Shiur #23b: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina(Part XII) - The Mishkan ֠Le-Khatchila or Be-di'eved (Part IIB)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion



Shiur #23b: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina

(Part XII)

The MishkanLe-Khatchila or Be-di'eved (Part IIB)


Rav Yitzchak Levi





            According to the view that the command regarding the building of the Mishkan was only issued after the sin of the golden calf, a question arises: Why does the Torah record that command before the account of the sin?


One might suggest that the order in which events are recorded in the Torah is not chronological and factual, but rather spiritual, conceptual and educational. This order emphasizes what we saw earlier; even according to Rashi, God's rested His Shekhina in the Mishkan le-khatchila, independent of the sin of the golden calf. Moreover, through this sequence, the command regarding the Mishkan is preceded by the revelation at Mount Sinai, the connection between it and the Mishkan having been noted in one of the earlier lectures, and it is followed by the sin of the golden calf, which profoundly impacted on the Mishkan's final character.


A question remains: How does the Seforno – who maintains that the sin involving the golden calf not only impacted on the command regarding the Mishkan but is in fact the reason for the command –explain the fact that the command regarding the Mishkan is recorded before the sin of the golden calf? To answer this question, let us look at the commentary of Rabbenu Bachya:


The fact that gold is mentioned here at the beginning of [the list] of offerings is to allude that the sin of the calf that was made of gold was already pardoned. For this reason, Scripture mentions it before all the other offerings… And for this reason Moshe was commanded here about the offerings for the Mishkan, this command being given on the day after Yom Kippur, even though that sin was prior to [the command regarding] the building of the Mishkan, for the sin was in Tamuz and [the command regarding] the building of the Mishkan was shortly after Yom Kippur. Nevertheless the Torah, all of whose paths are pleasantness and all of whose ways are peace, wished to record [the command regarding] the building of the Mishkan, which is the atonement, before it mentions the sin. For this is an attribute of the Holy One, blessed be He, to give the remedy before the blow. As Chazal said (Megila 13b): The Holy One, blessed be He, first creates a remedy for Israel and then He strikes at them. As it is stated: "When I would have healed Israel, then the iniquity of Efrayim was uncovered" (Hoshea 7:1). In order to allude that they had already been totally pardoned, it therefore mentions the word "gold" at the beginning of [the list of] offerings, to teach you that through that with which they had sinned, they became reconciled. And similarly it says: "They make the king glad with their wickedness" (ibid. v. 3). (Rabbenu Bachya, commentary to Shemot 25:6)


            In other words, owing to His great kindness, God had already established the Mishkan as a remedy for the sin involving the golden calf, even though in actual fact the sin preceded the command regarding the Mishkan.




            I wish to expand a little more on one aspect of the impact of the sin of the golden calf on the character of the Mishkan. First, however, we must take note of another point, namely, the clear literary parallelism between the two phenomena.


            There are many parallels between the building of the Mishkan and the incident involving the golden calf.[1] Both are based on contributions made by Israel, Aharon plays a major role in both, and the process is similar in both cases. The people say to Aharon, "Make for us gods" (Shemot 32:1), and God commands, "Let them make for Me a sanctuary" (Shemot 25:8); a contribution is collected for the sake of the project (ibid. 32:2-3; 35:4-36:7); and in the end the project is completed – the golden calf (ibid. 32:4) and the Mishkan (ibid. vv. 37-39) – and dedicated with a great celebration (ibid. 32:5-6; Vayikra 8-9; Bamidbar 7).


            In addition to the substantive parallels, there are also many literary parallels:


1)         The incident involving the golden calf opens with "The people gathered themselves together to Aharon" (Shemot 32:1), and the account of the building of the Mishkan begins with "And Moshe gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together" (ibid. 35:1).


2)         In both contributions we find the term "hava'a," bringing: In the case of the golden calf – "And Aharon said to them, Break off the golden earrings… and bring them to me… and they brought them to Aharon" (32:2-3); and in the case of the Mishkan, the term repeats itself 14 times in chapters 35-36.


3)         The contributions for the golden calf are brought by "all the people" (32:3), and the contributions for the Mishkan are brought by "all of a willing heart" (35:5, 22), "every man whose heart stirred him up, and every man whose spirit made him willing" (ibid. 21), "every man" (ibid. 22-23), "every man with whom was found" (ibid. 24), and the like.


4)         Among both contributions, mention is made of golden earrings (32:2-3; 35:22).[2]


5)         Aharon takes the gold from the people (32:4), and the artisans of the Mishkan take the offerings from Moshe (36:3).


6)         The term "asiya," making, is used in connection with the golden calf – "Make for us gods… And he made it a molten calf." (32:1,4). This parallels the often repeated use of the root asa in the commands regarding the building of the Mishkan and in its execution.


7)         When the calf is completed, it says: "And Aharon saw" (32:5), and when the Mishkan is completed, it says: "And Moshe saw all the work" (39:43).


8)         Both at the dedication of the golden calf and at the dedication of the Mishkan mention is made of sounds (32:6, 17-18; Vayikra 9:24).


9)         The people declare about the golden calf: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Shemot 32:4), and the purpose of the Mishkan is: "And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt" (29:46).


10)       The calf itself parallels the keruvim. In the chariot described by Yechezel, the keruv is an ox (see Yechezkel 1:10; 10:14), and a calf is a young ox: "They made a calf in Chorev, and worshipped a molten image. Thus they exchanged their glory for an ox that eats grass!" (Tehilim 106:19-20).


Of course, even against the background of this parallelism, the disagreement regarding the time of the command remains in place. Those who maintain that we invoke here the principle that "there is no chronological order to the events in the Torah" will argue that the parallelism supports their view, according to which the command regarding the Mishkan came after the sin of the golden calf and as a repair of that sin. Those of the opposing opinion will say that the parallel accounts are part of the idea that the remedy came before the blow. While the command regarding the Mishkan was in fact issued before the sin, the building of the Mishkan takes into account the sin involving the calf, as is reflected in the changes discussed earlier.


The significance of this parallelism will be discussed at the end of the next section.




            Rabbi Yehuda Halevi understands the sin involving the golden calf as follows:


All nations were given to idolatry at that time. Even had they been philosophers, discoursing on the unity and government of God, they would have been unable to dispense with images, and would have taught the masses that a divine influence hovered over this image, which was distinguished by some miraculous feature…

The Israelites had been promised that something visible would descend on them from God which they could follow, as they followed the pillars of cloud and fire when they departed from Egypt. This they pointed out, and turned to it, praising it, and worshipping God in its presence…

Now when the people had heard the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, and Moses had ascended the mount in order to receive the inscribed tables which he was to bring down to them, and then make an ark which was to be the point towards which they should direct their gaze during their devotions, they waited for his return… He, however, tarried forty days… An evil spirit overpowered a portion of the people, and they began to divide into parties and factions… Till at last some decided to do like the other nations, and seek an object in which they could have faith, without, however, prejudicing the supremacy of Him who had brought them out of Egypt. On the contrary, this was to be something to which they could point when relating the wonders of God…

Their sin consisted in the manufacture of an image of a forbidden thing, and in attributing divine power to a creation of their own, something chosen by themselves without the guidance of God…

This sin was not on a par with an entire lapse from all obedience to Him who had led them out of Egypt, as only one of His commands was violated by them. God had forbidden images, and in spite of this they made one. (Kuzari I, 97)


            According to this, the sin of the golden calf was not idol worship, but rather the violation of the prohibition to represent God in a concrete manner: "You shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold" (Shemot 20:19, see commentaries ad loc.).


            Furthermore, as was already alluded, it was not by chance that Israel made a calf. An examination of the prophecies of Yechezkel mentioned above shows that the keruvim-oxen that the prophet saw in his vision are the chariot of the Shekhina, which carry God, as it were, from place to place. When Moshe was late in descending from the mountain, the people of Israel – who had seen the lofty vision of the throne of the glory of God that rested on the keruvim (see Shemot 24:10, and Ramban, ad loc.) – decided to represent God with a calf-keruv.[3]


            How does the Mishkan relate to this problem? It would seem that there are two contradictory tendencies.


            On the one hand, the Mishkan represents the resting of the Shekhina in this world in the most tangible way: God's sanctuary in this world is built in the form of a house.[4] Like a house, the Mishkan is surrounded by a courtyard; and like the courtyards in ancient times, which served for the preparation of food for the members of the household, in this courtyard there stands an altar, whose function is the offering of "My offering, the provision of My sacrifices made by fire" (Bamidbar 28:2). The Mishkan – once again like a house – has an outer chamber and an inner chamber. In the outer chamber there is a table and a lamp, familiar to us as common household utensils[5] from another house – the house built by the Shunamite woman for Elisha, as she says to her husband: "Let us make a little upper chamber, I pray you, with walls; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a chair, and a lamp" (II Melakhim 4:10) (see Seforno to Shemot 25:23).


Where in the Mishkan do we find a chair, the seat of God who dwells therein? The chair is the ark of the covenant, with the keruvim that rest upon it, which are likened to the royal seat of "the Lord of hosts who sits on the keruvim" (I Shmuel 4:4, and elsewhere), and which is situated in the inner chamber of His house, the Holy of Holies.[6]


            But here we come to the other side of the coin. It is true that the Holy of Holies – like pagan temples – has a royal throne; but as opposed to those temples, it contains no tangible representation of the God that rests upon it! What this means is that the Mishkan and its vessels symbolize God's house in the most concrete way, but there is nothing in this house that personifies in any way His actual presence.


            The clearest expression of this tension in the Mishkan between representing God in a concrete manner and abstention from doing so is, of course, the keruvim themselves. Although there is no tangible representation of God in the Mishkan, God nevertheless commands that on top of the kapporet, which is on top of the ark, there be placed two keruvim modeled after the keruvim of the Divine chariot. Abravanel formulates the difficulty as follows (at the beginning of Parashat Teruma):


Regarding the keruvim that God commanded to make on the kapporet - it would appear that one would violate thereby the prohibition of "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath" (Shemot 20:3). How, then, did He command them to make that which is forbidden to them?


            Abravanel answers that the objective of the keruvim is for the sake of heaven - not to serve as intermediaries between us and God, but rather to symbolize the eternal connection between Israel and their Father in heaven and to allow for the resting of the Divine bounty. Hence, the prohibition of "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol" does not apply.


The Chizkuni (Shemot 25:18) explains:


Even though it says, "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness of any thing," here it permits the image of keruvim, for they are not made for bowing down to, but rather for His seat, similar to the keruvim of the throne of glory (Yeshayahu 6:1-2). We find many things like this in the Torah. As it is written: "Whosoever does work on it shall be put to death" (Shemot 35:2), and it permits doing the daily offering, the additional offering, [and] circumcision; the prohibition of one's brother's wife and levirate marriage; "You shall not make a garment of diverse kinds… You shall make you fringes" (Devarim 22:11-12).


            The keruvim "are not made for bowing down to, but rather for His seat." Furthermore, there are other instances in which the Torah forbids one thing and permits something else similar to it, in the sense of "the mouth that forbids is the mouth that permits." The Chizkuni's suggestion is based on the following midrash:


"And you shall make two keruvim" (Shemot 25:18). But surely He said to you and commanded you at the revelation at Mount Sinai, "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness"? There is no difficulty: For yourself, you shall not make, but for Me, you shall make. Similar to this: "Everyone that profanes it shall surely be put to death" (ibid. 31:14), and elsewhere it says: "And on the Sabbath day two lambs" (Bamidbar 28:9). And similar to this: "The nakedness of your brother's wife, etc." (Vayikra 18:16), and later it says: "Her husband's brother shall go in to her" (Devarim 25:5). (Midrash Aggada, ed. Buber, Shemot 25:18)


            The midrash is based on the same principle – that He who forbids something can also permit it in a specific context – but it also adds an explanation of the allowance in the case under discussion. God commanded that the keruvim be made for Him, and not that Israel make them for themselves.


Rav Kasher proposes other explanations of the difference:


In the name of Rabbi Natan: The Torah only forbids [the likeness of anything] "that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." And the likeness of the keruvim is not in the heaven or in the earth, for they consisted solely of faces and wings.

But I, Rabbi Yosef, say that the keruvim are permitted, because it is written: "You shall not make for yourself" – in a place where you can see [it], but the keruvim were concealed from the eye, for they rested in a place where nobody enters, except for the High Priest once a year.

I also heard that it is only forbidden to make them in order to serve them, for if you do not say this, how did Shlomo make the lions? (Torah Shelema, Shemot 20:4, notes to no. 135)


            I have expanded here upon the problem regarding the keruvim and the various resolutions of the problem because it is a striking example of the problem that exists with respect to the entire Mishkan,[7] and it emphasizes the tension that exists between the concrete representation of God and abstention from such representation.


            One way of understanding this tension is to see in it a fusion of the two understandings of the Mishkan: Understanding it as the ideal structure for the resting of the Shekhina, on the one hand, and as a way of dealing with the incident of the golden calf, on the other.[8] This fusion combines a symbolic expression of the resting of the Shekhina through a building and vessels – thus filling Israel's need for a tangible expression of God (as we find in the midrash cited at the beginning of this lecture) –with a distancing from any concrete representation of God.


            Before concluding, let us return to the issue of the parallelism between the incident of the golden calf and the building of the Mishkan. It seems to me that this parallelism follows from the relationship between the sin of the golden calf as a sin of personifying God and the complex attitude of the Mishkan to this sin. It emphasizes the fact that the Mishkan comes to repair the sin of the golden calf. On the one hand, the parallelism highlights the contrast between the golden calf and the Mishkan, while on the other hand, it emphasizes God's acquiescence to Israel's strong desire to express their closeness to Him through tangible means, which found expression in the sin of the golden calf.




            In this lecture, I focused on the spiritual significance of the position that the command regarding the Mishkan was issued after the incident involving the golden calf: testimony that God dwells among Israel even after the sin, God's desire once again to draw Israel near to Him, or God's consideration for man's need for a tangible means of service.


            The Seforno presents a far-reaching view, according to which the Mishkan as a whole – both the structure itself and the mode of service therein – involved a significant constriction of the resting of God's Shekhina in the world, which was a direct consequence of the sin. As for Rashi, in contrast, we saw that the chronological delaying of the command regarding the Mishkan until after the sin does not necessitate that we accept the view that the Mishkan itself is be-di'eved. Rather, it means to point to the connection between the Mishkan and the revelation at Mount Sinai that preceded it, on the one hand, and to demonstrate the impact of the sin upon the nature of the Mishkan, on the other. I proposed various answers to the question of why the Torah recorded the command regarding the Mishkan before the sin according to those who maintain that in reality the events took place in the reverse order.


            In conclusion, we noted the parallelism between the building of the Mishkan and the incident involving the golden calf and its significance in light of the Mishkan's complex attitude toward the problem of the concrete representation of God, which underlies this sin.


            In the next lecture, I will discuss other expressions of the question of whether the Mishkan was le-khatchila or be-di'eved, and propose another perspective on the fundamental disagreement on this issue.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] This was discussed by Rav A. Hakohen in the article mentioned in the first part of this lecture, note 6; A. Horowitz, "Ha-Egel Ve-Ha-Mishkan," Shenaton Le-Mikra U-Le-Cheker Ha-Mizrach Ha-Kadum (5643-44), pp. 51-59, gathered all the parallels brought here.

[2] The last parallels were noted by Chazal in Shekalim 1:1: "Rabbi Yehuda bar Pazi said in the name of Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi: … For good, 'As many as were willing of heart, and brought [bracelets and earrings]' (35:22); for bad, 'And all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, [and brought them to Aharon]' (32:3)." And similarly in Midrash Aggada to Parashat Teruma (Shemot 26:7): "This is what Scripture states: 'I am black, but comely' (Shir Ha-shirim 1:5)… I am black because of the gold that I gave for the calf, as it says: 'And all the people broke off the golden earrings;' and I am comely because of the gold that I gave for the Mishkan of testimony, as it says: 'As many as were willing of heart, and brought bracelets and earrings.'"

[3] Owing to space constrictions, I have merely alluded to this important manner. For an expanded discussion of this issue, see Rav Amnon Bazak, "Yesodotav Ha-Ra'ayoniyim shel Chet Ha-Egel,"

[4] More precisely: A tent – which is appropriate for wandering through the wilderness.

[5] As is well known, the command regarding the golden altar appears at the end of the main part of the command regarding the Mishkan (Shemot 30:1-10), separate from the commands regarding the other vessels. This altar has a special status, and it is not part of the basic structure of the house and "its furniture." Many have dealt with the unique status of the incense altar. See, for example, Rav Elchanan Samet, "Mizbe'ach Ha-Ketoret – Mekomo Ba-Mishkan U-Mekomo Ba-Parasha," in his book: Iyunim Be-Parashat Ha-Shavua (Jerusalem 5762), pp. 237-251.

[6] In lecture no. 8, we saw the words of Rav Shlomo Fisher (Bet Yishai Derashot, II, p. 327) that "just as the ark represents a chair, it also represents a bed."

[7] The discussion is found specifically with respect to the keruvim because they are made of gold and because, according to Chazal in various places, they had human faces (see, for example, Yoma 54a, Sukka 5b, Chagiga 13b).

[8] Similar to the Rambam's understanding (Moreh Nevukhim, III, chapters 32, 46) of the world of sacrifices as a way of dealing with idolatry.