Writings / As Seen On the Mountain

In the beginning of this week's Parsha, the nation is instructed to build a "house for God" (The Mishkan or Tabernacle, forerunner of the Beit Hamikdash). Some commentaries see this as an independent commandment of supreme importance; others see the process and the product of the construction as a response to the Golden Calf debacle, a concession to the human need for a physical object of worship. The difference of opinion between the commentaries may be seen in the context of the more fundamental argument regarding the sequence of events recorded in the Torah.(1)

In this particular case, the differing opinions regarding the nature and purpose of the Mishkan often rely heavily on the narrative context in which these instructions are transmitted to the nation: Is the commandment to build God's earthly abode to be seen through a lens colored by the stain of the Golden Calf incident, as it appears in the text, or was the construction of a physical, central place of worship actually unrelated to the events that occurred while Moshe was up on Mount Sinai and the people lost patience below? Close analysis of the instructions to build the Mishkan leaves us somewhat confused regarding the sequence of events.

The initial verses of this week's Parsha include instructions for Moshe to oversee the collection of the materials to be used to build the Mishkan. One key statement immediately forces us to consider the timeline of the verses:

You shall make the Mishkan and all of its utensils according to the form that I am showing you. (Shmot 25:9)

Building a three-dimensional structure based only on verbally transmitted descriptions is no easy task. To fill the gaps, God shows Moshe what the finished product will look like - visual aids, as it were. A similar method is employed for other parts of the Mishkan; the Menora (candelabra), for example, is crafted as per the visual instructions that Moshe receives.

Make seven lamps [on the Menora]. The lamps shall be lit so that they shine towards [the Menora's] face (or center). [The Menora's] tongs and scoops shall [also be made of] pure gold. Out of a kikar of pure gold shall he make all these implements. See and construct, in their form (according to the pattern) which has been shown to you at the mountain. (Shmot 25:40)

These descriptions make similar reference to visual representations with which Moshe is taught, with one crucial difference: the instructions for the Mishkan in the earlier verses are in the present tense - "as I am showing you" - whereas the Menora's form seems to have been shown to Moshe previously - "as you have been shown."(2) Moshe has already seen a visual representation of the Menora at Sinai. The importance of this distinction is emphasized by a later verse which sums up the entire undertaking:

And you shall erect the Mishkan according to its fashion, which was shown to you at the mountain. (Shmot 26:30)

Again, Moshe is told that the construction is to follow the forms and patterns that were shown to him at Sinai - ostensibly prior to the present-tense communication.(3)

When was Moshe shown the visual representation of the Mishkan, the Menora, and all of the ritual instruments? Knowing, as we do beyond any doubt, where Moshe was shown these things, we may logically assume that we can narrow down the possibilities for when, to the two times that we know Moshe was on the mountain. The first time Moshe ascended Mount Sinai was when he received the first set of Tablets - before the sin of the Golden Calf. The only other time we know of was when Moshe ascended the mountain a second time, to beg for forgiveness for the nation and to receive the second set of Tablets. Obviously, the difference cannot be understated; the key to understanding the nature and purpose of the Mishkan (and of the Beit HaMikdash) may lie in the resolution of this question.

In fact, one element of the instructions Moshe is given for building the Mishkan's main feature seems to give a very solid clue for constructing a timeline: The point in time when Moshe was given his instructions is hinted at in the verse describing the purpose of the Ark:

And you shall put into the Ark the testimony which I shall give you. (Shmot 25:16)

Moshe will be given the Tablets of Testimony upon which the Ten Commandments were sculpted. The language of this verse makes it clear that Moshe has not yet been given any physical testimony; at the time this verse is spoken, Moshe stands on the mountaintop for the first time. There is no reference, as there will be when the Ark is eventually constructed, to the broken Tablets which would reside alongside the second, unbroken set. Furthermore, rabbinic tradition generally describes Moshe's second visit on the mountaintop as having been devoted exclusively to prayer and repentance;(4) no mention of any instructions for the Mishkan are included in this scenario.(5)

The Seforno's comments regarding the construction of the Mishkan may provide us with a hint of a third possibility as to when Moshe saw the visual representations that assisted him in constructing the Mishkan. The Seforno examines the content and quality of Moshe's vision, as he attempts to elucidate the purpose of the Mishkan:

I will dwell among them to accept their prayers and service, in the same fashion that I reveal My Shechina on the mountain on the Kaporet between the two Keruvim with the model of the Mishkan and the model of all the utensils. For the form of the Mishkan will indicate Keruvim; they are 'the Seraphim standing above it' that are seen by the prophets... (Seforno Shmot 25:9)

According to the Seforno, the "visual aids" with which Moshe was instructed were not merely architectural in nature; Moshe had a vision similar to that described by later prophets, particularly the powerful and evocative images of the Upper World in the prophecies of Yeshayahu and Yechezkel, whose glimpses of the celestial retinue are described in great detail. In much the same fashion, Seforno tells us, Moshe was shown the Mishkan and its elements. Moshe was instructed to build physical, earthly manifestations of what he, and, later, Yeshayahu and Yechezkel, had seen - physical representations of what they were worthy enough to glimpse in their respective prophetic visions.(6)

The Midrash explains the Mishkan's form in similar vein:

R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of R. Levi: When the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Moshe, 'Make Me a Mishkan,' Moshe might have simply put up four poles and spread out the Mishkan over them! However, we learn that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moshe on high, red fire, green fire, black fire, and white fire, and said to him: "Make it according to the fashion thereof, which you have been shown on the mountain" (Shmot 26, 30). R. Berakhiah in the name of R. Bezalah likened the matter to a king who, possessing an exquisite robe made with precious stones, said to a member of his house: 'Make me another like it,' and the latter said to him: 'My lord, the king! Am I able to make one like that?' Said the king to him: 'I with my glory and you with your dyes [will make a worthy robe].' In the same way did Moshe say to the Holy One, blessed be He: 'O God, am I able to make such as these?' Said He to him: 'Do it according to the fashion which I am showing you,' etc., with blue, with purple, with scarlet, and with fine linen. 'If,' said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moshe, 'you will make below the same as that which is above, I shall leave My counselors on high and, coming down below, will accommodate My Shechinah to the confined space in their midst below.' On high stood ('omedim) the Seraphim (Yishayahu 6, 2), and so also below were the boards of acacia wood, standing up ('omedim) (Shmot 26: 15). The expression used here is not 'set up' (ha'amed) but 'standing up'... (Midrash Rabba Bamidbar, 12:8)

At Mount Sinai, Moshe was shown a dazzling vision of divine fire and color, and God taught him how to transform this vision, how to translate this vision, into something concrete. The Midrash goes on to draw parallels between the language used to describe various structural elements of the Mishkan and the vision of Yishayahu, indicating that the Prophecy of the Chariot, the prophecy of the Celestial Throne, and Moshe's "visual aids" were all, in fact, identical visions, described in different language. Rabbi Yaakov Sikilly, in Torat Hamincha, explains it thus:

Our Rabbis taught that Moshe was shown above red fire and green fire and black fire and white fire…from all this we learn that the Mishkan and its utensils are in the form of the Upper Chariot (Merkava). (Torat Hamincha Drasha 26)

Yechezkel witnessed a vision of God's Chariot, The Merkava. Later, scholars studied the prophet's description of this vision in an attempt to recreate the ecstatic experience and to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The Merkava - both the vision and the scriptural description of the vision - came to be regarded in traditional Jewish scholarship as a vehicle for spiritual elevation,(7) allowing spiritually sensitive and properly trained scholars to soar beyond the constraints of the physical world; to perceive, to understand, and to experience the Divine.(8)

Yehchezkel's vision is recounted as follows:

And there was a voice from above the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood still, and had let down their wings. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of God. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a speaking voice. Then I looked, and, behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the Keruvim appeared over them something like a sapphire stone, in appearance like the shape of a throne. And he spoke to the man clothed with linen, and said, 'Go in between the wheels, under the Keruv, and fill your hand with coals of fire from between the Keruvim, and scatter them over the city.' And he went in before my eyes. And the Keruvim stood on the right side of the house, when the man went in; and the cloud filled the inner court. Then the Glory of God went up from the Keruv, and stood over the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of God's Glory. (Yechezkel Chapter 1:25,28; Chapter 10:1-4)

Yechezkel's vision is described in detail, and some of the elements he describes - Keruvim, sapphire, a house filled by a cloud, and the great light emitted by the Glory of God - are familiar to us, either from this week's Parsha, or the Parsha that immediately follows which describes the completed Mishkan:

And he erected the Courtyard around the Mishkan and the Altar, and set up the screen of the Court gate. So Moshe finished the work. Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of God filled the Mishkan. And Moshe was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud abode on it, and the Glory of God filled the Mishkan. And when the cloud was taken up from over the Mishkan, the Children of Israel went onward in all their journeys; but if the cloud was not taken up, they did not journey until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of God was upon the Mishkan by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the House of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Shmot 40:33-38)

Two notable elements that are shared by Yechezkel's vision and the description of the completed Mishkan are the cloud that filled the room, and the element of sapphire. In fact, these same two elements are part of Moshe's vision at another critical juncture: Immediately preceding Moshe's ascent to Mount Sinai, as the covenant between God and the Jewish People is formed, Moshe and the leaders of the nation experienced a vision of God's Throne:

And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the People of Israel He laid not his hand; they saw God, and they ate and drank. And God said to Moshe, 'Come up to me on the Mountain, and be there; and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the commandments which I have written; that you may teach them. (Shmot 24:10-12)

Yechezkel's vision was of "a sapphire stone, in appearance like the shape of a throne" (Yechezkel 10:1). At Sinai, God's throne(9) was perceived as made of sapphire. According to Rabbenu Bachya(10) this sapphire was given to Moshe - with the Ten Commandments chiseled into it: The stone upon which the Ten Commandments were chiseled was sapphire. According to the Zohar, the future Temple would be built of this same sapphire:

As for the last part of the verse which is being treated, namely: 'And under His feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone' - what did they see? They beheld the precious stone with which the Holy One will build the future Beit HaMikdash, as it is written: "I will your stones with fair colors and lay your foundations with sapphires" [Yishayahu 54:11]. (Zohar Shmot 126a)

At the foot of the mountain, all of Israel saw the Cloud of Glory that enveloped the mountain and the fire of God at the summit. The leaders were given greater vision, a higher level of prophecy, and they saw the Heavenly Throne of God, made of sapphire. The Ramban explains that what they saw was precisely what was seen by Yechezkel hundreds of years later, after the destruction of the First Temple.(11) Apparently Moshe saw even more: Standing at the foot of the mountain, alongside Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Seventy Elders, Moshe saw the cloud, he saw the fire, he saw the throne - and he saw what the others could not. He saw a building, a spiritual edifice. It is to this unique vision that God refers when He instructs Moshe to build the Mishkan, "as you saw on the mountain". In other words, Moshe saw the "visual aids" according to which he would instruct the people to build the Mishkan - not on his first trip up to the summit of Mount Sinai, nor on his second ascension, but before he ever made the climb to receive the Tablets.(12)

We must conclude, then, that the verses and their sequence reflect the actual sequence of events: At the foot of Mount Sinai, Moshe and the nation's leaders share a vision of the sapphire Throne of God. At the same time, Moshe has a higher order of prophecy; his higher spiritual level enables him to see more than the others. Moshe then ascends the mountain in order to receive the Tablets of Testimony - carved, perhaps, of the sapphire of God's very throne - a physical testament to the covenant forged between God and the Children of Israel, and a physical echo of the of the sapphire Throne of God that had just been revealed to Moshe and the other leaders who stood at the foot of the mountain, and would later be revealed to Yechezkel. And there, as Moshe stands on the mountaintop to receive the Tablets, he is commanded to build a Mishkan - a physical representation, an earthly echo or shadow, of the symbols of God's Divine Presence he had seen in his own personal prophetic vision.

The nature and purpose of the Mishkan are thus revealed through careful reading of the verses and attention to the sequence in which events are recorded in the Torah: The Mishkan was a vehicle for turning the Revelation at Sinai - which included the visions at the base of the mountain as the covenant and the commandments transmitted on the summit - into a permanent part of human experience. In the words of the Ramban , the Mishkan was designed to take the singular experience of Sinai, to fuse it with Moshe's unique vision, and make it tangible, so that we might raise ourselves up, aspire to - and achieve - a more enlightened life here on earth.



1. See my essay on Parshat Terumah 5769: http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2009/02/parshat-terumah-5769.html.

2. The language concerning the Mishkan indicates a present-tense, ongoing "lesson", whereas the language regarding the Menorah is extremely vague, even unusual. The classic commentaries, among them Onkelos and Rashi, note the very particular vowelization of this word, indicating the subject and object of the verb, but do not address the tense. See Rashi, loc.cit.

3. See the comments of Rashi and the Mizrachi, who try to "finesse" the problematic tenses of these instructions, claiming that the past tense is used here regarding instructions that have not yet been given, but will be given in the interval between the present-tense moment of speech and the future moment of execution. In other words, by the time the Mishkan is constructed, the instructions will have been given, in the past, but they have not yet been given in the present.

4. For this reason, the forty days between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur are a time of prayer and teshuva for the entire community throughout the generations. See Tur Shulchan Oruch section 581.

5. Rashi Shmot 33:11, Devarim 9:18, 10:10 opines that Moshe climbed the mountain three times; the first and third ascensions were to receive the Tablets, and the ascent in between was devoted to prayer.

6. A similar point is made by Rabenu Bachaya Shmot 25:40.

7. See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible. Samuel Weiser: York Beach Maine 1978, page 39.

8. I have touched the theme of the Merkava in other places see:http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2010/01/parshat-yitro-5770-reliving-revelation.html andhttp://arikahn.blogspot.com/2009/11/parshat-vayetze-5770-place-hamakom.html.

9. See Talmud Bavli Sotah 17a: It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue specified from all the varieties of colors? Because blue resembles [the color of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the color of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the color of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said: And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and as it were the very heaven for clearness, and it is written: The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone.

10. Rabbenu Bachya Shmot 31:18.

11. Ramban Shmot 24:10.

12. When people thought that Moshe would not return from the summit of the mountain, they sought other avenues of religious experience. In their quest for a physical manifestation of the spiritual leadership they so craved, they resorted to the representation of a calf. It should come as no surprise that Yechezkel's vision also included the face and leg of a calf.