Lecture 88: The Names of the Mishkan and the Mikdash

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy








Rav Yitzchak Levi





            In the first two lectures, we dealt with the special standing of the Mishkan in comparison to the Mikdash that followed it. We asked how it was possible to introduce changes in the dimensions, structure, and vessels of the Mikdash, and we saw that there is a connection between the spiritual reality of the people of Israel and the manner of the resting of the Shekhina in the Mishkan and in the Mikdash. This connection is expressed in the dimensions of the structure, in the vessels, and the like, and this is the reason that there is room for changes in the structure. In this lecture, we will examine the meaning of the words relating to the structure of the Mishkan and the Mikdash.


            Generally speaking, we will relate to the most important terms relating to the structure of the Mishkan and the Mikdash: Mishkan, Mikdash, Ohel Mo'ed, Beit Hashem, and Kodesh.[1] We occasionally find other expressions or combinations, e.g., Mishkan Ohel Mo'ed, Mishkan Ha-Edut, and Ohel Ha-Edut, but in this lecture, we will not deal with these terms.




1. The word Mikdash appears for the first time in the Song of the Sea:


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 (Mikdash), O Lord, which Your hands have established. (Shemot 15:17)


            The Mikdash and the kingdom of God appear for the first time in the Song of the Sea because it was at that time that the world in general and Pharaoh in particular recognized God's kingdom. The fact that the Mikdash is the seat of God's kingdom in this world explains why His kingdom reveals itself in this way specifically in the Song of the Sea, the first recognition on the part of Israel and on the part of the Egyptians of the revelation of the king of the world. The Mikdash expresses the structure and the fitting manner that enables the revelation of this kingdom in the world.[2]


2. The expression "Beit Hashem" (house of the Lord) appears for the first time in the passage dealing with the festivals in the context of the bringing of first-fruits: "The first of the first-fruits of your land you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God; you shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19). It is interesting that this passage heralds the bringing of first-fruits to God's house, even before any command was given to build the Mishkan. It may be that we have here an allusion to a future building, already in the wake of the giving of the Torah, to which the first-fruits will be brought after the people of Israel enter the land, as an expression of their gratitude for arriving in the land.


3. The term "Mishkan" appears for the first time in the command to build the Mikdash:


And let them make Me a sanctuary (Mikdash), that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle (Mishkan), and the pattern of all its vessels, even so shall you make it. (Shemot 25:8-9)


            It is interesting that the first mention of the Mishkan in the Torah is in relation to the Mikdash. As we noted in an earlier lecture, the commandment to build the Mishkan is formulated in terms of the Mikdash in order to imply that this commandment also refers to the Temples that will be built after the Mishkan (we have already noted the Or Ha-Chaim's comments on this matter).


            According to the plain sense of the terms, the word Mikdash is connected to sanctity (kedusha), whereas the word Mishkan is connected to the resting of the Shekhina. R. S.R. Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah formulates this relationship in an interesting way:


It only requires a glance at chap. 26 in Vayikra, which concludes the laws regarding the consecrating of the Mishkan and of our lives, which come after the instructions for the building of the Mishkan which begin here in Shemot, "If you walk in My statutes, etc.," and finish up with, "I shall place my Mishkan among you, etc.," to be able to say to oneself with the utmost certainty, (a) that the words "that I may dwell among them" of our verse extends far beyond the mere presence of God in the Mishkan¸ but that it means the proximity of God in our midst, showing itself in accordance with the covenant, in the whole happiness and prosperity of our private and national life under His protection and blessing. But also that (b) this blessing and protecting Shekhina – proximity of God – is not brought about by the mere correct erection and upkeep of the Mishkan, but can only be won by consecrating and giving up our whole private and public lives to carrying out the Divine Torah. This fact that is not only proved historically by the destruction of the Mishkan once in Shilo, and of the Mikdash twice in Jerusalem, but is distinctly stressed as a warning, not only in the Torah itself, particularly at the cardinal principles of the whole of the Torah: idolatry, incest, and bloodshed (Vayikra 20:3; Bamidbar 35:34; Vayikra  15:31; Devarim 23:10, 15), but also immediately at the foundation and building of Shlomo's Temple (I Melakhim 6:12 and chap. 19), and on almost every page of the prophets, e.g., Yirmiyahu, chap. 7.

If, then, our text does nevertheless promise "that I may dwell among them" as a result of "and let them make Me a sanctuary," then evidently the meaning of the Mikdash can be nothing else but the expression of all that is required of us to bring about the promised Shekhina-Presence in Israel. With "And let them make Me a sanctuary (Mikdash) that I may dwell (ve-shakhanti) among them," two ideas are given to us, and the whole building of the Mishkan and its furniture is to symbolize these two ideas: the idea of Mikdash and the idea of Mishkan. The one, Mikdash, the whole of the task we have to do for God, and the other, Mishkan, the promises God has given us if we do it. The task, "And let them make me a sanctuary," consists of our giving up the whole of our private and public life to the fulfillment of the Torah. The promise is "that I may dwell among them," the protecting and blessing-giving presence of our God in our midst, manifesting itself in the happiness of our private and national lives. The Tabernacle is to be Mikdash, the Home of Consecration, and Mishkan, the Home of God's Proximity to us. From this home, we are to get inspiration for our own consecration and to gain the resulting reward. So that the sphere within which we have to try and find the meaning of the Tabernacle as a whole, and its component parts in detail, is simply mutual covenant-relationship between God and Israel, brought about by the giving and acceptance of the Torah. It is just because of this meaning of the Tabernacle that this chapter of the building follows immediately on the preceding fundamental principles of the Torah and the resulting covenant that was concluded thereupon.


            According to R. Hirsch, the condition for "that I may dwell among them," that is, for God's proximity to us, is "and let them make Me a sanctuary." The sanctification of our personal and public lives and their consecration to the fulfillment of God's commandments is what falls upon us to do. Mishkan expresses the rewards promised to us by God as a consequence of the fulfillment of our task.


4. "Ohel Mo'ed"[3] – this term appears for the first time at the beginning of Parashat Tetzave in connection with the lighting of the lamp that always remains burning:

And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the Ohel Mo'ed outside the veil, which is before the Testimony, Aharon and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord; it shall be a statute for ever to their generations on behalf of the children of Israel. (Shemot 27:21)


            Following the account of the building of the Mishkan itself and its vessels, this is the first explicit description of the service performed in the Mishkan.[4] In this passage, the Torah defines where this service is performed – in the Ohel Mo'ed outside the veil, which is before the Testimony. The term "Ohel Mo'ed" stems from the word "vi'ud" (meeting). God meets with the people of Israel who serve in the Mishkan. It is important to note that according to this verse, there is also a connection between the priestly service and the Ohel Mo'ed.


            We have surveyed the initial appearances of the various expressions used for the structure of the Mishkan. Is there any significance to the order of appearance of the terms Mikdash, Beit HaShem, Mishkan and Ohel Mo'ed? It is difficult to give an unequivocal answer to this question. It may be possible to propose that the Torah wanted to first present the words that relate to the permanent structure – Mikdash and Beit HaShem – and only afterwards to relate to the temporary structure erected in the wilderness – Mishkan and Ohel Mo'ed. This emphasizes that the novelty here is the very structure in its permanent form, and the Mishkan and Ohel Mo'ed are temporary expressions in the wilderness of the permanent resting of the Shekhina in the Temples in future generations.




1. Mikdash – The simple meaning of the word Mikdash is sanctified site, a holy place designated for the service of God. It is interesting that the word is not a common term in the Torah. What is more, if the accepted understanding is that the word Mishkan refers to the temporary structure in the wilderness while the word Mikdash relates to the permanent building in Jerusalem, it is quite astonishing that the word "Mikdash" appears not even once in the entire book of Melakhim![5]


Throughout the account of David and Shlomo's building of the Temple, we find the expression "Beit HaShem" – house, not Mikdash! Shlomo builds a house, rather than a Mikdash! From here it follows that we must examine the meaning of the word "Mikdash." We shall start by considering its appearances in the Torah (the word is mentioned sixteen times in the Torah).


In some of the verses, the Torah seems to be referring to a holy structure designated for the service of God:


Shemot 15:17: "In the Mikdash, O Lord, which Your hands have established."


Shemot 25:8: "Let them make for Me a Mikdash, that I may dwell among them."


Vayikra 12:4 – Regarding a woman after childbirth: "She shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come in to the Mikdash until the days of her purifying are fulfilled."


Vayikra 16:33 – Regarding the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur: "And he shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary (Mikdash Ha-Kodesh), and he shall make atonement for the Ohel Mo'ed, and for the altar and he shall make atonement for the priests, and all the people of the congregation."[6] It is possible to understand that the term "Mikdash Ha-Kodesh" refers to the ark. The Ibn Ezra, ad loc., explains at length that "the holy sanctuary is inside the veil" (i.e., the Holy of Holies, and the double language is for the purpose of hyperbole).[7]


            Regarding the commandment to fear the Mikdash, it says: "You shall keep My Sabbaths, and revere My sanctuary" (Vayikra 19:30; 26:2). According to the plain understanding, we are dealing here with a revering of the Mikdash itself, and there is a fine parallel between Shabbat, which is a temporal sanctuary requiring keeping, and the Mikdash, which is a spatial sanctuary obligating reverence.


            Interestingly, Chazal interpret the verse otherwise:


It might have been imagined that a man should revere the Sanctuary… As in the case of "keeping" used in relation to Shabbat, one does not revere Shabbat, but He who ordered the observance of Shabbat, so in the case of "reverence" used in relation to the Mikdash, one is not to revere the Mikdash, but He who gave the commandment concerning the Mikdash. And what is regarded as the "reverence of the Mikdash"? A man shall not enter the Temple mount with his stick, shoes, or money bag or with dust upon his feet. (Yevamot 6b)


In other words, the word "Mikdash" should not be understood in accordance with its plain sense. What is to be revered is not the structure of the Mikdash itself, but God, who commanded that it be revered.


            A similar understanding was suggested by the Chizkuni:


My holy commandments – all the commandments are called by the term "holiness." Proof for this from the section below: "To defile My Mikdash" (Vayikra 20:3)[8], which means sanctity, "and to profane My holy name" (ibid.) - after it, a doubling of the term. It should not be understood in the sense of an actual Mikdash, for what defilement of the Mikdash is there when passing one's seed to Molekh?[9] (Vayikra 19:30, s.v. u-mikdashi tira'u)


            The Chizkuni establishes here a rule regarding the word "Mikdash" - it means "sanctity." According to him, the commandments are called "sanctity," and he proposes this explanation regarding the word "Mikdash" appearing in connection with Molekh; there it does not mean that the Mikdash itself becomes defiled, but rather that there is an impairment of sanctity, in the holy name of God.


            It is clear that God is the foundation of all the sanctity in the world, and we call Him the Holy One, blessed be He, because He is holy and the source of all holiness. We are commanded not to impair His sanctity through our actions, on the one hand, and to revere Him because of His sanctity, on the other.


            Some commentators offer a different understanding of what the Torah says regarding one who passes his seed to Molekh. Thus, for example, writes Rashi (ad loc.):


"To defile My sanctuary" – the congregation of Israel, which is sanctified to Me, as in the expression, "that he profane not My holy things" (Vayikra 21:23).


The Maharal in his Gur Aryeh explains what Rashi means:


Not the actual Mikdash, for how is the Mikdash connected to this? Rather, it means to say that he defiles the collective of Israel, who are called "Mikdash" because the congregation of Israel are sanctified to His name, may He be blessed. And the Ramban explains that the congregation of Israel mentioned here refers to the resting of His glory on Israel, and this is "my Mikdash" (for he who serves Molekh causes the Shekhina to depart from Israel).


            The Torah relates to various modes of conduct of the High Priest, including the mitzva: "Neither shall he go out of the Mikdash, nor profane the Mikdash of his God (Mikdash Elokav); for the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him" (Vayikra 21:12). According to the plain meaning (and this is also the understanding of Chazal), the first part of the verse means that the High Priest must not leave the structure of the Mikdash to participate in a funeral, even for his seven first-degree relatives.


            The second part of the verse may be understood differently. Thus writes the Meshekh Chokhma (ad loc., s.v. u-min ha-mikdash lo yetze ve-lo yechalel et mikdash Elokav):


According to the plain meaning, "Mikdash Elokav" is a designation of his sanctity, the sanctity of priesthood. And this is what it says: "For the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him." And in similar fashion, R. Meir expounded in the mishna: "He shall not go out of his sanctity."


            Once again, similar to what was said regarding service of Molekh, here too the term "Mikdash" can be understood as referring to sanctity, and not necessarily the structure of the Mikdash.


            Regarding a priest with a physical blemish, the Torah states:


Only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come near to the altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not my holy places (mikdashai): for I the Lord do sanctify them. (Vayikra 21:23)


            What is meant by the term "mikdashai," appearing here in the plural? The Bekhor Shor and the Chizkuni explain that the reference is to "the veil and the altar, to which one with a blemish is not fit to draw near." Accordingly, it may be proposed that the words "that he profane not my holy places" refer to the veil and the altar which are holy, and therefore their profanation is regarded as a profanation of the Mikdash itself. This is why the Torah says "that he profane not my holy places" in the plural.


In the section of rebuke, the Torah warns: "And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries (mikdasheikhem) to desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors" (Vayikra 26:31). Here, too, we must try to understand why the Torah relates to "mikdashim" in the plural.


In the book of Bamidbar, the word "Mikdash" is mentioned in several places. The Levites "keep the charge of the Mikdash" (Bamidbar 3:38), and it would appear that the reference here is to the entire structure of the Mikdash.


In the continuation, the Torah describes the duties of the Levites in connection with keeping the charge of the Mikdash: "And the Kehati set forward, bearing the Mikdash: that they might set up the Mishkan against their arrival" (Bamidbar 10:21). Here, the word "Mikdash" seems to refer to the ark, and so explain Rashi and Ibn Ezra, ad loc.


The possibility that the word "Mikdash" refers to the ark stems from the ark's importance in the Mikdash, this point emerging in several places:


·        Thus, for example, with regard to the things carried by the sons of Kehat, the Torah states: "And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service" (Bamidbar 3:31). It is clear that the most important vessel, which is named first, is the ark.


·        This also follows from the order of the erection of the Mishkan. The sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari must erect the Mishkan, i.e., the structure, and when it is all ready, the Kehatites come and bring in the ark and all the other vessels. In other words, the ark - the most sanctified vessel – is brought to the structure that is all prepared and ready, and then the Shekhina rests upon it. (This is also what happened at the dedication of the Shlomo's Mikdash; after the entire structure was built and ready, they brought in the ark, as is spelled out in detail in I Melakhim 8:1-11).


·        In Bamidbar 4:4, it says: "This shall be the service of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting, namely, the most holy things," and then afterwards, in verses 5-6, a description is given of the covering of the ark, and after that the covering of the rest of the inner vessels. In summary it says (v. 15), "And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the kodesh, and all the vessels of the kodesh, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it; but they shall not touch any kodesh, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting." It is absolutely clear that the term "kodesh" refers to the ark, which may not be seen uncovered and which may not be touched, as we see in the story of the transfer of the ark to Beit Shemesh from Sedeh Pelishtim.


In Divrei Ha-yamim it says:


Then David the king stood up upon his feet, and said, "Hear me, my brethren, and my people: As for me, I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God, and I had made ready for building. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 28:2)


            From the previous verses as well as from a comparison between verse 2 and verse 10, it is absolutely clear that "a house for the Mikdash" means "a house for the ark," that is to say, "Beit Ha-Mikdash" is a house for the ark. The house is the external framework for the resting of the ark/Mikdash. Rashi explains (ad loc.):


Not to build it for Him that He may live in it, for the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain Him; rather for the Mikdash, for the sake of the ark that is called "Mikdash," as it is written: "And the Kehatites set forward, bearing the Mikdash" (Bamidbar 10).


            It may be possible to bring proof that the term "Mikdash" refers to the ark from the order of the vessels' appearance in Parashat Teruma. When God commands Moshe to build the Mikdash (Shemot 25:8-10), the order presented begins with the ark, then the table, the candelabrum, the Mishkan (the inner curtain), the tent above the Mishkan, and afterwards the boards. The order and emphasis is from the essence to the framework, and this is in the context of the command. (In the execution, the order changes: it begins with the outer framework, and then the vessels in the order in which they appear in Parashat Teruma).


According to this explanation, the "Mikdash" is first and foremost the vessels of the Mikdash – the ark in which lie the tablets of Testimony, and upon it the kaporet and the keruvim which are the loftiest expression of the holy. God speaks to Moshe from between the two keruvim – there he meets with man. The word "Mikdash" relates, of course, to the structure of the Mikdash in its entirety, but this is because of its essential element, the ark, which is the site of God's revelation in this world.


Following the sin of Korach and his followers, the Torah repeats the obligation falling upon the Levites to keep the charge of the Mikdash:


And the Lord spoke to Aharon, "You and your sons and your father's house with you shall bear the iniquity of the Mikdash; and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood." (Bamidbar 18:1)


What is the iniquity of the Mikdash?


            Rashi explains (ad loc.):


Upon you I impose the punishment for any strangers who may [inadvertently] sin in respect to the sacred objects which are entrusted to you – which are the tent, the ark, the table and the holy vessels; you have to sit down and give warning to any stranger who may be about to touch [the holy articles].




            There are some places in the Torah where "Mikdash" refers to the sanctified structure in its entirety, but there are many places where it refers to sanctity, either that of people or that of the vessels of the Mikdash. At times, it refers first and foremost to the ark, and it is possible that the meaning of the term expanded to include all the holy vessels and the structure of the Mikdash in its entirety.[10]


            In this sense, the Mikdash in its entirety is called by that name because of the most important vessel that it houses – the ark. Therefore, in a significant portion of the lists of vessels appearing in the book of Shemot, the ark is mentioned first. This accords well with the Ramban's viewpoint, according to which the purpose of the Mishkan is the resting of the Shekhina, for the ark is the primary vessel for this task.[11]


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] While the word "kodesh" does serve as a designation of the Mikdash, the fact that the word is used in different senses makes it difficult to include it here. In any event, the first appearance of the word "kodesh" is in God's revelation to Moshe at the burning bush: "Put off your shoes from off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy (kodesh) ground" (Shemot 3:5), this being directly connected to the sanctity of Mount Sinai and the Divine revelation to all of Israel that took place there. The first appearance of the word "kodesh" in connection with the Mishkan is: "And the veil shall be for you as a division between the holy place (kodesh) and the most holy" (Shemot 26:33). Here we are clearly dealing with the area between the Holy and the Holy of Holies, the reference clearly being to the Heikhal. The place itself is presented as that which is set apart from that which is more sanctified – the Holy of Holies.

[2] We dedicated a lecture to the special significance of the fact that the term "Mikdash" is mentioned for the first time in the Song of the Sea: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/mikdash/21mikdash.htm.

[3] The term "ohel" (without "mo'ed) in reference to the curtains of goats' hair that served as a tent over the Mishkan appears already earlier in Shemot 26:7, and we shall later discuss the connection between these terms.

[4] In the description of the table we find: "And you shall set upon the table showbread before Me always" (Shemot 25:30), and similarly in connection with the candelabrum we find: "And you shall make its seven lamps; and they shall light its lamps, that they may give light over against it" (Shemot 25:37). These verses describe the purpose of the vessel and its service, but the first explicit description of actual service is with regard to the lighting of the lamp, and there the expression "Ohel Mo'ed" is used for the first time.

[5] R. Chanokh Gamliel pointed me to this interesting fact.

[6] In this verse, we find a very interesting division of the Mikdash into three parts: Mikdash Ha-kodesh – the Holy of Holies; Ohel Mo'ed – the Heikhal; and the altar – the courtyard. It is possible that the priests correspond to the Ohel Mo'ed and all the people of the congregation correspond to the courtyard. We will address this issue in a later lecture.

[7] According to our proposal, "Mikdash Ha-Kodesh" refers primarily to the ark, but by extension to the Holy of Holies, and by further expansion to the Mikdash in its entirety.

[8] By serving Molekh,one defiles the Mikdash.

[9] It is possible that the Chizkuni wishes to distance himself from the plain understanding, according to which a person who serves Molekh actually defiles the Mikdash. The matter requires further examination, in light of the fact that all the additional sacrifices of Rosh Chodesh and the festivals come to atone for the defilement of the Mikdash and the sacrifices; so too, the High Priest's service on Yom Kippur comes to cleanse the Mikdash from the impurity which adhered to it over the course of the year. The type of impurity under discussion requires further study.

[10] This phenomenon is also found with respect to the word "Mishkan." which, according to its simple sense, refers to the inner curtains, but in its expanded sense refers to the entire structure. We will expand on this point in future lectures.

[11] I heard the fundamental idea that the entire structure is called Mikdash because of the ark from my revered teacher, R. Yoel Ben Nun.