Tabernacle, Sacrifices, and Judaism: Maimonides vs. Nahmanides
Much of the book of Exodus is dedicated to the construction of the mishkan (tabernacle). Moses is told to have the tabernacle and its implements constructed out of expensive materials, and to place it in the very center of the Israelite camp. What was the mishkan for? Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1138–1204) and Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, 1194–1270) expressed two very different approaches to its meaning.
In order to understand the nature of this debate, I start with their debate over the nature of sacrifices.
Sacrifices—Maimonides vs. Nahmanides
For Maimonides, the sacrifices were simply a device to wean the Israelites away from idolatry, and nothing more. Sacrifices were not part of God’s ideal plan, as it were, but were “forced” on God by the primitive nature of the Israelites leaving Egypt:
The familiar mode of worship, the way of life we grew up in, prevalent throughout the world in those days, just meant sacrificing various animals in the temples where those images were erected, bowing down to them, and burning incense before them. The pious and devout in those days worshiped only in temples dedicated to the stars, as I explained. So, with the wisdom and grace evident throughout creation, God did not decree that His Law simply annul, reject, and abolish all such worship (Guide of the Perplexed, 3.32).
Moreover, Maimonides explains the details of sacrificial law, such as the choice of which animals to sacrifice, as merely the way God decided to wean Israel away from the idolatrous society in which they had lived:
The Torah, as Onkelos reads it, tells us clearly that the ancient Egyptians worshiped the Constellation Aries. So they prohibited slaughtering sheep and abominated shepherds... Beyond that, some Sabian sects worshiped jinn and believed they took a goat form. That is why they called jinn fauns.
Such beliefs were quite widespread in the days of our Teacher Moses: No more shall they sacrifice to goats (Lev 17:7). So these sects forbade eating goat meat. And slaughtering cattle was abhorrent to nearly all pagans. They all venerated these beasts. So you’ll find even today that Hindus never slaughter cattle, even in lands where other beasts are slaughtered. To blot out all trace of such unsound beliefs, then, we were commanded to sacrifice animals of these three kinds specifically: of the herd and flock (Lev 1:2) (Guide of the Perplexed, 3.26).
Maimonides continues in this vein, arguing that the sacrificial law was useful at the time for combatting idolatrous beliefs. Presumably, these rules became obsolete over time, as society changed, even if they remained in force as long as the Temple stood.
Nahmanides rejected this claim in intemperate language (in his commentary to Lev. 1:9):
והנה הם דברי הבאי, ירפאו שבר גדול וקושיא רבה, על נקלה יעשו שולחן י"י מגואל, שאיננו רק להוציא מלבן של רשעים וטפשי עולם,
But these are mere expressions, healing casually a severe wound and a great difficulty and making the table of the Eternal polluted [as if the offerings were intended only] to remove false beliefs from the hearts of the wicked, and fools of the world…
Instead, Nahmanides insisted that the sacrifices had both psychological value (something Maimonides could accept) and also, and more fundamentally, cosmic-theurgical significance.
The Sin of Eden—Maimonides vs. Nahmanides
Nahmanides’ understanding of the purpose of sacrifices connects to his understanding of human history, specifically the sin of Adam and Eve, which, he believed, caused a cosmic breach. In Kabbalistic terms, this “original sin” (חטא קדמוני) sundered the sefirot of shekhinah and tif’eret. The commandments of Judaism are, first and foremost, a “divine need” (zorekh gavoha), to repair this breach in the cosmos.
Here again, the contrast with Maimonides is stark. For Maimonides, the manifest content of the early Genesis stories are not to be taken literally; they don’t teach us the actual history of the universe. While the latent meaning of the creation story teaches us principles of physics, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is an allegorical explanation of the human condition (Guide 2.30).
Maimonides himself stops short of presenting this approach openly, but R. Joseph Kafih (1917–2000), the great Maimonidean translator, expositor, and member of the rabbinic high court in Jerusalem (no “treyf” academic he!), elucidates Maimonides' point:
ורבינו הביא רק הטעם המציאותי... והתעלם מכל לשון המדרש, בהתאם לשיטתו שכל אותו התיאור של אדם וחוה והנחש בבראשית ב', הוא מונחים אליגוריים וכמו שכתב במו"נ חלק ב', פרק ל, ולא חוה האשה הטבעית היא שגרמה מיתה לאדם, עיין שם.
Our teacher [Maimonides] brought a realistic explanation [for why women light Sabbath candles] … [he] ignored the language of the midrash, in accordance with his position that the entire description of Adam, Eve, and the snake in Genesis ch. 2 is couched in allegorical terms, as he wrote in Guide ii. 30. It is not Eve the actual woman who caused death to Adam [humankind?]. See there.
For Maimonides, there was no Fall, no original sin, no cosmic tearing, and, consequently, no need to help put God back together, as it were. Maimonides’ God is transcendent; Maimonides’ fundamental problem as a religious philosopher is to connect that God to the history of the Jewish people and the mizvot (commandments) of the Torah. In other words, his problem was to “move” the “unmoved mover” of Aristotelian philosophy.
The God of Nahmanides, in contrast, is imminent in the world and has needs that only the Jewish people can satisfy. Nahmanides’ problem is to connect the “most moved mover” (as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously put it) to the God who created the entire cosmos.
Application to Sacrifices
This goes a long way toward explaining why Nahmanides reacted so strongly against Maimonides’ view of sacrifices. For Maimonides, God has no need of burnt offerings or worship sites; these are all for the benefit of humanity. For Nahmanides, however, the sacrificial cult plays a crucial role in satisfying the divine need. He affirms this in his commentary on Lev. 1:9, where, introducing a Kabbalistic idea, he says:
ועל דרך האמת: יש בקרבנות סוד נעלם
By way of truth, there is a hidden secret contained in the offerings.
Nahmanides hints at the meaning of the hidden secret in the continuation of his commentary—namely, that the secret of the offerings is that they satisfy a divine need.
Purpose of the Mishkan: The View of Nahmanides
With this background, we may now ask (finally), what is the purpose of the mishkan in the wilderness? It is fair to say that in contemporary traditionalist Judaism the view expressed by Nahmanides dominates. Let us therefore look at his view first. He clarifies his position in his comment on the verse:
שמות כט:מו וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם.
Exod 29:46 And they shall know that I YHWH am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I YHWH their God.
...יש בענין סוד גדול, כי כפי פשט הדבר, השכינה בישראל צורך הדיוט ולא צורך גבוה, אבל הוא כענין שאמר הכתוב: ישראל אשר בך אתפאר (ישעיהו מ"ט:ג'), ואמר יהושע: ומה תעשה לשמך הגדול (יהושע ז':ט')...
… there is in this matter a great secret. For in the plain sense of things it would appear that [the dwelling of] of the Divine Glory [ha-shekhinah] in Israel was to fulfill a need below, but it is not so. It fulfilled a need above as in the meaning of Scripture, “Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:3); and Joshua said, “[For when the Canaanites … hear of it … and cut off our name from the earth,] and what will You do for your great name?” (Josh 7:9)…
The word mishkan is formed from the root ש.כ.נ, meaning to dwell. According to Nahmanides, God desires to live in the world generally, but needs to dwell in one place more than all others: among the Israelites, in the Land of Israel generally, and specifically in the Temple. The verse explains that owing to this desire on God’s part, there was a need to redeem the Israelites from Egypt, for God could not dwell in their midst so long as they were still slaves and deep in what tradition would have called the forty-ninth level of impurity. The late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein makes this point explicitly, based on his reading of the Sages:
God desires to live in the world generally, but He wants to dwell in one place more than in all others: among Am Yisrael (=the people of Israel), in Eretz Yisrael (=the land of Israel), in the Temple. The verse explains that owing to this desire on God's part, there was a need to redeem Benei Yisrael from Egypt, for God could not dwell in their midst so long as they were still enslaved and mired in the 49th level of impurity.
It is a sign of how deeply Kabbalah and Hasidism have influenced contemporary Judaism that for many in our world, the notion of God’s needs (without even the reservation, kiviyakhol, “as it were”) will not be surprising. Abraham Joshua Heschel traces the idea to the school of Rabbi Akiva and finds opposition to it in the school of Rabbi Ishmael. Be that as it may, Nahmanides and his followers had rabbinic warrant for the idea.
Human History According to Maimonides
In order to understand Maimonides’ view of the mishkan, we have to look at his understanding of the history of Judaism. God’s covenant with Abraham involved only the prime objective of the Torah, the affirmation of God’s existence, unity, and incorporeality. Abraham’s descendants, when tested by Egyptian slavery, proved themselves unable to hold fast to Abraham’s teaching.
Fulfilling his promises to the patriarchs, God sent Moses to become “our teacher” (rabbenu) and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, then saved them from the Egyptians at the Red Sea and brought them to a place called Marah. (Exod 15:22-26). Here we arrive at what I take to be the most revolutionary aspect of Maimonides discussion in Guide of the Perplexed 3.32.
At Marah, God tried again, as it were, ordaining the Sabbath and laws governing social behavior (the rest of the Ten Commandments). Abraham’s Torah was, we might say, purely theological. The additional commandments of Marah, Maimonides says, “clearly said nothing of sacrifices and burnt offerings.” They are the institution of the Sabbath and the civil laws. In short, the Torah of Marah added to Abraham’s Torah a further element of theology (belief in creation of the world) and, in addition, ethics.
The Extra Laws: Added out of Necessity
When tested again (by Moses’ apparent disappearance on Mt. Sinai), the Children of Israel proved themselves unable to hold fast to the minimalist Torah of Marah and worshiped the Golden Calf. It was at this point that God was “forced” (as Isaac Abravanel and Ovadia Sforno were later to say) to compass the Children of Israel about with sacrifices and their consequences: mishkan/temple, priests and levites, ritual purity and impurity, and pilgrim festivals.
All of these are only means, not ends in themselves. They all relate to what Maimonides called God’s second intention only, and were not meant to be part of the Torah as originally conceived by God. Maimonides emphasizes his point, concluding his argument dramatically:
Our first laws, then, clearly said nothing of sacrifices and burnt offerings. Those were secondary, as I said. The Psalms voice the same idea as Jeremiah, reproaching the whole nation for flouting the Law’s chief intent and failing to distinguish what’s primary from what’s secondary: ‘Hear, My people, and I will speak; I indict thee, Israel. God am I, thy God. Not for thy sacrifices do I blame thee, or thy burnt offerings, ever before Me. I’ll take no bullock from thy house, nor any goats from thy folds. [Every beast in the forest is Mine; cattle, in the hills, by the thousand!]’ (Ps. 50:7-9). Wherever this theme recurs, that is its thrust. Understand this well and reflect on it.
With this in mind, we can turn to Maimonides’ understanding of the Tabernacle.
Purpose of the Mishkan: The View of Maimonides
Maimonides defines the purpose of the mishkan in the wilderness and afterwards the Temple in Jerusalem very clearly (“Laws of the Temple,” I.1):
מצות עשה לעשות בית ליי' מוכן להיות מקריבים בו הקרבנות, וחוגגין אליו שלש פעמים בשנה שנאמר ועשו לי מקדש...
It is a positive commandment to make a house for the Lord, designed for the offering of sacrifices and for making thereto a pilgrimage three times each year. For it is said: “And let them make Me a sanctuary” (Exod 25:8).
For Maimonides, the point of both the mishkan and the Temple is to provide a single place for the offering of sacrifices (in line with his claim, Guide of the Perplexed 3.47, that God sought to limit the sacrificial cult)—they were certainly not meant to provide an abode for God.
Maimonides’ view finds expression in his Book of Commandments (positive commandment 20):
By this injunction, we are commanded to build a Sanctuary for His service. There sacrifices are to be offered and the perpetual fire is to burn, thither the [prescribed] pilgrimages are to be made, and there the festivals and assemblages are to be held every year, as will be explained. This injunction is contained in His words (exalted be He), “And let them make me a Sanctuary” (Exod 25:8).
Not a hint here of the idea that God sought an abode on earth! In Guide 3.46 Maimonides provides a long series of historical and social explanations for many of the practices connected to the sacrificial cult, the Temple, and the pilgrim festivals. None of them is theurgic at all, and none of them hints at the sort of view proposed by Nahmanides.
God to Humanity or Humanity to God
There is a deeper debate here. Put crudely, for Nahmanides and thinkers like him, the purpose of the mishkan (as well as many other aspects of Judaism) is to bring God, as it were, down to earth. For Maimonides, on the other hand, it is the point of all Jewish practices to assist human beings in their striving to raise themselves, as it were, in the direction of God.
Reflecting on all this, and understanding it well, we realize that, according to Maimonides, the sacrifices have no intrinsic value; they are part of a complex, interconnected structure of institutions. All were commanded by God, all of them play an important role in the social world we call Judaism, but they play no role in the divine economy. They reflect our needs, not God’s. Similarly, the mishkan serves our needs, not God’s.
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Prof. Menachem Kellner is faculty at Shalem College’s Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought. He is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, where, among things, he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Religious Thought. He did his B.A, M.A. and Ph.D. at Washington University. Kellner is probably best known for his book, Must a Jew Believe Anything?
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