The Ark Finds its Home in the Tabernacle
a.k.a. Parashat Terumah
God told Moses to take offerings from the people on His behalf. The people were to
bring Him gold, silver, bronze, fine linen, skins, wood, oils, spices, incense and precious stones. They were
also to build a sanctuary so that God could dwell among the people. God then specified the design of this
God said that an ark should be made of acacia wood and it should be decorated with
gold. This ark would be carried by four poles inserted into rings of gold. God’s written agreement with
Israel was to be stored inside the ark.
Two cherubim of gold were to be placed at the ends of a seat made of gold and this
seat was to be placed on top of the ark. God would meet with Moses in the space between the two cherubim and
hand down his instructions.
A table of acacia wood was to be made and it, too, had to be decorated with gold.
Poles were to be inserted through gold rings to carry the table.
Plates and dishes to hold incense were to be made as well as gold vessels to pour
liquid offerings. And showbread always had to be put on the table.
The people also had to make a seven-branched lamp-stand of gold, with three branches
on either side of a central shaft. It was to be made of one piece of hammered gold. Seven lamps were to be
made to provide light.
The tabernacle had to contain ten curtains of fine linen decorated with cherubim and
coloured blue, purple and red. Each curtain should contain 50 loops that stood alongside the next curtain’s
50 loops, and the curtains should then be clasped together.
Curtains of goat hair would form a tent to cover the tabernacle. Eleven curtains in
all were to be joined together through clasps inserted through 50 adjacent loops. The tent should be covered
with rams’ skins and goatskins.
Upright wooden frames of acacia wood had to be made for the tabernacle with silver
bases beneath them. The frames were to be overlaid with gold.
A veil of blue, purple and red linen decorated with cherubim had to be made. This veil
had to be hung on four pillars of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The Ark of the Covenant had to be brought
within the veiled area. The veil, then, separated the holy place from the most holy place. The mercy seat, or
lid, had to be placed upon the ark.
The table had to be set outside the veil on the north side of the tabernacle and the
lamp stand had to be placed on the south side.
A screen of blue, purple and red linen would serve as the door of the tent. Five
pillars of acacia wood overlaid with gold on bronze bases would support the screen.
The altar was to be made of acacia wood according to set specifications. It would be
square, with horns at its four corners. Pots would receive ashes from the altar. The spades, basins, forks
and fire pans used at the altar would be made of bronze. There would also be a bronze grating under the
altar’s ledge. The altar’s poles would be of acacia wood overlaid with bronze. They would be placed on the
two sides of the altar for carrying.
The court of the tabernacle would be decorated with linen hangings. A screen of blue,
purple and red linen would serve as the gate of the courtyard.
The court had to be a hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and five cubits high. All
utensils and items used in the tabernacle and the court were to be made of bronze.
God told Moses to command the people to bring him pure beaten olive oil to be used for
a perpetually burning lamp.
Aaron, his sons and their descendants had to remain in the tent from evening to
morning to tend to the Ark of the Covenant
Commentary on the 19th parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the five books of
Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
MS: As a non-believer, you are not going to appreciate the profundity of this
portion of the Law, Sigmund. It celebrates the coming of God into the presence of the Jewish people and
dwelling among them. The physical home of God’s law is described here. It is a passage of great mystical
power and beauty, but you will find in it nothing but a laundry list of
SAS: You’re wrong about that!
Yes, the stipulation about linen curtains reminds me of laundry, but let’s be honest – there’s nothing
mundane or homely about either the curtaining or the other decorations stipulated by God. He was clearly
going for a state-of-the-art tent in which to keep his rulebook and he wasn’t leaving anything to chance with
the decorations or the furnishings.
MS: Please try to show more
respect for the word of God and how it is to be revered. We are talking here about the Lord of all Creation.
Nothing less than the perfect design and perfect furnishings would have sufficed for his sanctuary.
SAS: Yes, there’s little
point in false modesty when you’re the creator of the universe. Everything belongs to God, after all, and so
He was entitled to ask the people to whip Him up the finest tent imaginable. But in your story, you have your
God walk straight into a trap, and you can’t even see it.
MS: I have no idea what
you’re referring to, but I can guess that it’s going to make me cringe. You’re going to blunder through this
text and try to reduce its mathematical and metaphysical mysteries to banalities.
SAS: Look, God tells Moses in
minute detail what dimensions the tabernacle should have, how it should be crafted and decorated, even how
its various features should be joined together, with colours that ….
MS: I don’t know what you’re getting at.
SAS: I’m getting at this. Your God isn’t just the God of “intelligent design”. He’s
the God of “interior design” too. Thanks to your passage, we can pin Him down to a specific and precise
architectural and artistic aesthetic. God is revealing to us His taste. No self-respecting divinity
should ever do that, because now a million interior decorators and designers will chuckle and snort about the
strange sort of structure the would-be God-about-town thinks He should flounce around in.
MS: This is simply
outrageous! How can you even bring up the idea of style and fashion in relation to God, let alone describe
Him as flouncing? You miss the point of the mishkan. It is
intended to provide the sanctuary of the tabernacle for the holy ark in which the Torah is kept. It is in this sense that God can be said to dwell among His people. This
mishkan is to be built according to dimensions and proportions of
mystical significance. The design is perfect according to God’s mystical template of perfection. The colours
have sacred meanings too. The interplay of wooden structures and gold, silver and bronze adornments are
appropriate to its symbolic value.
SAS: Nonsense – we have here
a precise description of what Jewish architects, decorators and concept-men of the time thought the ideal
sanctuary and tabernacle should look like. Then you probably chipped in with some ideas of your own. Through
your very detail and precision, though, you stamped God with a specific, time-bound aesthetic and made a
mockery of Him by fixing – for all time – His aesthetic taste in the building domain. But there’s something
worse happening here …
MS: What you’ve said is
already blasphemous, so what could possibly be worse?
SAS: This – God has virtually
disobeyed one of His own commandments! After specifically telling the people that under no circumstances are
they to make any kind of physical representation of Him, He instructs them to build his law and his spirit a
mobile home that perfectly represents his ideal.
MS: This is arrant nonsense!
The tabernacle, you illogical meddler, is no image of God.
God instructed us not to make a
graven image of Him. The mishkan is the home of the Torah.
God’s spirit dwells in this place.
SAS: You’ve taken me a little
too literally, Methuselah. My point is that the design of the tabernacle reveals the mind of God in all its
pernickety detail and decorative pettiness. He is clearly a fusser, and his fussiness extends to poles,
curtains, utensils and the like. This, my friend, is anthropomorphism – making God into man! God here comes
over as a detail-obsessed first-home builder stipulating, in increasingly painful fashion, what each room
must look like, and woe betide if the draper miscalculates the length of the drapes!
MS: What’s wrong with God
being precise? His laws by which the universe operates are exact. God’s perfection is timeless, not
time-bound. As for your charge of anthropomorphism, you continue to miss the point: the tabernacle is the
physical manifestation of the deep spiritual regard in which we are to hold our laws, and our
SAS: If that’s the excuse for
this vainglorious mishkan, then it still doesn’t account for the
particulars of the adornments. Surely, you must admit these are man’s concepts, materials and colours, not
God’s. These are human criteria; what else could they be?
MS: Look, Sigmund. Try to get
around your spiritual blindness here and use your brain. Why do you think God ordered the mishkan to be portable? When you have to leave in a hurry, and you need to
take only your most important and treasured possessions, they had better be easy to carry and
SAS: I’ll give him that – he
is at least onto the mobile thing. You’re right, it’s important for us wandering Jews to be able to get up
and go at a moment’s notice. I still think you are recreating God in man’s image, as a designer of portable
real estate! It’s shameful!
MS: The mishkan is a symbolic home for the Torah, you fool! As the most important
symbol in Judaism, we need to treat our Torah in its physical form with as much reverence as we do its
insights. God’s presence dwells where the Torah is valued. Now
I’ve truly had enough of this! I’m going home!
SAS: To your sanctuary? What
colour are your curtains? Blue, purple and red?
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The Jews of Palestine from 1260 to
The Mamluks, who were originally slave soldiers converted to Islam, once a slave caste
but then later very powerful, ruled Egypt (and its environs, including Palestine) from 1260 to 1516. During
their reign they persecuted the Jews of Palestine. From 1267, partly as a result of the arrival and
settlement of Nachmanides, the famous Spanish Jewish scholar, there has been a strong Jewish presence in
Jerusalem, lasting till Jordan’s occupation in 1948. Nachmanides later settled in Acre, near what today is
Haifa, where he taught a devoted circle of students and drew Jewish scholars to him.
By the end of the 15th century, there were thirty Jewish communities in
Palestine. Safed (in the north, near to the Sea of Gallilee) became a leading spiritual centre, and it was
there that the study of Kabbalah (a strand of Jewish mysticism) blossomed. Kabbalah combined theology,
cosmology and a religious account of evil. The study of Kabbalah became hugely popular and influential among
the Jews in Palestine. Safed flourished as a trading centre, and in 1577, the very first printing press in
Asia was installed there. It was this Hebrew press that disseminated the Jewish learning that had grown up
Safed continued to prosper until an earthquake in 1759, which wiped out at least 2,000
people, some 190 of them Jews. The community was crippled as a result. Today Safed still retains its aura of
ancient learning, art and culture.
On the broader front, Napoleon Bonaparte, during the siege of Acre in 1799, had
drafted a proclamation declaring a Jewish state in Palestine. Since Napoleon was subsequently defeated by the
British, this proclamation was never given force.
From 1882, a number of pre-Zionist Jewish migrations to Palestine began. Mizrahi Jews
from Yemen, Syria, and Persia began to move to Palestine, establishing the base for the embryonic Jewish
state later to be envisioned by the Zionists in Eastern Europe. The Mizrahi (meaning eastern) Jews had been
established in a number of locations in Asia and Africa, part of the Middle East, where they alternately
thrived or suffered, depending on the dispensation of the rulers. Most of the Mizrahi Jews fled to Palestine
to escape persecution in the surrounding countries.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
CHAYA: You know, I never
realised there was such a long and unbroken tradition of Jews living in Palestine.
DAD: Oh yes, there have
always been some Jews in Palestine. That’s part of the reason that the Zionists have given for the right of
Jews to live there.
BEN: Well, by the same
reasoning, lots of other people have the right to be there too.
DAD: That’s true, but history
is probably only one piece of the claim that people have when they make the case for why they have a right to
a piece of land. The issues are very complicated. Remember, some claim a biblical right of return. They say
the land of Israel was promised to them in the bible.
BEN: But that’s just one of a
collection of myths that we live by.
CHAYA: Look, this is an
argument that can’t be clinched on historical grounds. Even so, it’s amazing what a long history the Jews
have had in the area known as Palestine.
BEN: It’s also interesting
that the tradition of settlement and return emanates from the Mizrahi Jews, the easterners, and not from the
European Zionists, whose Judaism became culturally far more European than their Mizrahi and Sephardic
CHAYA: What are you saying?
That they practised their Judaism differently?
BEN: Well, the Mizrahi Jews
were more like the people they lived among, many of them Islamic, all of them middle eastern. You can see it
in their cooking, and the language they spoke among themselves. Many of the European Jews saw themselves as
European, which they had, in fact, become.
DAD: It’s true that even
today in Israel, there is a certain cultural difference between Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. It’s
sometimes a cause of some friction, but there is no doubt that they all see Israel as the Jewish
CHAYA: The other fact I
didn’t know was that the study of the Kabbalah arose in Palestine. I had always thought it was an Eastern
European strand of the scholarly tradition.
DAD: Well, actually, Kabbalah
is a tradition that, according to the Jewish narrative, started in Talmudic times. It was kept highly secret,
to protect it, and its practitioners. It went underground for many centuries. As a matter of fact, there were
both Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions of Kabbalah.
CHAYA: But not all Jewish
thinkers have had positive attitudes to the Kabbalah tradition.
Hasn’t it been a source of tension among spiritual and philosophical leaders?
DAD: You’re quite right. The
study of Kabbalah is a much debated issue and a source of a good deal of conflict among different Jewish
traditions. Generally, because of its mystical tradition, the Kabbalah was a source of concern to Jewish
BEN: Well, it’s based on all
sorts of weird and wonderful cosmological and numerological ideas. This is the modern world – we don’t need
DAD: There are those who
believe that the Kabbalah contains the collective wisdom of the ages and we can learn a great deal by its
CHAYA: Unless you’re a woman,
or unmarried, or under 40, in which case that knowledge is too dangerous for you.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Seven things shorten a man’s life: anger and envy, lust and pride, gossip,
debauchery and idleness.
· Our ears often do not hear what our tongues utter.
· Many hands break fortresses.
· Honour is measured by the one who gives it, not by the one who receives
· Laughter is healthy – doctors prescribe it.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them. The
significance of tonight’s subject of study is a matter of debate. Few can doubt, however, that his story is a
strange one. Many of us would add “tragic too”.
Edgardo Mortara (1851-1940)
Edgardo Mortara was born in Bologna was a Jewish-born boy who died a Catholic
priest. He became the centre of an international controversy
when, as a six-year-old, he was seized from his Jewish parents by the Papal authorities and taken to be
raised as a Catholic. The Mortara case was the catalyst for far-reaching political changes, and its
repercussions are still being felt within the Catholic Church and in relations between the Church and Jewish
organizations. On the evening of 23 June 1858, police of the Papal States, of which Bologna was then part,
arrived to seize six-year-old Edgardo, and transport him to Rome be raised by the Catholic
Church. Anna Morisi, the Mortaras’ servant, had baptised Edgardo
while he was ill because she feared that he would otherwise die and go to Hell. Under the law of the Papal
States, Edgardo’s baptism, even if illegal, was valid, and made him a Christian. Pius IX took a personal
interest in the case, and all appeals to the Church were rebuffed. The incident soon received extensive
publicity both in Italy and internationally. In the Kingdom of Piedmont, largest independent state in Italy
and the centre of the movement for Italian unification, both the government and the press used the case to
reinforce their claims that the Papal States were ruled by mediaeval obscurantists and should be liberated
from Papal rule. The Mortara case served to harden the already prevalent opinion in both Italy and abroad
that the rule of the Pope over a large area of central Italy was an anachronism and an affront to human
rights in an age of liberalism and rationalism.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week
with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.