Shiur #06: The Functions of the Mikdash (Part II) - Expressions of the Place Where God Rests His Shekhinaand the Place Where Man Worships God and the Connection Between Them

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #06: The Functions of the Mikdash (Part II)

Expressions of the Place Where God Rests His Shekhina and the Place Where Man Worships God and the Connection Between Them


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            In this shiur, we will continue our examination of the functions of the Mikdash, the connection between them, and how they find expression in the Mikdash.


I. Allowance of Bamot (improvised altars) and the connection between the Resting place of the SHekhina and the Site of the sacrificial service


In the previous shiur, we saw the mishna in Zevachim (14:4-8) that deals with the allowance and prohibition of bamot, improvised altars for the offering up of voluntary private sacrifices. Following the erection of the Mishkan, bamot were forbidden until Israel arrived in Gilgal; they were forbidden once again while the Mishkan stood in Shilo; and they were forbidden a third time when the Mikdash was built in Jerusalem, after which they were never again permitted. During the intervening periods – prior to the erection of the Mishkan and when the Mishkan stood in Gilgal, Nov, and Giv'on – bamot were permitted. What is the guiding principle regarding the allowance to offer up sacrifices on bamot while the Mishkan was standing?


The Mishkan in Gilgal, Nov, and Giv'on was characterized by the absence of the ark of the covenant. While the Mishkan stood in Gilgal, the ark was out with Israel in its war of conquest of the land; when it was in Nov and Giv'on, the ark remained in Kiryat-Ye'arim for twenty-two years and was afterwards in the city of David. There is clearly a connection between the absence of the ark and the permissibility of bamot.


This principle was well formulated by the Meshekh Chokhma in his commentary to Devarim (12:8, s.v. lo ta'asun):[1]


It is stated in the Tosefta at the end of Zevachim (13:8): Which is the great altar during whose time private altars were permitted? When the Tent of Meeting stood in the ordinary manner [as in the wilderness and in Shilo] but the altar was not there [as during the time of Nov and Giv'on, when the ark was found among the Pelishtim or in the house of Oved Edom, in Kiryat-Ye'arim, or in Jerusalem] – then the bamot were permitted. But in Shilo the ark was in the Tent of Meeting, and therefore bamot were forbidden. This is the meaning of the Tosefta. As for the allowance of bamot [when the Mishkan was] in Gilgal, this is because they had not rested from conquering their inheritance. As they said in Zevachim: "For you are not as yet come to the rest" (Devarim 12:9) – resting from conquest, see there. Now, the incident at Bochim (Shoftim 2) took place after the death of Yehoshua, and during the days of the elders who served God, as explained by the commentators. And the elders outlived [Yehoshua] by days, and not by years, as Chazal have said (Seder Olam Rabba, chap. 12). Hence, this took place immediately after the death of Yehoshua. And at the time of their death, it is stated in Yehoshua 24:1: "And Yehoshua gathered all the tribes to Shekhem… and they presented themselves before God." And in verse 26: [And he took a great stone,] and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord." And Rashi explains: Because he brought the ark there, as it is stated above, "And they presented themselves before God." Thus, the ark was then in Shekhem, and the Tent of Meeting had the status of a great altar, and private altars were permitted, and therefore they offered sacrifices there to God in Bokhim. This is clear.

Come and see how true this is! In Shoftim, chap. 20, with respect to the war between Israel and Binyamin, it is stated (v. 26): "Then all the children of Israel… went up, and came to Bet-El, and wept… and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord." We see, then, that in Bet-El they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, for immediately thereafter it is written (v. 27): "And the children of Israel inquired of the Lord, for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days." We see, then, that the ark was then in Bet-El, and therefore bamot were permitted, and they offered sacrifices there in Bet-El as on a private altar. And I will add and show you who brought the ark then to Bet-El. For they said in Seder Olam that the incident involving the concubine in Giv'a took place during the days of Kushan Rish'atayim, and at that time no members of Israel lived in Jerusalem. As it says (Shoftim 19:12): "We will not turn aside here into the city of a stranger." And this was shortly after the death of Yehoshua; see Hagahot ha-Gra to Seder Olam, chap. 12. And in Shoftim 1:22[-23]: "And the house of Yosef, they too went up against Bet-El, and the Lord was with them. And the house of Yosef sent to spy out Bet-El." In my opinion, this means that the ark was with them, and this is "and the Lord was with them," for the ark is His dwelling place, as it is stated: "And they presented themselves before God" (Yehoshua 24:1). Therefore, the ark was then in Bet-El, and then was the incident involving the concubine in Giv'a. All this is clear. And in the Mishna, chapter Mashu'ach Milchama (Sota 44a): "'For the Lord your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you' (Devarim 20:4) – this is the camp of the ark."

Now in the Yerushalmi, Megilla (1:12): Rabbi Yasa in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: This is the sign: Whenever the ark is inside, bamot are forbidden; if it went out – bamot are permitted [as we explained the Tosefta]. Rabbi Zera asked Rabbi Yasa: Even temporarily, as in the case of Eli? Now, according to my explanation, it has been proven that even if it went out temporarily, bamot are permitted. We must say that it is only when it went out to war without resting in any one place that Rabbi Yochanan asks whether bamot are permitted. This is not the case here, where it rested in Shekhem and it rested in Bet–El.


            Basing himself on the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi, the Meshekh Chokhma argues that it is the location of the ark that determines whether bamot are permitted or forbidden: if the ark is in the sanctuary, bamot are forbidden; if not, even temporarily, as in Bet-El, bamot are permitted.


            What is the spiritual significance of the ark's close connection to or detachment from the great altar? It would appear that when the ark is located in its proper place, it means that the Shekhina reveals itself there, and  one is therefore forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere else. But when the ark is not in its proper place, there is no particular and defined place for the revelation of the Shekhina; in such a situation, one may offer up sacrifices anywhere.


            We see, then, that despite the independent status enjoyed by the ark on the one hand and by the altar on the other, there is still an important connection between the two, and their being found together makes it impossible to sacrifice anywhere else. This emphasizes the unity of God's presence: separating the ark from the altar and removing it from its place detaches the worship of God from the resting of His Shekhina, and thus also from its appointed place. In such a situation, the unity of God's presence is not evident, and therefore one is permitted to serve God in all places.


            The fact that the ark is found in the Mikdash also impacts upon other areas. For example:


So long as the ark and the Shekhina are not settled in their appointed place, marital relations are forbidden. (Eruvin 63b)


            Why are sexual relations forbidden during such a time? The commentators propose various understandings (see, for example, Rabbi Yaakov Emden and Maharsha). According to our approach, it may be suggested that the perfect union between man and wife depends upon the perfect union between the people of Israel and their Father in heaven; that is to say, when the Shekhina rests in only one place, and everyone goes there to serve God.[2] When the ark is not in its appointed place, and God can be served in all places, the perfect union between God and Israel is not evident, and thus the union between man and wife is also forbidden.[3]




The Gemara in Berakhot (55a) records a discussion between Moshe and Betzalel regarding the order of the construction of the Mishkan:


Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Betzalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: "Go and tell Betzalel to make Me a Mishkan, an ark and vessels," Moshe went and reversed the order, saying: "Make an ark and vessels and a Mishkan."

Betzalel said to him: Moshe, our teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, "Make Me an ark and vessels and a Mishkan." Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you: "Make a Mishkan, an ark and vessels?"

Moshe replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God (betzel El) and knew!


The Gemara similarly relates to the differences in order between Parashat Teruma and Parashat Vayakhel.  In Parashat Teruma, God's command opens with the holy vessels – the ark, the kaporet, the keruvim, the table, and the menora – and continues with the structure of the Mishkan.  In Parashat Vayakhel, in both Moshe's command to the children of Israel (Shemot 35:11-16) and in the description of the work actually performed by Betzalel (ibid. 36:8-38:20), the structure is described first and only afterwards the vessels.


This difference can be explained in many ways. For example, the commandment found in Parashat Teruma deals with the ideal plan, and it therefore opens with the vessels, owing to their importance and holiness, while the execution of the command, on the other hand, starts with the practical framework, so that there would be a place to put the vessels.


In our context, it is possible[4] that the vessels represent human worship,[5] and the sanctuary represents the resting of the Shekhina. Moshe symbolizes man's ascent to God – "And He said to Moshe, Ascend to the Lord" (Shemot 24:1). Betzalel, on the other hand, is "betzel el," "in the shadow of the Shekhina;" he is given Divine wisdom, "the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship," (ibid. 31:3). It is clear to both that the resting of the Shekhina requires both vessels and a sanctuary, but each of them emphasizes a different element: Moshe – the vessels, and Betzalel – the sanctuary.


III. Directions in the Mishkan[6]


The Mishkan and the Temples (including the Temple described by Yechezkel) were constructed on an east-west axis. Everything stands on this axis:[7] the entrance, man's service, the levels of holiness, etc. As one advances westward, the sanctity rises: from the courtyard to the Holy, and from the Holy to the Holy of Holies.[8] This axis marks the direction of holiness, as Chazal said regarding the generation of the dispersion and regarding Lot, who "journeyed eastward (mi-kedem)" (Bereishit 11:2; 13:11), that they "removed themselves from the earliest being (mi-kadmono) in the world" (Bereishit Rabba 38, 7; 41, 7). The wind that God sends usually moves along this axis as well, as was the case with respect to the splitting of the Red Sea, the plagues in Egypt, and the quail.


On the perpendicular, north-south axis, stand the altar and the ramp, which represent more than any other vessel, man's service of God. This, then, is the human axis. This assertion is also supported by the statements of Rabbi Yitzchak: "Whoever places his bed north and south will have male children" (Berakhot 5b); "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. The symbol [by which to remember this] is that the table [in the Mishkan] was to the north of the altar and the menora to the south" (Bava Batra 25b).


            The Mishkan – the house of God, the site of the resting of the Shekhina – is directed from east to west, until the Holy of Holies, whereas the altar, the site of human worship, stands on the north-south axis.[9]


            Below, we will try to provide an overview of all the activities that took place in the Mikdash and categorize them based on the Temple's two main purposes.


Iv. expressions of the resting of the shekhina in the mikdash


1. Revelation Through speech – There are various types and levels of revelation through speech in the Mikdash. First of all, the designation "Ohel Mo'ed," "Tent of Meeting," is based on the idea of meeting, as is explained by Rav S.R. Hirsch the first time that this expression is used (Shemot 27:21):


In the Tent of Meeting – This is how the Sanctuary is always referred to. The root of the word "mo'ed" is ya'ad, related to yachad, to fix a meeting (see our commentary above 25:22). Mo'ed is the time or, as here, the place, for such a meeting. It is called Ohel Mo'ed since it is through the Sanctuary that the special presence of God rests on Israel, brought about by their acceptance of the Torah with complete self-surrender. Alternatively, [it is called the Ohel Mo'ed since] God has appointed it as the place for His revelation to Moshe, as well as the place where Israel is constantly to give afresh practical proof of their connection with God, where they have ever afresh "to come to a meeting with God." As the Devir, the Mikdash is the place from which God speaks (dibbur)and the source of the light, and as the Ohel Mo'ed, it is the place where man meets God and the constant tending to the light on the tree of the nation's spiritual development [the menorah]. 


            As Rav Hirsch says, the Holy of Holies is also called the Devir (I Melakhim 6:19) on account of the speech that takes place there, the voice that speaks to Moshe from the kaporet from between the two keruvim (Bamidbar 7:89).[10]


            The author of the Ikkarim (III, end of chap. 11) also connects prophecy to the ark: "It is worth knowing that when the prophetic spirit comes through the mediation of a prophet upon a person who is not worthy or who is not prepared, the recipient is able to pass it to another only when the nation has in its midst the ark and the tablets." Inquiring of the Urim ve-Tumim in the Mikdash also reflects the recognition that the place is the place of the Shekhina.


            And, of course, in the Mikdash there is also a revelation of the holy spirit. For example: "Rabbi Yona said: Yona ben Amitai was among those who made a pilgrimage [to Jerusalem] on a festival. He entered during the Water-Drawing Festival, and the holy spirit rested upon him" (Yerushalmi, Sukka 3:1).


            In the wake of Divine revelation through speech, justice and rulings issue forth from the Mikdash to all of Israel. We will deal with this below.


2. Revelation Through sight Revelation through sight in the Mikdash is commonly expressed through the revelation of the glory of God to Israel in a fire and in a cloud. This is witnessed at the conclusion of the erection of the MishkanShemot 40:35-36; at the dedication of the MishkanVayikra 9:23-24; in the revelation to David in the threshing floor of Arvana the Yevusi – I Divrei Ha-yamim 21:26; and at the dedication of the first Temple – II Divrei Ha-yamim 5:13-14; 7:1-3. In addition, such revelation occurred in general with the continual revelation of the Shekhina to all of Israel (Shemot 40:38) and in the miracles that occurred in the Temple even during the second Temple period (Avot 5:5), perhaps the clearest example of which was the crimson colored strap that turned white in the view of all of Israel (Yoma 67a).


3.                  THe place of providenceIn addition to the Divine revelation through speech and sight, the Mikdash is also the place which God listens to and sees at all times, as Shlomo said at the time of the dedication of the Temple:


That Your eyes may be open towards this house night and day, towards the place of which You have said, My name shall be there, that You may hearken to the prayer which Your servant shall make toward this place. (I Melakhim 8:29)


            Divine sight and hearing make it possible for man to encounter God by means of his actions in the Mikdash.


4. revelation through the torah and judgment – God also reveals Himself in the Mikdash through the judgment of the Sanhedrin in the Lishkat Ha-gazit, which was near the altar (Devarim 17:8-13), to fulfill the verse which states: "For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Yeshayahu 2:3; Mikha 4:2). It was similarly seen in the Choshen Ha-mishpat (Shemot 28:30) and in the Torah scroll that rested in the heart of the Mikdash –the Holy of Holies.


5. the place of atonement and repentance – Repentance, like the Mikdash itself, preceded the world (Tanchuma, Naso 11). The sinner confesses his sin and arrives in the Mikdash in order to achieve atonement. The Mikdash is thus a place of hope that provides a person with the opportunity to make a fresh start in the aftermath of his sin. We saw earlier (shiur 2) that the great weight of this component of the essence of the Mikdash finds expression in Avot de-Rabbi Natan (4:5):


It once happened that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem, followed by Rabbi Yehoshua, and he beheld the Temple in ruins. Rabbi Yehoshua cried out: Woe to us, for this house that lies in ruins, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel! Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him: My son, be not grieved, for we have another means of atonement which is as effective, and that is, the practice of loving-kindness, as it is stated: "For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice" (Hoshea 6:6)


6. The Source of holiness and life and the place of Purity – The Mikdash is the most sanctified place in the world. It is from the Mikdash that holiness spreads, at different levels, to the entire world (see Kelim 1:6-9). In order to approach this place of sanctity, man must first undergo purification.  Purity, which is connected to the Levitical camp, is preparation for the holiness of the camp of the Shekhina. The Mikdash is extremely removed from any type of impurity; impurity expresses death, whereas the Mikdash is the site of eternal life, thanks to its eternal holiness that flows from the fact that it preceded the world.


7. THe source of material blessing for the entire world – We find this idea in several places in Chazal. For example:


Look at what the sacrifices accomplished when they were offered up, for whatever was offered brought blessing to its own kind… The unleavened bread and the showbread that they offered blessed the bread. The first fruits that they offered blessed the fruits of the Land… Why was all this happening? Because the sacrifices were offered. It once happened that a certain scribe… He said to them: I have a vine… and it produces six hundred barrelfuls each year… Its abundant produce was in the merit of the libation of wine that was offered on the altar… Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: Ever since the Temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not contain a curse. (Tanchuma Tetzave 13)


Rabbi Akiva said: The Torah said: Bring an omer of barley on Pesach, which is the time of the barley harvest, so that the grain be a blessing for you; bring the first wheat on Shavuot, which is the time of the tree harvest, so that the fruit of the tree be a blessing for you; bring the water libation on Sukkot so that the rain be a blessing for you. (Tosefta Sukka 3:18)[11]


            When an individual brings his bikkurim to the Mikdash, he offers his gratitude to God, who bestows His blessing on the produce and on the land; the entire nation thanks Him on the three Pilgrim Festivals, in the sense of "For all things come of you, and of your own have we given You" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:14).


8. THe commandment to fear the MikdashThis command also stems from God's resting His Shekhina in the place; so, too, the commandment to safeguard the Mikdash – especially according to the understanding that safeguarding the Mikdash is part of honoring it.


Alongside all of these, there is a series of activities and commandments that express the essence of the Mikdash as the place where man comes to worship God in His house.


V. Expressions of Man's worship of GOd in the Mikdash


The world is based on three things: the Torah, the service [of God] and acts of loving-kindness. (Avot 1:2)


            A separate shiur will be devoted to the fulfillment of the many aspects of this mishna in the Mikdash, and in the previous section of this shiur we also dedicated a few words to the idea of the Mikdash as the center of Torah. Here we shall relate to the Mikdash as the center of the service of God.


            Communal service in the Mikdash is performed by representatives of the entire people – mishmarot and ma'amadot of priests, Levites, and Israelites – and it is funded by the half-shekels, contributed every year by every Jew, in Eretz Yisrael and outside of it. In this way, every member of Israel is a full fiscal partner in the Temple service. This emphasizes the dimension of unity that reveals itself in the Mikdash and the values of peace and loving-kindness that are particularly evident in it.


The Temple service includes:


        ·          Sacrifices of all types – communal and individual; obligatory and voluntary; kodshei kodashim and kodshim kalim; from the animal kingdom, from the plant world, and from the inanimate; sacrifices brought on a daily basis, sacrifices brought on designated times, and sacrifices connected to particular circumstances.

        ·          Continuous service in the heikhal: lighting the menora, burning the incense, and arranging the showbread.

        ·          Prayer, song, and bowing (the prayer of ChanaI Shmuel 1:10-13; the prayer of ShlomoI Melakhim 8; a house of prayer for all peoples – Yeshayahu 56:7).


In addition to communal service, the Temple is also the site of individual service, performed at set times (the three Pilgrim Festivals) and in the wake of personal circumstances (sacrifices, bikkurim, and the like).


These examples express activities and commandments performed in the Mikdash, where Israel comes as a collective and as individuals to express their closeness to God in His royal palace.


            The necessary preparation for approaching the holy is purity. "Even if he is ritually pure, a person may not enter the Temple courtyard to perform service without immersion" (Yoma 3:3; see the commentators, ad loc., who note that the term used here - "service" – is imprecise, for every entry into the Temple courtyard requires immersion). The deeper that a person enters into the sanctified site, the greater the purification that is required. Purity and watchfulness regarding all forms of impurity – the impurity of a corpse, the impurity contracted from bodily emissions, and impurity contracted through physical contact – demand that one distance oneself from anything that is related to death and join oneself to the eternal life of the Mikdash. The world of impurity is a world of partiality and transience, whereas the world of the Mikdash is a world of wholeness and eternity. The whole idea behind Israel's actions in the Mikdash is to approach the Source of all in His house.


            These examples demonstrate the unmediated encounter between Israel and God in the Mikdash, on both the collective and the individual levels, through profound recognition in His lordship and kingship over the entire world.


Vi. Essence of the Mikdash – Perfection of the world


            The combination of these two aspects of the Mikdash, revelation and service, expresses the perfection of the world, which is the very essence of the Mikdash and which reveals itself first and foremost in God's presence in the world and in the possibility of meeting with Him.


            There are many aspects to this perfection. Some find expression in the ten miracles performed for our forefathers in the Temple:


Ten miracles were performed for our fathers in the Temple: No woman miscarried from the scent of the sacrificial meat; the sacrificial meat never became putrid; no fly was ever seen in the slaughter house of the Temple; no unclean accident ever befell the High Priest on Yom Kippur; the rain never extinguished the fire on the wood pile on the altar; the wind did not prevail over the column of smoke that rose from the altar; no disqualifying defect was ever found in the Omer, in the two Shevuot loaves, or in the showbreads; the people stood closely pressed together and yet found ample space to prostrate themselves; no snake or scorpion ever did injury in Jerusalem, and no man ever said to his fellow: There is too little room for me to lodge overnight in Jerusalem. (Avot 5:5)


The Mikdash does not contain any of the deficiencies caused by Adam and Chava through their sin. In the Mikdash, the perfection of the natural world in inanimate objects, in plants, and in animals reveals itself, without any disturbance from the outside world. Nor are there any defects in the acts of man that are performed in the Mikdash: the love and unity among men finds special expression there. The Mikdash presents a model of a perfect world, where God reveals Himself on the one hand, and where man can reveal His presence on the other. This revelation of perfection in the world obligates man to strive for perfection in all his actions, and from this stems the connection between purity and sanctity.


This perfection is the essence of creation. In the Mikdash we find the beginning of the world and its final end; here is the site of revelation and the meeting place of spirit and matter, of the Infinite and the finite, of the Divine and the human. This perfect world brings an abundance of both holiness and material blessing to the entire world.




            In this shiur we examined the connection between the main functions of the Mikdash and their expressions in the Mikdash. In the next shiur, we shall deal with the connection between the two dimensions – God's resting His Shekhina and man's worshipping of God – in various Temple services.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1]   The citation is based on the edition of Meshekh Chokhma published by Rav Cooperman, Jerusalem 1997, pp. 89-91. The bracketed comments are those of the editor.

[2]   We have followed here the second answer of the Tosafot, ibid., s.v. kol.

[3]   A similar comparison is also found in Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 1 on the verse, "Also our couch is green" (Shir Ha-shirim 1:16) – "just as this bed is only for procreation, etc." – and in general from the similarity between the ark and a bed. We will expand upon this idea in a later shiur.

[4]   So suggests Rav Eli Blum, "Bet Ha-mikdash Ke-makom Avoda Ve-hashra'at Shekhina," in Torah Mi-Tziyon: Kovetz Ma'amarim Le-zikhro shel Doktor Moshe Green z"l," Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 163-173.

[5]   We refer, of course, to the vessels in the sanctuary and in the courtyard – the menora, the table, and the altars – and not to the ark, the kaporet, and the keruvim, which are not vessels of service.

[6]  In this section, we follow Rav Meir Spiegelman, "Seder Ve-Kivun Be-parashiyot Ha-Torah," Daf Kesher, no. 765,

[7] We shall devote an entire shiur to the significance of the Shekhina's being found in the west.

[8]  The vessels of the Mikdash also stand on an east-west axis – "its length along the length of the Temple and its width along the width of the Temple" (Rambam, Hilkhot Bet ha-Bechira 3:12) (the Tannaim disagree about the positioning of the menora, but this is not the place to expand upon the matter). The striking exception is the ark, which is in the most sanctified place in the Mishkan, towards which all the other vessels lead, and therefore it is positioned along a north-south axis, perpendicular to the general axis of the Mishkan.

[9]  There is still room to examine the relationship between man's service on the altar, which stands on a north-south axis, and his service in the sanctuary, which stands on the east-west axis.

[10]     Locating the Garden of Eden on Mount Moriya also emphasizes this point, for the Garden of Eden was where man heard "the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day" (Bereishit 3:8).

[11]    According to both sources, the revelation of the Shekhina through material blessing depends upon man's service!