The Tabernacle

A makeshift sanctuary in the wilderness.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The portable structure erected by the Israelites at the command of God to accompany them in their journeys through the wilderness, as told in the book of Exodus (25: 1-31; 17; 35: 1-4: 38). The Tabernacle consisted of an outer courtyard, oblong in shape, 100 cubits by 50 cubits. This enclosure consisted of all-round hangings with an opening, the entrance, at the east side. These hangings were the means of separating the sacred spot from the profane realm outside it but did not form a cover to the area within it, which was open to the sky. The hangings of the courtyard were supported by upright pillars of acacia wood, overlain with gold, secured by sockets of copper. tabernacle

Decoration & Architecture

This oblong consisted of two squares, each 50 by 50 cubits. The western square contained the Holy Place, the Sanctuary proper, at the western end of which was situated the Holy of Holies, divided off from the Holy Place by a curtain. A screen was placed at the entrance to the Holy Place to divide it off from rest of the courtyard and another screen at the entrance to the courtyard. There were thus three separate entrances, each leading to a more sacred spot: the entrance to the courtyard, with a screen in front, the entrance to the Holy Place, with a screen in front, and the entrance to the Holy of Holies, with the curtain in front. Only the priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place and no one was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, except the High Priest on Yom Kippur. 

The Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies behind the curtain. In the Holy Place there was a table in the North, the menorah in the south, and a golden altar, the altar of incense, placed in front of the curtain in front of the Ark at the entrance to the Holy of Holies. The table and altar were made the made of wood overlain with gold but the menorah was of solid gold. In the eastern square of the courtyard were placed the wooden altar covered with copper, upon which the sacrifices were burnt and their blood sprinkled, and a laver for the washing of the hands and feet of the priests.

The Holy Place and the Holy of Holies were draped with hangings which completely covered the whole area. There were four separate layers of hangings, one on top of the other. The innermost hanging, the one that could be seen by whoever came into the Sanctuary, was made of fine linen decorated with figures of cherubim, as was the curtain in front of the Ark. Over the hanging of fine linen was placed a coarser hanging made of goat's hair and over this a hanging of tanned rams' skins and over this a hanging of the skins of tehashim, a word of uncertain meaning, often translated "dolphins." The outer hangings of leather seem to have been intended as a protection from the elements. These hangings were supported by gilded pillars of acacia wood set in silver sockets. On each of the three walls (the fourth, at the eastern side, had an opening to form the entrance) there were five gilded cross-bars of acacia wood placed into ring-like holders in the uprights in order to secure the structure. The whole structure was designed to be dismantled whenever the Israelites journeyed onwards and to be set up again wherever they encamped.

Biblical Accuracy

There are difficulties to be faced throughout the narrative. Where, for example, did the Israelites in the wilderness find all the wood, gold, silver, and copper needed for the construction? Moreover, the measurements seem idealistic rather than practical, since it is hard to see how a real structure with these measurements could stand at all securely. Consequently, on the older critical view, the Exodus account is unhistorical, an artificial reconstruction based on Solomon's Temple. But more recent scholarship has demonstrated that a number of ancient civilizations before the wilderness period did know of similar structures so that, while some of the details may well have been added at a later date, there is no reason to deny that the Israelites in the wilderness really did have a portable Tabernacle in which they offered sacrifices.

Cassuto has noted that the pagan temple was the residence of the god, who was supplied with a throne, a table at which he ate, a candelabrum to give him light, a bed on which he slept, and a chest of drawers for his clothes. In the Israelite Tabernacle there was nothing so anthropomorphic as a bed and chest of drawers and the table was for the shewbread eaten by the priests. The menorah was not placed in the Holy of Holies since God, unlike the pagan deities, does not require any light. The Ark, containing the tablets of stone, took the place of the throne upon which the divine presence rested. Thus the Tabernacle may indeed have owed something to the pagan temples but was transformed and adapted to monotheistic religion.

Other more recent scholars have noted that the Hebrew word used for the Tabernacle is mishkan, from a root meaning "to dwell temporarily." Thus the Tabernacle, in which God resides temporally, so to speak, represents the two ideas which the philosophers refer to as transcendence and immanence. God is beyond the universe but He comes down to "tabernacle" there.

Religious Symbolism

The Tabernacle lends itself easily to symbolism of various kinds. The Rabbis of the Midrash noted the connection between the Tabernacle and the cosmos, and modern scholars have pointed out that words used in the account of the Tabernacle resemble closely the creation narrative at the beginning of the book of Genesis. The Tabernacle, on this view, was intended as symbolic of the cosmos: the innermost hanging with its decoration of cherubims representing the sky and the angels, God's messengers, and the structure itself the earth and all that is in it.

In the account itself it is stated that the purpose of the Tabernacle was for God to take up His abode among the people: "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25: 8). A later Rabbinic homily observes that the verse does not say: "that I may dwell in it but that I may dwell among them,"to denote that the purpose of the Tabernacle was not for God to reside therein but to encourage the people to make room for God in their hearts. Throughout the history of Jewish thought, holy places were seen either as containing somehow the objective presence of the divine or as sacred by association.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.