That Day - Again

  • Rav Ezra Bick



In three different places the Torah describes the completion and dedication of the mishkan, once in Sefer Shemot, once in Sefer Vayikra, and once in Sefer Bemidbar. The three descriptions seemingly bear no similarity to each other. This obviously obviates the question of redundancy and replaces it with two questions - why the separate narratives, and how to reconcile the different details with each other.



A. The Dedications of the Mishkan





It came to pass, on the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the mishkan was erected. Moshe erected the mishkan....

He erected the court around the mishkan and the altar, and placed the screen of the court gate; and Moshe finished the work. (40, 17-33)


This is followed by a theophany that serves as the conclusion - a glorious conclusion - to Sefer Shemot.


The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the mishkan.

And Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested on it, and the glory of God filled the mishkan....

For the cloud of God was on the mishkan by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (34-38)





Moshe and Aharon came into the Tent of Meeting, and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people.

And there came a fire from before God, which consumed the burnt-offering and the fats on the altar; and all the people saw and they shouted and fell on their faces. (Vayikra 9, 23-24)




  1. At the end of Sefer Shemot, after the extensive instructions and description of the fabrication of the different parts of the mishkan, the Torah gets to the actual construction - putting it all together.
  2. In parashat Tzav (Sefer Vayikra), God tells Moshe to take Aharon and his sons and prepare them for the priesthood. After a complicated purification ceremony, Moshe tells Aharon to spend seven days at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, "day and night," and Aharon does so. Then, on the eighth day (parashat Shemini), the people gather, sacrifices are brought, and
  3. In our parasha, after completing all the censuses of the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar, the Torah seemingly returns to the same day.


And it came to pass on the day that Moshe finished the erection of the mishkan, and he anointed it and sanctified it and all its vessels, and the altar and all its vessels, and he anointed them and sanctified them.

The princes of Israel, the heads of the house of their fathers, who were princes of the tribes, they who were in charge of the counting, offered:

They brought their offering before God; six covered wagons, and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two princes and an ox for each, and they offered them before the mishkan. (Bemidbar 7, 1-3)


This is followed by the individual sacrifices of each of the twelve princes for the next twelve days, "and the princes offered the dedication of the altar on the day of its anointing, and the princes offered their offering before the altar" (7, 10).



B. The Differences


It is easy to summarize the differences between the three sections by concentrating on the main actor. The first is attributed totally to Moshe. The Torah describes Moshe as personally erecting the mishkan. (In fact, this is unlikely, as there were the many craftsmen, led by Betzalel and Ohaliav. Rashi in our parasha [7, 1] notes this). But if we ignore the agent of the erection of the mishkan, and focus instead on the outcome, then the main actor of the episode on Sefer Shemot is God. The day of the erection of the mishkan was the day that God's Presence descended and came to "dwell" in the mishkan.


The second story is about the priests. The eighth day is the culmination of the previous seven, which is totally defined by the purification ceremonies of the priests. Aharon is the main actor in the sacrificial ceremony of the eighth day, and the appearance of the "glory of God" is another description of the fire that descends to consume the sacrifices he has placed on the altar. It all indicates the dedication of Aharon and his sons as priests of God.


The third story is, obviously, about the princes, who sacrifice on each day. The presence of the priests is not even mentioned in these sacrifices.


So we have three stories concerning the completion of the mishkan, one about the mishkan as the "residence" of God, one about the mishkan as the place of the priestly service, and one about the mishkan as somehow related to Israel as a nation, through the representation of the princes of each tribe.


The last point, that the princes are acting not because of their own intrinsic aristocratic status, but as representatives of Israel, is not only a rational assumption in its own right, but clearly supported by the complicated description of the princes - "the princes of Israel, the heads of the house of their fathers, who were princes of the tribes, they who were in charge of the counting." All of these terms are representative - the heads of families, princes of the tribes (and not princes of Israel; i.e., clan leaders and not simply princes), but especially the last one. They are the same leaders who were enumerated at the beginning of parashat Bemidbar to supervise the census, the counting of each and every Jew. In other words, they represent the Jews they counted, each one the members of his own tribe.



C. The Mutual Relationships


The stories in Vayikra and Bemidbar are both connected to the text in Shemot, but in different ways.


The narrative in Bemidbar points clearly and explicitly to Shemot through the date. The text in Shemot relates that Moshe erected the mishkan on the first day of the first month, and then concludes by stating that "Moshe finished (va-yichal) the work." The story in our parasha states that it took place on "THE DAY" that Moshe "finished" (klot) erecting the mishkan. In both cases the verb-stem KLH is used to mean "finished," and the verse in our parasha clearly refers to the earlier one in Shemot. The sacrifices of the princes took place on that very day that has been described as when Moshe completed the erection of the mishkan, presumably the first day of the first month, Nissan.


The narrative in Sefer Vayikra does not have a calendar date or any reference to one. The day in question is identified as the "eighth day," but we have no reference to the date of the first of these days. But the timing of these eight days is tied in with the narrative at the end of Sefer Shemot by context. The introduction to Moshe's erecting the mishkan in Sefer Shemot is, as is to be expected, God's command.


God spoke to Moshe, saying:

On the first day of the first month you shall erect the mishkan of the Tent of Meeting.

You shall place there the ark of testimony... the table... the menora... the altar....


Take the oil of anointing and anoint the mishkan and all its vessels, and sanctify it and all its vessels and it will be sanctified


And you shall bring Aharon and his sons to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water.

And you shall dress Aharon in the holy garments, and anoint him and sanctify him, and he shall serve me.... (40, 1-15)


This is followed immediately by Moshe's fulfilling this command.


Moshe did, in accordance with all that God commanded him, so he did.

And it came to pass on the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the mishkan was erected.

Moshe erected the mishkan.... (40, 16-18)


There is one problem. Despite the categorical statement that Moshe did ALL that God commanded, in the subsequent description in parashat Pekudei one only finds that Moshe erected the mishkan itself, the first part of the commands. Parashat Pekudei ends with Moshe erecting the mishkan and the glory of God descending on it. There is no mention of the sanctification of Aharon.


Since the Torah testifies that Moshe fulfilled the command of God, we are certain that he fulfilled this part of the command as well. In the command, the two parts are a continuum, and it would appear that both are included in the command to "erect the mishkan on the first day of the first month." And where, in fact, do we find Moshe fulfilling this part of the command? The answer is, of course, in the Sefer Vayikra, parashot Tzav and Shemini, leading up to the "eighth day."


So it appears that the narrative in our parasha is parallel to Shemot, and that Vayikra is a continuation of it.



D. Temporal Reconciliation


How do these three narratives coordinate in actuality? This is an ancient disagreement, and there are at least three possibilities that suggest themselves.




  1. All three incidents occurred on the same day, which was the first of Nissan. In order for this to be true, we have to posit that the seven days of the "miluim" began seven days before the first of Nissan.


The advantage of this position is that the two appearances of the "glory of God" are joined, at least co-temporally. Since the verses in Shemot appear to state unequivocally that the mishkan was erected on the first of Nissan, then the Divine fire of parashat Shemini would also have to be on this day.


The main problem is that the mishkan has to exist prior to the "eighth day," since the ceremony of the seven days involves the mishkan. Rashi in our parasha quotes the solution to this problem. The Sages posited that during the seven days of miluim, Moshe erected the mishkan every day and then disassembled it. Hence, it exists and functions during the seven days, yet the "official" and permanent erection of the mishkan is only on the eighth day, the first of Nissan.


The textual support for this supposition is the phrase "on the day Moshe FINISHED erecting the mishkan" (Bemidbar 7, 1). This seems to imply a process of erecting, which the Sages interpret as a seven-day assembly and disassembly. The FINISHING of the erection was on the eighth day, which was also the eighth day of the miluim of the priests, the first of Nissan, and the day that the princes made their offering.


2. Moshe erected the mishkan on the first of Nissan. The physical construction of the mishkan took one day. This is followed by the consecration of the priests, which takes eight days and finishes on the eighth of Nissan. The princes began their sacrifices on the first of Nissan and overlapped with the eight days of the priests. The princes finished on the twelfth of Nissan.


The advantage of this position is that there is no need to posit a multiple erection procedure for the mishkan. The priest-dedication ceremony follows the physical erection of the mishkan, as is suggested by the order of the commands in Shemot. Furthermore, this position is supported by the fact that the Torah states that the princes brought their sacrifices on the day that the altar was anointed (7, 10). The altar was anointed on the first of Nissan, as is stated in Shemot, and this is true even if Moshe reassembled the mishkan for the subsequent seven days. Erection of the mishkan can be performed multiple times, but the anointing undoubtedly took place only once.


The main problem with this solution is how the princes were able to bring sacrifices without the priests. It is true that in the verses of our parasha, it is repeatedly stated that on a given day, each prince "brought his sacrifice," without any mention of a priest. Nonetheless, halakhically there is no reason to believe that the sacrifice could be brought without proper priests, who were only fully initiated on the eighth day.


3. The Ramban raises the possibility that the princes only began on the eighth day and finished on day nineteen. This solves the problem of the previous position, but seemingly ignores the statement that the princes brought their offering on the day that Moshe completed the erection of the mishkan. Of course, this could be solved by adopting the position of the Sages that during the eight days of the priestly dedication (one to eight Nissan), Moshe was reassembling the mishkan each day, so that the FINISHING of the mishkan was on the eighth day. But this ignores the fact that the verse in Shemot appears to state that the mishkan was FINISHED on the first of Nissan. (Actually, a close reading of the verses in Pekudei allows for the possibility that the mishkan was erected on the first of Nissan, but was FINISHED on a later date).


I am not going to suggest that one of these solutions is clearly preferable. For the basic outline of what I will suggest is the solution to the problem of why these narratives were separated at all, it will not make that great a difference, though I think that there will be some difference of nuance, as we shall see. What is even more important is to explain why the Torah encouraged the confusion, since it seems clear that the confusion is deliberate. The simple mention of a date in each case would have made things crystal clear. I think the Torah is interested in leaving the relative dates of the three narratives vague, and that must be included in our explanation.



E. Thematic Reconciliation and Explanation


Why? Why does the Torah separate the different elements of what is more or less one story into three different parts, especially in such a way that seems to obscure the connection between them?


As I pointed out above, both Vayikra and Bemidbar relate to Shemot, though in different ways. So the correct way to view this question is why does the Torah separate the continuation of the dedication of the mishkan from its proper place in Sefer Shemot, and why is the continuation itself separated into two different narratives?


The answer to this question lies in what I think are the different roles of the mishkan, and, by extension, the different nature of the different books of the Torah. We can understand this by following the hint I suggested above: Shemot is about God, Vayikra is about Aharon and the priests, Bemidbar is about Israel and the princes.


The story of Sefer Shemot is about God taking the Jews out of Egypt and their building a "home" for God. In other words, it is about the possibility of God "dwelling" on the earth, of this world being the seat of the Divine Presence. The first occasion of God's presence descending to the earth was at Sinai. (Perhaps the imagery of the burning bush, at the very beginning of Sefer Shemot, was meant to suggest this same idea as well. The flame is somehow attached to the bush, but not part of it). The permanent continuation of this phenomenon is the mishkan, the "dwelling" of the Presence ("shekhina"). The mishkan's purpose is to be the "residence," the seat of the indwelling of the transcendent, infinite, numinous God on earth. The immediate result of this happening, when God's glory fills the newly constructed mishkan, is that "Moshe was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud dwelled on it, and the glory of God filled the mishkan" (Shemot 40, 34). The fullest fulfillment of this goal seemingly negates the very presence of Man in the mishkan, for if the mishkan is the home of God it is by definition off-limits to Man and cannot serve his needs.


Interestingly, the same thing happened when King Shlomo completed the Temple.


And it came about, that when the priests had left the sanctuary, and the cloud filled the house of God. [Notice the name for the Temple in this verse].

And the priests were unable to stand and serve because of the cloud, for the glory of God filled the house of God. (1Kings 8, 10-11).


Shlomo responds to this sight by exclaiming,


God proposed to dwell in thick darkness. I have built a stately house for You, a place for You to dwell forever. (8, 12-13).


Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bemidbar are about man and his relationship with God. Here too, the mishkan plays a very important role. The mishkan is first of all the place where Man worships God. The locus of the worship of God is not the Holy of Holies (the "thick darkness, arafel" of Shlomo's Temple) but the altar, where sacrifices are brought. In parashat Shemini, the glory of God appears to the people when "fire came out from beforGod and consumed the burnt-offering and the fats from the altar." As awe-inspiring, even terrifying, as this sight must have been, the result is not the negation described at the end of Pekudei, but "and the people saw and shouted, and fell on their faces." They fell on their faces, true, but first they exulted and worshipped God. There was no place for Man in the mishkan at the end of Shemot, but here there is a role for Man, whose sacrifices are what are being consumed on the altar.


Our parasha in Sefer Bemidbar also describes sacrifices of Man, the sacrifices brought by the princes of the tribes to dedicate the altar ("The princes offered the. Dedication of the ALTAR" - 6, 10). So what is the difference and why are the two dedication ceremonies separated into two different books? In other words what is the difference between the concentration on the role of the priests and the role of the princes (where, as we saw, the priests are not even mentioned)?


Sefer Vayikra describes Man in response to God. God is the initiator, and Man responds, reacts, defines his position relative to God. Although there is a place for Man in the mishkan, it is only the place defined by God. For this relationship, the role of the priests is paramount. A man can bring a sacrifice, but he cannot actually sacrifice it - he brings it to the priests who are the servants of God. Man per se is not actually present in the house of God, only God's servants; i.e., God's household. In fact, the Sages' name for Sefer Vayikra as a whole is "Torat Kohanim," the Teachings of the Priests. It contains the rules for the mishkan as a place where the service of God is conducted by those chosen and sanctified by God to run His house and be the intermediaries between Him and Man. Man can behold the glory of God and remain present, but he naturally falls on his face in awe. He cannot remain standing on his feet.


The very story of the dedication of the priests on the eighth day emphasizes this point. What happens immediately after the great shout of the people in witness of the glory of God and the heavenly fire? The two sons of Aharon bring a "strange fire" before God, "WHICH HE HAD NOT COMMANDED THEM" (10, 1 - Although this is the beginning of a new chapter in the conventional division, in the Torah itself there is no break whatsoever between this verse and the preceding ones describing the ceremony of the eighth day). The immediate result is that fire, in exactly the same manner as one second before had consumed the sacrifices on the altar, comes forth from before God and consumes them, and they die.


And a fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt-offering and the fats on the altar.... (9, 24)

And a fire came forth from before God and consumed them.... (10, 2)


The condition for being in God's presence on earth is strict obedience to the rules. The sons of Aharon act without being commanded (notice it does not say that acted against what God had commanded, merely that they brought a fire which He had not commanded). The fire of God does not leave man with a role of his own initiative. Man's response is awe, fear and trembling, humility. The kohen, the priest, is the servant of God (the word kohen means servant).


In our parasha, in Sefer Bemidbar, the most striking thing about the sacrifice of the princes is that it is their initiative. Not only do we not find that Moshe relayed a divine command to them, it appears that Moshe is surprised by their initiative.


The princes of Israel offered....

They brought their offering before God; six covered wagons, and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two princes and an ox for each, and they offered them before the mishkan.

God said to Moshe, saying: Take it from them, and it shall be [used] for the service of the Tent of Meeting. (Bemidbar 7, 2-5)


It sounds as though Moshe is unsure if he is allowed to accept the gift. Given the spirit of Sefer Vayikra, and the story of the sons of Aharon, he may well have wondered if this uncommanded initiative of the princes was a form of the "strange fire." God not only assures Moshe that the gift is acceptable, but the continuation of the princes offering, a set of sacrifices, which is also not commanded in the text, turns out to be the dedication of the altar, the very same altar whose fire consumed the sons of Aharon.


This basically leads us to realize that there is a third aspect to the mishkan which comes to the fore in Sefer Bemidbar. Here not God is the focus, and not the priests-servants of God, but the princes; in other words, Israel, the people. The mishkan forms the core of the "machane yisrael," the camp that has been the subject of the opening chapters of the sefer. The mishkan represents the presence of God that accompanies the Jews "in all their travels." One might add that this is the overriding theme of Sefer Bemidbar - the presence of God in a functioning Jewish community, supporting and guiding them in their own lives. This is even clearer in next week's parasha, where the Torah again (third time) describes the cloud of glory on the mishkan from the day of its erection.


On the day of the mishkan's erection, the cloud covered the mishkan on the Tent of Meeting, and at night it would have the appearance of fire till morning.


Thus it would always be, the cloud would cover it, and the appearance of fire at night.

And when the cloud would rise from the tent, afterward the Israelites would travel.... (9, 15-16).


This is followed, when the Jews begin their first post-mishkan journey, with Moshe's famous prayer.


When the ark traveled, Moshe said: Rise O God, and Your enemies be scattered, and those who hate You shall flee before You.

And when it rested he would say: Return O God to the ten thousand thousands of Israel. (10, 35-36).


The primary purpose and design of the machane yisrael is that of a war camp, and here we find the mishkan - or more specifically the ark - as an instrument of war, scattering the enemies of God before the Jewish army. The mishkan is not primarily a place for the people to come and worship God, who dwells there, but a symbol and manifestation of God's presence within the people, which transforms their lives. In other words, the focus is truly on the people, who in our dedicatory service are represented by the princes. Although this is part of the dedication of the mishkan, we find neither the exclusion of all people from the presence of God described in Shemot, nor the falling on the faces described in Vayikra. The princes bring their sacrifices and apparently manage to remain standing. What's more, the Torah does not even refer to the priests, giving the appearance, at least, that the princes brought the sacrifice themselves. (If, in fact, they began their sacrifices before the completion of the consecration of the priests, then they in fact were not assisted by the priests, though it is not clear how halakhically these sacrifices could be brought without priests). The first part of the princes' offering was not even a sacrifice, but wagons, a means of transportation. The mishkan moves with the Jews, and it is their need to reach the Land of Israel that is ultimately served by these wagons and the mishkan that will be moved by it.


The long section describing the offering of the princes is concluded with a single verse. "And when Moshe came to the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the covering which was on the ark of testimony from between the two keruvim, and it spoke to him" (7, 89). The mishkan, which at the end of Shemot was a place where no man could be, and at the ceremony in Vayikra was a place of prostration (and death), is here a meeting place for Moshe and God, where Moshe comes (on his initiative??) to speak to God and receive guidance and instruction. This is the mishkan of the princes.


The story of Sefer Bamidbar is the story of the ideal camp, with the presence of God in its center, guiding, leading, helping and supporting an active Jewish community with goals and accomplishments.


Before the section of the princes, there are three halakhic sections. This phas perplexed the commentators, since all three seem to deal with sacrifices and should have been somewhere in Vayikra. Running out of available bytes, I will mention only one of them (the most obvious to fit in with the scheme I am proposing). The laws of the nazir immediately precede the princes. Why is this not found in Sefer Vayikra. The answer now is obvious. The nazir is specifically the religious personality who is not responding to a divine command to worship, but is acting to approach God on his initiative. He is a classic Bemidbar individual.



F. Books


The Torah separates the three aspects of the mishkan - residence, place of worship, and indwelling presence - because they are not only distinct, but also, to a certain extent, contradictory, as was indicated by the different consequences for Man in the presence of the mishkan. But even more than that, the Torah is not only interested in physically separating the three descriptions, but has placed them in three books, because these three aspects are in fact the three different themes of these books. Shemot is the book of the revelation of God's presence on earth (God in the mishkan), Vayikra is the book of divine worship (the kohanim at the altar), and Bemidbar is the book of God's presence within the community (the princes). Since God knows what the mishkan is meant to be, all three aspects are included in the commands given in Shemot, but the actual fulfillment is separated.


This understanding of Sefer Bemidbar should be considered when considering many subsequent parashiot in the coming weeks.


Further study.










  1. Three other "out-of-place" halakhic sections in Naso are the law of the adulterous wife (5, 11-31), some laws relating to asham and teruma (5, 5-10) and the expulsion of temaim (5, 1-4). Explain why they are here, according to the theme of the shiur.
  2. The sign of the presence of God in Shemot is the cloud, in Vayikra the descending consuming fire, and in Bemidbar the cloud which has the appearance of fire (read carefully Bemidbar 9, 15-16). Explain.
  3. See Rashi at the beginning of Beha'alotekha. In light of this week's shiur, can you explain Aharon's feelings about the sacrifices of the princes.
  4. Think about the relevance of the different solutions to the temporal coordination of the three dedications to the theme of the shiur.










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