The Significance of the Laws Governing the Design of the Mishcan
As all I show you concerning the structure of the Mishcan and the structure of all of its utensils so you should do. (Shemot 25:9)
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sfrono explains that the command to build a Mishcan was not given until after the worship of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. Prior to this sin there was no institution for centralized worship. It is for this reason that the incident of the Egel is inserted in the middle of the account of the construction of the Tabernacle. Rashi agrees with this opinion. He explains that the Torah’s account of the commandment to construct the Mishcan and the section describing the incident of the Egel are not a chronological presentation of events. The command of the Tabernacle was given only after the sin of the Egel.
Many commentators disagree with Sforno and Rashi. Nachmanides is among this group. They maintain that these sections of the Torah are in chronological order. They argue that the commandment to build the Mishcan was given at Sinai prior to the incident of the Egel HaZahav. The commentators agree that the Torah is not a chronological history. However, they contend that there is a specific reason for every departure from the chronological presentation. In other words, the Torah does present events in chronological order unless there is some specific reason to deviate from this order. On this basis, the position of Nachmanides is understandable. The command to construct the Mishcan is presented prior to the event of the Egel. He argues that there is no reason to assume that this order is not chronologically correct.
In addition to Nachmanides’ objection, Sforno and Rashi’s position presents a problem. According to Rashi and Sforno, the command of the Mishcan followed the sin of the Egel. This implies that the sin somehow occasioned the command to build the Tabernacle. This is difficult to understand. Was not the Tabernacle a blessing? Why should the people be rewarded for the sin of the Egel with the command to build a Tabernacle?
There are two important aspects of the Tabernacle. First, it is part of a detailed system of law. These laws define the exact manner in which we serve Hashem. Halacha dictates every aspect of the sacrifices. The appearance and clothing of the kohanim offering the sacrifices are described by the laws. Every element of the construction of the Mishcan is determined by halacha. Halacha leaves little opportunity for the intrusion of personal interpretation into divine worship. Why does the Torah impose this detailed system of law upon the worshipper?
Maimonides indicates that the Torah is concerned with the possible intrusion of pagan worship into divine service. In order to prevent such perversions, the individual is prohibited from devising the mode of worship. We must follow the prescription of the Torah. Adherence to the sacred laws of divine service assures that no pagan influences enter into our worship.
The second aspect of the Tabernacle is that its construction and structure reflected a profound system of wisdom. The Mishcan was not only physically beautiful—it also possessed an intellectual grandeur. The laws combined into a system of awesome wisdom. The halachah not only dictates every aspect of the Tabernacle’s design and construction, but its structure also symbolically expresses various theological, scientific and philosophical ideas.  The worshipper, in contemplating the structure of the Tabernacle, was inspired by its wisdom. The desire to serve Hashem resulted in a profound transformation in the worshipper. The worshipper was transported from the mundane to a spiritual universe of ideas.
Nachmanides maintains that the essential element of the Mishcan is the abstract system of wisdom represented through the structure. In the Torah, divine worship is not merely a subjective expression of the need to appeal to and form a relationship with a higher power. Instead, through worship, the Torah seeks to foster an objective relationship with Hashem. This relationship is based upon wisdom and truth. The objective of elevating our relationship with Hashem is fundamental to the Torah. Therefore, Nachmanides maintains that the command to build a Mishcan was part of the Torah revealed to Moshe at Sinai. It was not a reaction to the Egel.
Sforno and Rashi recognize that the laws of worship are a profound system of wisdom. This is true for the laws regulating every mitzvah. However, they maintain that the essential element of the Mishcan is the super-determination of every aspect of worship. The halachah is designed to prevent the intrusion of any pagan element. This objective became essential only after the Egel HaZahav. Therefore, Sforno and Rashi argue that the command to build the Tabernacle was given after the sin.
The Poles Cannot Be Removed from the Aron
The poles should be in the rings of the Ark. They should not be removed. (Shemot 25:15)
A ring was attached to each corner of the Ark. Poles were passed through these rings. These poles were used to carry the Aron – the Ark. The Torah commands us that the poles must remain in the rings at all times. Even when the Mishcan is erected and the Aron is at rest the poles are to remain attached.
The poles were designed for the transport of the Ark. When the Aron was to be moved, the poles were needed. However, when the Ark was at rest, the poles did not have any apparent function. Why should they not be removed at such times?
Gershonides discusses this issue. He explains that the Ark represented the Torah. The Torah is perfect. Therefore, the Ark must always be perfect. With the removal of the poles, the Ark would no longer be complete. An incomplete Aron is unfit to represent the Torah.
Gershonides’ explanation seems difficult to understand. In order for an object to be perfect, it must be complete. However, perfection also requires that the object have no extra, or meaningless, components. Imagine the perfect machine. Every part would serve a purpose; no needed component would be absent. No component would lack purpose.
When the Ark was at rest the poles had no purpose. They were extra, or unneeded, components. It seems the Aron would have better represented the perfection of the Torah without this superfluous component!
Gershonides is providing us with an important insight into the nature of the Aron. The Ark was constructed in the wilderness and was transported as the nation traveled. Therefore, the Aron was constructed so that it could be carried. However, this design was not merely a practical necessity. The portability of the Ark was essential to its very definition. In other words, the Ark was defined as a “portable” item. The Aron could only be considered perfect when it expressed this definition. Even at rest the Ark was required to conform to this definition. It must remain completely portable. For this reason, the Aron of the permanent Bait HaMikdash remained unchanged in design. The poles were part of the design and could not be removed.
Perhaps, this provides a message regarding the perfection of the Torah. This perfection, in part, lies in the portability of Torah. Torah is a way of life that applies to all times and places. Even when Bnai Yisrael are dispersed throughout the world, Torah is still to be the guide.
Hashem’s Presence in the Mishcan
And they should create for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. (Shemot 25:8)
In this pasuk Hashem instructs Moshe to command Bnai Yisrael to construct the Mishcan. Hashem tells Bnai Yisrael that through this Mishcan, He will dwell among the people. This passage cannot be understood literally. In order to understand the difficulty presented by a literal interpretation of the pasuk, an introduction is needed.
Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishne, enumerates the basic foundations of the Torah. The third of these basic principles is that Hashem is not, in any sense, material.
Maimonides discusses this principle in further detail in his Mishne Torah. He again explains that Hashem is not material. He adds that it is also inappropriate to attribute to Hashem any of the characteristics associated with physical bodies. For example, Hashem does not have a front or back. One cannot ascribe physical actions to Hashem. Also, one cannot describe Hashem as occupying physical space in any material sense.
This principle, identified by Maimonides, is a logical extension of the proposition that Hashem is a unity. The Torah clearly states that “Hashem is one”. This statement tells us that there is only one G-d. However, our Sages understand the passage to also mean that Hashem is a perfect unity. This means that He has no parts or aspects. He is not subject to division. He is an absolute representation of “oneness.” The principle of Hashem’s unity precludes attribution of a material existence to Him. Any material entity has parts, or aspects. It has a front, sides, and a back, i.e., dimensions. These characteristics contradict the concept of absolute unity.
Furthermore, the Torah clearly states that Hashem is not material. This principle is communicated in Moshe’s review of the Revelation. He reminds the nation that they had experienced Revelation at Sinai. In this
experience, Hashem was not represented by any material image.
We can now understand the difficulty presented by our passage. If our passage is interpreted literally, it contradicts this principle. Literally understood, our passage attributes a location to Hashem, stating that Hashem will dwell among Bnai Yisrael! This is impossible. Hashem is not material. Therefore, it is not correct to say He dwells in any place.
Unkelus is sensitive to this anthropomorphism. In his translation of our passage, he alters the problematic phrase. In his rendering, the phrase reads, “And I will cause the divine presence to dwell among them.” Unkelus’ intention is to remove any attribution of place to Hashem. According to Unkelus, the passage refers to Hashem’s divine presence or influence. In other words, the passage describes a providential relationship without ascribing physical movement or locality to Hashem. In this rendition, Hashem calls upon “the divine presence” to dwell among Bnai Yisrael. Hashem will exercise His providence over the Mishcan and the people.
Rav Yosef Albo, in his Sefer HaIkkrim, uses the same approach to explain various anthropomorphic expressions found in the Torah. A few examples will illustrate this approach. Hashem tells us, in reference to the Temple, “My eyes and My heart shall be there perpetually”. Hashem does not have eyes or a heart. The intent of the passage is to communicate that a special providential influence exists over the Mikdash. The Torah states that at Revelation, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain”. This passage does not intend to communicate that Hashem was physically present at Revelation. This would attribute a place to Hashem. Instead, the passage is stating that the influence of Hashem was evidenced through a physical manifestation. In this case, the manifestation was the conflagration that appeared at the top of Sinai. It should be noted that the pasuk refers to the “glory” of Hashem. This supports this interpretation. Hashem was not present. However, His “glory”, or influence, was indicated by the fire.
One anthropomorphic expression has occasioned considerable discussion among the Sages. One of the names used for Hashem is HaMakom – the Place. This is popularly understood to mean that the divine presence extends everywhere. However, our Sages provide a different explanation of the term. They explain that the term means that Hashem is the makom – the place – of the universe.
This explanation is very difficult to understand. How can the Sages refer to Hashem as “the place” of the universe? Hashem is not material. He is not a place! Rav Yitzchak Arama offers a novel interpretation of the Sages’ comments. He explains that the term “place” can be understood as the base upon which something rests or is supported. As an example, he cites the second mishne of Tractate Avot. The mishne explains that the world stands on three pillars: Torah study, divine service, and acts of kindness. The intent of the mishne is that these three activities are essential to the existence of the world. The mishne expresses this idea by representing the world as standing upon these activities. In other words, standing in a place (i.e., upon the pillars of Torah study, Divine service, and acts of kindness) represents dependency. Rav Arama explains that the name HaMakom communicates the universe’s dependency upon Hashem. He is the “place” upon which the universe stands. This means the universe only exists as a result of His continuing will. His will supports the universe’s existence. Without His will, the universe would cease to exist.
And they should create for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. (Shemot 25:8)
Our parasha discusses the construction of the Mishcan. The Mishcan was the portable sanctuary that accompanied Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Once Bnai Yisrael entered and conquered the Land of Israel, this Mishcan—Tabernacle—was replaced by a permanent structure. This structure was the Bait HaMikdash—the Sacred Temple—constructed by King Shlomo.
Our passage contains the specific command to construct the Mishcan. However, Maimonides indicates in his Sefer HaMitzvot that this passage is also the source for the commandment to build the Bait HaMikdash. This suggests an obvious problem. The passage is not discussing the Bait HaMikdash. It is specifically commanding the construction of the Mishcan. How can Maimonides contend that this passage is the source for the obligation to build the Bait HaMikdash?
Minchat Chinuch offers an answer to this question. He suggests that our pasuk legislates the requirement to establish a sanctuary. This institution does not have a specific form. Instead, the structure of the sanctuary is flexible. This commandment includes the Mishcan constructed in the wilderness and the Bait HaMikdash constructed by Shlomo. How are these different structures included in one mitzvah? Minchat Chinuch maintains that sometimes it is appropriate for this sanctuary to be a portable structure. At other times, a permanent structure is more fitting. The environment in which the sanctuary will be placed determines its specific form. When Bnai Yisrael were traveling in the wilderness, the nation was not permanently situated, and so it was appropriate for the sanctuary to travel with the camp. Once Bnai Yisrael settled in the Land of Israel, the nation was permanently situated. At this point, a permanent structure became appropriate.
This answers our question on Maimonides. In fact, our pasuk is not legislating the construction of the Mishcan or the Bait HaMikdash. It is commanding Bnai Yisrael to create an institution of “sanctuary.” The surrounding “camp” will determine the exact form to be assumed by this sanctuary. In the wilderness, this camp was mobile because the nation was traveling to the Land of Israel. Therefore, the sanctuary described in our parasha was a portable Mishcan. When the surrounding camp is the nation that settled in the Land of Israel, the sanctuary must be a permanent structure—the Bait HaMikdash. Our pasuk requires a sanctuary. The Bait HaMikdash is a variation of this sanctuary.
This is a reasonable explanation for the derivation of the requirement to build the Bait HaMikdash from our passage. However, it does present one difficulty. Maimonides seems to indicate that the commandment to construct a sanctuary does not include the creation of the Mishcan. In describing the commandment to create a sanctuary, Maimonides quotes the Midrash Sifri. The midrash enumerates three commandments that came into effect when Bnai Yisrael entered the Land of Israel: to appoint a king, to build a Mikdash, and to destroy Amalek. It seems that Maimonides is asserting that the commandment to construct the Mikdash—a sanctuary—is comparable to the other two commandments mentioned by the Sifri. These other two commandments did not apply in the wilderness. Similarly, it appears that the commandment to build a Mikdash did not apply in the wilderness. Instead, the commandment first became operative with Bnai Yisrael’s conquest of the Land of Israel.
According to this analysis of Maimonides’ comments, the creation of a Mishcan is not included in the commandment to create a Mikdash. However, this is problematical. The commandment to create a Mikdash is derived from our passage. Our pasuk is clearly referring to the Mishcan. How is it possible that the pasuk commanding us to create a Mikdash is a passage referring to the Mishcan – yet the Mishcan is not included in this mitzvah?
It must be noted that Maimonides’ position on the status of the Mishcan is not completely clear. As we have indicated in Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides seems to exclude the Mishcan from the commandment to create a sanctuary. However, his comments in the Mishne Torah are somewhat ambiguous. There, after describing the commandment to create a sanctuary, he immediately describes the Mishcan. Maimonides does not explicitly state that the construction of the Mishcan is included in the commandment. However, his discussion of the mitzvah to build a sanctuary is immediately followed by his a description of the mishcan. This suggests that it is somehow included in this commandment. In short, the two treatments seem to be contradictory. No mention of the Mishcan is made in the Sefer HaMitzvot. But in his Mishne Torah, Maimonides seems to include the Mishcan within the mitzvah to build a sanctuary.
Gershonides offers an interesting but enigmatic explanation of the relationship between the Mishcan and the Bait HaMikdah. He suggests that the Mishcan was a preparatory institution. The nation was to create a sanctuary in the Land of Israel. They would serve Hashem in this Bait HaMikdash. The Mishcan provided an opportunity to prepare for this duty. The Mishcan was a practice facility for the activities to be performed in the Mikdash.
Gershonides explains that our passage refers to both the Mishcan and the Bait HaMikdash. However, the fundamental aspect of the commandment is to build the Bait HaMikdash. The Mishcan was merely a preparatory step towards this ultimate goal. Perhaps, this is also Maimonides’ position as well.
There are a number of problems with Geshonides’ contention that the Mishcan was merely a preparatory institution. First, the Torah strictly regulates the services performed in the Bait HaMikdash. Each sacrifice and service must be performed precisely as described by the Torah. Deviations result in serious consequences and punishments. Of course, the same requirements apply to the performance of these services in the Mishcan. The objective of this practice is to perform a specified activity exactly as will ultimately be required. If the objective of the Mishcan is to create an opportunity to practice these services, the practice services should emulate the actual service that will be performed in the Bait HaMikdash. However, it is remarkable that deviations that occurred in the Mishcan were treated as seriously as those occurring in the Bait HaMikdash. They resulted in the same consequences and punishments as those occurring in the Bait HaMikdash! We would expect deviations in a practice service to result in lesser consequences and punishments.
Second, the completion of the Mishcan was followed by an initiation period. The purpose of this initiation was to train the Kohanim and Leveyim in the services they would perform in the Mishcan. It seems strange that the Torah required a practice, or training process, for service in the Mishcan. The Mishcan was only a preparatory institution. It seems the Torah required training for a practice activity. This seems somewhat redundant!
The first step required to address these problems is to recognize that they suggest Gershonides does not completely disagree with Minchat Chinuch. He agrees with the fundamental premise that the Torah commanded the creation of a sanctuary. This sanctuary takes different forms. In the wilderness, the concept of sanctuary was expressed in the Mishcan. In the Land of Israel, the Bait HaMikdash embodied the concept of sanctuary. Therefore, service in the Mishcan was treated as seriously as service in the Bait HaMikdash.
If this is the case, what is Gershonides’ meaning in his contention that the Mishcan was a practice facility? Gershonides is providing an insight regarding the reason for including the Mishcan in the commandment to create a sanctuary. On this issue, he differs dramatically from Minchat Chinuch. In order to identify their disagreement, let us focus on a specific aspect of Minchat Chinuch’s position.
Minchat Chinuch assumes that the Mishcan and the Bait HaMikdash are of equal significance. They are two equally valid expressions of a single institution—a sanctuary. Gershonides disagrees, maintaining that the Bait HaMikdash is the ultimate expression of the institution of sanctuary. However, this does not mean that the Mishcan’s sanctity was inferior to that of the Bait HaMikdash. Instead, Gershonides is asserting that the Mishcan is modeled after, and is a prelude to, the Bait HaMikdash. In other words, were there no requirement to create a Bait HaMikdash, there could not be a Mishcan. Gershonides does not intend to imply that the service performed in the Mishcan was merely “practice.” Instead, he is explaining the relationship between the two versions of a sanctuary. The Mishcan was modeled after the Bait HaMikdash and was its prelude.
We can now fully understand Maimonides’ position. Maimonides maintains that the essential definition of the mitzvah described in our pasuk is to create a Bait HaMikdash. This is the fundamental aspect of the mitzvah. However, this commandment engenders an additional obligation. This is the obligation to create a Mishcan in the wilderness. In Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides defines the fundamental aspect of the mitzvah. He explains that the essential element of the commandment only applies once the Land of Israel is conquered. Maimonides appreciates that our passage includes the Mishcan. However, he maintains that the obligation to create the Mishcan was engendered by the requirement of Bait HaMikdash.
We can now also resolve the apparent contradiction between Sefer HaMitzvot and the Mishne Torah. In Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides defines the essential component of the commandment. This is to build a Bait HaMikdash. However, in Mishne Torah, Maimonides acknowledges that this fundamental requirement engendered the obligation to create the Mishcan in the wilderness.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 25:9.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 31:18.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 31:18.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 25:1.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 7:2.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, Volume 3, Chapter 32.  Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Sehmot, pp. 243 -254.  Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 342.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah, 1:11.  Sefer Devarim 6:4.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah, 1:7.  Sefer Devarim 4:15. See Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.  Melachim I 9:3.  Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim, volume2, chapter 14.  Sefer Shemot 24:17.  Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim, volume2, chapter 17.  See, for example, Mesechet Avot 2:9.  Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 68:9.  Rav Yitzchak Arama, Akeydat Yitzchak on Sefer Shemot, Parshat Terumah.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 2.  Rav Yosef Babad, Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah 95, note 1.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBeChirah 1:1.  Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook), pp. 339-340.