-yamim 32:3), proves just the opposite. It was precisely when the ark was stored away at the end of the First Temple period that the ark ceased to serve as the throne of God and the entire city of Jerusalem assumed that role. But from this we can infer that throughout the period of the First Temple until the time of Yoshiyahu, the ark filled an important role, and not as suggested by Prof. Henshke.[6]


            We are left with the question of whether the choosing of a place for the house of God dictates the cancellation of the ark, or whether these are two separate questions. It may be suggested that just as it is true that even after a place was chosen, the Mikdash still served its original function, so is it true the ark that was found in the heart of the Mikdash served as God's throne even after God chose a place. The choosing of a place did not affect whatsoever the original status of the Mikdash in general or the ark in particular.


            It seems to me that when considering the difference between the Mishkan and the Mikdash, we must still take into account the difference between a temporary phenomenon and a permanent one. In this way, we explained the drawing out of the poles of the ark as an expression of fixedness as opposed to portability.




            I wish to briefly summarize what we have said in the last two shiurim.


            We saw the basic distinction made by Prof. Henshke between the Mishkan as a place of meeting between God, Moshe, and the people of Israel and the Mikdash as the place where God chose to set His name and where His house stands. This suggestion is certainly precise and correct.


            So too, we fundamentally accept the basic distinction between the ark with the kaporet and the keruvim, over which God met with Moshe and the people of Israel, and the ark containing the two tablets of stone (as is found in I Melakhim 8:9) in the Mikdash.


            It seems to me that the fact that the ark is mentioned in several places without it being noted that above it were the kaporet and keruvim does not necessarily mean that the kaporet and keruvim were not there. Therefore, it is not necessary that God's choosing of a place negated the central role that the ark played in the permanent Mikdash.


            Chizkiyahu's prayer, which refers to God as “He who sits upon the keruvim,” seems to indicate that the ark and the keruvim still existed in his time (and it seems to me that the reference is to the ark of Betzalel).


            In Yirmiyahu's prophecy, following the storing away of the ark, the entire city of Jerusalem becomes the throne of God in this world. This seems to prove that prior to the days of Yoshiyahu, the ark was the throne of God.


            Prof. Henshke's fundamental distinction between the Mishkan, the meeting place between God, Moshe, and the people of Israel, and the Mikdash, the house of God where God dwells, does not contradict the relationship between a temporary Mishkan and a permanent house.


            As stated above, this also found expression at the time that the ark was fixed in its place when it was brought into the Mishkan and its poles were drawn out so that they could be seen from the holy.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Does meeting above the kaporet from between the two keruvim have different significance?

[2] Is it possible that according to this understanding, we are dealing with reservations about the structure itself, or is this connected in some way to the sin of the Golden Calf and the extent to which the structure of the Mishkan was lekhatchila or bedi'eved?

[3] The Ramban in his commentary to Shemot 40:34-35 states that at the dedication of the Mishkan when Moshe entered, the cloud rose and the glory of God also went out.

[4] We dealt with this issue at length when we considered the issue of "the place which God will choose" and when we discussed the status of Shilo.

[5] Regarding Chizkiyahu, the keruvim are not mentioned in explicit connection to the ark, and it is almost as if the keruvim constitute a vessel of their own. This is different from the mention of the keruvim in connection with the sons of Eli or when the ark was brought up by David, where the ark and the keruvim are mentioned as a single unit. Nevertheless, “sitting on the keruvim,” according to what we have suggested, describes God's place of rest in the Holy of Holies above the ark, even if the ark is not explicitly mentioned in this context.

[6] Yirmiyahu's prophecy about the storing away of the ark can be understood not only as an allusion to the expected destruction of the Temple, but also a way to prevent an understanding of the Temple and the ark as a sort of insurance policy, as reflected in Yirmiyahu 7 in the prophecy: "The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, are these." In order to prevent this misconception, God must be worshipped without an ark, and therefore the ark was stored away.