Siyyum On Sefer Sh'mot
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
As recorded in the Gemara (BT Shabbat 118b), it is traditional to celebrate
the conclusion of the study of a book of Torah. Whereas this tradition
chiefly impacts on the study of a Massechet (Tractate) of Talmud or a Seder
(Order) of Mishnah, it is certainly applicable to the completion of a book
of the Torah. This "concluding celebration" is known as a "Siyyum".
An Overview of Sefer Sh'mot
As we come to the conclusion of this Sefer, it is appropriate to look back
on the past 11 weeks of study (and "leining") and try to get a sense of the
larger picture of Sh'mot. Even though (as noted earlier), chapter/verse
divisions in the Torah are a Christian invention from the 11th century, the
division of the Torah into five books is inherent in the text itself and
built into the structure of the physical Sefer Torah from which we read. As
such, it stands to reason that this unit, called Sefer Sh'mot, has an
underlying theme which informs its narrative and legal passages and which
finds its denouement at the conclusion of the Sefer.
The Sefer divides, quite easily, into several sections, as follows:
I. Exodus (Chapters 1:1-13:16)
A. Description of Servitude
B. Selection of Mosheh
D. Korban Pesach
II. Travels (13:17-18:27)
A. The Splitting of the Reed Sea
B. The Song at the Sea
C. Thirst, Hunger, Thirst
E. Interaction with Yitro
III. Giving of the Torah (19:1-24:18)
A. Agreement to Enter the Covenant
B. The Ten Statements
C. The "Mishpatim" given to Mosheh
D. The covenant ceremony
IV. Commands of the Mishkan (25:1-31:17)
V. Golden Calf (31:18-34:35)
A. The Sin
B. Mosheh's plea for Divine compassion
C. Mosheh's chastisement of the people
D. Second plea for Compassion
E. The Divine agreement to stay with the people
F. The Second Tablets
G. The recovenanting
VI. Construction of the Mishkan (35:1 - 40:38)
Detail and Repetition
It would be simplest to posit a three-fold theme - Exodus, Covenant and
Mishkan. First of all, God brought the B'nei Yisra'el out of Egypt, then He
brought them close to Mount Sinai in order to initiate an encounter and
enter into a covenant with them - and finally, to command them (and see the
fulfillment of the command) to build a Mishkan. While this is an accurate
overview, it would be more satisfying - and, hopefully, more intellectually
honest and probing - to isolate and identify one theme which ties these
three notions together.
Before exploring the theme of the Sefer, there is a textual oddity relating
to the Mishkan which we must address - considering that it constitutes over
a fourth of the Sefer.
Whereas the laws of the Torah are usually given in brief form - either
general overview (e.g. "You may not do any M'lakhah on Shabbat), case law
(e.g. "if a person gives his fellow a donkey...") or coded phrases ("You
shall put a sign on your hand) - the details of the Mishkan are spelled out
in almost excruciating detail. Every item, its length, width and height; the
materials from which it is made and so on are delineated such that these
commands take up 7 complete chapters (if we include the details of the
sanctification of the Kohanim) in Sefer S'hmot. Why the detailed
description, so atypical of legal text in the Torah?
A second question (which we addressed in our shiur on Parashat Terumah - you
can find it at http://www.torah.org/advanced/mikra/sh/dt.57.2.07.html) comes
on the heels of this one. After reading about God's detailed commands to
Mosheh regarding the construction of the Mishkan, we are presented with an
equally detailed description of the fulfillment of those commands by the
B'nei Yisra'el under the direction of Betzalel. As much as we are bothered
by the wordiness and minutiae of these commands, their repetition stands all
the more in stark distinction to the way we usually read the Torah.
Following these two questions - detail and repetition - we can ask them
again when we look at the description of the offerings of the N'si'im (heads
of the tribes) in Bamidbar Chapter 7. Each tribe brought the common offering
(see there), which is described in detail, on successive days during the
first 12 days of the first month. Why does the Torah repeat this offering in
all of its detail twelve times? Wouldn't it have been sufficient - and
efficient - to present the offering once and then indicate which Nasi
brought for his tribe on which day? Over 60 verses (longer than several
complete Parashiot!) could have been "shaved" if the Torah had followed this
briefer form; why is the "longer version" given?
We will have to file these questions - all of which are different ways of
asking the same question - until we address our original topic: What is the
theme of Sefer Sh'mot?
From Three Themes to Two
Ramban, in his introduction to Parashat Terumah, explains the purpose of the
Mishkan in a fashion which helps us "whittle down" the broad themes of Sefer
Sh'mot from three to two.
The Mishkan, Ramban explains, serves as a vehicle to perpetuate the Sinai
experience. Once B'nei Yisra'el had experienced the great encounter with God
at the mountain, it was His desire that they be able to keep this experience
- albeit in a more confined manner - with them as they travelled to Eretz
The Ramban's approach explains the numerous similarities between the Mishkan
and Ma'amad Har Sinai (the encounter at Mount Sinai). Here are a few examples:
* Just as God had spoken to the B'nei Yisra'el at Mount Sinai, so too
does He continue to speak to them (via Mosheh) from the Kodesh haKodoshim
(Holy of Holies), through the K'ruvim (Cherubim) atop the Aron (Ark) (25:22);
* The Luchot Ha'eidut (Tablets of Testimony) which Mosheh will receive
(24:12) on Mount Sinai, serve as a testimony to the giving of the Torah and
thus, will be kept in the Aron, the focal point of the Mishkan (25:21);
* The Cloud created by the Incense Altar (30:1-10) symbolizes the Cloud that
covered Mount Sinai (19:9, 24:15-18);
* The Fire on the Altar (Vayyikra 6:6) symbolizes the Fire that descended on
Mount Sinai (Sh'mot 24:17). The laws of the Altar reflect the Covenant
ceremony that took place just before Mosheh ascended Mount Sinai (see
We can now define two overarching themes in the Sefer - Exodus and
Encounter. The first 13 chapters detail the successful political liberation
of the B'nei Yisra'el from Egypt - (the next few chapters are the bridge
which brings them to Sinai) and the rest of the Sefer is dedicated to
bringing the B'nei Yisra'el into encounter with God. That encounter begins
with the Revelation at Sinai and continues with the construction of the
Mishkan. The encounter theme is interrupted by the narrative of the golden
calf - which we will explore a bit further on.
Before pursuing our attempt to isolate the one theme which ties the Sefer
together, it is appropriate to share a wonderful insight (which I first saw
in a marvelous book about the Beit HaMikdash titled "The Temple" by Rabbi
Joshua Berman - highly recommended!) on the Mishkan and its role.
Return to the Garden
At the center of the Mishkan (thus the heart of the Camp), sitting in the
Kodesh Kodoshim (sanctum sanctorum), sat the Aron (Ark), housing the Tablets
of Testimony. These tablets symbolize the most powerful revelation
experienced by Man and are representative of Torah. Sitting above the Aron
was a Kaporet (gold covering), above which (but fashioned from the same
piece of gold) were the K'ruvim - (Cherubim). These K'ruvim show up in only
one other context in the Torah narrative - as the sentinels, guarding the
path into Eden after Adam's expulsion. Specifically, they were set up to
"guard the path to the Tree of Life".
The Tree of Life, in Mishleic metaphor, is the Torah (see Mishlei 3:18)..
The K'ruvim which guarded Adam's path to the Tree of Life now guard the
"new" Tree of Life - the Torah.
Rabbi Berman suggests two approaches to the Mikdash-Eden analogy. On the one
hand, the Mikdash may represent the ideal of Eden. Just as God is described
as Mit'halekh (walking) in the Garden (B'resheet 3:8), so God says:
I will place my Mishkan in your midst, and I shall not abhor you.
V'hit'halakhti b'tokhakhem (And I will walk among you - (same word as
Mit'halekh)), and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Vayyikra
26:11-12) Just as Adam's accountability was higher when in the Garden
(=nearness to God), so too the level of purity and sanctity which must be
maintained within the Mishkan is higher.
Alternatively, he suggests that the Mishkan is a "post-expulsion"
replacement for Eden. While it would be inappropriate to replicate too much
of his thesis here, one point will suffice to make the point. The multiple
levels of distance (Kodesh/Kodesh haKodoshim) and the presence of the
K'ruvim (both woven into the Parokhet [curtain] dividing the Kodesh from the
Kodesh haKodoshim and in gold over the Aron) seem to make the statement that
the distance caused by the original expulsion is permanent and that the
Mishkan is as close as any human can come to reentering - but can not truly
come all the way back.
Following this general thesis, we can now find a greater "inclusio" at the
end of Sefer Sh'mot. Instead of being a fitting conclusion to the Sinai
experience (as per Ramban), with God's Presence now accessible to the B'nei
Yisra'el as they travel, the end of our Sefer concludes a saga whose onset
is at the beginning of B'resheet. The intervening chapters (from B'resheet 3
until the end of Sh'mot) are, effectively, the story of Man's attempt to
return to the Garden. The end of Sh'mot gives us either the "mini-return"
afforded to us by God - or the closest possible access.
While this approach is appealing and has much merit, it still leaves us
searching for a unifying theme within Sefer Sh'mot. Let's turn to the
beginning of the Sefer for some clues.
V'ele Sh'mot B'nei Yisra'el
Our Sefer begins with a recounting of the descent of Ya'akov's children to
These are the names of the sons of Yisra'el who came to Egypt with Ya'akov,
each with his household: Re'uven, Shim'on, Levi, and Yehudah; Yissachar,
Zevulun, and Binyamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of
people born to Ya'akov was seventy. Yoseph was already in Egypt. (1:1-5)
This introduction is difficult on two counts:
* It seems superfluous, as we have already been told about the descent
of Ya'akov's household - along with a complete listing of the names of the
family members - in B'resheet 46 (vv. 8-27);
* In that earlier counting, the grandchildren were listed - whereas here,
only the sons appear.
The Rishonim are sensitive to these problems and are divided in their
approaches to a resolution.
Rashi (ad loc.) says that this recounting shows the depth of God's love for
the B'nei Yisra'el - just as He lovingly "brings out" the stars every night
and calls them by name - and then calls them by name when He "puts them
away" (see Yeshaya 40:26); similarly, He reckons the B'nei Yisra'el in their
lifetime (in B'resheet) and again after their death (at the beginning of
Ramban (ad loc.), while favoring the sentiments expressed in Rashi's
approach, challenges it as an accurate reading of p'shat in the verse..
Ramban suggests that the book of Sh'mot is an holistic unit - telling the
story of redemption. As such, the story had to pick up from the roots of
servitude - from which that redemption would take place. Even though we had
already learned of the descent into Egypt (indeed, the last four chapters of
B'resheet take place there), the Torah wants to teach us one story in this
Sefer and, as such, needs to begin it at the genesis of that story. There is
a need for a short recap, bringing us back into the story of descent and
oppression, setting the stage for redemption.
Ramban explains that since this is only a recap, there was no need to list
the entire family, just the heads of household (Re'uven, Shim'on etc.).
Ramban anticipates the challenge that if the theme of this Sefer is
redemption (as it is sometimes called Sefer haG'ulah - the book of
redemption), why doesn't it end when the B'nei Yisra'el exit Egypt? Why are
the stand at Sinai and the construction of the Mishkan included in this Sefer?
He explains that G'ulah implies a restoration to previous glory. When the
Avot (patriarchs) resided in Eretz Yisra'el, they interacted with God and
His Presence was felt among them. Only after restoring His Glory to the camp
and assuring the welcome of His Presence in the Mishkan were they truly
redeemed and "restored to the stature of their ancestors."
Building on the Ramban, I would like to suggest another understanding of the
underlying theme of our Sefer in a way that integrates Rashi's approach to
the beginning of the Sefer and which explains the repetition and details of
the construction of the Mishkan.
Sh'mot B'nei Yisra'el in the Mishkan
Among all of the vestments and vessels in the Mishkan, only three had some
form of writing on them:
* The Hoshen (breastpiece) worn by Aharon. The Hoshen had four rows of three
precious stones each (parenthetically, the prophet identifies nine of these
twelve precious stones as being in Eden! - see Yehezqe'el 28:13). Each stone
was engraved with the name of one of the tribes:
So Aharon shall bear the names of the B'nei Yisra'el in the breastpiece of
judgment on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual
remembrance before Hashem. (Sh'mot 28:21)
* The shoulder-pieces of the Ephod (apron) worn by Aharon. Each piece had an
onyx stone and between the two stones, all twelve names (Re'uven, Shim'on
etc.) were engraved:
You shall set the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones
of remembrance for the B'nei Yisra'el; and Aharon shall bear their names
before Hashem on his two shoulders for remembrance. (ibid. v. 9)
Aharon is to wear them as a Zikkaron (remembrance) - what is the goal of
this Zikkaron? Is it to be a remembrance before God, that He should bless
His people? Is it something for the B'nei Yisra'el to remember?
Note that in 28:28, we are commanded that the Hoshen and Ephod are not to be
* The Tzitz (headband) worn by Aharon. On the Tzitz, the words KODESH LASHEM
(holy to God) were represented (ibid. v. 36)
What is the meaning behind these words and their presence as a Zikkaron in
Let's look back at the stated purpose of the Mishkan: "Let them build for Me
a Mikdash, that I may dwell among them" (25:8). The Mishkan was to be a
vehicle through which God would manifest His Presence among the B'nei
Yisra'el. Aharon's job - as the great Ohev Yisra'el (lover of Israel) - was
to be the "shadkhan" (matchmaker) between God and His people. He was to
bring the B'nei Yisra'el back to God, by bringing them into the Mishkan.
Carrying their names at all times was a reminder to Aharon of his task. He
was not in the midst of the holiest possible place on his own merit, rather,
he was there as a representative of two sides - God and the B'nei Yisra'el.
This explains why there was one garment with their names - but why both the
Hoshen and the Ephod? In addition, why did the Hoshen carry each name on its
own stone, whereas the Ephod combined them into two onyx stones?
The Goal of Divine Worship
Avodat Hashem - the worship of God -demands a delicate balance between
individual expression and communalism. Although there is a great deal to be
said for communal worship, as the members stand as one unit and in common
practice, nonetheless, it is not the Torah's goal to obliterate the
individual talents, needs, creative urges or expressions found in each
member of the community. Some religions maintain an ideal of group worship,
where the individual submerges and negates his or her own needs into the
expression of the group (perhaps the strongest and most frightening examples
of this extreme are contemporary "cults"). Others (such as some schools of
Zen) place the entire emphasis on individual expression - paying little or
no heed to the power of the community.
In both Halakhic and extra-Halakhic literature, the sensitive balance
between individual and community is addressed. On the one hand, we pray the
most central prayer - T'fillah - silently. On the other - it is (during the
day) followed by a public repetition, known as T'fillat haTzibbur - the
prayer of the community.
God's directive to us contains both of these pulls - "You shall be a Kingdom
of Kohanim and a Holy Nation" on the one hand; "You shall worship Hashem
your God with all of your heart..." on the other.
The Mishkan is the nexus of our worship of God. Even worship which takes
place outside of the Mishkan is oriented around it (note what direction we
face when saying T'fillah). Aharon's job was to bring the B'nei Yisra'el
back into encounter with God - on two almost opposing levels. He was to
(help Mosheh) lead them as a nation, as a community, as a group. He was also
to lead each of them - in his or her own way - into a more sincere and
honest encounter with God. Thus, he had to carry their names as individuals
(represented by the individual tribes), each in his own glory (represented
by a different precious stone) - and as a group. Note that the two stones on
the ephod shoulder-pieces were both onyx - and (following Rambam's approach
- see MT K'lei Mikdash 9:9) the names were listed in birth order,
alternating between the right and left shoulder-pieces. This is clearly a
statement about the unification of the families into one unit.
The third component - the Tzitz - was the focus through which this worship
was able to unify the people. Note that the individual representation of the
names sat on Aharon's breast; moving up towards his head (where the Tzitz
rested) were the two shoulder-pieces which unified their names. The message
is fairly self-explanatory: The method by which the tribes of Ya'akov
properly unite is in their common focus upward towards God.
The Mishkan as a Commemoration of the Exodus
We can now posit a third role of the Mishkan. Not only is it a return to
Eden and a continuation of Sinai - it is also a commemoration of the Exodus
(Zekher liY'tzi'at Mitzrayim). The Exodus is introduced by the listing of
the Sh'mot B'nei Yisra'el who descended into Egypt (away from God's presence
- see B'resheet 46:4 and Rashi ad loc.; compare with Vayyikra 18:1-3). As
mentioned above (in Ramban's name), the entire goal of the Exodus was to
bring them back to the lofty stature of their ancestors - with the Shekhinah
(Divine Presence) resting among them. That is why the Torah begins Sefer
Sh'mot with a partial listing of their names - unlike the narrative in
B'resheet which is telling a story, the opening paragraph in our Sefer is
setting a scene. These names have been exiled from the Shekhinah! Their
return is only assured when Aharon comes into the Mishkan with these same
twelve names on his vestments - thus bringing these names, both as
individuals and as a unit (on the Ephod) back into the proximity of God's
Presence, back to the gates of Eden. The very existence of the Mishkan, with
all of its vessels and Kohanic vestments, stands as a commemoration of the
renewed nearness of God's cherished people - and of the balance of
individual and community in Divine worship.
We now understand why the Torah places such an emphasis on detail in
building the Mishkan - because, as the very focus of our relationship with
God, we need to remember that every step in the Mishkan must be exact and
deliberate (note what happens to Nadav and Avihu when they fail to comply);
just as the standards in the Garden of Eden were very exacting, so too in
this Dwelling Place for God. Whereas other Mitzvot serve as vehicles of
worship, the Mishkan is the nexus of that worship and must be guarded and
cared for much more scrupulously.
This seems to be the reason for the repetition of the details of the Mishkan
(not only command - also fulfillment). In the intervening time, the B'nei
Yisra'el had tried to worship via their own methods (not commanded by God) -
and they ended up with a golden calf that served as the archetype of all
future sin and punishment (see 32:34). Thus, the description which repeats,
like a refrain, that they built each component "just as God had commanded
Mosheh", serves to indicate a realization that the only way to enter God's
Presence is - on His terms!
We also understand the repetition of the offerings of the N'si'im in
Bamidbar 7. Even though each one brought the same offering as the others,
indicating the "communal" approach to worship, each one brought his own
intention and motivation to that service (see Midrash Rabbah ad loc.) -
supporting the individual component of Avodat Hashem. The Torah repeats them
to show us this lesson - that although we may have a common worship
structure, we (not only may, but must) bring our own personalities,
conflicts, concerns etc. to the act of worship, making it our own and
solidifying our own relationship with haKadosh Barukh Hu.
Postscript: Kodesh Yisra'el L'Hashem
At the end of the first prophecy of Yirmiyah, the prophet relates:
The word of Hashem came to me, saying: Go proclaim in the ears of
Yerushalayim, Thus says Hashem: I remember the devotion of your youth, your
love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
Kodesh Yisra'el L'Hashem (Yisra'el was holy to Hashem), the first fruits of
his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them,
says Hashem. (Yirmiyah 2:1-3).
In this passage, Yirmiyah uses an odd phrasing to describe the relationship
between God and the B'nei Yisra'el - Kodesh Yisra'el Lashem. What does this
Following our explanation of the Hoshen-Ephod-Tzitz continuum (the seeds of
which came from a shiur by R. Elyakim Krumbein of Yeshivat Har Etzion), it
seems that Yirmiyah is describing a (tragically) past relationship in which
(the name of the B'nei) Yisra'el fit between the words Kodesh and Lashem
which sat upon the Tzitz. Note how Yirmiyah associates this relationship
with our travels in the desert - when we had the Mishkan at the heart of our
camp, assuring us not only of God's Presence but of our place in that Edenic
HAZAK HAZAK V'NIT'HAZEK
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.