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.

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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.