Why Does the Torah Devote So Much Text to the Tabernacle?
The book of Exodus spends seven chapters (25-31) laying the command to the Israelites to build the Tabernacle and its implements, and then another six chapters detailing its fulfillment (35-40), totaling more than one quarter of the book. Both sections are filled with exact details, most of which appear twice, once in each section.
Why does the Torah do this, especially considering the fact that the Tabernacle was only meant to serve as a temporary structure?
We asked an academic Bible scholar and a rabbi to address this question.
The Historical-Critical Approach
Response: Prof. Baruch Schwartz
The question is actually better than the questioner may realize. The story of the portable divine abode – the miškān – belongs entirely to the Priestly document, or P; it is absent from the non-priestly strands of the Torah. Proportionally then, the amount of space devoted to it in P is even greater than in the compiled Torah. Moreover, even within P, the Tabernacle narrative doesn’t really begin with Terumah, in Exodus 25, but rather from the moment Yhwh’s kābôd comes to rest atop Mt. Sinai, in preparation for taking up residence in the miškān once it is built. Nor does it end at the end of Exodus with Pekudei: P’s account of the commandments given in the miškān and the events that took place there until the departure from Mt. Sinai many months later fills all of Leviticus and much of Numbers.
A central feature of P’s narrative technique is that it covers many centuries in few verses (for example, Genesis 5) but “slows down” to cover short periods of time in lengthy passages (for example, Genesis 1). This is P’s way of indicating the really significant events in its account. The tabernacle narrative is the primary example: in it, over 60 chapters, approximately two-thirds of the Priestly document, are devoted to a period of less than a year, whereas P as a whole covers several millenia.
In essence, everything in P leads up to the tabernacle story, and everything that follows continues it, so that P as a whole, from Creation until the death of Moses (and perhaps beyond, if P once extended into the time of the Conquest), is the legend of the divine abode.
P’s version of Israel’s pre-history is thus the tale of how God undertook to establish His Presence on earth. To accomplish this, He required an abode in which His earthly manifestation, or kābôd, might dwell, a priesthood to serve Him, and a people: a population, with territory, to support and maintain His dwelling, to pay constant tribute to Him, and to comply with His will in all things, thereby publicizing His existence and sovereignty, or in P’s terms, sanctifying His name. He issued detailed directives which His people were to carry out meticulously in preparation for His arrival, after which He went on to issue instructions – mitzvot, or commandments – pertaining to the maintenance of His abode and to all other matters that might facilitate or jeopardize His continued presence among His people from that moment forward.
For P, all of this was anything but temporary. It was the authoritative account of how the permanent, present reality – Israel’s status as Yhwh’s servants, with all of the obligations and institutions this entails – came into existence. The enumeration of the minute instructions for preparing the deity’s earthly abode, together with the no less detailed account of how they were carried out to the letter were, for P, part of a vision of Israel’s permanent relationship with God.
The Interpretive Tradition
Response: Rabbi Herzl Hefter
Rituals tell stories. What story does the Mishkan tell and how does tradition interpret the fact that the Torah devotes so much space to its telling?
The Talmud (b. Berakhot 55a) says that Bezalel employed the esoteric wisdom of Creation when he orchestrated the construction of the Tabernacle.
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב יודע היה בצלאל לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created.”
Thus, Bezalel used the same knowledge God used to create the world in his work. The Talmud, thus, interprets the Mishkan as telling the stories of creation.
In another passage, the Talmud (b. Shabbat 99a) relays that the golden hooks which joined the skins of Ohel Moed appeared as stars in the night sky (ונראין קרסים בלולאות ככוכבים ברקיע), which the Maharal of Prague (R. Judah Loew, 1520-1609) in his gloss on the passage, understands to mean that the Tabernacle was built to reflect the cosmos.
The Sefer HaBahir, a 12th century kabbalistic text, connects the Tabernacle to the story of Adam and Eve. It begins by stating that God has seven human forms. The seventh form applies specifically to Eve and the fact that she was fashioned from Adam’s rib. The Bahir then asks:
ואית ליה צלע, אין, כדאמרת (שמות כ”ו כ) ולצלע המשכן
Does God have a rib? Yes, as it says in the verse (Exod 26:20) “And the rib of the Tabernacle…”
By identifying the “rib ” of the mishkan with the “rib” of God while employing language of human anatomy, the Bahir alludes to a God who is the vital force dwelling in human beings as well as in all of creation. The mishkan, the cosmos and the human are all embodiments of God, so to speak.
This is a vitalistic view of the cosmos. While materialism views life as a by-product of an inanimate universe, vitalism contends the opposite: the universe is the by-product of life. This conception of God in the world and God inside us breeds a sense of the immediacy of God and an urgency to facilitate revelation.
The Torah, as the first Rashi on the Torah reminds us, it is not exclusively a collection of Laws promulgated by a distant God. It is the story of a God of history. This reading of the mishkan takes the next step, as it brings God even closer and endows the Torah with profound additional meaning: God is not only in history but in us.
This explains why the account of the Mishkan’s construction is so crucial. The Mishkan passages transform the Torah story into the intimate relationship between God, creation, and humanity. The light of the night sky and the beating of my own heart are the revelation of God—just like the fire, the cloud, and the many details in the Mishkan account.
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March 7, 2018
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Prof. Baruch J. Schwartz holds the J. L Magnes Chair in Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. He writes and lectures on the J, E, P and D documents, the uniqueness of each, and how they were compiled to create the five-book Torah. Schwartz is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el, in memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem, an advanced Halacha study program for rabbinic ordination, open to men and women. Rabbi Hefter has taught the Kollel fellows at Yeshivat Hamivtar, the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and served as the head of the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his ordination from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein at Yeshiva Har Etzion.
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