The Torah contains thousands of laws. However, there are only 613 mitzvot. The various laws are subsumed within the commandments. For example, there are thirty-nine melachot – forms of creative labor – that may not be performed on Shabbat. There are many laws regarding each of these melachot. But all of these melachot and the laws that govern them are subsumed under two mitzvot – the prohibition against performing melacha on Shabbat and the positive command to rest or refrain from melacha on Shabbat.
Although there is general agreement on the number of mitzvot in the Torah, neither the Written Torah nor the Talmud clearly identifies the specific commandments. Therefore, there is considerable debate on the specific identities of the commandments. Various authorities have proposed lists of the 613 mitzvot. The most famous list was composed by Maimonides. Maimonides presented his list and his criteria for delineating the commandments in his Sefer HaMitzvot. Others disagreed with Maimonides’ list. Nachmanides authored a critique of Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot and suggested an alternative list.
This raises a question. Why is the specific list important? What difference does it make if a law is included in one commandment or another or if a specific injunction is counted as a mitzvah or included within some other mitzvah? There are various answers to this question. This week’s parasha provides one insight into the importance of identifying the specific mitzvot.
In this week’s parasha, the Torah begins a thorough description of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – and its components. The Mishcan was a portable structure that accompanied Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. After Bnai Yisrael conquered the land of Israel the Mishcan was eventually replaced by the Bait HaMikdash – the Holy Temple – in Yerushalayim. According to Maimonides and most other authorities, the passage above is the source for the mitzvah to construct not only the Mishcan but also the Bait HaMikdash. In addition to this commandment, our parasha includes specific directions for the fabrication of most of the fundamental objects – such as the Aron, Menorah, and Shulchan – that are situated in the Mishcan.
“And they should make an Aron of acacia wood. Its length should be two and a half cubits, its width a cubit and a half, and its height a cubit and a half.” (Shemot 25:10)
This passage begins the description of the Aron – Ark. The Aron held the tablets of the Decalogue. The Aron was covered by the Kaporet – the Ark cover – described later in the parasha. According to Maimonides, the instructions to fabricate the Aron and Kaporet are not among the 613 commandments. Why does Maimonides not regard the requirement to create the Aron and Kaporet as a mitzvah? There are various answers proposed to this question. First, we will consider the most obvious answer.
“And you should make a Shulchan of acacia wood. Its length should be two cubits, and its width one cubit, and its height one and a half cubits.” (Shemot 25:23)
This passage begins the description of the construction of the Shulchan – the Table – of the Mishcan. This table held the Show Bread. Like the instructions for the fabrication of the Aron, the instructions for the creation of the Shulchan are not regarded by Maimonides as one of the 613 commandments. However, in the instance of the Shulchan, Maimonides provides an explanation for his reasoning.
Maimonides’ reasoning is based upon a fundamental principle. In his introduction to his Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides outlines fourteen criteria he used in developing his list of mitzvot. His twelfth shoresh – principle – is that it is not appropriate to count the parts of a mitzvah as separate mitzvot. Maimonides continues to explain that many mitzvot are composed of various components. All of the components are subsumed within the general mitzvah. Maimonides then cites various examples of this principle. His first example concerns the Mishcan and the Shulchan. He explains that the Mishcan is composed of various components. The Shulchan and the Menorah – the Candelabra – are two of these components. Maimonides argues the instructions to fabricate the Shulchan, the Menorah and the other components of the Mishcan should not be counted as mitzvot. Instead, these instructions are included within the more encompassing mitzvah of creating the Mishcan.
Kinat Sofrim applies this same reasoning to the Aron. Maimonides does not count the instructions to create the Aron as a mitzvah. Kinat Sofrim argues that this follows from Maimonides reasoning in regard to the Shulchan and Menorah. Like the Shulchan and Menorah, the Aron is a component of the Mishcan. Therefore, the instructions to create the Aron are subsumed within the mitzvah to create the Mishcan.
Although the basic logic of this explanation is sound, it is subject to two criticisms. The first criticism is based on the language used by Maimonides in describing the commandment to construct the Mishcan and Bait HaMikdash. In his description of this commandment, Maimonides again explains his reason for not counting the instructions in regards to the components of the Mishcan as separate commandments. Maimonides states, “We have already explained that this general commandment includes various parts and that the Menorah, Shulchan, the altar, and the other components are parts of the Mikdash and are referred to as Mikdash.” Although Maimonides clearly includes the Menorah, Shulchan and altar among the components of the Mishcan, he makes no mention of the Aron. Now, one may argue that reference to the Aron is made in the phrase “other components.” However, this is unlikely. The Aron was a very essential component of the Mishcan. It is unlikely that Maimonides would not mention the Aron specifically and include this very important component in a general phrase.
The second criticism of Kinat Sofrim’s position presents a more fundamental problem. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides explains in detail the laws included in the commandment to create a Mikdash. His discussion includes a discussion of the fabrication of the Menorah, the Shulchan and the other components of the Temple. However, Maimonides does not provide a description of the construction of the Aron. The absence of this description from the laws regarding the mitzvah of creating the Mikdash clearly indicates that the construction of the Aron is not part of this mitzvah.
However, this omission is not merely a basis for objecting to the thesis of Kinat Sofrim. It is the basis for a fundamental question on Maimonides. Not only does Maimonides omit any description of the Aron from the laws regarding the Mikdash. Nowhere in his entire Mishne Torah – his comprehensive codification of halacha – does he describe the construction of the Aron! In other words, not only does Maimonides not consider the construction of the Aron to be a mitzvah, he completely ignores this fundamental element of the Mikdash!
Based on these objections to Kinat Sofrim’s explanation of Maimonides and the fundamental problem posed by Maimonides’ complete omission of any discussion of the Aron’s construction in his Mishne Torah, Meggilat Esther offers an alternative explanation of Maimonides’ position.
“Speak to Bnai Yisrael and they should take for Me an offering. From each person whose heart moves him you should take My offering.” (Shemot 25:2)
In this passage, Hashem instructs Moshe to collect contributions for the construction of the Mishcan. Maimonides does not count this instruction as one of the 613 mitzvot. The reason for this omission is explained by anther of Maimonides criteria for counting mitzvot. Maimonides third principle is that it is not appropriate to count as one of the 613 mitzvot a commandment that does not apply to all generations. Maimonides explains that in order to a commandment to be included in the list of 613 mitzvot, it must be relevant to all generations. Any commandment that is given and executed at a specific point in time and thereafter has no relevance, is not included within the 613 mitzvot. The instruction to Moshe to collect contributions for the Mishcan was given in the wilderness and executed immediately. It has no further application to future generations. Therefore, this commandment cannot be counted among the 613 mitzvot.
Meggilat Esther contends that the same reasoning can be applied to the instructions for creating the Aron. But before we can understand this application, we must consider one basic difference between the Aron and the other components of the Mikdash.
“As all I have shown you regarding the form of the Mishcan and the form of its utensils. And so you should do.” (Shemot 25:9)
In this passage, Hashem tells Moshe that the Mishcan and its components must be constructed according to the instructions that He has provided. Hashem then adds the phrase, “And so you should do.” This phrase seems redundant. However, the Sages offer an explanation for this apparently superfluous phrase. They explain that this phrase refers to future generations. If one of the components – the Menorah, Shulchan or other element – is lost and must be replaced, the replacement must be constructed in a manner consistent with the specifications in our parasha.
It appears that Maimonides maintains that although this requirement applies to the most of the components of the Mikdash, it does not apply to the Aron. Maimonides explains that when Shlomo constructed the Bait HaMikdash, he realized that it would ultimately be destroyed. Therefore, he created a system of hidden storage areas. These secret storage areas would be used to hide the Aron and its contents before the Bait HaMikdash’s destruction. When King Yoshiyahu realized that the destruction of the Temple was approaching. He commanded that the Aron and its contents be removed and hidden in the facilities that Shlomo had constructed.
When the Bait HaMikdash was rebuilt, the Aron and its contents were not recovered. Neither were they replaced. Instead, the Bait HaMikdash was rebuilt without restoring the Aron and its contents to their proper place.
Meggilat Esther posits that Shlomo’s treatment of the Aron and its contents reflects a fundamental difference between them and the other components of the Mishcan. If any of the other components become damaged or lost they can be replaced. But the Aron was constructed one time. It can never be replaced by a new Aron.
Based on this distinction, Meggilat Esther answers our questions on Maimonides. He explains that the commandment to build the Aron was not given to all generations. Instead, the commandment was given at a specific time for execution at that time. The only Aron is the one that was constructed under Moshe’s supervision. No other can replace it. This explains Maimonides’ decision not to count the building of the Aron as a mitzvah.  This explanation also explains Maimonides’ omission of the design of the Aron from his discussion of the laws of the Bait HaMikdash. Maimonides’ code is limited to those laws that apply – in some manner – throughout the generations. However, since the Aron will not and cannot be built again, the laws of its construction are omitted.
It is clear from this discussion that Maimonides’ decision to not count the construction of the Aron as a mitzvah has significant implications. According to Kinat Sofrim, Maimonides’ position implies that the Aron is a component of the Mishcan and can be compared to the Menorah and Shulchan. Meggilat Esther rejects this interpretation of Maimonides. He contends that the Aron is unique and, unlike the other components, cannot be replaced.
However, Meggilat Esther’s explanation leaves us with a problem. It seems odd that the Aron – which was the central fixture of the Bait HaMikdash is not essential. The Aron was not recovered and returned to its proper place in the second Temple. Nonetheless, the second Temple had the sanctity of the Bait HaMikdash. Furthermore, the Mishcan is referred to in the Torah as the Mishcan HaEydut – the Tabernacle of the Testimony. This name is apparently derived from the Aron which is referred to as the Aron HaEydut.
The obvious implication of the name Mishcan HaEydut is that the Aron is central and essential to the Mishcan and Bait HaMikdash. If this is the case, how did the second Temple acquire its sanctity without the Aron in its proper place?
Rav Yosef Dov Soleveitchik Z”tl offers an answer to this question. He explains that although the Aron was not returned to its proper place, it was nonetheless regarded as present in the second Temple. Even though its place was unknown and it was not recovered, it was not considered lost or destroyed. It remained – in its hiding place – a fundamental element of the second Temple.
By applying Rav Soloveitchik’s reasoning to Meggilat Esther, the contrast between his understanding of the Aron and the position of Kinat Sofrim becomes even clearer. According to Kinat Sofrim, the Aron is an element of the Mishcan akin to the other elements. However, according to Meggilat Esther, the Aron is far more central. The Mishcan derives its identity and sanctity from the Aron. Furthermore, the Aron created under Moshe’s supervision is completely unique. It is the only Aron and it cannot be replaced. It is this unique Aron that is central to the sanctity of the Mishcan.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 20.
 Rav Chananya Kazim, Kinat Sofrim, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 33.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 20.
 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 25:9.
 Rav Yitzchak DeLeon, Meggilat Esther, Commentary on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 33.
 Sefer BeMidbar 1:53.
 Sefer Shemot 40:21.
 Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, M’Peninai HaRav (Jerusalem, 5761), p 335.