Shiur #09: The Functions of the Mikdash (Part V) - What is the Primary Function of the Mishkan?

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #09: The Functions of the Mikdash (Part V)

What is the Primary Function of the Mishkan?


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            In the previous four shiurim, we examined the two main functions of the Mikdash and their various expressions.  We saw that the Mikdash is both the seat of God's kingdom and the expression of the affection between God and the people of Israel.  These two dimensions of the Mikdash complement each other and reflect two aspects of our relationship with God, that of fear and that of love.


            Having shown that these two objectives co-exist and complement each other, I shall attempt in this shiur to examine, in summary of our analysis, whether one of the two objectives is the primary end of the Mikdash while the other is secondary.  The Rambam and the Ramban seem to disagree on this point, and I will try to explain the controversy and its foundations.




The Ramban in the beginning of Parashat Teruma (Shemot 25:1; see also his commentary on Devarim 10:1) views the resting of God's Shekhina as the primary function of the Mishkan:


Now that God had told Israel face to face the Ten Commandments, and had further commanded them through Moshe some of the precepts which are like general principles to the [individual] commandments of the Torah – in the same way that our Rabbis were accustomed to deal with strangers who came to be converted to the Jewish faith – and now that the Israelites accepted upon themselves to do all that He would command them through Moshe and He made a covenant with them concerning all this, from now on they are His people and He is their God.  This is in accordance with the condition He made with them at the beginning: "Now, therefore, if you will indeed hearken unto My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be Mine own treasure" (Shemot 19:5), and He said further: "And You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (ibid.  v.6) They are now holy, in that they are worthy that there be among them a sanctuary through which He makes His Shekhina dwell among them.  Therefore, He first commanded concerning the Mishkan, so that He have among them a house dedicated to His name, from where He would speak with Moshe and command the children of Israel.  Thus, the main purpose of the Mishkan was to contain a place in which the Shekhina rests, this being the ark, just as He said, "And there will I meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the kaporet" (ibid. 25:22).  Therefore, He first gave the commandment about the ark and the kaporet, for they are first in importance.  Next to the ark, He gave the commandment about the table and the menora, which are vessels just like the ark, and because they indicate the purpose for which the Mishkan was made.  Moshe, however, preceded to mention in the section of Vayakhel: "the Mishkan, its Tent, and its covering" (ibid.  35:11) and in that order Betzalel made them [first the Mishkan and then the ark], because from the practical end it is proper to build the house first [and then make its vessels].


The secret of the Mishkan is that the Glory which abode upon Mount Sinai [openly] should abide upon it in a concealed manner.  For just as it is said there, "And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai" (ibid.  24:16)), and it is further written: "Behold, the Lord our God has shown us His glory and His greatness" (Devarim 5:21)), so it is written of the Mishkan, "And the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan," (Shemot 40:34).  Twice is this verse, "And the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan," mentioned in connection with the Mishkan, to correspond with "His glory and His greatness." Thus Israel always had with them in the Mishkan the Glory which appeared to them on Mount Sinai.  And when Moshe went in, God spoke to him as He had spoken to him on Mount Sinai.  Thus, just as it is said at the Giving of the Torah: "Out of heaven He made You to hear His voice, that He might instruct your; and upon earth He made you to see His great fire" (Devarim 4:36), so it is written of the Mishkan: "And He heard the voice speaking unto him from above the kaporet… from between the two keruvim; and He spoke unto Him" (Bamidbar 4:89).  The expression "speaking unto Him" is mentioned here twice in order to indicate that which the Rabbis have said in the tradition that the voice would come from heaven to Moshe upon the kaporet, and from there He spoke with him; for every Divine utterance with Moshe came from heaven during daytime, and was heard "from between the two keruvim," similar to what is said: "And you did hear the words out of the midst of the fire" (Devarim 4:36).  It is for this reason that the two keruvim were made of gold.  And Scripture so states: "Where I will meet with you, to speak there unto you; and it shall be sanctified to My glory" (Shemot 29:42-43), for there [in the Mishkan] will be the appointed place for the Divine utterance, and it will be sanctified to My glory. 


            In other words, the critical function of the Mikdash is to serve as the site of the resting of God's Shekhina and as a meeting place for dialogue between God and man.  In this framework, the ark plays the most important role, for the word of God issues forth from between the two keruvim.[1] The very fact that the ark is the first vessel mentioned (Shemot 25:10) in the accounts of the command to build the Mishkan and its execution attests to its primacy and centrality.[2]


            In contrast to the Ramban, the Rambam asserts that the primary objective of the house of God is the service performed therein.  The Rambam does not mention the ark in this context, nor does he count it among the vessels included in the mitzva to build the Temple.  In his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, he writes as follows (positive commandment, no.  20):


By this injunction we are commanded to build a sanctuary for His service.  There sacrifices are to be offered and the perpetual fire is to burn, there the [prescribed] pilgrimages are to be made, and there the festivals and assemblages are to be held every year, as will be explained.  This injunction is contained in His words: "And let them make Me a sanctuary" (Shemot 25:8)…


We have already explained that this general injunction includes particular precepts, and that the menora, the table, the ark, and the other [vessels and appurtenances] are all parts of the Sanctuary, and all together are called the "Sanctuary," although there is a specific regulation for each and every part.


            And at the beginning of Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira (1:1), he writes as follows:


It is a positive commandment to make a house unto the Lord, designed for the offering of sacrifices and for making thereto a pilgrimage three times every year.  For it is said: "And let them make Me a sanctuary" (Shemot 25:8).


            Both the Rambam and the Ramban agree about the two functions of the Mikdash: a house for God, and a place for man to serve Him.  They only disagree about what the Mikdash's primary objective is.  The Ramban emphasizes that the Mishkan is the place where the Shekhina rests and where God reveals Himself and speaks to man, while the Rambam stresses that the Mikdash's main objective is to serve as the site of the sacrificial order, pilgrimage, and human worship in general.




            We have already mentioned that both in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot and in his Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira, the Rambam fails to mention the ark, whereas all the other vessels are mentioned as an integral part of the mitzva to build the Mikdash.  This seems to indicate that the other vessels are part of the mitzva of building the Mikdash, but not the ark.  This fits in well with his position that the primary function of the Temple is to serve as the site of man's worship of God, because the ark is not a vessel with which God is worshipped.[3] 


            The Ramban (especially in his comments on the Sefer Ha-mitzvot of the Rambam, commandment 33) disagrees with the Rambam on two points.  First, he does not include the vessels in the mitzva to build the Mikdash, because according to him their construction falls into the category of hekhsher mitzva – preparation for a mitzva – the essence of their mitzva being the service performed with them (the lighting of the menora, the ordering of the showbread, the burning of the incense, and the like).  Second, he counts the building of the ark as a separate mitzva. 


The second point is difficult to understand in light of what the Ramban himself writes at the beginning of Parashat Teruma, that the primary function of the ark is to serve as a seat for the resting of the Shekhina – which, according to the Ramban, is the primary objective of the Mishkan.  It is possible that the Ramban counted the construction of the ark as a separate mitzva because it also has independent existence, unconnected to the Mikdash, for example, when it is taken out to war, or as was the case during the period of Nov and Giv'on, when the ark rested in Kiryat Ye'arim or in the City of David, and not in the Mishkan.  That is to say, the Mishkan serves as the resting place of the Shekhina, and the ark as God's throne in this world, but they are not valueless in the absence of the other.  This is proven by the fact that the second Temple was built without an ark, implying that God reveals Himself in the Temple even in the absence of an ark.


            In the next shiur, I shall present support for the position of the Ramban that I once heard from Rav Yoel Bin Nun.




            I will now try to show that the various occurrences of the word "Mikdash" indicate that the term has two meanings: a narrow meaning – referring to the ark that rests in the Holy of Holies - and a wider meaning – referring to the entirety of the Mishkan and its vessels.




            Various instances of the word "Mikdash" clearly relate to the ark.  In the description of the journeys in the wilderness, it is stated:


And the Mishkan was taken down; and the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari set forward bearing the Mishkan… And the Kehati set forward, bearing the Mikdash, that they might set up the Mishkan against their arrival.  (Bamidbar 10:17, 21)


            Why are the Kehati referred to as "bearers of the Mikdash?" Bamidbar 3:31 states that the Kehati were in charge of the "ark, and the table, and the menora, and the altars and the vessels of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service." It is clear that among all of these vessels, the most important one is the one mentioned first – the ark.  We learn from this that the Mikdash borne by the Kehati is the ark.


            In light of this, we can understand the order of the journey: The Gershuni and the Merari set forth first, and they erect the Mishkan – the structure, the boards and the curtains – so that when the Kehati arrive the Mishkan will already be standing, and they can immediately bring in the ark and the other vessels, and the Shekhina can rest there.[4]


            Again in the description of the work of the Kehati at the end of Parashat Bamidbar, the ark is referred to as the "Kodesh:"

This shall be the service of the sons of Kehat in the Tent of Meeting, namely, the most holy things: and when the camp sets forward, Aharon, shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and over the ark of testimony with it… And upon the table of showbread they shall spread a cloth of blue… And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the candlestick of the light… And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue… And they shall take all the instruments of ministry… and put them in a cloth of blue… And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it… And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it; but they shall not touch any holy thing [kodesh], or dieBut they shall not go in to see when the holy things [kodesh] are covered, lest they die.  (Bamidbar 4:4-20)


            It is absolutely clear that the "holy thing" that the sons of Kehat are forbidden to touch or see lest they die is the ark, as we learn from the account of the transport of the ark from Sedei Pelishtim to Beit Shemesh and from the story of Peretz Uzza (I Shmuel 6:19; II Shmuel 6:6-7; I Divrei Ha-yamim 13:9-10).


            The ark is once again referred to as the "Mikdash" in David's declaration regarding the building of the Temple:


Then David the king stood up upon his feet, and said, "Hear me, my brethren, and my people: as for me, I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God, and I had made ready for building… Take heed now; for the Lord has chosen you to build a house for the Mikdash: be strong, and do it." (I Divrei Ha-yamim 28:2, 10)


            It is clear from the parallelism that "a house for the Mikdash" means a house for the holy ark.  The term commonly used by Chazal – Beit Ha-mikdash – is but a reworking of the expression found in this verse.


This is also the way to understand what the Torah says about the High Priest's service on Yom Kippur: "And he shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary (Mikdash Ha-kodesh), and he shall make atonement for the Tent of Meeting and for the altar" (Vayikra 16:33).  If we compare this verse to the order of service described previously, it becomes clear that "Mikdash Ha-kodesh" refers to the Holy of Holies (as it is stated at the end of the command regarding the sprinkling on the kaporet: "And he shall make atonement for the holy place [Ha-kodesh])"; v. 16), whose atonement is followed by the atonement of the heikhal (the Tent of Meeting) and the inner altar.  According to the plain sense, the expression "Mikdash Ha-kodesh" means "the Mikdash in the Kodesh," that is, the ark; the term was expanded to include the entire Holy of Holies (Ibn Ezra, ad loc.) and later the entire Temple.


Another possible proof that the term "Mikdash" is used in reference to the ark is found in beginning of the passage containing the command to build the Mikdash:


And let them make Me a sanctuary [Mikdash], that I may dwell among them.  According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Mishkan, and the pattern of all its vessels, even so you shall make it.  And they shall make an ark of shittim wood… (Shemot 25:8-10)


            The detailing of "Let them make Me a sanctuary" begins with the ark, which is followed by the other vessels, and only at the end, by the curtains and boards themselves.  We learn from this (as is explicitly noted by the Ramban) that the essence of the Mikdash is the ark.


            To summarize, fundamentally the term Mikdash refers to the ark of testimony with the kaporet and the keruvim: this is the most sublime expression of holiness, and from the ark God reveals Himself, meets with Moshe, and speaks to him.




There are also instances in which the term "Mikdash" clearly refers to the entire structure of the sanctuary.  Here are several examples:


If a woman has conceived seed, and born a man child… she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come in to the sanctuary (Mikdash), until the days of her purifying are fulfilled.  (Vayikra 12:2-4)


You shall keep My Sabbaths and revere My sanctuary (Mikdash).  (ibid. 19:30; 26:2)


And I will set My face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given of his seed to Molekh, to defile My sanctuary (Mikdashi), and to profane My holy name.  (ibid.  20:3)


And he that is the High Priest… neither shall he go out of the sanctuary (Mikdash), nor profane the sanctuary of his God.  (ibid. 21:10-12)


No man that has a blemish of the seed of Aharon the priest shall come near to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire… Only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come near to the altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not My holy places (Mikdashai).  (ibid. vv. 21-23)




Applying the designation of "Mikdash" to the entire sanctuary and its vessels clearly constitutes an extension of the original meaning.  The sanctuary is called by the name of its most important element: the ark that rests in the Holy of Holies, which is God's footstool and the revelation of the Shekhina in this world, and the place where God meets with and speaks to man.


This analysis provides two proofs for the position of the Ramban: The first, which he explicitly mentions, is that the ark is the first vessel that must be built, and the second is that the entire sanctuary is designated by the term that originally referred to the ark, the most important element in the sanctuary.




            Later in this series, I will address the question of whether the Mishkan was le-khatchila or be-di'eved.  That is to say: Is the Mishkan the ideal way that God chose to rest His Shekhina among the people of Israel, or was it only an ex post facto  solution? This question also has an interpretative dimension: Did the command regarding the Mishkan precede the sin of the golden calf or did it follow it?


            The Ramban consistently argues that the command to build the Mishkan was le-khatchila, and that the Mishkan was indeed the way through which God chose to dwell among His people.  He therefore maintains that the command regarding the Mishkan preceded the sin of the golden calf.  This view fits in well with the Ramban's view that the ark is mentioned first because it is the most important element in the Mishkan, in that it expresses the resting of God's Shekhina – for according to the Ramban, the resting of the Shekhina is the ideal objective of the Mishkan.  It should also be noted that the Ramban also saw the sacrifices as being le-khatchila, and those who served in the Mishkan were selected le-khatchila to serve there.


            In contrast, the Rambam sees the sacrifices as a be-di'eved situation, as a way to moderate the modes of worship that were practiced by idol worshippers (Moreh Nevukhim III, 32).  The Rambam does not clarify his position as to whether the Mishkan itself was le-khatchila or be-di'eved - neither on the substantive level nor on the interpretive level - but in light of his understanding of the mitzvot governing sacrifices, there is room to assume that he sees the entire Mishkan – the essence of which, according to him, is the sacrificial order – as a mitzva that is not le-khatchila.




            The Gemara in Menachot (98b) records a Tannaitic dispute regarding the direction in which the menorot and the tables were arranged in the Temple:


Our Rabbis taught: They stood east-west; these are the words of Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi].  Rabbi Elazar be-Rabbi Shimon says: North-south.


            Rav Shelomo Fischer connects this dispute to our question:


Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-nasi] and Rabbi Elazar be-Rabbi Shimon (Menachot 98b) appear to disagree on this point.  For according to Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-nasi], the menorot and also the tables in the Heikhal were placed from east to west, that is, their length along the length of the sanctuary.  This positioning indicates that the Heikhal is regarded as an anteroom leading to the Holy of Holies, the ultimate goal, and there indeed the ark rests from north to south, that is, its length along the width of the sanctuary.  Whereas according to Rabbi Elazar be-Rabbi Shimon, the menorot and tables in the Heikhal were placed from north to south, that is, their length along the width of the sanctuary, just as the ark was placed in the Holy of Holies.  This comes to teach that the Heikhal is the final objective.[5]


            Rav Fischer hangs the dispute about the positioning of the menorot and tables on the question: what is the center of the Mikdash ­- the Kodesh or the Kodesh Ha-kodshim.  It may be argued that this is precisely the issue in dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban.  According to the Ramban, who maintains that the main purpose of the Mishkan is the resting of the Shekhina, the menorot and tables were arranged from east to west, as a sign that the primary objective of the Mikdash lies in the Holy of Holies.  According to the Rambam, the essence of the Mikdash is man's worship, and therefore the menorot and tables were arranged from north to south, as the center of the Mikdash was the Heikhal, in which the service was conducted.




            Before concluding, I wish to examine the stories of the patriarchs in order to answer the following question: Does man turn to God as a result of revelation, or does man's worship of God give rise to revelation, or make it possible?


            Some of the patriarchs' altars were not erected in the wake of revelation, nor did they lead to revelation - the altars built by Avram between Bet-El and Ai (Bereishit 12:8) and in Hebron (ibid.  13:18), and the altar built by Yaakov after purchasing a field in Shekhem (ibid. 33:20).  The rest of the altars erected by the patriarchs were erected in the wake of Divine speech or revelation. 


Moreover, with respect to all of these altars, the Torah does not mention any sacrifices.  The altars appear to be an expression of or testimony to an encounter with God: Avram built the first altar in Shekhem "to God who appeared to him" (ibid.  12:7); Yitzchak built an altar after God appeared to him (ibid.  26:24-25); and Yaakov was commanded to build an altar in Bet-El "to God, who appeared to you when you did flee from the face of Esav your brother… because there God appeared to him, when he fled from the face of his brother" (ibid. 35: 1, 7).


The only patriarch to offer sacrifices (apart from Avraham at the Akeida) was Yaakov on his way down to Egypt (ibid.  46:1), and this was also the only time on which a revelation followed in the wake of the offering of a sacrifice.  Yaakov was unique in that in his case the building of altars did not only follow Divine revelation, but also led to revelation.  This is rooted in the fact that Yaakov was the patriarch "who was called house" (Pesachim 88a) – the patriarch who joined the aspect of Divine revelation and the aspect of Divine service into a single entity, which later became the Temple.  Accordingly, Yaakov builds altars and pillars, offers sacrifices and calls the site of the Temple "the house of God" (Bereishit 28:17, 22).


This order – revelation followed by the building of an altar – is found later as well:


                    · Following the revelation at Mount Sinai, God commands Moshe: "Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven… An altar of earth you shall make to Me… in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you" (Shemot 20:19-21).

                    · Following the words of the angel of God at Bokhim, the people of Israel offer sacrifices to God (Shoftim 2:1-6).

                    · After he sees an angel, Gidon erects an altar for God (ibid.  6:23-24).

                    · An altar is mentioned at the time that Mano'ach understood that an angel of God had appeared to him (ibid.  13:20).


To summarize, even though the order is occasionally reversed, the construction of an altar generally follows a revelation.  The resting of God's Shekhina invites man and makes it possible for him to serve God by way of the erection of an altar or offering of a sacrifice.




            With this we conclude our shiurim on the functions of the Mikdash.  We shall now turn our attention to the history of the resting of God's Shekhina.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1]   The author of the Kuzari noted this idea, comparing the Mikdash to the human body, at the heart of which stands the ark (II, 25-29): "For this reason, God commanded the construction of the altar for burnt-offerings, the incense altar, and the menora… All these services were for the sake of the ark and the keruvim, which corresponded to the heart… It is true that the source of wisdom – the Ten Commandments – rested in the ark, and the ark is analogous to the heart [and not the head].  The Ten Commandments were broken down into the 613 individual commandments of the Torah, which is why a Torah scroll rested next to the tablets…."

[2]   Another proof for the greater importance of the ark in relation to the other vessels: When the camp was prepared for transit, all the vessels were covered with a cloth of blue (and the table, also with a cloth of purple), whereas the ark was covered with a cloth wholly of blue (see Bamidbar 4:6-12). 

[3]  This is a broad and interesting issue, which also touches upon the non-return of the ark during the second Temple period, the mitzva of carrying the ark on the shoulders, and other matters.  The Rambam mentions (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 4:1) that Yoshiyahu concealed the ark in an underground vault that Shelomo had built specifically for that purpose.  The Rambam may understand that Moshe's ark is eternal and continues to exist in that vault, and that it will be revealed again when we are worthy; we are therefore not bound to build a new one.  Or perhaps he maintains that the ark is indeed included in the mitzva of building a Temple, but it is not considered a vessel, but rather part of the structure of the building (though this would not explain why the ark is not mentioned in 1:5 among the items that are the essence of construction of the Temple). 

[4]  This is most striking in the dedication of Shelomo's Temple: The entire structure is complete and ready, and now awaits the climax – bringing the ark inside and the Shekhina resting therein (I Melakhim 8:1-11). 

[5]   Rav Shelomo Fischer, Beit Yishai – Derashot, Jerusalem, 5760, II, no. 47, p. 324.