The Tabernacle's Covering

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

"And Moses raised up the Tabernacle, and he gave it its sockets, and he placed its upright beams and he gave its [horizontal binding] poles, and he raised its pillars".  (Exod. 40:18)

Sforno comments that the words "And Moses raised up the Tabernacle" refer to the woven covering alone. Meaning, since the Tabernacle's four structural components make up the remainder of this verse, the item referred to by "Tabernacle" must be something other than sockets, uprights, poles and pillars. Sforno says what Moses first raised up was the woven covering, referred to by "Tabernacle" in this verse. Sforno states this again in Exodus 21:1, "And the Tabernacle, make 10 sheets..." where Sforno comments, "The sheets were referred to by the name Tabernacle".

Sforno says this covering was the "essence" of the Tabernacle structure, but in what manner? Not only that, but that Moses somehow held the coverings in their place (or they were suspended by a miracle, says Sforno) and then Moses assembled the Tabernacle's components, underneath it.  This is an intriguing method of construction. Sforno means to say that the Tabernacle's essence – the covering – must be erected first, presumably to indicate it's primary role. We wonder: when is greater value given to a covering or a roof, than the structure beneath? Keep this question in mind.

The covering was composed of 10 equal-sized sheets; 5 stitched together, and the other 5 stitched together. These two sets of 5 sheets were joined into a single covering of 10 sheets via gold clasps. This point, or seam where they joined by clasps was positioned exactly over the Paroches curtain, which later was suspended and separated between the Holies, and the Holy of Holies. Thus, the covering – before all else was placed under it – was to bear this distinction of the soon-to-be-created two rooms. It would appear from this, that upon the very commencement of building the Tabernacle, the lesson of the two rooms was essential. We might say, Tabernacle cannot – at any point – be disassociated with whatever concept these two rooms teach. Additionally,  Exodus 26:6 states when joining these two sets of 5 sheets, that the Tabernacle then became "one". This verse suggests the combination of the two rooms creates a unity of some sort. What is this unity...this "one"? 

 We must also note that the cherubim – birdlike figures with children's faces and wings – were embroidered into these coverings.  What are cherubim? Maimonides explains them as angesl[1], the vehicle of prophecy:

"Naturally, the fundamental belief inprophecy precedes the belief in the Law, for without the belief in prophecy there can be no belief in the Law. But a prophet only receives divine inspiration through the agency of an angel. Comp."The angel of the Lord called" (Gen. xxii. 15) "The angel of the Lord said unto her" (ibid. xvi. 11) and other innumerable instances. Even Moses our Teacher received his first prophecy through an angel, "And an angel of the Lord appeared to him inthe flame of fire" (Exod. iii.)  It is therefore clear that the belief in the existence of angels precedes the belief in prophecy, and the latter precedes the belief in the Law."  

"...the belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the Existence of God; and the belief in God and angels leads to the belief in Prophecy and in the truth of the Law. In order to firmly establish this creed, God commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels. The belief in the existence of angels is thus inculcated into the minds of the people, and this belief is in importance next to the belief in God's Existence; it leads us to believe in Prophecy and in the Law, and opposes idolatry. If there had only been one figure of a cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God's image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity, and would thus have adopted a Dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring "the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" Moses clearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since [he declared that] God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one."

God doesn't talk directly with man, other than with Moses. Prophecy is always via angels. And Maimonides teaches that even Moses' first prophecy was via the angel, in the burning bush prophecy. Prophecy is essential for validating Judaism, for without a belief in prophecy, we deny Revelation at Sinai, for this event included prophetic elements. And prophecy relies on the angels, or cherubs. So to accept the truth of God and His only religion, man must accept cherubim, which are angels.

What are angels? We do not know their true natures, but suffice it to say that they are metaphysical beings that communicate God's will to man. With this background, we can begin to address our questions.

We once explained the concept of a Holies, and a Holy of Holies. These two rooms correspond to the two "areas" of knowledge: 1) what man can know, and 2) what man cannot know. Thus, man is punished with death for entering the Holy of Holies. Such entrance is akin to saying "I can approach God; I can know what He is".  But God told the greatest man ever – Moses – "No man can know me while alive". (Exod. 23:20) Therefore, it is vital that we accept our complete ignorance of what God is. Even the High Priest must smoke-fill the Holy of Holies upon his once-a-year visit, to establish this "veil" between him and God. 

Nonetheless, the priests do enter the Holies daily. This conveys the idea that there are areas of knowledge open to mankind's exploration. We must know that the world requires a Creator, who rested on the seventh day. So we understand seven-branched Menora is in the Holies. We must know that God is omniscient, all-knowing, so an incense Altar makes sense, indicating God "knows" man's sacrifices. And we must know that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so a Table with 12 bread loaves indicates His ability to sustain the Tribes.

So we enter the Holies, but never the Holy of Holies. Our approach to understanding God's universe is two-pronged: 1) we accept there are areas open to human investigation, and also, 2) there are areas we cannot penetrate, indicated by the Paroches curtain that restricts entrance into that room housing the Ark and the cherubim. Just as we do not know what God is, we also cannot know what angels are. What is unapproachable, is placed in that unapproachable room. This explains why the cherubim were in the Holy of Holies, as were the Tablets of the Law that target God's knowledge. 

Two Realms of Knowledge

Our objective is to arrive at a love for God through the study of matters available to human intelligence. God revealed great wisdom in His creations and in His Torah. But as created beings, we cannot grasp the Creator Himself. Even the angels praise only God's "name" and not Him directly: "Baruch kivode Hashem mimkomo", "Blessed is God's honor from His place". His honor is what is blessed, for even angels cannot bless God Himself, the unknowable One. Additionally, our Kedusha (taken from Isaiah 6:3 and Ezekiel 3:12) cite the angel's admission that God is separate, or rather, unknowable.

So crucial is this notion, that upon Moses' construction of the Temple (which exists to impart knowledge to man) the coverings were raised first, constructed of two joined halves: the half that covers the Holies, and the other half that covers the Holy of Holies. Immediately, we are confronted with this truth that knowledge has two realms, and one is off-limits to man. This lesson is particularly required in Tabernacle, wherein one might be misled to believe God is actually "there" occupying space. For God said, "You shall build be a temple and I will dwell among you". King Solomon too was aware of this danger, so upon his completion of the Temple, he said, "Can God truly be on Earth? The heavens and heavens of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built?" He wished to warn the people, lest they believe God occupies space. (Kings I, 8:27) So we fully appreciate the need for man to be reminded – especially at the Temple's inauguration – of what is beyond the pale of human apprehension.

If we ever would conclude that we have fully exhausted any area of knowledge, we have fooled ourselves. For if we perceive true knowledge, we sense there is so much more awaiting discovery...but we also know we'll never tap the full depths of that knowledge. Albert Einstein said, "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable Superior Spirit who reveals Himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." Einstein attested to this very point: God's wisdom is unlimited, and we are very ignorant. Maimonides said, "Know that for the human mind there are certain objects of perception which are within the scope of its nature and capacity; on the other hand there are, amongst things which actually exist, certain things which the mind can, in no ways grasp; the gates of perception are closed against it."[2] 

When we do arrive at a truth, it is accompanied by the realization that we have only scratched the surface, but this truth leads to even greater wisdom, much of which we will not uncover. And this must be, since knowledge by definition is a reflection of the Creator, Who is unlimited. Thus, the knowledge we perceive must reflect this "illimitable Superior Spirit". In this manner, knowledge is identified with the Source of that knowledge – God. And this must be our objective in the pursuit of wisdom, to know God. The covering was not one unified set of 10 sheets. It was made of two sets of 5 sheets each, as stated. They are joined together. This joining is to indicate that attainable knowledge – 5 sheets covering the Holies – is inherently related (clasped) to the other area of unknowable truths – 5 sheets covering the Holy of Holies. And in this fashion, the joining of the 2 sets of sheets, makes "one" Tabernacle. "One" referring to a unified approach to wisdom: man must affirm there exists what can be known, and what cannot, and is outside human understanding. This approach demands that drawing close God must always be the objective of our study, not that we study an area for itself, so that we might merely better manipulate the world and its resources.

A "Covering" Over What?

It is therefore quite fitting that Sforno holds these coverings to be of central importance. We asked where else a covering is more important than the structure below it. But think about the word "covering". Isn't that the idea we just explained? There are areas of knowledge that are "covered". This may be Sforno's message. Perhaps he has intimated that these sheets are to teach us the idea of "concealment". Meaning, Tabernacle is to educate man, and a primary lesson is that certain knowledge is concealed. Therefore, the Tabernacle's covering is a lesson itself, and the rigid structure beneath it is merely there as a frame to support this covering. Therefore, the covering must be erected first, indicating the primary importance of the Tabernacle. Intriguing, isn't it! This covering is to teach man to accept that there are matters beyond his grasp..."covered" matters.

But you may ask: "I understand why the Holy of Holies is covered, but why cover the Holies? Was this area not open to human comprehension?"  Yes, but even those ideas derived from the Holies, first require a process of analysis, so these ideas too are initially "covered"! All knowledge increase is accurately described as an act of "uncovering".

We can now suggest why the cherubim were embroidered in both sets of sheets. Perhaps not restricted to prophecy, but even knowledge attained in our waking state, knowledge of all areas, might require a system of angels, through which we obtain new insights. How is it that one second we are clueless, then later one we make a discovery? If the knowledge was not with us beforehand, how did it arrive in our minds later on? This might explain why the covering is the proper item to display forms of cherubim. But there is yet an additional facet to the complimentary nature of the knowable and the unknowable...

Knowledge Demands Recognition of God

Only with the acceptance that all we know emanates from God, do we know anything at all. There is an intimate relationship between these two areas of knowledge: the knowable and the unknowable, just as these two sets of sheets are related. If one does not know of God, then all of his knowledge is false. For he is unaware that what he discovers was created by God, and by definition, his knowledge is bereft of its primary truth. Knowledge is only knowledge, if our minds view that knowledge as part of God's will. Otherwise, we simply possess a means to manipulate the world. For example, an atheistic doctor might cure cancer, but his understanding of life is not related to the Creator. Thus, his scientific knowledge fails to reach its objective. His existence is an absolute failure. An expert agriculturist who does not view food as a sustainer of human life so man can discover his Creator, also fails to attain real knowledge. Although both doctor and scientist can sustain life better than anyone, they are both ignorant of what life is, as they fail to realize the human objective of relating to God...the very purpose of our creation.

Angels: Gold vs. Embroidered

Angels exist in the metaphysical world, not on Earth. This is expressed by the gold cherubim being limited to the Holy of Holies, unapproachable by us sensually. Is there something to be derived from the fact that the cherubim in the coverings were merely representative diagrams, but not real gold figurines?

All of our experiences are as sensual beings, and even our encounters with angels in prophetic visions must be a filtered presentation of those angels. For we cannot relate completely abstractly, even in dreams, as we are physical and they are not. We cannot relate to purely metaphysical angels. Human imagination presents the angel to a prophet at times in the form of a man, "And three men stood upon him..."  So, although there exists "real", metaphysical angels...the prophetic vision is a representation for man's sake. This parallels the "real" gold angels over the ark, while only illustrations are embroidered in the curtains. The curtains represent human knowledge and how we relate to it. But beyond this world, real angels exist in their full "form", just as in the Holy of Holies, there are golden angel forms. Thus, the illustrated angels woven into curtains and the gold angels in Holy of holies, stand in direct relation to angels in prophecy and true angels. The curtains and gold figures parallel reality to educate us.

Maimonides writes [3]:  

"We have already stated that the forms in which angels appear form part of the prophetic vision. Some prophets see angels in the form of man, e.g., "And behold three men stood by him" (Gen. xviii.2): others perceive an angel as a fearful and terrible being, e.g., "And his countenance was as the countenance of an angel of God, very terrible" (judges xiii. 6): others see them as fire, e.g., "And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire" (Exod.iii. 2). In Bereshit Rabba (chap. l.) the following remark occurs: "To Abraham, whose prophetic power was great, the angels appeared in the form of men; to Lot, whose power was weak, they appeared as angels." This is an important principle as regards Prophecy; it will be fully discussed when we treat of that subject (chap. xxxii. sqq.). Another passage in Bereshit Rabba (ibid.) runs thus: "Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called men, when they have accomplished it they are angels." Consider how clearly they say that the term "angel" signifies nothing but a certain action, and that every appearance of an angel is part of a prophetic vision, depending on the capacity of the person that perceives it."

Thank you to Moshe Abarbanel and Chaim Salamon for their insights during our studies these past two weeks. 

[1] "Guide", book III, chap. XLV

[2] "Guide", book I, chap. XXXI -- Thank you to Rabbi Richard Borah for citing this quote on his blog:

[3] "Guide", book II, chap. VI