The Tabernacle & Modern Monuments


In the aftermath of Oct 7th, Israelis have not only been going to war, we have been building monuments. Sometimes these monuments are just an empty plastic chair in the lobby of an office building. Sometimes, they are complete Kibbutzim – not yet rebuilt – where people can see and immortalize what occurred on that day.

Of course, the sharing of experiences through stories, videos and other mediums has also been common – but there is something fundamentally distinct about a physical monument. It requires an investment and acquires a sort of permanence that other media lack.

In reality, Jews have been on a monument-building tear since the Holocaust. Innumerable museums, experiences, plaques and so have been constructed throughout the Western world. There has been an attempt, a failed attempt, to somehow hold back antisemitism through monuments.

It is in this environment that we come to the Torah readings centered on the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It is arguably one of only two divinely commanded monuments in the Five Books of Moses (the plastering of Torah on the rocks being the other). Perhaps, as we dig in, the Torah will show us what a Jewish monument ought to be and how it can be effective in that role.

When I look at pictures of the reconstruction of the Mishkan in Timna Park, a few adjectives immediately spring to mind. One is primitive. The second is small (consider the cars and trash bins for scale). The actual core building is something like 45 by 15 feet. If you talk to experts, they’ll describe a backwards and tribal culture expressing some poor imitation – perhaps of an Egyptian temple.

Let’s set aside that concept, for now. Let’s suppose the Israelites were a culture that had been exposed to both Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture. They had seen at least a thousand years of monument building in Mesopotamian and two thousand years of monument building in Egypt. For those in the know – and the more we learn about the ancient near-East the more we discover just how in the know they were – this building is fundamentally contrarian.

So, what defined monument building in the region? Less is known about Mesopotamian building (simply because it disintegrated), but we can still draw a number of clear parallels and deviations.


This is the most obvious difference. The core building is about the size of ten parking spaces. We can compare this with the pyramids or the great ziggurats. The largest ziggurat of them may have reached 300 feet up. For contract, 6 inner Mishkans could have been stacked end to end and still not reached the top. The total volume was almost 2 million cubic feet. The inner Mishkan was just over 12,150 cubic feet.

We can also compare it with smaller temples. The temple at Medinat Habu, with similar proportions, is about 450 feet by 150 feet. It isn’t a massive Egyptian building, but it is 100 times as large as the Mishkan in square footage alone.

Now, Egypt was rich, but it looks like there isn’t even an attempt at scale, as we’ll see when it comes to material choices.

By SFEC AEH -ThebesNecropolis-2010-RamsesIII045.jpg: Steve F-E-Cameron derivative work: A. Parrot (talk) – SFEC AEH -ThebesNecropolis-2010-RamsesIII045.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0,



The materials reinforce the idea that scale was unimportant. The Mishkan is dripping with metal. Metal was extremely expensive. Yes, there would be some gold overlaid on Mesopotamian religious sculptures but the sheer quantities in the Mishkan indicate significant expense. At the same time, much of that expense is hidden away. Of the gold articles, only the small golden altar (for incense) is publicly visible. Much of the silver is hidden beneath furs – although it is on the pillars of the courtyard as well.

You end up with another clear contrast. We don’t have Mesopotamian architecture, by and large, because it was made of mud bricks that were destroyed by the elements. Egyptian architecture has survived, but it was constructed of quarried stone and possibly some forms of concrete. The materials were more expensive than those of Mesopotamia, but neither was anything close on a square foot basis to a building that is essentially wood encased in metal.

The emphasis on different is reinforced in another key way. There is no stone or brick in the Mishkan, with the exception of the Luchot (Ten Commandments) themselves. The easy-to-use materials of the surrounding dominant cultures were entirely rejected as building materials here.


We (or perhaps, I) don’t know a great deal about Mesopotamian color choices. This is partially due to the fact that there were numerous Mesopotamian cultures. On the other hand, we do have clear ideas of Egyptian color choices. In Egypt, green was the color of blessing. Red, on the other hand, was the color of that which was foreign or despised. The Mishkan doesn’t use green. There are not even Green color combinations. No cyan and no yellow (with the exception of gold). In fact, green is used nowhere in the Torah but to describe grasses or particularly bad Tzrat (translated as leprosy). Red, Tola’at, is used in numerous critical areas. It has a very different meaning.


Both Egypt and Mesopotamia festooned their temples with imagery. The Egyptians went so far as to have their highest script (hieroglyphics) image-based. It was a phonetic writing system, but it was designed to be time-consuming to write, perhaps to emphasize the luxury of being able to write in it. But it also insisted on literal representations of animals. You can contrast this with Viking glyphs which minimized strokes and complexity to compensate for recording messages in solid rock. The Egyptians were expressing wealth through image-writing alone.

In the case of the ziggurats, there would be actual living plants. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were gardens along the surfaces of ziggurat (can’t be good for long-term survival of a brick structure).

What about the Mishkan? Well, the Mishkan has the mysterious Keruvim (Cherubs) woven into materials (again, hidden within the smaller building). It also has the two Keruvim over the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Altar). Other than those figures, there are no animals, no trees, no stories in pictorial form. There are no people. Nothing is living. The building absolutely rejects the conventions of the surrounding cultures.


At this point, we’ve established the Mishkan was small, expensive, lacked stone or brick, used contrary colors and rejected imagery. It was a very unusual building. Nonetheless, it had a striking similarity to Egyptian architecture.

If you go back to that Egyptian temple, it has very similar proportions. In fact, Egyptian temple-building all followed extremely stable design principles. We believe the Mesopotamians were the same (although around different fundamentals). Both cultures were either representing the order of the universe or actively reinforcing it through their buildings. This idea doesn’t only exist in this region. A fascinating study of Celtic culture showed that they established towns based on the alignment of stars. They would build towns in useless locations, which we can easily find today, because they fell along auspicious longitudal lines. They were building a massive, patterned, ‘temple’ across what is now France.

The Mishkan shares, as its most distinct characteristic, this fundamental order. It has set proportions. It is aligned in a particular way. It has layers of privacy and secrecy. The only difference is in what is being represented through those proportions.


This brings us to the most fundamental distinction of all. Purpose.

The ziggurats appeared to be an attempt to draw closer to heaven. They executed this in an extraordinarily literal way, stacking bricks like Lego to reach higher and higher. There were no inner chambers.

The Egyptians were a bit more complex. Nonetheless, many of their buildings were intended as mausoleums. They were preserving their ‘living’ past Pharoahs in death palaces. They were testaments to permanence and stability. They were testaments to the physical world, even if it is experienced on another plane by those who have died.

The obelisk, some Egyptians examples of which now serve as centerpieces in a few European capitals, were connectors of heaven and earth. Their tips could have been tipped in gold, magnificently reflecting the sun. Amazingly, they were fashioned from single pieces of stone. Pillars appear once as a part of Israelite ceremony (although Yaacov constructs a kind of mini-knockoff earlier). At the end of Parshat Mishpatim, 12 pillars are erected, one to symbolize each tribe. It is almost a proto-Mishkan, but the symbolism is all wrong. Almost immediately afterwards, G-d commands the Mishkan and forbids pillars.

The Mishkan thus didn’t commemorate the dead. It didn’t commemorate those lost in Egypt, or any particular person. It didn’t build a bridge to heaven. Being mobile, it didn’t represent stability in any way the ancient Egyptians (for example) would have understood. It didn’t reflect the grandeur of those who constructed it. It didn’t celebrate fertility or animal life or crop productivity. It seemed to largely reject the natural. While metals are mined, they represented tremendous human refinement of a natural product. They are barely recognizable as coming from a natural form (unlike stone or brick). There was some wood (shittim), but we’ll get to why that is there in a bit.

At this point, we can say what a Torah inspired monument wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be a Holocaust Museum or a burned-out Kibbutz. It wouldn’t celebrate a military victory (there is no monument for the crossing of the sea). It wouldn’t be grand, or a celebration of our grandeur. The wealth of the building would be hidden away. It isn’t a proud building or a mournful building.

It is instead a representation (and reinforcement) of the divine relationship with the Jewish people: in the Mishkan, G-d dwells within the people.

The figurative language is straightforward.

The articles in the Mishkan represent the revelations of G-d. The Menorah is the burning bush, the Table is the Manna and the elders eating with G-d and the Aron is the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Before the giving of the Ten Commandments, the ideal defined for the Jewish people is as a Mamlechet Kohanim and Goi Kadosh (Kingdom of Priests and Holy People). The building represents this, with the structure of the Mamlechet (Kingdom) in the pillars. The 53 inner pillars represent the 53 human-enforced laws in the Torah reading of Mishpatim. The 56 outcomes of those laws are represented in the 56 outer pillars. The curtains, each 28 Amot long, represent the 28 verses of law – without human enforcement – from that same Torah reading.

Through this imagery, the relationship between G-d and man is strengthed.

True Permanance

Interestingly, the Mishkan is intentionally even though it was ‘designed’ well prior to the Jewish people being condemned to remain in the desert. It is mobile, even though the people should have been settled in the Land of Israel almost immediately.

To me, this mobility is a key part of its function.

The Mishkan represents the spiritual, not the physical. There’s an idea in ancient Egyptian philosophical history that the Egyptians had no sense of identity. A physical thing just was. We see it in their gods, they change constantly in their roles and relationships. Their architecture, though, is stable. We are the inverse. Our architecture is designed to move, but our underlying identities and ideas are far more stable.

G-d burns but never consumes, He represents good and evil, He serves His people and He tries to lift them up through law. G-d has an identity through His priorities and actions.

We also have an identity, albeit idealized. Our representation isn’t one of wealth or power or beauty. We are a people of law and spirit.

Where the Egyptians tried to build physical permanence, their temples are now tourist sites. We, on the other hand, tried to build permanence of identity in a structure that was fundamentally impermanent. Although it no longer exists in physical form, one could argue that the Mishkan is the oldest living monument in human history.

It has been a part of our people for close to three thousand years.

This is itself a statement of where true permanence lays. It is not in a building, but in a connection to G-d.

I believe a modern Jewish monument should try to capture this same spirit.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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There are 7 comments.

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  1. iWe Coolidge

    Brilliant insights.

    • #1
  2. JosephCox Coolidge

    We do bury the dead – sometimes in prominent places like the Maharat HaMachpela. And we do return their bones to Israel – as with Yosef. But it isn’t the same as making monuments of tombs. In Moshe’s case, for example, we aren’t even allowed to know where his body is. It is words that survive, not the physical – and no tomb whatsoever is created for him.

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    JosephCox: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were gardens alone the surfaces of ziggurat (can’t be good for long-term survival of a brick structure).

    Along? Above?

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    iWe (View Comment):

    Brilliant insights.

    Yes, indeed.

    • #4
  5. JosephCox Coolidge

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    JosephCox: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were gardens alone the surfaces of ziggurat (can’t be good for long-term survival of a brick structure).

    Along? Above?

    Well, above along. Like a park running along the levels. We believe.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    What a wonderful piece, Joseph! As usual, unique and thoughtful.

    JosephCox: Red, Tola’at, is used in numerous critical areas. It has a very different meaning.

    Might this be that red represents blood, the very source of life?

    • #6
  7. JosephCox Coolidge

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    What a wonderful piece, Joseph! As usual, unique and thoughtful.

    JosephCox: Red, Tola’at, is used in numerous critical areas. It has a very different meaning.

    Might this be that red represents blood, the very source of life?

    Not in this case. That would be more like Aduma. The word here is Tola’at Shani – like repetition of Tola’at. Tola’at was the worm used to eat the Manna that the people collected because they didn’t trust G-d. So Tola’at reflects learning to trust G-d and being assured that G-d’s promises will endure.

    • #7
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