Lecture 53: The Significance of the Location of the Stations of the Mishkan (Part I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy






Rav Yitzchak Levi





            The previous lectures discussed the various stations of the Mishkan following Bnei Yisrael's entry into Eretz Yisrael. We dealt with the nature of the resting of the Shekhina at each station and with Bnei Yisrael's attitude toward the Mishkan in each period.


An important question that has not yet been addressed is why precisely these stations were chosen to serve as the sites of the Mishkan.


On the face of it, it should be noted that nowhere does Scripture state with regard to any one of these stations that the selection was made at the command of God. We find no prophetic utterance, revelation, or even inquiry of the urim ve-tumim regarding any of these stations; it appears then that the leader of the generation decided each time upon the location of the Mishkan. Who were the leaders of each generation?


*            Gilgal and Shilo – Yehoshua was the nation's leader.


*            Nov – following the destruction of Shilo, the Mishkan moved to Nov. It is possible that the site of the Mishkan during this period was determined by the prophet Shmuel or by king Shaul.


*            Giv'on – it is reasonable to assume that following the destruction of the Mishkan in Nov, it was Shaul who decided that the Mishkan would stand in Giv'on.


These are logical assumptions, but nowhere are they clearly stated in Scripture.




            The question raised here is closely connected to the fundamental question that we dealt with in the past: to what extent do the stations of the Mishkan fall into the category of "the place which the Lord shall choose"?[1] We have already seen that it can be argued that even if the Mishkan's stations are defined as "in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you" (Shemot 20:21), it does not necessarily follow that they fall into the category of "the place which the Lord shall choose."


            The answer to this question depends upon two factors:


            First of all, we must clarify whether the words, "the place which the Lord shall choose," refer to a single place – Jerusalem - or rather to a variety of places to be chosen by God, in the sense of God "walks in a tent and in a tabernacle" (II Shmuel 7:6).


            Second, even according to those who maintain that the expression, "the place which the Lord shall choose," relates to various places, on what criteria does the Divine selection of a place depend? For this purpose, are Gilgal, Nov, and Givon identical to Shilo, or not?


            It might be suggested, for example, that Divine selection of a place depends on the ark being found in the Mishkan, a circumstance which creates a connection between the site of the resting of the Shekhina and the site of man's worship of God. If we adopt this approach, this criterion was met in Shilo, which housed the ark, but not in Gilgal, Nov, or Giv'on. One of the ramifications of this connection is the issue of the bamot.[2]


            In any event, according to the plain sense of Scripture, there is no reference to the selection of the places themselves, and it is reasonable to assume, as stated above, that the selection was made by the leader of the generation (and we have no way of knowing whether or not that leader consulted with a prophet on the matter).




            The general sense arising from Scripture is that the location of the Mishkan in each period is connected to the process of conquest and settlement. Bnei Yisrael erect the Mishkan in places that match their advances across Eretz Yisrael.


            When they first entered the Land, the tribes were still occupied with fighting and with establishing an initial hold on the Land, and the Mishkan was found in Gilgal, which was essentially the people's first stop (Yehoshua 4:19). This explanation accords with the words of Chazal, who say that the Mishkan remained in Gilgal for fourteen years, a period that corresponds to the years of conquest and settlement.


            The move to Shilo was, as was already mentioned, the only time that Scripture explicitly describes the transfer of the Mishkan from one place to the next. This move also accords with the explanation proposed above - the transfer to Shilo takes place at the same time that two and a half tribes – Yehuda, Efrayim, and half the tribe of Menashe – take possession of their territories on the west bank of the Jordan. Following the conclusion of the fighting, it is logical that the Mishkan be relocated to the central mountainous massif, in a relatively central place with respect to the territories of these two and a half tribes.


            This explanation fits in well with the Mishkan's stay in Gilgal and Shilo, but it seems that the move from Shilo to Nov and Giv'on cannot be explained solely on the basis of the progressive settlement of the Land.




            In addition to the factor discussed above, it is reasonable to assume that another consideration was taken into account when selecting the site of the Mishkan, namely, the desire to connect, to the degree possible, the seat of political leadership of that generation to the site of the Mishkan. In addition to the practical ramifications of this connection (a leader is sometimes needed to decide spiritual questions, e.g., regarding the allocation of tribal territories, the cities of refuge, and the cities of the Levites), there is also a spiritual element in the connection between leadership and the Mishkan.[3] The leader of every generation must lead the people in accordance with God's commands, by imitating the ways of God and relating to His kingdom.


            At the first station, Yehoshua served as the leader of the entire nation. Bnei Yisrael fought against the kings of the south and the north and then regularly returned to Gilgal – the site of the camp where the current leader was found.


            As for the second station, the Mishkan was located at Shilo not only because it was situated in a central place, but also because it is found in the territory of Efrayim, Yehoshua's tribe.


            At the third station, when the Mishkan moved to Nov, the city of the priests in the aftermath of the destruction of Shilo, the great bama was located in the territory of Binyamin while Shaul the Binyaminite ruled as king.


            It is reasonable to assume that, following the destruction of Nov, Shaul himself decided the next site of the Mishkan, and it is therefore also located in his tribe's territory.


            It is possible that the root of this connection lies in the Torah's statement regarding bringing sacrifices specifically "in the place which the Lord shall choose in one of your tribes." In Natan's reply to David's request to build the Temple, he states:


In all the places where I have walked with all of Bnei Yisrael, did I speak a word with any of the tribes of Yisrael, whom I commanded as shepherds of My people Yisrael, saying, Why do you not build Me a house of cedar? (II Shmuel 7:7)


            In the parallel passage in I Divrei Ha-yamim (17:6), instead of the words, "any of the tribes of Yisrael," we find "any of the judges of Yisrael." This may suggest that the place which God will choose is connected to the place where the current shofet/leader is found, and this accords with our understanding of the actual circumstances at the various stations of the Mishkan.[4]




            Our fundamental position is that the places themselves where the Mishkan stood were endowed with spiritual significance. On the one hand, their topographical and geographical location, and the events that transpired in them, give expression to their unique qualities, while on the other hand, the places themselves created those qualities. Therefore, an examination of the location of the Mishkan's stations is of great significance not only from the previously mentioned perspectives (the order of conquest and settlement and the connection between national leadership and the site of the resting of the Shekhina), but also from the perspective of the character and essence of the various places for future generations. Accordingly, we wish now to examine the various stations and to understand the essence and character of each station.




            Gilgal is first mentioned after Yisrael completed its crossing of the Jordan and the river's waters returned to their place:


And the people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month and camped in Gilgal, on the east border of Jericho. (Yehoshua 4:19)


            Bnei Yisrael's first stop in Eretz Yisrael was at Gilgal, which is defined as being at the eastern border of Jericho.[5]


            Furthermore, according to Rashi, it was at Gilgal that the people lodged for the night and twelve people were commanded to carry the stones from the Jordan.




            It is possible that Gilgal was named for the heaps (galim) of stones in its proximity. Yigal Yadin maintains that the word Gilgal is a technical term for circle/barricade, that is, an army camp (see I Shmuel 17:20). This suggestion is supported by the definite article (the letter heh) that is always attached to the term Gilgal.[6]


            An explanation of the place's name is found, however, in the verses themselves. Following the account of the circumcision that the people underwent at Gilgal, it says:


And the Lord said to Yehoshua, "This day have I rolled away (galoti) the reproach of Egypt from off you." So he called the name of the place Gilgal to this day. (Yehoshua 5:9)


            My revered teacher Rav Yoel Bin Nun[7] explains that the term "the reproach of Egypt" refers to the foreskin. The foreskin was first removed from Bnei Yisrael when they underwent circumcision prior to the exodus from Egypt before Pesach, and a second time when they underwent circumcision prior to the conquest of Eretz Yisrael; thus, they left their state of slavery and their status of being uncircumcised at one and the same time. The reproach of Egypt was removed from them and once again they merited the land of their inheritance. Hence, the reproach of Egypt includes both the reproach of the foreskin and the reproach of exile and slavery.




*            Upon Yisrael's entry into the Land, Bnei Yisrael were commanded to take twelve stones from under the soles of the feet of the priests in the Jordan River and to set them down in Gilgal. This is the site of Yisrael's first encampment on the west bank of the Jordan (Yehoshua 4:19-24).


*            As was mentioned above, the mass circumcision ceremony following Yisrael's entry into the Land was conducted at Gilgal (Yehoshua 5:2-9). There is a fundamental connection between circumcision and Eretz Yisrael, as is expressed with respect to the patriarch Avraham at the first command regarding circumcision:


"And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land on which you do sojourn, all the land of Cana'an, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." And God said to Avraham, "You shall keep My covenant therefore, you, and your seed after you in their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you; every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant between Me and you." (Bereishit 17:8-10)


            There is a deep connection between the covenant with God in the body of the nation – Eretz Yisrael -  and the covenant with God in the body of the individual – circumcision.


            It is, therefore, not by chance that it was at the site of Yisrael's entry into the Land and their first encampment therein – at Gilgal – that a covenant was established in the full sense of the word – with God and with the Land. An essential and meaningful change took place in Gilgal when Bnei Yisrael entered into a covenant with God, and therefore it is at Gilgal that "I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt." The severance from Egypt and the entry into the Land were completed with the making of a covenant with God.


*            It was at Gilgal that the first Pesach was observed after Yisrael's entry into the Land (Yehoshua 5:10).


*            It was at Gilgal that the camp of Yisrael remained throughout the period of the conquest, and it was to the camp of Yisrael in Gilgal that Yehoshua returned after each campaign and battle (Yehoshua 9:2; 10:6-7, 9, 16, 43).


*            It was there that the first allocation of territories west of the Jordan was made to two and a half tribes (Yehuda, Efrayim, and half of the tribe of Menashe (Yehoshua 14:6).


*            And as stated, according to Chazal, the Mishkan stood for fourteen years in Gilgal during the initial period of conquest and settlement.


Let us now survey the various later periods to see what happened at Gilgal during each period.




*            In the framework of Shmuel's anointing of Shaul as king, Shaul was commanded to go down before Shmuel to Gilgal and to wait there for seven days until Shmuel arrived to offer sacrifices and to tell Shaul what to do (I Shmuel 10:8). In a certain sense, this action in Gilgal completed the anointing of Shaul as king. Indeed, following the completion of the campaign against Amon, Shmuel said to the people: "Come and let us go to Gilgal and renew the kingdom there" (I Shmuel 11:14).


*            After Shaul's appointment as king, Shmuel delivered his famous speech before all of Yisrael in Gilgal and took his leave from the people.


*            Gilgal was the place where the people assembled before the war against the Pelishtim, and it was there that Shaul committed his first sin when he failed to wait for Shmuel; he was therefore informed that he has forfeited the kingdom. Thus, it was in Gilgal that Shaul was anointed as king, and it was there that he was informed that the kingdom would be taken away from him.


*            After Shaul's sin with Amalek, he went down to Gilgal, and it was there that it was clarified whether or not Shaul fulfilled God's command regarding the war against Amalek. It was there that Shaul was told that God had rejected him from being king over Yisrael,[9] and it was there that Shmuel hewed Agag in pieces before God.[10]




*            Following the conclusion of Avshalom's rebellion, during which time David was effectively not the king because the people supported Avshalom, the people of Yehuda went to Gilgal to reappoint David as king (II Shmuel 19:16). With David's return to the west bank of the Jordan, the first place where the tribe of Yehuda wished to reappoint David as king was Gilgal.




*            Gilgal was the last station before crossing the Jordan eastward and before Eliyahu's ascent to heaven (II Melakhim 2:1). After Eliyahu's ascent to heaven, Elisha returned to Gilgal (II Melakhim 4:38).




*            Toward the end of the first Temple period, the prophets Hoshea, Amos, and Mikha delivered harsh prophecies about Gilgal. Here are a few examples:


Come to Bet-El, and transgress, to Gilgal and multiply transgression. (Amos 4:4)


Though you, Yisrael, play the harlot, let not Yehuda also be guilty; and do not come to Gilgal, nor go up to Bet-Aven, nor swear, "As the Lord lives." (Hoshea 4:15)


All their wickedness is in Gilgal, for there I hated them. For the wickedness of their doings, I will drive them out of My house; I will love them no more. All their princes are rebellious. (Hoshea 9:15)


Indeed, Gil'ad is iniquitous; they are become mere vanity; in Gilgal they have sacrificed bullocks. Their altars are like droppings on the furrows of the field. (Hoshea 12:12)


            It is interesting that Gilgal is already presented in negative terms in the book of Shoftim in connection with Ehud ben Gera:


But he himself turned back after reaching the carved stones that were by Gilgal, and said, "I have a secret errand to you, O king." The latter said, "Keep silence," and all that stood by him went out from him. (3:19)


            On the face of it, Bnei Yisrael seem to have worshipped God at Gilgal in an inappropriate manner. Scripture does not spell out the sins committed at Gilgal and at Bet-El; it is possible that some people thought that these places were endowed with special sanctity that would protect those who visited them from harm.[11]


            As we know, a communal bama stood at Gilgal during the period when bamot were permitted, and thus we find sacrifices were offered there after the destruction of Shilo (I Shmuel 10:8). It is possible that with the division of the kingdom, the people of Yisrael once again sanctified the ancient bamot in Gilgal and offered sacrifices upon them.


            If we try to characterize the place, several points seem to stand out:


            First of all, what stands out is the primacy of the place, both with respect to Bnei Yisrael's hold on Eretz Yisrael in general, with the symbolism of the stones testifying to the crossing of the Jordan and with respect to the first kingdom in Eretz Yisrael that was established there.[12] This primacy leaves its imprint on the place, although it lacks continuity for the long term.


            Second, the place is a sanctified place, this being evident in the fact that the Mishkan stood there, according to Chazal, for 14 years, the entire period of conquest and division of the Land.


Later, a communal bama seems to have stood there in the days of Shmuel following the destruction of Shilo, and it is possible that at various times the place served as a ritual site, even when this was not permitted.


            Third, Gilgal is a place of opposites:


*                        On the one hand, it is a place of beginnings, while on the other hand, it is also the place from which Eliyahu left this world.


*                        On the one hand, it is a site of sanctity, while on the other hand, it is a place that must be destroyed owing to the inappropriate rites conducted there.


*                        On the one hand, it is the place where the kingdom began, while on the other hand, it is the place where it ended.


According to this understanding, we may be able to suggest a connection between the place's essence and its name, Gilgal, for it is a place where things "roll" and keep changing.[13]


The Mishkan may have been located in the place of the stones over which the people of Yisrael crossed the Jordan. The stones were meant to remind the people of Yisrael's miraculous crossing of the Jordan on dry land, and thus to express their entry into the Land. This fact is also undoubtedly connected to the name of the place, Gilgal, for the pile (gal) of stones. It was here that the people underwent circumcision, the covenant of each individual with the nation, and offered the paschal offering, the covenant of the people of Yisrael as a whole with God.[14] In this sense, it is the first place in Eretz Yisrael where God and Bnei Yisrael entered into a covenant, and we can therefore understand why the Mishkan was located there during the period of the conquest and initial settlement.


The connection between primacy, the first covenant, and the sanctity of the site is understandable. The primacy also symbolizes the transition from the years of wandering in the wilderness to the beginning of the settlement in Eretz Yisrael, even temporarily.


The sanctity of the place over the course of the generations was impaired by the rites conducted there that were alien to the place's sanctity, but these rites attest to the fact that even many generations after Yisrael entered into the Land, Gilgal remained an important place for worship.




            To complete our analysis of the encampment at Gilgal, I wish to relate to the special meaning of the Pesach observed at Gilgal, Yisrael's first Pesach following their entry into the Land. This Pesach has great spiritual meaning, beyond the significance of Pesach as part of the process leading both to the revelation at Sinai and to Yisrael's entry into the Land.[15]


            It is not by chance that Pesach is the first festival to be observed by Bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. After the mitzva of sanctifying the New Moon - the first mitzvah, which is commanded upon the court and one that makes it possible to establish a calendar - Pesach is the first mitzva commanded upon all of Yisrael. By its very essence, therefore, the mitzva of Pesach expresses the beginnings of the connection between God and Yisrael.


            The essence of Pesach is Yisrael's entering into a covenant with God.[16] There are many proofs in Scripture and in Halakha to this understanding. In addition to the first Pesach in Egypt and to the Pesach observed in the second year in the desert (as described in Bamibar 9:2-5), we know of the Pesach of which we speak, when Yisrael entered into the Land, and later the Pesach celebrations in the days of the prophet Shmuel, in the days of Chizkiyahu and Yoshiyahu, and in the Second Temple period.


            The Pesach observed at the beginning of the Second Temple period was also the first communal sacrifice offered on the altar in the Temple, just as the Pesach offering in the second year in the wilderness was the first communal sacrifice offered in the Mishkan. The Pesach offering in Gilgal when Yisrael entered into the Land was the first communal sacrifice offered by the people of Yisrael in the Mishkan following their entry into the Land. Beyond the primacy of Pesach, it involves a clear element of entering into a covenant with God.


            From a halakhic perspective, the entire law of Pesach Sheni (Bamidbar 9:6-14) is a law relating to the unity of Bnei Yisrael. Someone who is ritually impure or far away is not ready to forgo the Pesach sacrifice. The essence of the festival of Pesach is to join together and unify all of Yisrael, and this person is not prepared to be an exception.


            The laws governing the Pesach sacrifice are, on the one hand, those governing a sacrifice brought by an individual, as it falls upon each and every individual to bring it at a particular time to the Temple courtyard, to offer it, and to eat it. On the other hand, the Pesach sacrifice is governed by the laws pertaining to a communal sacrifice, for it is brought when the majority of the community is in a state of ritual impurity and on Shabbat, just like a communal sacrifice. Thus, the sacrifice itself includes a combination of the individual and the collective, which is the entire essence of Pesach. The holiday represents the connection between each individual Jew and the Jewish people, and the connection between the Jewish people and God.


            An interesting point in this context rises from the words of the Mekhilta on Parashat Bo (15). The possibility is raised there that when a convert joins the Jewish people, he must offer a Pesach sacrifice, because this sacrifice joins each individual Jew to the collective of the Jewish people. In the end, this possibility is rejected and a convert offers a Pesach sacrifice on Pesach itself.


            Furthermore, the entire manner in which the Pesach sacrifice must be eaten – in a group setting and in one house – points to the connection between the individual and the collective.


            We have brought examples both from Scripture and from Halakha that demonstrate that Pesach is a special holiday, both in its primacy and in the fact that it is a time when a covenant is entered into with God. The connection between these two points is understandable: Its primacy gives expression to the primal connection between the Jewish people and God, and through the covenant, each individual connects to the collective, and the entire collective connects to God.


It is important to emphasize that the Pesach celebrated when Yisrael entered into the Land expressed a great renewal, for over the course of the 38 years of Yisrael's wanderings in the wilderness, the Pesach sacrifice had not been offered, and only now was it brought again.




            There is no explicit reference to the structure of the Mishkan in Gilgal. However, after the mishna mentions the Mishkan in Gilgal, it describes the Mishkan in Shilo as made of stone at the bottom and curtains on the top, and it is thus reasonable to assume that the structure of the Mishkan in Gilgal was identical to the structure of the Mishkan in the wilderness. This structure is typical of a wilderness structure in all respects, and it seems that the temporariness of the Mishkan in Gilgal allowed for the reality of the wilderness to continue in Eretz Yisrael.


            The mishna in Zevachim (112b) asserts that while the Mishkan was in Gilgal, bamot were permitted. Throughout this period, the ark was still moving from place to place and playing an active role in the wars of conquest, and bamot were therefore permitted during this period.


            These two characteristics also give expression to the primacy and temporariness of the Mishkan in Gilgal.




            In this lecture, we discussed the significance of the various places in which the Mishkan stood and we examined Gilgal across the generations.


            The uniqueness of Gilgal is connected to the beginning of Yisrael's hold in Eretz Yisrael, both with respect to its sanctity and with respect to the monarchy, and thus with the ability to enter into a covenant with God in Eretz Yisrael, both by way of circumcision and by way of the Pesach sacrifice. The Mishkan's location in this place, in which the stones removed from the Jordan River served as a memorial to Yisrael's crossing of the river and entry into the land, accords with and gives expression to the essence of the place.


            In the next lecture, we will continue to discuss this issue and focus on the uniqueness of Shilo.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Lecture 32 in this year's series: "The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (XVI) – "In All Places Where I Pronounce My Name."

[2] We dealt with this issue earlier this year in Lecture 33: "The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (XVII) – The Prohibition of Bamot – Its History and Significance."

[3] This point will find expression later in the connection between the monarchy and the Mikdash in David's selection of Jerusalem on the border between Yehuda and Binyamin, in David's bringing the ark to the city of David, and in the days of Shlomo, in the relationship between the house of the king and the house of God and in the statement, "Then Shlomo sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:23).

[4] This suggestion was made by Ch. Gevaryahu in his article, "Mishkan Shilo," Machanayim 116 (5728), pp. 152-161.

[5] Gilgal is identified with Galgul, about 3 kilometers east of Jericho, or with the nearby Al-Ochla.

[6] Brought by Yehuda Kil in the Da'at Mikra commentary to Yehoshua 4:19, note 44.

[7] In his article, "Chametz U-Matza Be-Pesach, Be-Shavu'ot U-Be-Korbanot Ha-Lechem," Megadim 13 (Adar, 5751), p. 40, note 30.

[8] We will limit the present discussion to the main events. We will not relate to additional events: In Shoftim 2:1, it says that an angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokhim, and according to I Shmuel 7:16, Gilgal was the place where Shmuel became a shofet over Yisrael.

[9] The connection between Shaul's being told that his kingdom would not survive in the wake of his failure to wait for Shmuel at the time of the battle of Mikhmash and the complete removal of the kingdom after the sin involving Amalek requires a separate study. In any event, it is interesting that both stages in the removal of Shaul's kingdom took place in Gilgal.

[10] The expression "before the Lord" is an interesting expression in this context. Does this mean that the ark was found there, or that the occasion has special significance? The matter requires further study.

[11] See Amos Chakham in the Da'at Mikra commentary to Amos 5:5, note 7a.

[12] Everything that occurred in Gilgal when Yisrael entered the Land is marked by primacy – the circumcision, the first Pesach in Eretz Yisrael, the first division of the Land, and the first station of the Mishkan in Eretz Yisrael.

[13] Tzvi Peleg, in his article in Megadim 23 (Shevat, 5755), pp. 115-118, defines the place as characterized by primacy and temporariness. He argues that Gilgal marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the three mitzvot with which Yisrael were commanded upon their entry into the Land: appointing a king, wiping out the seed of Amalek, and building the Temple.

[14] There is a clear connection between circumcision and the Pesach sacrifice not only in Egypt and upon Yisrael's entry into the Land, but also in the Halakha that determines that there are two positive commandments the cancellation of which is punishable by karet – circumcision and the Pesach sacrifice.

[15] This was discussed in the lecture on the conquest of the Land with respect to the correspondence between the giving of the Torah and the giving of the Land.

[16] Rav Meir Spiegelman dealt with this issue at length in his article, "Korban Pesach," Alon Shevut 100 (Kislev, 5643).