Mishkan and Shabbat
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
לע"נ א"מ מרים בת יצחק ורבקה הכ"מ
A SIGN BETWEEN GOD AND THE B'NEI YISRA'EL
After concluding the many commands regarding the construction of the Mishkan
(Tabernacle), God gave the following instruction to Mosheh:
You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my Shabbatot,
for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in
order that you may know that I, Hashem, sanctify you. You shall keep the
Shabbat, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put
to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the
people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Shabbat of
solemn rest, holy to Hashem; whoever does any work on the Shabbat day shall
be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the Shabbat, observing
the Shabbat throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a
sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days Hashem
made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
This is not the only place where the commands regarding the Mishkan and
Shabbat are juxtaposed. Following the tragic narrative of the Golden Calf,
at the beginning of our Parashah,
Mosheh prefaced his presentation of the commands of the Mishkan to the B'nei
Yisra'el with a short statement about Shabbat:
Mosheh assembled all the congregation of the B'nei Yisra'el and said to
them: These are the things that Hashem has commanded you to do: Six days
shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy Shabbat of
solemn rest to Hashem; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.
You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the Shabbat day. (Sh'mot
Immediately afterwards, he presented the details of the Mishkan to the
people, whereupon they began their donations and building.
SHABBAT PRECLUDES EVEN THE MISHKAN-CONSTRUCTION
Beginning from the Mekhilta (at the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel), many
commentaries maintain that the juxtaposition of Shabbat with the
construction of the Mishkan teaches us the limits of the Mitzvah of building
a Mishkan - that even that, the noblest of human endeavors, must cease on
Shabbat. Note R. Hirsch's words (from his commentary at the beginning ofour
The mastery of Man over matter, in getting, producing, changing,
manufacturing the raw materials of the world, attains it highest meaning in
the Temple. The world submits to Man, for him to submit himself and his
world to God, and for him to change this earthly world into a home for the
Kingdom of God, to a Temple in which the Glory of God tarries on earth. The
building of the Temple is a sanctification of human labor, and in the
context here, it is represented as being a combination of all those creative
activities of Man, by the cessation of which - by cessation from all
M'lakhah - the Shabbat is made into an acknowledgment of man's allegiance to
M'LAKHAH IN THE MISHKAN = M'LAKHAH ON SHABBAT
There is another significant connection between the Mishkan and Shabbat made
by the Rabbis.
The Torah, in its initial command to avoid a certain class of activities on
Shabbat, does not specify those actions. Rather, the Torah states: "Do not
do any M'lakhah". (Sh'mot 20:10). This command is repeated in many other
Shabbat-passages (31:14-15, 35:2, Vayyikra 23:3, Devarim 5:14). What is the
meaning of M'lakhah? This key word - which is not only the principal phrase
of prohibited work on Shabbat but also on the other Holy Days of the
calendar (see Sh'mot 12, Vayyikra 23) - means something akin to "work" and
is first used in the description of God's creation of the world (B'resheet
2:2-3). Nevertheless, it is not at all clear which type of work is
prohibited on Shabbat. How do we distinguish prohibited actions from those
which are permitted on Shabbat?
The Gemara (Shabbat 49b) records a B'raita that indicates that the
definition of M'lakhah is based upon its meaning in the Mishkan (see Tosafot
ibid. who indicates that this is the reason that the two sections were
juxtaposed in the Torah) - any activity which was an integral part of the
construction of the Mishkan is defined as M'lakhah and is, therefore,
prohibited on Shabbat.
This association, while explaining the significance of the Torah's
juxtaposition of these two institutions on one occasion (most probably at
the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel) does not explain our section, nor does
it explain the passages cited below from Vayyikra. [As to why the operative
and categorical definition of prohibited "work" on Shabbat should be derived
from the Mishkan - that is a topic in and of itself, beyond the scope of
KEEPING SHABBAT AND REVERING THE MIKDASH
There are two other places in the Torah where Shabbat and Mishkan are linked
- but, in those passages, the importance of both of these institutions is
linked within one verse:
Et Shab'totai Tish'moru v'et Mikdashi Tira'u, Ani Hashem - You shall keep my
Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am Hashem. (Vayyikra 19:30, 26:2)
Why does the Torah associate the observance of Shabbat with proper reverence
for the Mikdash?
These questions lead us to a larger one regarding Shabbat as presented in
our Parashah. Up until this point, the commands regarding Shabbat (in the
Mahn and in the Ten Statements) were framed in terms of a "gift from God"
(Mahn) or testifying to God as the Creator (the Ten Statements). In
addition, the selection in the Ten Statements would seem to imply that
Shabbat should ideally be observed by all of humanity, as God created us all
and we should all testify to that fact. Yet, in our Parashah, Shabbat is
clearly presented as a uniquely Israelite practice, one which does not
"belong" to other nations. (Indeed, the Rabbis stated that a non-Jew should
not observe Shabbat - see BT Sanhedrin 58b, MT M'lakhim 10:9). Besides this
"nationalistic shift", several new terms are introduced in our Parashah:
* Chillul: A term with which we are most familiar, denoting a violation of
Shabbat, is Chillul Shabbat. This term shows up, for the first time in a
Shabbat context, in our Parashah - M'challeleha (everyone who profanes it -
31:14). Although translated "desecration", the word Chillul actually means
"defilement" or "pollution". It is usually associated with holy people (e.g.
Kohanim - Vayyikra 21:9), places (e.g. the Mishkan - Vayyikra 21:23) or
sancta (e.g. Terumah - Bamidbar 18:32). How can such a term be associated
with a time period, such as Shabbat? How can a day become polluted or defiled?
* Ot: Shabbat is a sign of a covenant between God and the B'nei Yisra'el.
Although hand-T'fillin are called an Ot (Sh'mot 13:9,16), as was the blood
to be placed on the doorposts in Egypt (ibid. 12:13), Shabbat was never
previously referred to in this manner. Each of these two earlier occasions
are "signs" which tell us (or remind us) about some other event (e.g. the
Exodus) and might properly be called an Ot - but how can a day be considered
a "sign"? What "other event" is signified here?
* Karet: the punishment of being "cut off from the people" for violating
Shabbat. Until now, we have not been told what the punishment is for a
violation of Shabbat - but why is it Karet - and why is it first mentioned here?
* laDa'at Ki Ani Hashem M'kadish'khem - "that you may know that I, Hashem,
sanctify you." How does the "sign" of the Shabbat inform us that God
sanctifies us? In addition, why mention this here, instead of earlier (e.g.
during the Mahn narrative)?
In this shiur, I would like to suggest an additional reason for the
Shabbat-Mikdash association (besides the two mentioned above - that even the
building of the Mishkan ceases for Shabbat and that the activities involved
in the construction of the Mishkan define "M'lakhah" for Shabbat) - one
which would explain the appearance of these new terms in our Parashah.
THE PURPOSE OF THE MISHKAN
In order to understand the significance of this command regarding Shabbat
given at the conclusion of the command regarding the Mishkan, we have to go
back and review the purpose of the Mishkan:
v'Asu Li Mikdash, v'Shakhanti b'Tokham -
"Let them make a Mikdash for Me, that I may dwell among them" (Sh'mot 25:8).
The phrasing here is odd - it should have said "Let me dwell in it (i.e.
the Mishkan)". The implication is that by constructing this sanctuary, God
will cause His presence to be manifest among the people.
This signals a fundamental change in the relationship between God and the
B'nei Yisra'el - one which implies a unique statement not only about that
relationship but also about the quality and nature of the community of the
B'nei Yisra'el. Up until this point, God had made covenants, promises and
oaths to our ancestors which He began to fulfill through the Exodus. God has
commanded us and brought us close to Him in order to be a "kingdom of
Kohanim and holy nation" (19:6) - but none of these events, commands or
promises imply anything about our direct encounter-relationship with the Divine.
With the command to build the Mishkan, that relationship shifts from a
purely command-driven one to an encounter-laden one. Besides sanctifying
ourselves and becoming God's Kohanim (see Yeshayahu 61:6), we are now God's
people and stand in His Presence - at least potentially. God "walks in our
camp" (Devarim 23:15 - compare with B'resheet 3:8).
How is this new relationship manifested? What indicates - both to us and to
the rest of the world - that God is, indeed, "in our midst"?
CHILLUL - INTRODUCING DEATH
Before answering this question, let's examine the difficult word "Chillul"
which is first introduced into the lexicon of Shabbat in our Parashah.
Although, as mentioned above, Chillul is translated as "defile" or "pollute"
(see BDB, p. 320), it has another meaning which may be informative in both
the context of Mikdash and that of Shabbat.
A Challal (same root) is a corpse (see B'resheet 34:27, Bamidbar 19:18). The
Mikdash becomes defiled by bringing Tum'ah (impurity) into it (or by contact
on the part of a person who is impure with the sancta). The most essential
source of Tum'ah is a corpse (read Bamidbar 19 carefully); since the Mikdash
is the focus of the encounter between the B'nei Yisra'el and the Living God
(see Sh'mot 29:43), any contact with death (a Challal) serves to defile
(Chillul) that encounter.
We can see this most clearly from the closing verses of Parashat Yitro:
Make an altar of earth for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and
fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause
My name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an
altar of stones for Me, do not build it with hewn stones, for by your sword
upon them vat'Challalehah (you will defile it).
As Rashi points out (ad loc.), since the purpose of a sword is to shorten a
man's life and the altar's purpose is to lengthen man's life, it is
inappropriate to wield the "shortener" on the "lengthener". This comment
becomes more impactful when viewed against the backdrop of the previous
promise, "...I will come to you and bless you." The encounter with God
(which, at this point in Sefer Sh'mot, is limited to the place and time of
an offering and not extended to the entire community, as it is through the
construction of the Mishkan) is defiled via contact with (an instrument of)
KARET - VIOLATION OF THE SPECIAL NATURE OF AM YISRA'EL
The punishment which is introduced (along with death) into the Shabbat
vocabulary in our Parashah is Karet - excision. Whatever Karet may mean, it
implies some sort of disconnection or excommunication (by God) from the
people of Yisra'el.
The first occasion where Karet is found (explicitly; it may be the notion
behind Man's exile from Eden) is in B'resheet 17. Avraham is commanded to
circumcise himself and all of the males in his household, and "If any male
fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off
(root: K-R-T) from his people; he has broken My covenant." (17:14)
Karet here seems to be the natural result of communal disassociation - since
this individual is unwilling to demonstrate his fellowship with the people
of Avraham via circumcision, he is, indeed, separated from them.
The second occurrence of this punishment (although not mentioned explicitly
until later, in Bamidbar 9:13) is failure to participate in the Korban
Pesach (Pesach offering). Here again, the individual who doesn't see himself
as a member of the people and does not identify with their destiny and
history is excised from the people.
These two Mitzvot 'Aseh (which are the only two which carry this punishment
for non-fulfillment), in combination, serve as rituals which affirm the
individual's identification with- and allegiance to - the history (Pesach)
and mission (B'rit Milah) of Am Yisra'el. (Rabbi Soloveitchik zt"l refers to
two covenants - the B'rit Goral - covenant of fate - and the B'rit Yi'ud -
covenant of destiny - shared by all members of K'lal Yisra'el.)
Put together, we see that Karet is a punishment given by God to someone who
denies the special Godly character of the B'nei Yisra'el.
This can be seen in several of the Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh which carry this
punishment. Karet is the indicated Divine punishment for entering the
Mikdash (or eating sancta) while in a state of Tum'ah; in the same way,
performing some of the rituals unique to the Mikdash outside carry this
punishment. See, for instance, earlier in our Parashah (30:33,38); using the
special formula for the K'toret (incense) or Shemen haMish'chah (anointing
oil) for your own purpose makes the violator liable for Karet.
One other example of this Karet-communal identity connection is found in the
laws of Yom haKippurim. Someone who fails to afflict himself on that day of
atonement is excised from the people. "Indeed, any person who does not
afflict himself throughout that day shall be excised from among his people"
SHABBAT - TEACHES THAT GOD HAS SANCTIFIED US
We can now understand the enhanced nature of Shabbat as reflected in this
Parashah - and the import of this new "terminology" we find here.
As opposed to the earlier presentation, Shabbat is presented here as a
"sign" (Ot) - because, with the introduction of the Mishkan, God's Presence
will become manifest among the people. Shabbat is the weekly sign of that
constant Presence. Unlike the physical Mishkan, the existence of which has
not always been assured in our history, Shabbat is an eternal (l'doroteikhem
- for your generations) focal point and sign of our ongoing encounter with
God. Note that unlike the earlier presentation (in Sh'mot 20), where we are
told that in response to His "rest", God sanctified and bless the day of
Shabbat (which is why we should avoid M'lakhah) , here, we are just told
that on the seventh day Shavat vaYinafash - He rested and had repose. We
cease work on Shabbat out of a sense of shared repose with God, much more
than just the commandedness implied in the earlier passages.
Since Shabbat is the sign of the special relationship between God and the
B'nei Yisra'el and of the "shared experience" between the two (as evidenced
by the twinned phrases "holy for you" and "holy to Hashem"), this special
"place in time" must be guarded carefully.
The newly introduced phrase "Sh'mirat Shabbat" takes on a new meaning in
this light. As opposed to the purely Halakhic meaning - avoiding M'lakhah
(see BT Berakhot 20b and Rashi ad loc. s.v. biSh'mirah) - "guarding" Shabbat
means that it is now a possession (as R. Hirsch points out) and a "closed
circle" between God and the B'nei Yisra'el which must be protected. This
also explains why Shabbat is not to be celebrated or observed by other
nations; even though creation is a universal experience which should be
declared by all creatures, the partnership-fellowship with God which is
unique to the B'nei Yisra'el and which informs the meaning of Shabbat is not
to be shared with others.
This sense of "Sh'mirah" is perhaps best expressed by Rambam in his
prescription for the mood and mode just before the onset of Shabbat:
What is honor? - This is what the Sages have said, that it is incumbent on
one to wash one's face, hands, and feet in hot water before Shabbat because
of the honor of Shabbat, and he wraps himself in tzitzit and sits seriously,
waiting for to greet the Shabbat, as one who goes out to greet the king. The
early Sages would gather their disciples before Shabbat and wrap themselves
(in the tallit) and say: Let us go out to greet the Shabbat king. (MT
Someone who violates the Shabbat by bringing mundane activities into this
sphere is not only violating God's commandment - and failing to testify to
God's creation of the world, he is also denying the special Godly nature of
the Jewish people. This is as much of a Chillul as bringing impurity into
the physical Mishkan.
Shabbat is a Mishkan in time, where Am Yisra'el and HaKadosh Barukh Hu
encounter each other as the beloved and lover of Shir haShirim (the Song of
Songs) (which explains the custom to read this beautiful love song every
Friday evening at the onset of Shabbat).
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.