The Orientation of the Sacred Vessels (Part I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

 

 

LECTURE 122: THE ORIENTATION OF THE SACRED VESSELS (PART I)

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

             In the previous three shiurim, we discussed the location of the sacred vessels relative to each other in the Mishkan and the Mikdash based on the Biblical verses and the statements of Chazal. In this shiur, we will deal with the orientation of the vessels themselves.

 

            In previous shiurim, we saw that the Torah describes the location of the vessels in very general terms, and that their precise position was in large measure established by the Oral Law. This is even more true with respect to the orientation of the vessels, an issue which the Torah does not address at all; whatever is known about it is derived from Rabbinic sources.

 

            In this shiur, we will survey what is known to us about the various vessels. We will start with the innermost vessels, and proceed from the Holy of Holies to the courtyard – that is, from west to east. As we have previously explained, the axis of entry is east-west, the further west that one entered, the higher the level of sanctity. (As may be recalled, in the account of the construction of the Mishkan, the Torah describes the location of the vessels on a west-east axis, from inside outwards; Shemot 40:18-33).

 

THE ARK

 

            The gemara states:

 

Our Rabbis taught: Every vessel that stood in the Temple was placed with its length parallel with the length of the Sanctuary, excepting the ark whose length was parallel with the breadth of the house. So was it placed and so were its poles placed… And from where do we know this of the poles? From the following [baraita] which was taught: "And the poles were so long" (I Melakhim 8:8). I might have thought that they did not reach the curtain. The verse therefore states: "[That the ends of the poles] were seen [from the holy place]" (ibid.). But if I only had the verse, "[That the ends of the poles] were seen," I might have said that they tore through the curtain and protruded outside. Therefore, the verse states: "But they could not be seen without" (ibid.). How then [are we to understand the verse]? They pressed against the curtain and bulged out as the two breasts of a woman, as it is said: "My beloved is unto me as a bundle of myrrh that lies between my breasts" (Shir Ha-shirim 1:13). But from where do we know that the poles lay along the breadth of the ark? Perhaps they lay along the length of the ark? (Menachot 98a)

 

            Rashi explains:

 

So was it placed – From where do I know this? From the fact that the poles were placed from east to west, as it is stated about them in the Baraita below. This implies that the length of the ark was from north to south and its width was from east to west, for the poles were along the width of the ark, as we have said.

 

            This passage makes an important statement about the orientation of all the vessels in the Mikdash. The gemara states that all the vessels in the Mikdash had the same basic orientation as the Mikdash itself, from east to west. That is to say, the long side of the vessels faced east and west, with the exception of the ark, which was positioned from north to south, with its poles pointing east and west. What is the significance of the ark's orientation, which differs from that of all the other vessels?

 

            The simple understanding seems to be that all of the holy vessels, like the structure of the entire Mishkan, lead westward. Just as the structure of the Mishkan as a whole leads westward, so too, the vessels lead westward towards the Holy of Holies. This point is evident both in the orientation of the structure itself and in the orientation of the vessels. We saw in the past that also with respect to the materials used, the grading is from east to west. The materials – bronze, silver and gold – go up in value as one proceeds further westward.

 

            The ark, as opposed to all the other vessels and the structure itself, is positioned differently – that is, on a north-south axis – because it constitutes the point of reference of the vessels and of the entire structure, and everything is directed toward it. Were the length of the ark oriented on an east-west axis, this would mean that we should seek its essence beyond it – in other words, further west. The fact that it sits on a north-south axis indicates that it is the basis towards which everything else is directed.

 

THE VESSELS IN THE HOLY AND IN THE COURTYARD

 

1. OVERVIEW

 

            Three vessels are found in the Holy: the table, the candlestick, and the incense altar. The table and the candlestick stand on a north-south axis, and the incense altar, which is located to their east, seems to be directed westward toward the parokhet, opposite the ark and the kaporet. If so, it turns out that the axis of the table and the candlestick is north-south, whereas the axis of the incense altar is east-west.

 

            As for the burnt-offering altar found in the courtyard, the mishna in Middot (3:3) states that "the ramp was to the south of the altar," which teaches us that the ascent to the altar was from the south.

 

            This piece of information is not stated explicitly in the Torah, but the gemara in Zevachim derives it from verses:

 

From where do we know it [the altar’s orientation]? R. Huna said: The verse states: "And he shall kill it on the side of the altar northward" (Vayikra 1:11) – that the side must be in the north and the front in the south. (Zevachim 62b)

 

            It is important to note that the existence of a ramp to the altar is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. The gemara derives it from the verse which states, "before the altar" (Vayikra 6:7) – that is to say, on the side from which one goes up to the altar, from which we learn that a ramp must be made by way of which the priests may go up to the altar.

 

            What emerges from this is very interesting: The primary orientation of the Mishkan is east-west, and therefore the main point of reference is the ark. Several vessels, however, are oriented north-south:

 

·           In the courtyard – the burnt-offering altar and the ramp.[1]

·           In the Holy – the table in the north and the candlestick in the south.

 

2. THE TABLE AND THE CANDLESTICK[2]

 

            Three Tannaitic sources relate to the orientation of the table and the candlestick. We have already seen the gemara that establishes:

 

Every vessel that stood in the Temple was placed with its length parallel with the length of the Sanctuary, excepting the ark whose length was parallel with the breadth of the Sanctuary. (Menachot 98a)

 

            Other sources indicate that this position was not universally accepted. The gemara in Menachot considers the orientation of the table and states as follows:

 

Our Rabbis taught: [The tables] were placed [lengthwise] from east to west; [these are] the words of Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi]. R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon says: From north to south. What is Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi]'s reason? He derives it from the candlestick: Just as the candlestick stood [with its branches] towards east and west, so these stood from east to west. But from where do we know this about the candlestick itself? Since of the western lamp the verse states: "Aharon shall order it… before the Lord" (Vayikra 24:3) – from which it follows that all the others were not before the Lord; now if one were to assume [that the candlestick stood with its branches] towards north and south, all the lamps would then be before the Lord. And what is the reason for the view of R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon? He derives it from the ark: Just as the ark stood [lengthwise in the direction of] north and south, so these also stood [lengthwise] from north to south. And why does not Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] derive it from the ark? One may infer [an object that stood] outside from [another that stood] outside, but one may not infer [that which stood] outside from [that which stood] inside. And why does not R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon derive it from the candlestick? He maintains that even the candlestick stood [with its branches extending] towards north and south. But is it not written: "Aharon and his sons shall order it… [before the Lord]"? They were all made to face [the middle lamp]. For it has been taught: "The seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick" – this teaches that they were made to face the middle lamp. R. Natan said: This shows that the middle one is specially prized. (Menachot 98b)

 

            It is interesting to note that according to the gemara, R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi derived the orientation of the table from that of the candlestick, implying that there is a clear and significant relationship between the table and the candlestick. This may stem from the fact that according to some of the Rishonim (e.g., the Rashbam, in his commentary to Shemot 25:31), the role of the candlestick is to illuminate the table, and therefore there is a clear connection between the positioning of the candlestick and that of the table.

 

            In addition, it can of course be argued that beyond their parallel positions, there is a connection between the table and the candlestick in that they represent the fulfillment of man's material (table) and spiritual (candlestick) needs in this world.

 

            The Tannaim disagree about the positioning of the vessels: According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the candlestick and the table are oriented on an east-west axis, whereas according to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, they both stand on a north-south axis. The gemara first clarifies the source from which R. Yehuda derives that the candlestick stood on an east-west axis. It argues that the verse tells us that Aharon is to light the western lamp “before the Lord" – that is to say, on the westernmost side – which implies that that the other lamps were not before the Lord. But if the candlestick were positioned on a north-south axis, then all the lamps would be equally close to the western side. It thus must be that the candlestick was positioned on a east-west axis.

 

            In contrast, R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon derives his position from the orientation of the ark. Just as the ark was oriented on a north-south axis, so too were the table and the candlestick similarly positioned. The reason that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi does not learn from the ark is that we cannot learn anything about the orientation of the vessels found in the Holy from a vessel found in the Holy of Holies.

 

            It turns out, then, according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi that the parokhet establishes a fundamental separation in the levels of sanctity between the Holy and the Holy of Holies, between inside and outside, whereas according to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, there is no such distinction; all the vessels in both the Holy and the Holy of Holies are for this purpose at an equal level of sanctity, and therefore one can learn matters regarding outside the Holy of Holies from the inside.[3]

 

            The gemara then proposes that R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon should learn the orientation of the table from that of the candlestick, as does R. Yehuda HaNasi, and it explains that even though R. Elazar maintains that the candlestick was positioned from north to south, the various lamps were pointed in different directions;[4] only the western lamp was directed toward the Holy of Holies. In this way, Rabbi Elazar explains the verse: "The seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick" – that all the lamps were made to face the middle lamp. As Rashi explains:

 

"In front of the candlestick" – The middle [lamp] stands on the main shaft of the candlestick and the rest on the branches. And the verse implies that those on the branches were made to face the one in the west.[5] (Rashi, Menachot 98b)

 

            The gemara learns that all of the lamps were made to face the middle lamp, and from here we learn that the middle lamp is especially prized.

 

THE ORIENTATION OF THE CANDLESTICK

 

            There are several proofs in Chazal that the candlestick was oriented from east to west:

 

·           The one who had been chosen to clear the candlestick went in; if he found the two western lights still burning, he cleared out the eastern one and left the western one burning, since from it he lit the candlestick for the evening. (Tamid 6:1)

 

One can only speak about eastern and western lamps if the candlestick is oriented from east to west.

 

·            The table is placed lengthwise along the length of the tent, five cubits away from the parokhet and two and a half cubits away from the boards on the north. (Baraita di-Melekhet ha-Mishkan 7:5)

 

The candlestick is placed opposite the table, the length of the line of lamps along the length of the Sanctuary, five cubits away from the parokhet and two and a half cubits away from the boards on the south. It turns out then that the length of the entire line of lamps corresponds to the length of the table. (ibid. 10)

 

The baraita appears to be based on the plain sense of the mishna in Menachot, which states: "Every vessel that stood in the Temple was placed with its length parallel with the length of the Sanctuary." The words "every vessel" certainly include the table and the candlestick, and so the candlestick was oriented from east to west.

 

·           It may also be suggested[6] that all the sources that say that the purpose of the candlestick was to illuminate the table follow also from this same point. Only when the candlestick is positioned from east to west can it adequately illuminate the entire length of the table.

 

·           In addition, when Rashi deals with the direction of the lamps (in his commentary to Bamidbar 8:2), he shows how the eastern and western lamps were directed toward the candlestick – that is, to the middle shaft, "so that people should not say that He needs the light." Since the western lamps of the candlestick turn eastward toward the middle shaft of the candlestick, the light is directed away from the Holy of Holies, and thus the point is emphasized that the Shekhina which dwells in the Holy of Holies does not need the light of the candlestick. This is only meaningful if we stand the candlestick on an east-west axis, and not on a north-south axis.

 

The third source relating to the orientation of the vessels themselves and to the relationship between the table and the candlestick, the two westernmost vessels in the Heikhal, is once again Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan:

And the branches of the candlestick corresponded to the width of the table. (Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan¸ chap. 4)

 

            From here it would seem that the branches of the candlestick do not stand parallel to the length of the table, but rather perpendicular to it.

 

            This position corresponds neither to that of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, according to which the vessels stood from east to west, nor to that of R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, according to which they stood from north to south. According to this viewpoint, it turns out that the table was oriented from east to west, as is the structure in its entirety, whereas the candlestick was positioned from north to south.

 

            It may be that in order to understand all of the sources we must relate both to the direction of the candlestick as a whole with its branches, as well as to the direction of the lamps, the two not necessarily being the same.

 

3. THE DIRECTION OF THE LAMPS OF THE CANDLESTICK

 

            As we saw above, the disagreement between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon about the orientation of the candlestick implies a second dispute between them regarding the way the lamps are positioned in the candlestick:

 

·           According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, all the lamps face west.

·           According to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, the middle lamp faces west, while the three northern lamps and the three southern lamps face the middle lamp.

 

The Sifrei in Parashat Beha'alotekha tries to reconcile the verses in Parashat Teruma with what is stated about the candlestick in Parashat Beha'alotekha:

 

"And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to Aharon, and say to him, When you light the lamps’" (Bamidbar 8:1-2) – Why was this section stated? Since it says: "And you shall light its lamps, that they may give light over against it" (Shemot 25:37) – I might understand that all the lamps should light along the entire length of the candlestick. Therefore, the verse says: "The seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the candlestick" (Bamidbar 8:2) – that the lamps should turn to the candlestick and the candlestick to the lamps. How so? Three towards the east and three towards the west and one in the middle. It turns out that they all turn to the middle one. From here, R. Natan would say: This shows that the middle one is specially prized. (Sifrei, Bamidbar no 59)

 

            It is first asserted that the position of the candlestick with its branches parallels that of the lamps; there is no distinction between the direction of the vessel as a whole and the direction of the lamps. If so, the Sifrei supports the view of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi – both regarding the orientation of the vessel and regarding the orientation of the lamps.

 

            On the other hand, the position of the lamps themselves – the side ones facing the middle one – accords with the view of R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, who sees the middle lamp as the most important one.

 

            Sifrei Zuta also relates to the direction of the lamps:

 

And from where do we know that all the lamps should turn to the middle lamp? Therefore, the verse states: "Towards (mul) the body of the candlestick." And like that which is written: "And they abide over against me (mimuli)" (Bamidbar 22:5). R. Shimon said: When I went to Rome and I saw there the candlestick, all the lamps turned toward the middle one (Sifrei Zuta, chap. 8)

 

            Here too, it is explicitly stated that all the lamps turned toward the middle lamp, though there is no reference to the orientation of the candlestick with its branches or to the direction of the middle lamp.

 

4. IDENTIFICATION OF THE WESTERN LAMP

 

            In addition to the question relating to the orientation of the candlestick, there is room to discuss the identification of the western lamp – an identification that is largely dependent on the direction in which the candlestick stands.

 

            According to the viewpoint that the candlestick was oriented from east to west, there are two possibilities as to the place of the western lamp.

 

            1) The westernmost lamp (this is the understanding of the Rambam, and also Rashi in Menachot 98b, s.v. mi-dikhtiv).

 

            2) The second lamp from the east (this is the understanding of Rashi in Shabbat 22b, s.v. ner ma'aravi).[7]

 

            According to the viewpoint that the candlestick was oriented from north to south, the western lamp is the middle one – all the other lamps face the middle lamp, and the middle lamp faces west toward the Holy of Holies.

 

THE ORIENTATION OF THE CANDLESTICK – THE VIEW OF THE RISHONIM

 

            In addition to the sources in Chazal that relate to the direction of the candlestick itself and to the direction of the lamps, I wish to bring here the words of the Rishonim on the matter.

 

1. THE VIEW OF RASHI

 

            Regarding the opinion of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, Rashi explains in many places that all the lamps faced the middle lamp. Thus, for example:

 

"Shall the seven lamps give light" – The six lamps which were on the six branches, the three on the east side of the central shaft should have their wicks turned toward the central one, and similarly, the three on the west should have the ends of their wicks turned toward the central one. (Bamidbar 8:2)

 

            Regarding the view of R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon: In his commentary to Megilla 21, explaining the words, "And the western lamp towards the Shekhina," Rashi explains that the western lamp is the middle lamp. As for the arrangement of the lamps, he explains that the middle lamp was pulled slightly to the west of the other lamps. That is to say, the middle lamp stuck out a little to the west in the direction of the parokhet and the Holy of Holies, in comparison to the rest of the lamps.

 

            As for the direction of the lamps themselves: Rashi maintains in Menachot that according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, they were all to the west, whereas in his commentary to the Torah, the six lamps faced the middle one. According to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, the candles faced the middle lamp, and it faced the west.[8]

 

            The gemara in Menachot 98b says that the vessels in the Heikhal were positioned along its length, that is to say, on an east-west axis (with the exception of the ark in the Holy of Holies), and according to this it would seem that also the table and the candlestick were positioned along its length –  east-west.

 

            What is the significance of the fact that the branches of the candlestick corresponded to the width of the table? This might simply mean that the position of the candlestick paralleled the width of the table that stood on an east-west axis, such that the candlestick also stood on an east-west axis.

 

2. THE VIEW OF THE RAMBAM

 

            The Rambam records conflicting understandings in his various commentaries regarding the positioning of the candlestick and the lamps. We shall not enter a detailed discussion of each source, but suffice with a brief summary:

 

            According to the first edition of his commentary to Mishna Tamid (3:9), and similarly in his commentary to Mishna Menachot (11:6), the candlestick stood on an east-west axis and the mouths of the lamps faced west, towards the Holy of Holies. This follows R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the plain understanding of the gemara in Menachot, according to which the vessels stood parallel to the length of the Mikdash.

 

            In a later edition of his commentary to Mishna Tamid, the Rambam emended his understanding and located the seven lamps between north and south with the six lamps facing the middle lamp, and the middle one facing west.

 

            In Hilkhot Bet Ha-bechira the Rambam writes:

 

The six lamps affixed in the six branches extending out from the candlestick all faced the central lamp, which was above the [central] shaft of the candlestick. The central lamp faced the Holy of Holies and was called the western lamp. (3:8)

 

            In other words, the middle lamp is the western lamp, and it faced west towards the Holy of Holies. Elsewhere in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira he writes:

 

The table was twelve handbreadths long and six handbreadths wide. Its length was positioned in parallel with the length of the Sanctuary and its width was positioned in parallel with the width of the Sanctuary. Similarly, the length and width of all the articles in the Sanctuary except for the ark paralleled the length and width of the Sanctuary. The length of the ark was placed to the width of the Sanctuary. The lamps of the candlestick were also positioned in parallel with the width of the Temple, from north to south. (3:12)

 

            The Ra'avad disagrees with the Rambam and asserts that the matter is subject to a Tannaitic dispute:

 

The order in Tamid is not so, for we have learned: "If he found the two eastern lamps still burning," which implies that they were positioned from east to west.

 

            According to the plain understanding, the Ra'avad follows all the sources cited above, whereas the Rambam maintains that as opposed to the table, which was positioned in parallel to the length of the Sanctuary, the candlestick was positioned on a north-south axis. On the face of it, it would seem that the Rambam follows Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan cited above, according to which the branches of the candlestick faced the width of the table.

 

            Dr. Eli Tal Or and R. Yosef Yechiel Elbaum suggest that the Rambam may be understood as follows:

 

It would seem that the Rambam understands that according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the candlestick is defined as the middle shaft and its length is the thickness of the shaft from west to east, but the branches of the candlestick and its lamps were positioned on a north-south axis. In that case, the orientation of the candlestick according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi is the same as that according to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, since the candlestick is defined as the middle shaft alone.

Defining the candlestick as the middle shaft including the lamp on top of it accords with the description of the candlestick in Parashat Teruma, and indeed the six branches extend from the candlestick. Defining the candlestick as referring to the entire vessel, including the six branches and its lamps, accords with what is written in Parashiyot Emor and Beha'alotekha. It is possible that this distinction underlies the Tannaitic dispute.

R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon relates to the candlestick as including all of the branches that are positioned on a north-south axis. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi maintains that the candlestick is only the middle shaft and its position is determined by the lamp on top of it that faces west. But according to the Rambam, even according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the six branches coming out from the candlestick were positioned along a north-south axis.

 

3. THE VIEW OF R. SAADYA GAON

 

            R. Saadya Gaon in his commentary to the Torah describes the candlestick as follows:

 

The shape of the branches was like the shape of a spoon with six fingers, the six of them in the shape of a bow, one half rounded, the other half empty of them. So the six branches encompassed the candlestick – an eastern axis surrounded by six branches, and the western half empty of them.

This explanation, even though it was handed down by tradition, emerges from Scripture, for it is written here: "And you shall make its seven lamps: and they shall light its lamps, that they may give light over against it" (Shemot 25:37).

 

            According to R. Saadya, the branches of the candlestick did not stand in a straight line, but rather in a semi-circle, like disciples who sit before their master in a semi-circle. In addition, R. Saadya agrees with the Rambam that the candlestick is the middle shaft and that the branches of the candlestick were positioned along a north-south axis.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] As we know, the slaughter of the holiest sacrifices was performed in the north. This location clearly relates to the primary orientation of the altar.

[2] R. Israel Ariel deals with this issue in his book, Menorat ha-Zahav, in chapter 24: "Kivun Amidat ha-Menora be-Heikhal ve-ha-Ner ha-Ma'aravi;” see also Dr. Eli Tal Or and R. Yosef Elbaum, Menorat ha-Mikdash ve-Kivun Amidata, Techumin 26, pp. 489-504. We will follow them in our presentation of the sources.

[3] This issue requires elaboration, but not in this forum.

[4] It is clear that according to this understanding, there is a distinction between the position of the body of the candlestick and the lamps.

[5] There is room to examine in much more expansive manner all the passages dealing with the candlestick and to clarify the meanings of the various expressions contained therein.

[6] So too R. Ariel, note 2 above, p. 198.

[7] This contradiction in Rashi requires further examination.

[8] See the article by Dr. Eli Tal Or and R. Yosef Yechiel Elbaum, note 2 above, who offer a clear explanation and summary of these matters.