Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Terumah 5766/ March 4, 2006

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,



The Blueprint for the Tabernacle


Dr. Shulamit Laderman


Interdepartmental Division of  Jewish Studies

Department of Jewish Art


When Moses ascended Mount Sinai and entered the cloud, remaining there forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:15-18), he was privileged to be shown a special blueprint which he was to follow in building the Tabernacle and all its furnishings.   On Mount Sinai he was told (Ex. 25:8-9, 40):

Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it….   Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain.

Many generations of scholars wondered about the nature and essence of the divine pattern that Moses saw on the mountain.   What architectural design did the Holy One, blessed be He, have to show Moses at Mount Sinai?   Philo, Josephus, midrashic sources and others all took the description of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, and the sacrificial rites associated with it, to have deeper meaning that the face value. They turned the Tabernacle and its vessels into cosmic ideas which could be found in the Tabernacle and in the act of Creation of the universe. Indeed, the Torah provides many hints at a connection between the accounts of creation, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the instructions for the Tabernacle and their implementation.



Revelation at Mount Sinai

Construction of the Tabernacle

“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11).

“The Presence of the Lord abode [using same root, shakhan, as the Hebrew for Tabernacle] on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days.   On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud…   Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Ex. 24:16-18).

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle (mishkan).   Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34-35).


In the story of Creation we are told that the Lord made heaven and earth in six days; in the revelation at Mount Sinai Scripture notes that the cloud covered the mountain for six days, and only on the seventh day was Moses called to received the Torah and the instructions for the Tabernacle; upon conclusion of the work on the Tabernacle, the cloud, representing the Presence of the Lord and covering the Tabernacle, is mentioned once more.

Buber notes in connection with these verses that G-d, who created the universe and placed human beings in it, now commands His children to erect a tent in which He will dwell in their midst. [1]   As he says, “Just as Creation is the primal Revelation, so the secret of Creation reaches the cloud of Revelation.  By building the Sanctuary Man is called upon to become the partner of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the act of Creation.” [2]

Three modern biblical commentators, Cassuto, [3] Buber, [4] and Nehamah Leibowitz [5] note the parallel phrases in these Scriptural verses as proof of a connection between the meaning of the Tabernacle and the significance of Creation.   They note that the verb ‘a-s-h, “to make,” is repeated seven times in the account of Creation, and close to two hundred times in the account of the Tabernacle.   In this way, Human creation is juxtaposed to divine creation, with the emphasis on the fact that the Tabernacle was made by human beings, but not however they liked, rather according to the plan shown to Moses on Mount Sinai.   This is repeatedly emphasized in Scripture, from the first command to build the Tabernacle through the conclusion of the work:  “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings” (Ex. 25:8-9).   “Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain” (Ex. 25:40). “Then set up the Tabernacle according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain” (Ex. 26:30).  “As you were shown on the mountain, so shall they be made” (Ex. 27:8).

Philo, who lived during the Second Temple period, described the design of the Tabernacle, its furnishings and the garments of the High Priest at great length.  His declared objective was to reveal to his readers the hidden secrets of the Tabernacle and their implications.  According to his view, the entire world is considered the temple of the true G-d, [6] and the structure of the Tabernacle/Tent made by Moses at  G-d’s command symbolizes all of Creation. He notes that the ark of the covenant was the focal point of the sanctity of the Tabernacle, for it contains the Ten Commandments uttered by the Almighty, and therefore is a sort of “vessel of the laws.” [7]  

The ark was covered with gold inside and out, thus symbolizing the outer world that we see openly, which can be known through the senses, and the inner world that is hidden and unseen, which can be known only through the intellect. [8]   The cover of the ark, called the kapporet, was the base upon which sat two winged forms called cherubim.   The cherubim faced each other, since they symbolized the two halves of the heavens – that which is above the earth and that which is beneath it.  In Philo’s work, “On the Cherubim,” [9] he noted that the cherubim are an allegorical depiction of the two lofty and sublime traits of the Lord – creation and sovereignty.   The name Elohim, G-d, reflects the trait of creation by which He made the universe and established its order, and the name Adon, Lord, reflects the trait of sovereignty with which He rules His creatures.

According to Philo, the lampstand situated on the south alludes to the movement of the heavenly bodies, since the sun, moon and other heavenly bodies orbit in the south.  The seven branches of the lampstand, three on each side and one in the center, bearing seven cups and lamps, are “symbols of the zodiac.”   The center of the lampstand, like the sun, is in the fourth position, providing light to the three above it and the three below it. [10]

The table for the showbread also had cosmological significance according to Philo’s interpretation.  The table was situated on the north side, with the showbread that was placed on it representing the winds of the north that provide food with the help of the rain that descends from heaven to earth. [11]   Every seventh day the loaves of bread were laid out on the table, and the total number of loaves equaled the number of months of the year.  The bread was laid out in two arrays, six in each array, with each array paralleling two important seasons of the year:  spring, when the trees begin to produce their fruit, and fall, when the fruits ripen and sowing is begun again.  Hence the two arrays of bread placed on the table symbolized nature proceeding through its yearly cycle and providing its gifts to mankind. [12]

Similar allegorical interpretations for the Sanctuary appear in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, written towards the end of the first century C. E.  According to Josephus, all the instructions for making the Tabernacle and its furnishings were given in imitation of the entire world.   Dividing the thirty-cubit long tent into three parts and allotting two parts to the common priests as an open, non-sacred area, symbolized the earth and the sea, which are open to the passage of all creatures.  The third part, the holy of holies, which was set aside for G-d alone, symbolized the heavens, which are not open to man.  The twelve loaves of showbread, as in Philo’s allegory, symbolized the twelve months of the year.  The seventy component parts of the golden lampstand are compared to seventy planets.  The cloths of the Tabernacle, woven of four sorts of thread, symbolized the four elements:   the fine linen symbolized the earth, since flax grows on it; purple dyed wool symbolized the sea, since it turns red from the blood of the fish; the blue symbolized the air, and the crimson represented fire.

Similar ideas to those set forth by Philo and Josephus regarding the symbolic connection between the Tabernacle and the heavenly world and creation of the universe also find expression in midrashic literature (such as Numbers Rabbah, Midrash Tadshe, Genesis Rabbati, Pesikta Rabbati, Tanhuma and Exodus Rabbah). This idea received lyrical expression in Hebrew liturgical poems, and was used in Jewish and Christian art from the end of the Greek and Roman period through the Middle Ages.


[1] M. Buber, Darko shel Mikra – Iyyunim be-Defusei Signon ba-Tanakh, Jerusalem 1978, p. 56. More on the paradox of the Sanctuary can be found in M. Buber, On the Bible, ed. N.N. Glatzer (Syracuse, 1982), pp.69-70. See too the essay “The Man of Today and The Jewish Bible,” ibid., pp. 1-13, and N. Leibowitz, Studies (see note 5 ), who refers to Buber.

[2] Buber (loc. sit.) arrives at this expression according to a remark in the Talmud based on the language used in Scripture, cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 10a, and Niddah 31a.

[3] U. Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. I. Abrahams (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 319-372.

[4] Buber, Darko shel Mikra, pp. 54-58.

[5] N. Leibowitz, Studies in  Shemot [Exodus] (Jerusalem, 1976), pp. 471-486.

[6] F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, eds., The Works of Philo (Cambridge Mass: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press; London:  William Heinemann, 1929-1953), Vols. 1-10.   Ralph Marcus, ed., Vols. 10-12.    On the Special Laws 1.67.

[7] Philo, ibid., I, The Life of Moses 2.97.

[8] Philo, ibid., 2.58.

[9] Philo, ibid., On the Cherubim, par. 21-26 gives a more detailed first explanation, also cosmological, according to which the allusion is to the cyclic movement of the entire heavens.

[10] Philo, loc. sit., 1, The Life of Moses 2.102;

[11] Philo, loc. sit., 1, The Life of Moses 2.104.

[12] Philo, loc. sit., 2, On the Special Laws 1.172.