The Essence Of The Sanctuary


What is the real purpose of the Sanctuary — the forerunner of the Holy Temple — and its significance to Judaism? Our question is a crucial one, especially when we take note that the last five Torah portions of Exodus deal with the details and precise architectural plans of the Sanctuary and its accoutrements. Moreover, for the desert generation, the Sanctuary was literally erected in the center of the Tribes, symbolizing its place at the center of the Jewish people.

Ramban (Nachmanides), noting that the commandment to build the Sanctuary directly follows the Revelation at Sinai, maintains that the very function of the Sanctuary was to continue the Revelation, to build a central Temple from which the Divine voice would continue to emanate and direct the Israelites. Therefore, the very first aspect of the Sanctuary that the Bible describes is the Ark, repository of the Tablets of stone, over which is the kapporet with its two cherubs. The Torah testifies in the name of God: “And I shall meet with you there, and I shall tell you from above the kapporet … which is on top of the Ark of Testimony, everything which I will command you” [Exodus 25:22].

Moses even reiterates this notion of an ongoing Revelation when he reviews the event at Sinai in his farewell address to the Israelites [Deuteronomy 5:19].

This is likewise emphasized in our classical blessing that is said when receiving an aliyah to the Torah: “Who … has given [past tense] us His Torah. Blessed are You O Lord who gives [present tense] the Torah.”

The place where the Revelation continued was originally between the cherubs above the Ark of the Sanctuary; it therefore is quite logical that throughout the Second Temple era — in the absence of the sacred Tablets and the gift of prophecy — the Great Sanhedrin, the sage interpreters of God’s word, sat within the Holy Temple in the office of the “hewn stone” or the “decisions.” (The Hebrew word “gazit” means to cut or decide, to chisel a stone, or to decisively cut through a problem). It is, after all, the function of the Oral Torah to keep God’s word alive and relevant in every time and every situation. Apparently Ramban would insist that the main purpose of the Sanctuary was to teach and inspire Israel and humanity with the eternal word of the Divine. From this perspective, after the destruction of the Second Temple, it is the synagogues and study houses — our central institutions of Torah learning — which are the legitimate heirs to the Sanctuary.

The mystical and chasidic interpretations see another purpose in the Sanctuary: the building of a home in which God and Israel (and ultimately, all of humanity) will dwell together. The Revelation at Sinai symbolizes the betrothal-engagement between God and Israel, with the Tablets and biblical laws being the marriage contract. The commandment to erect a Sanctuary enjoins us to build the nuptial house in which God (the “bridegroom”) unites with Israel (His “bride”).

Hence, the accoutrements of the Sanctuary are the Ark (repository for the Tablets), the Menorah, and a table for the showbread (the furnishings of a home), as well as an altar. The heir to the destroyed Holy Temples is the Jewish home, wherever it may be. It is because Judaism sees the home as the “mother of all religious institutions” that home-centered family ritual celebrations bear a striking parallel to the rituals of the Holy Temple. The most obvious example of this is that mystical and magical evening known as the Passover seder, modeled upon the pascal meal in Jerusalem during Temple times, when every parent becomes a teacher whose primary task is to convey – through songs, stories, explication of biblical passages and special foods – the most seminal experience in Jewish history: the Exodus from Egypt.

And every Shabbat and festival meal is a mini-Passover seder. Even before the Friday sun begins to set, the mother of the family kindles the Shabbat lights, reminiscent of the priests’ first task each day: to light the Menorah. The Kiddush over the wine reminds us of the wine libations accompanying most sacrifices, and the carefully braided challah symbolizes the 12 loaves of showbread which were changed in the Temple every Friday just before dusk. Parents bless their children with the same priestly benediction with which the High Priest blessed the congregation in the Temple. The ritual washing of the hands before partaking of the challah parallels the hand ablutions of the priests before engaging in Temple service. The salt in which we dip the challah before reciting the blessing over bread is based upon the biblical decree, “You shall place salt on all of your sacrifices” [Leviticus 2:13], since salt, which is a preservative, is symbolic of the indestructibility of God’s covenant with Israel. The songs that are sung and the Torah that is taught during a Friday night meal will hopefully further serve to transport the family participants to the singing of the Levites and the teachings of the Kohanim in the Holy Temple. Such a Shabbat meal links the generations, making everyone feel part of the eternal people participating in an eternal conversation with the Divine.

The idea of the Sanctuary as continuing Revelation, and the Sanctuary as the nuptial home of God and Israel, together express the fundamental significance of our Holy Temple.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:04 p.m.

Torah: Exodus 25:12-27:19                                

Haftarah: I Kings 5:26-6:13

Havdalah: 6:05 p.m.