The Spiritual Meaning Behind The Tabernacle's Design | Aleph Beta

The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan

The Spiritual Meaning Behind The Tabernacle's Design

Immanuel Shalev


How can we find spiritual meaning in the intensely detailed design of the Tabernacle? In Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20–30:10), God goes to great lengths to explain each specific detail for the Mishkan's structure and design.

Obviously the details are more than just a means for beautification – there must be deep and symbolic meaning for us all. What are the hidden secrets that God coded within the walls of the Tabernacle and how can we rebuild that spiritual meaning in our every day lives?

In this video, Imu and David find symbolic parallels to the Tabernacle's design somewhere else in the Torah. Through their comparison, they uncover how the Tabernacle still has a deeply spiritual meaning for our lives today.


David: Welcome to Parshat Tetzaveh. Last week, we began to explore the Mishkan, and discovered that the tablets – with the moral principles they contain – are like Israel's constitution, and that the Mishkan is a way to house the constitution, the bedrock of Israel's society.

Immanuel: But If it is just a structure that's meant hold a set of tablets, it feels way more complicated than it needs to be.

The Meaning Behind the Tabernacle's Design

Immanuel: It has distinct sections within other sections, and each one grants access only to certain people. Perhaps the Mishkan is much more than just a shrine for the constitution. This week, we want to explore some of these elements together, and before we're done, we'll uncover what may be the best kept secret of the Mishkan. Join us on the Parsha Experiment.

David: Hi, I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Here's our 20-second parsha recap.

  • This week's parsha continues with instructions for the Mishkan
  • First, the people should bring pure olive oil for the Ner Tamid – the perpetually lit lamp
  • Moses should make special clothing for the priests.
  • Then the text describes a detailed seven-day ceremony to inaugurate the priests into service
  • There's the command of the Olat Tamid – the daily offering
  • Finally, Moses gets the instructions for the golden incense altar.

Immanuel: So, aside from being a house for the tablets, what is the Mishkan really about? Let's start by looking at the structure of the Mishkan. As we do, ask yourself: What else in the Torah does this remind you of? The Mishkan has three distinct sections. The outermost sections is the Chatzer – the courtyard – and it's where the bronze altar is placed. The chatzer is accessible to anybody. But things beyond the Courtyard get much more restrictive. In the middle of the Courtyard is the actual tent of the Mishkan – the Ohel – which is divided into two sections. The first and bigger section, the Kodesh, contains the Menorah, the showbread table, and the incense altar. Unlike the Courtyard, the Ohel is not accessible to everyone. Nobody except the Kohanim – the priests – could enter.

David: And if that's not restrictive enough, it gets even more selective in the innermost section of the Tent: the Kodesh Hakodashim – Holy of Holies – where the ark is housed. This area is only accessible to two people: Moses, at all times, and Aaron on one day a year – Yom Kippur. It's from this section – from atop the ark – that God says He'll speak to Moses. So what does this setup remind you of? Three sections? An outer area accessible to anyone, but a restricted second section, only accessible to priests? And a final section that is even more restricted, only accessible to Moses and Aaron, from which God speaks with mankind?

Symbolic Parallels to the Tabernacle's Design

Immanuel: It sounds eerily similar to Mount Sinai itself! The general population camped around the mountain, but that's as close as they could get. That's exactly like the Chatzer in the Mishkan. But, some people could come to the mountain. וְגַם הַכֹּהֲנִים הַנִּגָּשִׁים אֶל-יְהוָה, יִתְקַדָּשׁוּ – the priests who approach God [at Sinai] should sanctify themselves. It's clear that these priests could come closer to the mountain, closer to God's presence, than everyone else. Which also parallels the Mishkan exactly: The Tent, which is a step closer to God's presence in the Kodesh HaKodashim, is only accessible to the priests.

David: So in both cases, the population could access the first level, but only priests could access the next. In fact, the language used in each case to restrict access to Kohanim beyond those first levels is really similar too. With the Mishkan, God doesn't just say that non-priests shouldn't enter the Tent. וְשָׁמְרוּ אֶת-מִשְׁמֶרֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, – the Levites and Kohanim have to guard the Tent of Meeting, וְזָר, לֹא-יִקְרַב אֲלֵיכֶם – and non-Priests must not approach it. They don't just ensure that no one enters the tent… they have to guard it from anybody coming close to it.

Immanuel: And now look at Sinai. God said to Moses: make a boundary for the people around [the mountain], saying, הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם עֲלוֹת בָּהָר וּנְגֹעַ בְּקָצֵהוּ – Guard yourselves from ascending the mountain and from even touching it's edge. It's not enough for the people not go up… they can't even touch the mountain! That's just like the Mishkan! Not only is a non-Priest forbidden to enter the Tent, they can't even approach it. And, in both cases, the restriction is so important that access needed to be guarded – ושמרו, השמרו – that same word is used in both places! But what happens if a non-Priest does approach the Mishkan? וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב, יוּמָת – he'll die! And Mt. Sinai? כָּל-הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהָר, מוֹת יוּמָת – one who touches the mountain will surely die.

David: And the parallel goes even further. At Sinai, the priests could come closer than the people could, but there was a level beyond that as well: fully ascending the mountain. God said to Moses at Sinai: לֶךְ-רֵד, וְעָלִיתָ אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן עִמָּךְ – go down and come back up the mountain with you and Aaron together. But, וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהָעָם, אַל-יֶהֶרְסוּ לַעֲלֹת אֶל-יְהוָה – the priests and the rest of nation cannot ascend up to God. Only Moses and Aaron were actually allowed to come up and enter God's presence – and from there God spoke to Moses. The top of the mountain is the final section of Sinai, where access is most restricted.

Immanuel: That's exactly like the final section of the Mishkan – the Holy of Holies! Only Moses and Aaron could ever enter this last section…where God's presence actually rested. And, when giving the instructions to build the Ark, God says to Moses: וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם – I will meet you there, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ – and I'll speak with you. The Holy of Holies was the nexus at which God and Moses would meet and speak, just like the top of Sinai. And the parallels extend even beyond this.

David: When the Mishkan is finally constructed, וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן, אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; – the cloud covered the tent, וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן, and God's glory filled the Mishkan. The cloud is a symbol that God's glory is there. Does anything like that happen at Sinai? As Moses was about to ascend to get the tablets, וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן, אֶת-הָהָר – a cloud covered the mountain. It's exactly the same language – ויכס הענן. And this cloud also was meant to show that God's glory was there. וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה עַל-הַר סִינַי, וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן – God's glory dwelled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it.

Immanuel: And more – while God's cloud rested on the Mishkan by day, וְאֵשׁ, תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ – God's fire was there at night. Now look at Sinai – וְהַר סִינַי, עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ, – Sinai was filled with smoke, מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו יְהוָה, בָּאֵשׁ – because God descended in fire. In both places, God's glory is symbolized not only in clouds, but in fire too. It seems like the Mishkan is meant to reflect the Sinai experience. But why are these connections here and what are they meant to teach us?

Understanding the Tabernacle's Symbolic Meaning

David: We want to share a theory – one suggested by the Ramban, Nahmanides. It's not a coincidence that the Mishkan reflects Sinai. It's exactly the point. There's a huge challenge that comes along with the Sinai experience, one you might have even experienced yourself. Many of us can recall particular moments of inspiration, moments in which – after hearing a powerful sermon, seeing an inspirational movie, or having an emotional experience – we're motivated to change ourselves in some way.

Immanuel: You know, this actually reminds me of my year in Israel, pretty early on, when late one night, a couple of us stayed after class, and engaged in some super spiritual philosophical conversations with our rabbi and mentor. And I remember walking out of that class so inspired and so moved, and feeling like I had just experienced truth. I'd never do anything wrong for the rest of my life because good and evil were so clear.

David: Right, so how long did that feeling last?

Immanuel: The sad part is it didn't really last until the next morning.

David: Right, that's the challenge! When you go back to normal life, as time passes…. the feelings of inspiration begins to fade. The magic is lost and it feels less pressing, just less important, less clear. That was the challenge of Sinai. The experience was epically inspiring. The people had to prepare for three full days. There was thunder and lighting and fire and smoke and piercing shofar blasts. And then, for the first and last time in history, God actually SPOKE directly to the entire nation! They came face to face with the Divine! And, in that moment of clarity and inspiration, the people were motivated to act. They emphatically committed to keeping all of God's laws: נעשה ונשמע – we will do and we will listen!!

Immanuel: But what happens when time passes, when they move away from Sinai? What happens when God is no longer right there, speaking to them? How could God ensure that it wouldn't just be a fleeting moment of inspiration?

David: The answer is...the Mishkan.

The Spiritual Meaning of the Tabernacle

Immanuel: The Mishkan is meant to be a portable Sinai. God provides a way to not just to remember the experience, but to recreate it and keep it with them, to continue the closeness we felt to the Creator, and to hold on to the love in this moment of revelation. That moment atop Sinai, where God speaks to Moses, is recreated in the Holy of Holies. There, God continues Divine contact with Moses, too. The priests who approach God on the mountain? They serve in the Mishkan's tent. And the people? Can you imagine if you were a mem of Israel, walking among the camp and looking toward the Mishkan, at the center of it all, what would you see? You'd see the cloud of God, or the pillar of fire, the very divine presence inspiring you perpetually. With the mish, the people don't have to reminisce about Sinai. They can recreate that experience every day. They can perpetually live with God. And that's the express purpose of the Mishkan throughout these parshiot!

God says: "וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם" – Make me a sanctuary, and I'll dwell among you.

And later on: " וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל;" – In the Mishkan, I'll dwell amongst Israel.

David: At Sinai, it says: וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה עַל-הַר סִינַי – God's presence, dwelled there. The name "Mishkan" – from the root is ש-כ-נ – means "to dwell." The Mishkan, in its essence, is the place in which God comes to live with us.

What Does the Tabernacle Mean Today?

David: But what about now, when we don't have a Mishkan? Is this all irrelevant? Hardly. The Mishkan isn't about the structure itself. It symbolizes something deeper. Revelation was a watershed moment in which we experienced the ultimate closeness to God. Giving us the Mishkan was God's way of saying, "you have just experienced this profound moment of revelation, now here is a way to keep it with you, wherever you go." The Mishkan was just one way of making Sinai portable. But it was symbolic. The Torah teaches that, whether you have a physical Tabernacle or not, we have to figure out how to tap into that closeness to God, always. Every Sinai has to have its Mishkan. In our day to day lives, there are ways in which we can create our own Mishkans – ways to tap into the spiritual clarity of Sinai. It may be through learning Torah – the Torah that we received at Sinai. It may come through meaningful prayer, as we try to recreate the direct connection we had with God at Sinai. It may come through embodying God's morality and keep the laws that reflect and manifest those values – just like the Ten Commandments and the laws in Mishpatim – what we received at Sinai – taught us.

David: Whatever the modality, the Mishkan charges us to find ways in which to bring God into our daily lives, to live with God, and to constantly recreate that closeness and clarity. Join us next week on the Parsha Experiment where we delve into the tragic story of the sin of the Golden Calf.

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