The Orientation of the Sacred Vessels (Part II) - The Significance of the Orientation of the Vessels

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

 

 

LECTURE 123: THE ORIENTATION OF THE SACRED VESSELS (PART II) THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ORIENTATION OF THE VESSELS

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

            In the previous shiur, we began to deal with the orientation of the vessels in the Mishkan. We saw that we know very little from Scripture itself, and that almost everything that we know is learned from the words of Chazal. We surveyed the orientation of the various vessels in the Holy of Holies, in the Holy, and in the courtyard, as well as the opinions of the Rishonim regarding the matter.

 

            In this shiur, we will continue studying this subject and focus on the question of the meaning of the orientation of the vessels. What is the significance of the orientation of the vessels in relation to the structure of the Mishkan itself?[1]

 

            R. Meir Shpiegelman has proposed that the following distinction be made between an east-west axis and a north-south axis:[2]

·           An east-west axis is the axis of sanctity.

·           A north-south axis is the human axis.

 

Let us explain:

 

In addition to the various proofs adduced in previous shiurim to the fact that sanctity lies in the west, we can point to a number of other sources that emphasize the sanctity on the east-west axis. The verse, "And Lot journeyed east [mi-kedem]" (Bereishit 13:11) is expounded by Chazal to mean: "From the originator [mi-kadmono] of the universe.” Similarly, God places keruvim to the east of the Garden of Eden and the Divine wind moves for the most part on an east-west axis (at the parting of the Red Sea, in the plagues that struck Egypt, and with the quails in the wilderness). Thus, for example, the Torah says in connection to the plague of locusts:

 

So Moshe stretched out his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. (Shemot 10:13)

 

            The north-south axis, on the other hand, is a human axis. This is the reason that "whoever places his bed north and south will have male children" (Berakhot 5b); and "He who desires to become wise should turn to the south [when praying], and he who desires to become rich should turn to the north" (Bava Batra 25b). Avraham proposed to Lot a division of the land on a north-south axis; this is the meaning of the proposal: "If you will take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left" (Bereishit 13:9), where the frame of reference is kadima, eastward (kedem) – that is to say, a division on the human axis.

 

Another aspect of this idea is the assertion made in the mishna in Zevachim (5:1), according to which the slaughter of the holiest sacrifices was performed in the north – to the north of the altar. However we explain this (for example, that the slaughter of the sacrifices is connected to the attribute of justice, which is connected to the north), this supports both our understanding of the north-south orientation of the altar and R. Shpiegelman's understanding of the orientation of human service on a north-south axis.

 

The east-west axis – the axis of sanctity – stems from the fact that the Mishkan marks the house of God, which is situated on the western side of the entire structure. The north-south axis, which expresses the encounter between man and God, is at the site of the altar, which is positioned from north to south.

 

In addition, we saw that the table and the candlestick also stand on a north-south axis. The service in the Holy at the table and at the candlestick is also human service, and therefore they too are situated on this axis.

 

On the other hand, the burning of the incense is done on the east-west axis. This service, inasmuch as it is performed directly opposite the kaporet and its main purpose is to establish a barrier between man and God, is indeed service performed by man, but it is directly opposite the site of the resting of the Shekhina on the kaporet, and so it is on the east-west axis.[3]

 

THE DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN R. YEHUDA HA-NASI AND R. ELAZAR THE SON OF R. SHIMON

 

            In the previous shiur, we saw the Tannaitic dispute between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon regarding the positioning of the table and the candlestick. It would be interesting to examine whether each Tanna's derivation is limited to the issue of the orientation of the vessels or whether it expresses some more significant point.

 

            As may be recalled, R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi derives the orientation of the vessels from the ordering of the candlestick “before God,” whereas R. Elazar the son of R. Yehoshua derives it from the correspondence to the ark.

 

            It may be suggested that R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi's derivation signifies that the standing of the vessels in the Heikhal before God, and therefore they are positioned on an east-west axis, parallel to the primary orientation of the resting of the Shekhina in the west. In contrast, according to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, the parallel is to the ark. That is to say, the vessels of the Heikhal together with the ark are vessels that represent the resting of the Shekhina, and therefore they are positioned on a north-south axis. The three vessels together constitute the goal of the person entering into the Sanctuary, and the table and the candlestick are connected in an essential way to the ark.

 

            If the difference between the north-south axis and the east-west axis is indeed an essential one, and the east-west axis is connected to sanctity and the resting of the Shekhina while the north-south axis is connected to human service and the point of encounter between man and God, we can say as follows:

 

The one who says that the table and the candlestick were positioned from east to west intends that these vessels in which the Shekhina rests are a direct part of the Divine revelation from the ark, the kaporet and the keruvim. In contrast, the one who says that the table and the candlestick were positioned from north to south intends that they represent the meeting point between man and God by way of the lighting of the candlestick and the placement of the showbread on the table.

 

In more general terms, it may be suggested that the positioning of the vessels affects the way we understand the Heikhal. Is it part of the way that the Shekhina reveals itself, or is it a chamber meant for human service and a meeting place between man and God through man's service of God?

 

One of the other ramifications of this dispute relates to the fundamental question regarding the relationship between the Holy and the Holy of Holies. R. Shlomo Fisher examined this issue in his book Beit Yishai[4] (Menachot 98b), presenting the two sides of the disagreement as follows:

 

The Mishkan was divided into three parts: the Holy of Holies, the Heikhal and the courtyard, which parallel the three parts of the human body, as Rabbeinu Bachya and the Malbim explain in Parashat Teruma. Regarding the Mishkan as well, there is room to raise the aforementioned question – which is the primary end, the Holy of Holies or the Heikhal? And according to what we explained at length in our essay, "The Ten Sanctities and the Sanctity of Jerusalem," there are indeed two aspects to the Mikdash, and according to this, both perspectives are correct. From one perspective, the main thing is the resting of the Shekhina in the Holy of Holies in the innermost chamber, and everything leading to it is merely regarded as an antechamber. But from a second perspective, the Holy of Holies is merely an addition of sanctity to the Mikdash, but the essence of the Mikdash is the site of the fixed service. Know [that this is true], for in the Second Temple, there was no ark and no resting of the Shekhina, and nevertheless it was considered a Mikdash.

On the face of it, R. Yehuda and R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon (Menachot 98b) disagree about this, for according to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the lamps and the tables in the Heikhal were positioned from east to west – that is to say, their length paralleled the length of the Sanctuary. Such a picture indicates that the Heikhal is regarded as an antechamber leading to the Holy of Holies, which is the final end. And there, in truth, the ark rests from north to south – that is to say, its length paralleled the width of the Sanctuary. In contrast, R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon maintains that the lamps and the tables in the Heikhal were positioned from north to south – that is to say, their length paralleled the width of the Sanctuary, in the same manner that the ark was positioned in the Holy of Holies. This indicates that the Heikhal is the final end.

But according to this, the Rambam is very difficult, for regarding the lamps, he ruled (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 3:12), in accordance with R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, that they were positioned from north to south, which indicates that the Heikhal is the final end. But surely according to the aforementioned analogy, the Holy of Holies corresponds to the brain, and surely it was the Rambam's position that the brain is the primary end, and everything else merely serve as accessories and help for him. Thus, it turns out that there is an internal contradiction in the Rambam.

It seems, then, that according to the Rambam, this is not the reason of R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon. Rather, it comes to teach that which I will write below regarding the view of the Rambam, based on the words of R. Chayyim z"l, namely, that the ark, the candlestick, and the table comprise one set of vessels, which serve, as it were, as God's personal furniture. The Rambam, therefore, maintains that this part of the Heikhal in which stand the candlestick and the table still belong to the Holy of Holies, and is considered as part of the innermost chamber. This teaches that the lamps and the tables were arranged from north to south, just as the ark was positioned. Regarding the Rambam's ruling about the tables in accordance with Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi], see Noda Bi-Yehuda, Orach Chayyim 122.

And see our essay, "The Four Garments of the High Priest," where we explained that an ordinary priest is a vessel belonging to the altar, whereas the High Priest is a vessel belonging to the Holy of Holies. It turns out that from the perspective of an ordinary priest, the main thing is the site of the fixed service, and the Holy of Holies is merely additional sanctity for the Mishkan. But from the perspective of the High Priest, the main thing is the Holy of Holies, and everything leading up to it is merely an antechamber.

 

            R. Fisher tries to define the relationship between the Holy and the Holy of Holies: Does the essence of the Mikdash lie in the resting of the Shekhina in the Holy of Holies and the entire structure of the Mikdash merely leads to it, or is the essence of the Mikdash the service, and the Holy of Holies is merely additional sanctity for it?

 

            In light of this distinction, he examines the Tannaitic dispute in Menachot regarding the orientation of the vessels, and draws the following conclusions:

            According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the lamps and the tables are positioned from east to west, which indicates that the Heikhal is an antechamber to the Holy of Holies, the final end. In contrast, according to R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, the lamps and the tables are positioned from north to south, which indicates that the Heikhal is the final end.

 

            In light of this explanation, R. Fisher points to a contradiction in the rulings of the Rambam, which he resolves based on the words of R. Chayyim, who explained that the ark, the candlestick, and the table constitute a single set of vessels, God's personal furniture as it were. Therefore, just as the ark is positioned from north to south, so too are the lamps and the table.

 

            In addition, R. Fisher proposes to draw a connection between an ordinary priest and the site of his service in the Holy and the High Priest and the site to which he is connected by his very essence in the Holy of Holies.

 

            Why did the Rambam adopt a position that is different from all the sources cited above?

 

            R. Yisrael Ariel[5] expands on his explanation of the Rambam's position. He brings the words of the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim (III:45), according to which the light of the candlestick is not directed toward the table, but rather before God toward the parokhet which, as it were, conceals the Shekhina behind it; the lamps that are lit opposite the parokhet add fear of God. According to this, the main question is whether the candlestick illuminates the table or the parokhet, and its direction is determined accordingly.

 

            Another difficult point in the Rambam's position relates to the orientation of the vessels:

 

The table was twelve handbreadths long and six handbreadths wide. Its length was positioned in parallel with the length of the Temple and its width was positioned in parallel with the width of the Temple. Similarly, the length and width of all the articles in the Sanctuary, except for the ark, paralleled the length and width of the Temple. 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. (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 3:12)

 

            At first glance, this is difficult, for if the Rambam rules in accordance with the viewpoint of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, both the table and the candlestick should be positioned from east to west, and if he rules in accordance with the viewpoint of R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon, both the table and the candlestick should be positioned from north to south – yet he distinguishes between them! What is the basis for such a distinction?

 

            To explain this point, let us go back to the Rambam's basic perspective on the objective of the Temple. As stated, according to the Rambam, the essence of the Temple is man's service of God. The candlestick in the Heikhal expresses wisdom, light, and human knowledge, and it is therefore positioned from north to south, in parallel to the ark.

 

            In this sense, when the Rambam does not mention the ark, the candlestick is the most elevated vessel in the Heikhal, towards which the entire service is directed. Therefore, as opposed to the rest of the vessels, it is positioned from north to south, like the ark. The candlestick in the Heikhal constitutes the base of reference for the structure as a whole and for the rest of the vessels.

 

            It is clear that whatever was said in this shiur should be joined to what we said in the final shiurim of last year's series, where we spoke at length about the assertion that the Shekhina is found in the west, both in contrast to idol worship, and because all of creation bows down before God each day.

 

SUMMARY

 

            In the last two shiurim, we dealt with the orientation of the sacred vessels in the Temple. We saw that the various vessels are positioned along two main axes, and we discussed the significance of the matter.

 

            We saw that the ark rests on a north-south axis, and we explained that in this way, emphasis is given to the fact that the ark is the point of reference for the entire Mishkan and its vessels, which are positioned from east to west.

 

            We saw the Tannaitic controversy regarding the position of the table and the candlestick between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, who maintains that they stood from east to west, and R. Elazer the son of R. Shimon, who says that they were set from north to south.

 

            We discussed the Rambam's position regarding the table and the candlestick, and we noted that further study is necessary in order to understand what brought the Rambam to rule in accordance with R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi with respect to the table and in accordance with R. Elazar the son of R. Shimon with respect to the candlestick.

 

            In the next shiur, we will begin to deal with the vessels themselves, starting with the ark in the Holy of Holies.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] This question is sharpened by the fact that the entry into the Mishkan is from east to west. When one enters the courtyard and heads in the direction of the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, however, owing to the positioning of the burnt-offering altar, movement is blocked by the altar and the ramp, which must be bypassed in order to reach the screen of the door of the Ohel Mo'ed.

[2] At the VBM site in a shiur on Parashat Naso, and in Daf Kesher 765.

[3] The essence of the incense altar will be discussed at length later in this series.

[4] Rav Shlomo Fisher, Beit Yishai, II, Ha-Mo'ach Ve-Ha-Lev, pp. 324-325.

[5] In his book, Menorat ha-Zahav, chap. 44, "Kivun Amidat Ha-Menora Be-Heikhal Ve-Ha-Ner Ha-Ma'aravi."