Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5764/ March 20, 2003


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Of Time and Place


Menahem Ben-Yashar

Dept. of Bible and Askelon College


As we conclude the readings in Exodus that deal with building the Tabernacle, let us examine the relationship between the Tabernacle and the Sabbath.   This subject is mentioned twice.   The first time, in the Lord’s commandment to Moses regarding erection of the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-31), which concludes with a technical directive prohibiting work on the Tabernacle on the Sabbath (31:12-17); here it is accompanied by an explanation that the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant attesting that the Lord sanctifies Israel.   Building the Tabernacle, which itself also symbolizes this sanctity, shall not supercede the sign of this sacred covenant.

This directive is mentioned again at the beginning of Parashat VaYakhel:  before Moses transmits G-d’s commandment regarding construction of the Tabernacle to the Israelites, there is a prohibition against work on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:1-3).   The technical limitation of the Sabbath is presented before the commandment of the Tabernacle itself in order to preclude a situation in which the Israelites might forget that they are obliged to cease from this work on the Sabbath, because of their enthusiasm and sense of urgency in erecting a Tabernacle for the Lord in their midst – considering that this Tabernacle was also in atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. [1]   Moreover, they were not yet accustomed to observing the Sabbath, for only a few months had passed since they were commanded regarding it, along with the commandments concerning the manna (Ex. 16:5, 22-30), [2] and again at Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:7-10).

Is the Sabbath Holier than the Tabernacle?

It might seem that the sanctity of time – the Sabbath – is greater than the sanctity of place – the Tabernacle – and supercedes it.  But it is only ostensibly so, for we have the passage commanding us to offer up the regular burnt offerings and the additional ones (Num. 28-29), even on the Sabbath: “On the Sabbath day:  two yearling lambs…” (Num. 28:9).  Not only these are to be offered on the Sabbath, rather, they are “in addition to the regular burnt offering” (Num. 28:10).  Our Rabbis [3] learned from this that every public offering which has a fixed time supercedes the Sabbath.   We conclude:  building the Tabernacle is preparation for something sacred, yet the work itself is profane, hence not to be carried out on the Sabbath. The place and the structure did not become sanctified until the Divine Presence filled the completed Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-35).  Once the Tabernacle was sanctified a balance was struck:   offerings and tasks that could not be put off would supercede the Sabbath, but every offering or task that could be postponed to the next day would not be sacrificed on the Sabbath.

This point is made in apposition to the tendencies evident in recent generations towards viewing the sanctity of time in Judaism as preferential over the sanctity of place, since the sanctity which comes from the source of eternal spiritual Being is close to the dimension of time, which is abstract, eternal and spiritual; in contrast, the dimension of space is entirely dependent on matter, is tangible and temporal.

The Dimension of Time

In principle we can say that Einstein showed us that time is also a dimension, the fourth dimension of the universe.  Indeed, in the imaginary situation (for us) of the absence of a material universe with the dimension of space, the concept of time also becomes meaningless.   But when the Torah seeks to sanctify the lives of Jews in this world, it necessarily applies the precepts of sanctity to all the dimensions in which human beings live and act:   the dimension of space and of time.

The preference given to sanctifying time over space, without ignoring the function played by material objects in worshipping the Creator, is emphasized and illustrated by Prof. A. J. Heschel in his book on the Sabbath. [4]   One of his arguments is that the sanctity of the Sabbath dates back to the creation of the universe; the first hierarchy in the Torah, the hierarchy of Creation, is crowned by the sanctity of the Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3).  In contrast, the place for sacred worship was not set until the time of David, and at his initiative; the Torah makes no mention whatsoever of Jerusalem as a sacred place, but quite the contrary, refers to “every place where I cause My name to be mentioned” (Ex. 20:21). [5]

What Came First?

While we can choose to ignore the homilies of the Sages that date the sanctity of the Temple in Jerusalem back to the time of Creation – such as the legend that the world originated from the Foundation Stone, [6] and that Adam offered sacrifices on the altar in Jerusalem [7] – we must remember that there is a difference in the way the two kinds of sanctity apply, even if one type of sanctity does not have preference over the other.  The sanctity of the Sabbath was proclaimed and established with the creation of the universe, but this sanctity only existed in theory until it became sanctified in practice when the manna was given to the Israelites:  “He blessed and sanctified it with the manna.” [8]   The sanctity of the Sabbath, of time, was preceded by words of praise for the sanctified place in the Song on the Sea:  “You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, ... the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established” (Ex. 15:17), whether the reference was to the Temple Mount or to the entire holy mountain, i.e., the land of Israel.

Time is Universal, Place is Specific

In contrast to the sanctity of time, the sanctity of place is particular to the Jewish people and dependent on them.  Indeed, G- d’s first word and first command to the first of our patriarchs was:  “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 11:1).  Henceforth the Torah, the Prophets, and many of the Writings are a blending of history and geography, that is, history in relationship to geography:  the covenant between G-d and Israel which promises dwelling in the land of Israel, but also, in the event of violation of the Covenant, ordains exile from this land to foreign realms. [9]

In view of this, two parallel passages ought to be considered more closely:   the passage on the festivals (Lev. 23), and the passage on sabbatical and jubilee years and redemption (Lev.   25).  These passages are parallel insofar as they are built on the number seven and on seven repetitions of seven, concluding with fifty.   All the festivals—celebrations of time-- commanded in Leviticus 23, save for the Sabbath, apply primarily “when you enter the land that I am giving to you” (Lev. 23:10).   The passage on sabbatical and jubilee years, which concerns sanctity of place, the land of Israel, arranges them according to a cycle of time.

The highest sanctity is attained by Israel when sanctity of time and place coincide; i.e., when on the sacred day, the Day of Atonement, the person elected to perform the sacred service, the high priest, enters the sacred precinct, the Holy of Holies, where the tablets of the covenant given at Mount Sinai and hewn from Mount Sinai rest (making the Holy of Holies a sort of continuation of Mount Sinai).   Just as Moses “ate no bread and drank no water” (Ex. 34:28) on Mount Sinai, [10] a G- dly place, so too the High Priest fasts on the day that he enters the Holy of Holies.  Since he endangers himself by entering this precinct in order to atone for the community of Israel, all Israel fast along with him.

After the Destruction

The tendency to prefer the abstract sanctity of time over the concrete sanctity of place stems not only from cosmopolitan spiritual trends.  Quite the contrary, these trends are sustained among us by the reality of many generations of exile, i.e., actual separation from the places that were sanctified for worship of the Creator, and in religious terms, the removal of the Divine Presence. [11]   Ideally, with the Temple standing, the place of the synagogue was side by side with the Temple, primarily as a place of gathering to read the people the Torah; after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue came to replace the Temple.

In the classic formulation, prayers came “in place of” sacrifice, [12] i.e., at the time that the regular sacrificial offerings were made, the people participating in the deputation (anshe ma’amad) prayed, both those who came to Jerusalem and those who remained in their own cities, and others prayed along with them and thus participated in the sacrifice.  After the destruction of the Temple sacrifice became superfluous, as it were.  Indeed, in omitting the passage in which we pray for restoration of sacrificial worship to Zion, the editors of Conservative and Reform prayer books candidly reveal “that which the heart dare not disclose to the mouth.” [13]   Our prayers incorporate the sanctity of time, which even now exists along with the sanctity of place, although since our return to our land the sanctity of place has been realized only in part.   For, in the absence of a Temple and with the majority of the Jewish people not living on their land, the commandments that concern the land are only partially observed, and some of them are binding only by rabbinic fiat. [14]   For example:  in the Shemoneh Esreh benediction and in grace after meals we mention the sanctity of time pertaining to special days in the request that sacrificial worship in Jerusalem be restored.  Many communities also recite, “Next year in Jerusalem (rebuilt),” at the conclusion of services on the Day of Atonement and at the end of the Seder, two festivals that used to focus around the Temple.  Another example:   we greet the sanctity of the Sabbath with a set of psalms beginning with the words, “A psalm.   A song; for the Sabbath day” (Ps. 92:1) and concluding with the words, “holiness befits Your house, O Lord, for all times” (Ps. 93:5), closing words that extol the Creator in the dimensions of time and space.  Likewise the hymn Lekha Dodi, [15] greeting the Sabbath, with its refrain, the first two verses and last verse singing in praise of the Sabbath bride, and the intermediate six verses expressing prayerful yearning for Jerusalem restored to its glory.   Thus sanctity of place and of time are interwoven.

As we said, both the experience of exile and the winds of emotion and ideology, whether consciously or unconsciously, have toned down our relationship to sanctity of place.   This is bemoaned by the author of Lamentations, in his prayer upon seeing the First Temple going up in flames:   “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!” (Lament. 5:21).

[1] See Sifre on Deuteronomy, 1:  “The gold of the Tabernacle will come atone for the gold of the Calf.”   The same motif occurs in Tanhumah, Pekudei 2 and in parallel texts.

[2] Or at Marah (cf. Ex. 15:23-26), as in the words of Rabbi Joshua in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Va-Yehi be- Shalah 1; likewise, as said by Rabbi Judah in Shabbat 87b, and Sanhedrin 56b.  On the reason for this view, see Tosefta, Shabbat, loc. sit., s.v. “ka-asher tzivekha.”

[3] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Tractate De- Pishah 5; Sifre on Numbers, 65; ibid., 142.

[4] A. J. Heschel, The Sabbath, New York 1952; 1962; 1963.

[5] Heschel,   pp. 9, 79. 

[6] Tosefta Kippurim 2(3), 14; Yoma 54b; JT Yoma 5, 3, 42c.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 34.9.  Note that here the homily places the sanctity of Jerusalem earlier, in contrast to what is spelled out in the Bible, in opposition to Heschel’s view (see note 5 above, p. 79) about a gradual transition from sanctity of place to sanctity of time.  One must always bear in mind that there existed a variety of views in the world of the Sages.

[8] Genesis Rabbah 11.2.

[9] As opposed to Heschel’s assertion ( pp. 6-7), that the Bible focuses more on history than geography.

[10] Cf. Nahmanides on Exodus 25:1 and 40:34.

[11] For more on this concept see: Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Masekhet de-Pishah 14; Megillah 29a; Leviticus Rabbah 32.9;   Lamentations Rabbah 1.6, 1.19, and elsewhere in Lamentations Rabbah.

[12] Berakhot 26b.

[13] Found in the Zohar, Hodesh Bereshit 14b.

[14] Cf. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Terumah 1.26; Hilkhot Bikkurim 2.1; Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel 10.8; Hilkhot Beit ha- Behirah 6.16.

[15] Composed by the kabbalist poet, Rabbi Solomon Ha-Levi Al- Kabez, who lived in Safed in the sixteenth century.