There are some words which, when translated into English, still do not give much of a helpful idea; a mishkan is a tabernacle, but what does that practically mean?
The Mishkan (lit. ‘dwelling’), also known as the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting) holds a crucial place in Jewish history and spirituality. It was a portable sanctuary that served as a central place of worship for the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. The construction and use of the Mishkan are extensively detailed in the Torah, particularly in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, and it is from those details that the ‘work’ forbidden on Shabbat are understood.
Description and Arrangement: The Mishkan was a rectangular structure made of a framework of acacia wood panels, covered with various materials such as fine linen, goat hair, ram skins dyed red, and dolphin skins. Its dimensions were 30 cubits (approximately 45 feet) in length, 10 cubits in width, and 10 cubits in height. Hence it’s translation ‘tabernacle’ from the Latin word for a hut/tent. It consisted of multiple sections
A. The Outer Court: This area was enclosed by a curtain or fence made of fine linen, known as the “curtain of the courtyard.” In the center of the outer court stood the Brazen Altar, where animal sacrifices were offered.
B. The Tent of Meeting: This inner section was partitioned off by a colorful curtain, the “curtain of the Tent.” Inside the Tent, there were two distinct areas:
The Holy Place: This was the first chamber, containing three sacred items:
- The Menorah: A seven-branched candelabrum symbolizing divine light.
- The Lechem haPanim (bread of faces): Holding twelve loaves of bread, representing sustenance and God’s abundance.
- The Incense Altar: Used for burning fragrant incense.
The Kadosh haKdashim (Holy of Holies): This innermost chamber, accessible only to the High Priest and only on Yom Kippur, housed the Aron haBrit (Ark of the Covenant). It contained the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments and served as the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, hence it’s name.
When it was time to move, the Mishkan was carefully dismantled, and each component was designated to a specific Levi family for transportation.
Historical Use: The Mishkan was built as a mobile sanctuary, designed to be easily dismantled and carried during the Israelites’ journeys in the wilderness. It served as a focal point for their worship of God and the place for offering sacrifices and conducting religious ceremonies. While prayer has always been a significant, personal aspect of worship, this was never meant to be done in isolation and offerings were made numerous times on a daily schedule, with special times for holidays etc.. Likewise, other procedures like the Lechem haPanim, burning incense, rituals with water, offerings for a harvest and so much more. The divine presence, symbolized by the cloud and fire, dwelled above the Ark in the Kadosh haKdashim.
Transportation in the Wilderness: During the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness, the Mishkan was carefully disassembled and transported from one campsite to another. The Levi’im, who were entrusted with the sacred tasks of carrying and assembling the Mishkan, were responsible for ensuring its safe transfer. The Aron, however, was carried by the Kohath family of Levi’im specifically using poles inserted through golden rings, as touching the Aron directly is forbidden.
Transfer to Other Locations: After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the Mishkan found temporary resting places at various locations. One notable example is Gilgal, where the Mishkan stood for several years before being moved to Shiloh.
Shiloh and the First Temple: Shiloh became the central location for the Mishkan during the period of the Judges. It stood there for about 369 years, becoming a significant religious and cultural center for the Israelites. However, during the time of the prophet Eli, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, resulting in the temporary loss of the Mishkan before King David returned it.
Transfer to the Beit Hamikdash: When his son, King Solomon, completed the construction of the First Temple (Beit Hamikdash) in Jerusalem, the Aron haBrit and other sacred items from the Mishkan were transferred to the Holy of Holies in the new Temple. The Beit Hamikdash became the central place of worship for the Jewish people, replacing the portable Mishkan.
Ultimately, the Temple is not currently standing and those items were either lost or destroyed. We will not have the mishkan again because we will only have these things again when the Third Temple is established at the time of Moshiach.
For more, see:
- Aish: www.aish.com/the_mishkan
- Chabad.org: www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4646981/jewish/What-Was-the-Mishkan.htm
- Jewish Virtual Library: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tabernacle
- Exodus 25-27, 30; Leviticus 8-9, 16: Detailed instructions for building the Mishkan.
- 1 Samuel 1-4: The story of the Mishkan in Shiloh and the capture of the Ark.
- 1 Kings 6-8: The construction and dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
- Talmud Yoma 21b: Commentary on the Mishkan’s transport and its significance.