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Lecture 89: The Names of the Structure (I) Mishkan and the Mikdash

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy





Lecture 89: THe names of The structure (II)

Mishkan and Mikdash

Rav Yitzchak Levi





            In the previous lecture, we examined the earliest instances of the terms that denote the structure of the Mikdash.  We examined the order of their appearance in Scripture and we tried to characterize the word "Mikdash" as it is used in the Torah.


            We saw that in addition to the instances in which the term "Mikdash" refers to the sanctified structure designated for the service of God, the word often refers to sanctity, either that of the holy vessels, especially the ark, or that of the people of Israel.


In this lecture, we will complete the previous study and examine how the term is used in the books of the Prophets.


The appearance of the word "Mikdash"


1.  At the end of the book of Yehoshua, Yehoshua assembles the people of Israel in Shekhem.  At the end of the assembly we read:


And Yehoshua wrote these words in the book of the Torah of God, and took a great stone, and set it up under the oak that was by the sanctuary (Mikdash) of God.  (Yehoshua 24:26)


            The appearance of this term in this context (both the time and the place) is very surprising.  At this time, the Mishkan stood in Shilo, and yet Scripture describes a place in Shekhem that is called "the sanctuary of the Lord"!


            The commentators there explain that the term "Mikdash" refers in this context to the ark.  Thus, for example, writes the Radak: "The building which housed the ark in Shekhem was called 'Mikdash' owing to the sanctity of the ark which was there for a short time."


            Another explanation is proposed in the Da'at Mikra commentary, according to which the reference is to one of the altars built by the Patriarchs in Shekhem (Bereishit 12:7; 33:20), or to the altar built by Yehoshua himself (Yehoshua 1:30).  According to this explanation, Scripture calls it "the sanctuary of the Lord" because the Patriarchs merited a revelation of the Shekhina alongside it.  To support this explanation, it is noted that we find in many places that the terms "mizbe'ach" (altar) or "bama" (high place) parallel the term "Mikdash:" "The Lord has cast off His altar (mizbacho), He has abhorred His sanctuary (mikdasho)" (Eikha 2:7; Amos 7:9).


2.  In the book of Melakhim, which describes the building of God's house in great detail, the word "Mikdash" is never used, but only "the house of the Lord." This reinforces the understanding that in its primary sense, the word "Mikdash" does not describe a building, but rather the phenomenon of sanctity, holy vessels (especially the ark), a sanctified site, sanctified people, and the like.


            In addition to what we have said thus far, it is interesting to note that the word "Mikdash" appears relatively rarely in the books of the Later Prophets:


3.  Of the four instances of the word in the book of Yeshayahu, two refer to the structure of the Temple (24:13; 23:18) and two to sanctity (thus, for example, in the verse: "And he shall be for a mikdash; but for a stone of stumbling" [8:14], R. Yosef Kara understands the word "mikdash" here as sanctity).


            In addition to the four instances of the word "Mikdash," there are four instances of the expression "the house of the Lord" in the book of Yeshaya.  Two of them refer to the future Temple (2:2, 66:20) and two of them describe King Chizkiyahu's arrival in the house of God.  This parallels the chapters in Melakhim, which systematically refer to the Temple by the expression "the house of the Lord."


4.  In Yirmiyahu, the word "Mikdash" appears only twice (17:12, 51:51 – "for strangers are come into the sanctuaries [mikdashei] of the house of the Lord" – which some of the commentators understand as referring to the vessels and treasures of the house of the Lord [see Mahari Kara]).  Everywhere else in the book of Yirmiyahu (12 instances), the place is called "the house of the Lord" in accordance with what we find in the book of Melakhim.


5.  It is interesting that in the book of Yechezkel, in the chapters that describe the Temple as it was prior to its destruction (e.g., in 8:14, 15; 10:19; 11:1), the Temple is called "the house of the Lord," whereas in the main body of the book and in the very many places that describe the future Temple in the chapters of redemption (from chapter 36 and on), the Temple is called "Mikdash" and the reference is to the structure itself and not to the sanctified vessels contained within it.


            This point seems to accord with what we said above - while the Temple stood, it was generally called "the house of the Lord," and if occasionally it is called "Mikdash," the reference is not necessarily to the structure itself, but to the holy things that it housed.  It is interesting that it is precisely in the days of Yechezkel, in the generation of the destruction of the Temple, that we see a transition from "the house of the Lord" to "Mikdash." While the Temple stood, the building was generally called "the house of the Lord," and sometimes also "Mikdash" in the sense of the structure, whereas after the destruction of the Temple, the building is mainly called "Mikdash."


6.  In the book of Divrei Ha-Yamim, the building is usually called "the house of the Lord," similar to what we find in Melakhim.  Even though the book was written by Ezra, according to tradition, in whose time the place was called "Mikdash," it is not surprising that in this book the place is called "the house of the Lord," as the book of Divrei Ha-Yamim cites verses and other sources that use the word "house." At the same time, the word "Mikdash" begins to appear (seven instances), and this points to a transitional stage – after the destruction of the first Temple – from the word "house," which relates to the structure of the house of God, to the word "Mikdash," which relates primarily to the future Temple.[1]


            It turns out, then, that while we might have expected the word "Mikdash" to appear many times in Scripture, it almost never appears.  It is interesting to note that the only instance of the term "beit ha-mikdash" in Scripture is at the end of Divrei Ha-Yamim in connection to the destruction of the Temple:


So he brought upon them the king of the Kasdim, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary (be-beit mikdasham), and had no compassion either upon young men, or virgins, old men, or feeble; He gave them all into his hand.  And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Bavel.  (II Divrei Ha-yamim 36:17)


            This appearance is especially striking in that it comes in close proximity to the expressions "house of God" and "the house of the Lord" (in the next verse).[2]


            To summarize this point, it turns out that the word "Mikdash" refers not necessarily to the structure of the Temple, but also to sanctity, the site of sanctity, the ark, the other holy vessels, and holy people (while during the First Temple period, the building is called "the house of God" or "the house of the Lord").


            It is notable that in the writings of the prophets of doom, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel, as well as in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, we find the transition from the word "house," which refers to the structure of the Temple itself, to the word "Mikdash," which describes the future reality.  As was noted, the sole appearance of the expression "beit ha-mikdash" is at the end of the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, and is then found later in Rabbinic Hebrew.


            The question to be asked of course is - What is the meaning of the change in terminology at that time? Why did the name undergo change specifically on the eve of the destruction?


            R. Chanoch Gamliel proposes the following explanation: From the time of the establishment of the Mishkan in the time of Moshe until the destruction of the First Temple, the word "Mikdash" denoted the grand purpose of the resting of the Shekhina.  In this sense, the word "Mikdash" does not relate to the structure of the Temple itself.


            Following the destruction of the Temple, after the people of Israel failed to actualize the possibility that the building should serve as a site of sanctity and the resting of the Shekhina, the word underwent a change in meaning, and the term relates now to the structure of the Temple itself.  There is, as it were, a closing of the gap between the grand purpose and the structure itself.


            In the generation of the destruction, and afterwards in the days of Ezra and the Kenesset Gedola, the attempt was made to identify the purpose with the structure.  From then on, the structure was called "Mikdash" or "Beit Ha-Mikdash."


            We would like to suggest a different explanation.  While the Shekhina rested upon the building during the days of the First Temple, the structure was called "the house of the Lord" or "the house of God."[3] These terms emphasize the presence of the Shekhina and its appearance in connection with the revelation of the site.


            After the Temple was destroyed and the Shekhina no longer rested on the Second Temple (as is explained by the gemara in Yoma 21a), the building could no longer be called "the house of the Lord." Rather, from then on it was to be called "Mikdash." When the Shekhina does not rest from above, Israel's primary effort is to add sanctity to the Mikdash.


            It should be noted that this idea is connected to a broader issue, namely, the great emphasis placed during the Second Temple period on the matter of ritual purity.  This issue was an exceedingly serious focus of dispute between the various factions of the Jewish people.


            Purity, as opposed to sanctity, is a human effort that man undertakes in order to draw near to the Shekhina.  Sanctity, on the other hand, comes from above, from God.  This, for example, is one of the differences between the Levites and the priests – the Levite camp is a camp of purity and the Levites are bound by an obligation to purify themselves, whereas the priestly camp is a camp of sanctity and the priests are commanded to sanctify themselves.  In this context, the house of the Lord of the First Temple period became a house of sanctity, wherein purity constitutes the preparatory stage for sanctity.[4]


The word "Mishkan"


            The word "Mishkan" may be understood in several ways:


            In the simplest sense, the word "Mishkan" refers to a place of dwelling.  There are many proof-texts for this sense.  For example, we read in Parashat Korach:


Speak to the congregation, saying, “Get up from about the dwelling (mishkan) of Korach, Datan, and Aviram.” (Bamidbar 16:24)[5]


            On the other hand, the usual understanding of the term "mishkan" is as a synonym for the word "ohel" (tent).  Thus, for example, in the book of Shemuel:


For I have not dwelt in any house since that time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but I have walked in a tent (ohel) and in a tabernacle (mishkan).  (II Shmuel 7:6)


            Based on this correspondence between "ohel" and "mishkan," it may be understood that as in the case of the word "ohel," the word "mishkan" can also be used in the sense of a temporary structure used for dwelling that is typical for the conditions of the wilderness.


            We will now examine the meaning of the word "Mishkan" in the Torah.  After the initial appearance of the term in Shemot 25:9, the Torah commands about the construction of the ark, the table, and the candelabrum.  The Torah then states:


Moreover, you shall make the Mishkan with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet; with keruvim of artistic work shall you make them… And you shall make fifty golden clasps, and couple the curtains together with the clasps, that the Mishkan may be one.  (Shemot 26:1-6)


            It follows from the verses that the inner curtain is called "Mishkan." What is the reason for this? The Rishonim (ad loc.) explain the matter in various ways:


            The Rashbam writes:


The ten lower curtains are called "Mishkan" because under them is the ark, the site where the Shekhina rests.


And the Chizkuni explains:


These are the lower ones that are called "Mishkan" because the tablets and the ark and the holy vessels upon which the Shekhina rests are placed beneath them.


            Afterwards, the Torah states: "And you shall make curtains of goats' hair to be a covering upon the Mishkan" (Shemot 26:7).  In other words, the "Mishkan" is the inner layer upon which the curtains of goats' hair are placed as a covering over the "Mishkan." The Seforno explains that the purpose of the Mishkan was not to serve as a tent, but that the keruvim should surround the seat, the table, and the candelabrum.  Regarding Shemot 40:18, "And Moshe erected the Mishkan," he writes: "The ten curtains that were called 'Mishkan' were erected before the boards, whether by people holding them up or by miracle, and in this order everything was done and brought to Moshe.  For those ten curtains were the essence of the building of the Mishkan, and everything else that was brought into the structure, i.e., the sockets, the boards, the bars, and the pillars, and the tent, were to hold up the Mishkan and to cover it."


            According to this, when the Torah commands in Shemot 26:15, "And you shall make boards for the Mishkan of shittim wood standing up," the boards are for the Mishkan, i.e., for the inner curtains.  This is what the Or ha-Chayyim explains (ad loc.): "This means that the 'Mishkan' refers to the tent above the boards, whereas the boards are not called the 'Mishkan,' but rather the boards of the 'Mishkan.'" In other words, they are the boards of the inner curtain, which is called the "Mishkan."


            This understanding may explain many verses connected to God's command to Moshe regarding the construction of the "Mishkan" and its execution - they relate first and foremost to the "Mishkan" in the sense of the inner curtain.


            Thus, for example we can understand the following verse:


The "Mishkan," its tent, and its covering, its clasps, and its boards, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets.  (Shemot 35:11)


            The tent is that of the "Mishkan," i.e., the inner curtain.  The covering is the covering of rams' skins died red, and it too relates to the inner curtain.  So too the rest of the words in the verse – the clasps, the bars, the pillars, and the sockets – all relate to the inner curtain.[6]


            On the other hand, in some of the verses, the term "Mishkan" refers to the entire structure:


And you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the Mishkan and all that is in it, and you shall hallow it and all its vessels; and it shall be holy.  (Shemot 40:9)


According to its plain meaning, the word "Mishkan" refers here to the structure in its entirety, and not only to the inner curtain.


            Similarly, at the end of the construction, it says:


And it came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the Mishkan was erected.  (Shemot 40:17)


Here too, it would appear that the erection of the "Mishkan" refers to the structure in its entirety.[7]


            It is possible that in some verses a doubt may arise whether the reference is to the inner curtain or to the whole structure.  Thus, for example:


And they brought the "Mishkan" to Moshe, the tent, and all its furniture, its clasps, its boards, its bars, and its pillars, and its sockets.  (Shemot 39:33)


            Similarly, the verse regarding the bringing of the ark to the "Mishkan":


And he brought the ark into the Mishkan, and set up the veil of the screen, and screened the ark of the Testimony; as the Lord commanded Moshe.  (Shemot 40:21)


Is the reference here to the space under the inner curtain or to the structure of the Mishkan?


            According to our analysis thus far, it turns out that the term "Mishkan" is used in two senses:


1) The plain, primary meaning is the inner curtains found directly above the Holy and the Holy of Holies.  This curtain covers the inner vessels – the ark, the kaporet and the keruvim in the Holy of Holies, and the table, the candelabrum, and the incense altar in the Holy.


According to this understanding, the inner curtain is the "Mishkan," and it is the most important element of the structure owing to its relationship with the holy vessels and the other parts of the Mishkan – the boards, the clasps, the pillars and the sockets.  Certainly according to this understanding, the curtain itself is of great importance.


2.  The second meaning of the word "Mishkan" embraces the structure in its entirety, i.e., the entire structure is called Mishkan.  According to this, the structure in its entirety is called after the inner curtain which is its most sanctified element, because it is the element closest to the sanctified vessels, and therefore there is in a certain sense an identification between the inner and most sanctified curtain and the structure in its entirety.  In this way, this phenomenon is very similar to what we saw regarding the word "Mikdash." On the one hand, the word "Mikdash" refers to the ark – the most important vessel with respect to the resting of the Shekhina.  On the other hand, the structure in its entirety is called Mikdash after the primary function of resting the Shekhina on the ark.  Therefore, "Mishkan" and "Mikdash" are names of inner portions of the structure – the ark, on the one hand, and the inner curtain, on the other – and the structure in its entirety is called after these parts owing to their special importance and sanctity.


The meaning of the verb "Shakhan"


            The verb "shakhan" appears in several places in Scripture, and it seems that we can distinguish between the several different senses in which it is used:


1) To dwell among the people of Israel.


            One of the consequences of the command to build the Mikdash is that God dwells among the people of Israel, as it is stated at the end of Parashat Tetzaveh:


And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God.  And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the Lord their God.  (Shemot 29:45-46)


And similarly regarding the building of the house of God in the days of Shelomo, God says:


And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.  (I Melakhim 6:13)


            These verses strengthen the simple understanding that through the building of the Mishkan, and afterwards the Mikdash, God dwells among the people of Israel.[8]


2) To dwell in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion and in Zion


            The first time that it is noted that God dwells in a specific physical place is in the book of Yeshayahu:


From the Lord of hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion.  (Yeshayahu 8:18)


            This is seen in clearer fashion in the book of Zekharya, which describes the restoration of the Shekhina to Jerusalem:


Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord.  And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be My people; and I will dwell in the midst of you, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you.  (Zekharya 2:14)[9]


3.  To dwell in the land of Israel


            The meaning of the root "shakhan" in this sense is mentioned in connection with the people of Israel's entry into the land:


And you shall not defile the land which you shall inhabit, in which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.  (Bamidbar 35:34)


            Similarly, in connection with the place that the Lord shall choose, we find in several places the expression "to cause His name to rest there" (Devarim 12:11; 14:23; 16:2; 6:11; 26:2; Yirmiyahu 7:12).


            It is interesting that following the revelation at Mount Sinai, where the cloud covered the mountain – "And the glory of the Lord rested upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days…" (Shemot 24:16) – the revelation continued with the dedication of the Mishkan at the end of the book of Shemot (Shemot 40:35).


            According to the description of the cloud's covering of the Mishkan in Bamidbar 9:18, "At the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they encamped; as long as the cloud abode upon the Mishkan they remained encamped," and similarly in verse 22, "Whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the Mishkan, remaining over it, the children of Israel remained encamped, and journeyed not; but when it was taken up, they journeyed" – the cloud rested on the Mishkan, and not in it.


            If so, from what we have seen, nowhere does it say that God rested in the Mishkan itself.  On the one hand, it says that God dwelt among the children of Israel; on the other hand, it says that the cloud rested upon the Mishkan.


            Toward the end of the First Temple period and during the period of the return to Zion, it is explicitly stated that God dwells in a particular place – in Jerusalem, in Zion, or on Mount Zion, and sometimes the Torah relates to this and notes that God dwells in all of Eretz Yisrael.  What this might mean regarding the Mishkan is not that God actually lives in it, but rather that He dwells among the people of Israel, at the very heart of which stands the Mishkan.  And the fact that God dwells over the Mishkan and the cloud covers the Mishkan does not imply actual residence in the Mishkan, but rather providence and closeness to His people.


Shakhan – Shekhenut (closeness) or Dwelling


            There is room to reflect upon the original meaning of the verb "shakhan" – does it denote "shekhenut"/closeness, or does it mean "dwelling," the place where one lives? On the face of it, in the various appearances of the word, we find both senses.


            An additional sense which appears only in the words of Chazal is the way we understand the word "Shekhina" today.  Why does this verb serve Chazal as the root of one of God's names?


            It might be argued that what we have here is a combination of the two senses – on the one hand, God reveals Himself to us through His drawing close to us, through His presence, and through His providence.  On the other hand, when the Torah says, "That they shall make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them," the simple meaning is that through the building of the Temple, God will dwell among the people of Israel, i.e., He will make His residence among them.  In this sense, when God has a house among us, He is indeed found among us and He reveals Himself to us, and this may be the reason that the Torah uses this verb.


            We saw earlier that regarding the precise meaning of the

word "Mishkan," the original meaning is the inner curtains and the more general meaning is the structure in its entirety.  It seems, however, that the precise meaning relates to the Holy of Holies section of the entire structure.[10] This is easy to understand.  If we can speak in any way about the residence of God, this relates in particular to the Holy of Holies, where no service is performed.  The vessels that are found there – the ark, the kaporet and the keruvim – are not used in any service.  Even the services that the High Priest performs in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur – the burning of incense, the sprinkling of the blood of the bull and the goat, and the removal of the censer – are all services that are not performed with the vessels found in the Holy of Holies.


            From the days of Yoshiyahu, when the ark was hidden away, the Holy of Holies stood empty.  It did not become the site of human service.  This is the room that gives expression to and represents the house of God, His place of residence.  The expression, "Lord, God of hosts, who sits on the keruvim," expresses the fact that ark serves as the seat of God's kingdom.  All this proves the essential nature of this room, and therefore it is certainly interesting that the precise sense of the word "Mishkan" within the entire structure is the Holy of Holies.


            In the next lecture, we will continue to examine the names of the structure, and we will relate to the terms, "Ohel Mo'ed," "Mishkan Ha-Edut," and "Ohel Ha-Edut."


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] I wish to thank R.  Chanoch Gamliel for turning my attention to the significance of the appearance of the word "Mikdash" in the books of the Prophets and the Writings.

[2] It is interesting that in Rabbinic Hebrew, the structure is consistently called "Mikdash" or "Beit Ha-Mikdash" (e.g., Tamid 1:1; Middot 1:1).  When it is necessary to cite a verse in this context, Rabbinic literature always brings a verse using the term "the house of God" or "the house of the Lord" (e.g., Tosefta, Berakhot 7:19).

[3] We will not enter into a discussion here regarding whether the term "house of the Lord" should be understood in its plain sense, as meaning “the house in which God resides,” or whether it is meant to express the presence of the Shekhina and of providence in this world, rather than residence in a particular house.

[4] This issue is closely connected to the assumption among archeologists that ritual baths have only been found from the Second Temple period, but not from the First Temple period, but this is not the forum to expand upon this point.

[5] The word "mishkan" is found many times in the plural.  Thus, for example, in Shir Ha-Shirim 1:8: "besides the shepherds' tents (mishkenot)"; and similarly in Yeshayahu 32:18: "and in secure dwellings (be-mishkenot)"; and in Bil'am's blessing (Bamidbar 24:5): "your tents (mishkenotekha), O Israel"; and many other places.

[6] So too in the execution in Shemot 36:8, 13-14, 20, 22-23; 38:20, 31, and so too in the spreading of the tent over the Mishkan in Shemot 27:9.

[7] This seems also to be the meaning of the expressions "side (tzela) of the Mishkan" (Shemot 26:20,26, 27), "side (yarketei) of the Mishkan" (ibid.  v.  22), "corners (miktzo'ot)" (ibid.  v.  23).  These are terms that relate to the structure and not to the inner curtain.  Additional examples:

When the building of the structure is completed, it says: "And you shall rear up the Mishkan according to its fashion which was shown you in the mountain" (ibid.  v.  30).  Did God show Moshe on the mountain only the inner curtain or the structure in its entirety? Does not the expression "courtyard (chatzer) of the Mishkan" (Shemot 26:9), according to its plain sense, refer to the entire structure?

The closing verses of the book of Shemot state: "And when the cloud was taken up from over the Mishkan, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys… For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout their journeys" (Shemot 40:36-38).  The reference seems to be to the Mishkan in its entirety.

[8] It is interesting that nowhere does it say that God dwelled in the Mishkan itself, but rather among the people of Israel.

[9] This formulation repeats itself another two times in the book of Yoel (4:21); in I Divrei Ha-Yamim 23:25; and in the book of Tehillim (125:21).

[10] We shall adduce more proofs to this idea in later lectures.