Rabbi Bernard Fox
Bnai Yisrael were commanded to construct a sanctuary that would accompany them in the wilderness. The Chumash provides a detailed description of this sanctuary and its contents. In the above passage, Moshe is commanded to assemble and erect the completed sanctuary. The passage employs two terms in referring to this sanctuary. It is referred to it as Mishcan – Tabernacle – and as Ohel Moed – Tent of Meeting. What is the difference between these two terms? Both seem to refer to the single sanctuary! Why are both terms needed?
“And Moshe erected the Tabernacle, and laid its sockets, and set up its planks, and put in its bars, and reared up its pillars. And he spread the tent over the Tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent above upon it; as Hashem commanded Moshe.” (Shemot 40:18-19)
This pasuk describes Moshe’s activities in erecting the sanctuary. It is clear from this passage that the sanctuary includes three coverings. The Mishcan is composed of a series of curtains. These curtains are spread over a skeletal structure of boards. The curtains create a ceiling or covering over the area within the boards and extend over most of the outer area of the boards. The result is a box-like structure of curtains supported by the skeletal boards. Over the Mishcan is spread a second series of curtains. Our passage refers to this second set of curtains as a tent. These curtains cover the entire surface of the Mishcan. Finally, a third covering is placed over the roof of the tent curtains. According to some opinions, this covering is composed of two layers. Therefore, three layers of coverings are suspended over the inner area of the sanctuary. The curtains of the Mishcan are the inner surface, or ceiling. Lying atop this ceiling are the curtains of the tent. These curtains are covered by a third covering of a single or double layer.
Each of the layers has its own name. The innermost layer is the Mishcan. The middle layer is referred to as the tent. The outer layer is referred to as a covering. What is the significance of these three terms? All three of the terms seem applicable to each layer. The innermost layer is part of the Mishcan. It creates a tent over the inner area, and it covers this area. The same can be said regarding the middle and outer layers. Yet, the Torah never interchanges these names. The inner layer is always refereed to a Mishcan. The middle is the tent. The outer layer is the covering.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno deals with this question. Before we consider his explanation some background information is helpful. The inner curtains are woven. The design of the weave is intricate. Shapes of cherubs are interwoven into the fabric. These cherubs are visible on both sides of the curtains.
Sforno explains that the inner curtains of the sanctuary are referred to as Mishcan because they are designed to surround with cherubs the aron, shulchan and menorah – the ark, table, and candelabra. He further explains that the middle layer of curtains is described as a tent because their purpose is to create a tent over the inner curtains. However, the inner curtains are not referred to as a tent. This is because their purpose is not to serve as a tent. Their purpose is solely to impose the figures of the cherubs above and surrounding the aron, shulchan, and menorah.
In these comments, Sforno is explaining the meaning of the term Mishcan and tent. Sforno is proposing that these two terms have very different meanings. The term ‘tent’ refers to a structure designed to create an inner space. It demarks the inner space, separates it, and shields it from the surrounding. The term ‘Mishcan’ refers to walls and a ceiling that are not designed to create a space. Instead, they are designed to create a specific appearance or environment within a space.
An analogy will be helpful. Consider a house. A house has outer walls and a roof. These outer walls and the roof are designed to separate the space within from the outside and to protect this space from the elements outside. These outer walls may be made of brick, stone, wood, or some other substance. The roof will be composed of shingle, tile or some other substance. The substance will be selected to correspond with the design and function of the outer walls and roof. They will not be composed of plaster or wood paneling. These materials are not appropriate for the function of these outer walls and roof. But plaster is appropriate for the inner walls and ceiling. The inner walls and ceiling are not designed to protect the space from the outside. They create the living area within. Their appearance, form, and texture should complement this space and give it character. In fact, we use different terms to refer to the overhead surfaces on the outside and inside. The outside surface is a roof; the inner surface is a ceiling. These two terms communicate their different functions. Although we do not have different terms to refer to the inner and outer walls, these two surfaces are distinguished in function and design in the same manner as a roof and ceiling.
Sforno is suggesting that the inner Mishcan curtains are designed to surround with cherubs the essential components of the sanctuary. They provide character and environment. In other words, they create an environment of surrounding cherubs within which the aron, shulchan, and menorah are placed. The middle layer of curtains – the tent – is designed to separate and protect the inner space from the outer area.
In order to fully appreciate the meaning of these comments, it is important to visualize an outcome of the design of the sanctuary. The inner curtains – the Mishcan – include the cherub figures. However, these figures are only visible to an observer standing inside the sanctuary and looking overhead. The figures woven into the curtains that hung down to form walls are not visible from the inside or outside of the sanctuary. On the inside, they are obscured by the boards that hold up the curtains. On the outside, they are completely covered by the tent curtains that descend over them. It seems odd that the essential feature of the Mishcan curtains – the cherubs – are only visible to a person inside looking up!
Sforno is suggesting that although these cherubs are not readily visible from within or without, they nonetheless are the essential feature of the environment of the Mishcan. They create an environment of surrounding cherubs. Their effect-- or the creation of this environment -- is not dependent on their visibility. Their existence as figures woven into the fabric of the curtains creates the required environment.
Now, we can understand the term used to refer to the outer curtains. These curtains are placed atop the roof of the tent. They are referred to as a covering. The term ‘covering’ has a very literal meaning in our context. These curtains are not designed to create a space or to create an environment. They serve as a covering to protect the surface of the middle tent curtains.
Based on Sforno’s comments, we can appreciate the lack of interchangeability of the terms ‘Mishcan’, ‘tent’, and ‘covering’. The inner Mishcan curtains cannot be referred to as a tent. They are not designed to create an inner space and separate and protect the inner space from the outer area. Neither are these curtains a covering. The middle curtains are a tent. They do not create the inner environment. They are not a covering. The outermost covering of curtains is not a tent. Also, they do not create an inner space and they do not create an environment.
“And you shall make the planks for the Mishcan of acacia wood, upright.” (Shemot 26:15)
As noted above, the Mishcan curtains are supported by a skeletal structure of planks. Our passage explains that these planks are to be placed upright. Each plank is placed immediately adjacent to its neighbor. In this manner a continuous surface is created. The commentaries explain that the planks must be upright. They cannot be positioned horizontally upon one another. This is an interesting requirement. It would seem that whether placed upright to create a continual surface or placed horizontally upon one another, the same outcome is achieved. Why must the planks be placed in an upright position?
According to Sforno, we can understand this requirement. These planks are not intended to create an inner wall. The inner wall of the Mishcan is the curtains of the Mishcan. The sole function of these planks is to support the curtains. In other words, the planks support the curtains; the curtains do not cover and adorn the planks. The positioning of the planks communicates their function. Horizontally placed planks placed atop one another creates the impression of an inner wall. Such an inner wall contradicts the function of the Mishcan curtains. It is these curtains that create the inner environment of the Mishcan. The upright position of the planks contributes to communicating their purpose – the support of the Mishcan curtains.
Now, our original question is easily answered. The terms Mishcan and Ohel Moed both refer to the sanctuary. However, these terms refer to different aspects of the structure. Mishcan is the innermost structure. The innermost curtains create this structure. Ohel Moed – tent of meeting – refers to the middle curtains that create the tent within, where the Mishcan is situated.