The Tabernacle's Design

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Over the years we have offered explanations for the purpose of the Tabernacle and its vessels. There is no shortage of material as the Tabernacle's details are so numerous. While it is tempting to suggest new ideas explaining the intricacies of the Tabernacle and the vessels' designs, we must be carefully allegiant to the verses so our theories do not veer into mere suggestive territory. The verses must guide our every idea.

To review, we explained that the Tabernacle is primarily a two-room structure. The off-limits nature of the Holy of Holies that houses the Ark teaches man's inability to understand what God is, and other metaphysical truths. Just as we cannot enter this room, we also cannot grasp certain ideas. Even when the High Priest enters on Yom KIppur, he must cloud the room with incense, again  creating a veil. We also do not know what angels are, so they too are placed in the room. The very nature of this room, that certain matters are concealed from human thought, is represented in Moses' initial act of suspending the Tabernacle's covering, before creating the walls. This first act in building the Tabernacle demonstrated that Tabernacle offered this primary lesson: a veil exist between man and the Creator. Apparently, this lesson is especially required when erecting a structure exclusively identified with God. One might assume God occupies a spatial relationship with this structure, meant for His "dwelling" as He put it (Exod. 25:8). Thus, this lesson was incorporated into the very process of erecting the Tabernacle, as it was the initial act, a creation of a "veil." The Jews thereby realized this veil between them and God. For the same reason, God commanded Moses to rope-off Sinai lest anyone ascend. There too, we must recognize our complete ignorance of what God is. 

That being said, that the Holy of Holies represents what is alien to the human experience, the Holies that contains the Menorah, Table and Incense Altar must therefore contain lessons that are humanly attainable. 

Let' step back for a moment. In religious life, what can we name as the focus of Judaism? Primarily, Jewish life revolves around Torah study and education as our greatest command, targeting a love of God. We also relate to God as our Provider so we call to Him alone in prayer for all our needs. And God's care for the nation is expressed in His providence, repeated in our holiday celebrations of His countless salvations. These three; wisdom, prayer, and recognizing God's providence, are each central themes. Now let's compare these to the vessels in the Holies…

The Incense Altar

Like the Animal Altar, this is synonymous with prayer: "Rabbi Joshua son of Levi said, 'Prayer was instituted corresponding the daily sacrifices' (Tal. Brachos 26b)."  The Incense Altar thereby embodies man's approach to God, or prayer. By offering incense or sacrificing ourselves by proxy through an animal, we attempt to approach God. Sacrificing ourselves mimics Adam the First's initial act of animal sacrifice. Upon his creation, Adam immediately demonstrated that man should not exist by nature. Nothing should. It was due to God's generosity that He created man. To express our dependence on God for life, we sacrifice an animal to show that this is the state we should truly be in, had God not created us. Prayer too is an expression of our reliance on God's kindness to grant our needs.

The Table

This was to hold the twelve loaves of bread, representing God's providence over the Twelve Tribes. So of the three above, we have addressed prayer and providence. The remaining vessel is the Menorah. 

The Menorah

Essentially, the Menorah illuminates. Light is used to see, to examine, to "learn." Therefore light is a perfect metaphor for wisdom. King Solomon recognized this as well, "For a flame is Mitzvah, and Torah is light (Proverbs 6:23)." 

Our study has an aim: knowledge of the Creator. But first, we must define God. As we just called Him, He is the "Creator." The six Menorah lights may convey the Six Days of Creation. These lights must each face inwards towards the center seventh branch. Meaning, all created matter – the Six Days/six branches – illuminate us with truths of God, the One who rested on the seventh day. Creation is meant to reflect God's wisdom. So the Menorah's most apparent design – seven branches – highlights the most central knowledge man must attain: there exists a Creator who created all in Six Days. Additionally, these creations all aim towards imbuing us with greater knowledge of God. The lights facing towards the seventh center branch indicate this second idea.

The Menorah's Decorative Icons

We suggested that the Menorah refers to the Six Days of Creation. All creations possess "substance", meaning the material they are made of. They possess "form" be they tall short, heavy or light, colorful or opaque. And they possess "function" or a purpose. Perhaps the Menorah directs man towards those features shared by all created things. Analyzing the material, the form and the function of any created thing, we arrive at God's wisdom embedded in all of creation. Here is how...

What are the Menorah's three decorative elements: spheres, flowers and cups? 

I wish to suggest that the spherical Menorah shapes refer to matter, or the "globe" from which all on Earth was created. The flowers refer to "form", or the beauty and design of creation. And the cups, a utilitarian object, refer to the purpose or "function" of creation. On all six Menorah branches we find these three elements. Thus, each creation of the six days shares these main categories. And when we study the substance, form and function of anything, we will arrive at greater knowledge of the Creator. Sometimes it is the size of something that is unique, or its material and texture, other times its weight or a unique function defines it. But it is the overall design of creation that is to lead man to appreciate God's wisdom that all things reveal. Maimonides teaches that love of God is attained through the study of creation. (Yesodei Hatorah 2:2) We might add that the reason these three designs are also located on the center branch (referencing not creation but the Creator[1] ) is because all creation had an abstract design in God's plan that preceded its existence, and from which it was modeled in the physical world.

Now, unless one is a scientist or a philosopher, man views the world in a utilitarian light. An object's purpose is usually the primary link between man and the object. Man is not so preoccupied with the material that things are made of, or their form. Man has aspirations and a great need to accomplish and feel successful. Therefore, he relates to objects mostly as they function towards his success. We view wood as a great building tool. Water as that which quenches, irrigates and cools. Perhaps this explains why the cups are in greater number than the flowers and spheres. The greater number of cups on each branch indicate that man's utility of all creation is intended. God told Adam to conquer the Earth (Gen. 1:28).

Another idea. All six branches flow out from the seventh. This might allude to the creation of all Six Days that emanate or branch-out from the One who rested on the seventh day, or seventh branch. 

Secondly, at that point where each of the six branches depart from the center branch, there is a sphere representing "substance." But this can also allude to "existence." Meaning, although all was created, all creation – all six branches/days – require God's continued will that they endure. Nothing exists on its own, simply because God created it long ago. Without God's will, all matter would vanish. The spheres on the center branch (alluding to the Creator, not creation) might indicate this idea. 

One final observation. Why were only the Menorah and the Arks' cover (the Kaporess) made of "pure" gold – not wood overlaid with gold like other vessels? Since both represent knowledge, God wishes knowledge to possess the most prized reputation. So He commands that these two objects alone are to be made of "pure gold", conveying their unparalleled worth. 


The Tabernacle is an amazing structure revealing the most profound ideas. It embodies the core principles of life: what man can know, and what he cannot. It also teaches us the primary areas that must occupy our minds; study, prayer and realizing God's providence. 

[1]  In no way do we suggest that anything "represents" the Creator. The Torah merely uses the number seven in many cases as an abbreviated reference the Creator who rested on the seventh day.