The Model


They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell within them…

And you shall make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet [wool], and fine twined linen … and the curtain shall divide for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies…

And you shall make a courtyard for the Sanctuary … one hundred cubits in length and fifty cubits in breadth…

Exodus 25:8; 26:31-33; 27:9-18

Our sages tell us that G-d created the world because “He desired a dwelling for Himself in the lower realms”—that the physical world should be made into a home for Him, an environment receptive to and expressive of His truth.[1]

The building of the Sanctuary (Mishkan) by the people of Israel in the Sinai Desert marked the first such effort to construct a home for G-d. Fifteen materials,[2] representing a cross-section of animal, vegetable and mineral resources of the earth, were fashioned into an edifice dedicated to the service of G-d. When the divine presence came to rest in the Sanctuary, it became the prototype for the fulfillment of the divine purpose in creation—“a dwelling for Him in the lower realms.”

The Sanctuary was an oblong structure whose inside area measured thirty cubits from east to west, ten cubits from north to south, and ten cubits in height (approx. 48′ x 16′ x 16′). Its northern, southern and western walls were fitted together out of sectional panels of gold-plated acacia wood.[3]Its roof consisted of three layers of tent-coverings: an inner tapestry spun of blue, purple and red-dyed wool and linen; a second covering of woven goat hair; and a third, external covering of animal skins.

Across the unwalled eastern side of the Sanctuary was a curtain (themasach or “screen”), held up by five posts. Ten cubits from its western wall, another curtain (the parochet), suspended from four posts, divided the Sanctuary into two chambers: an outer chamber, 20 x 10 cubits in size, called “The Holy,” and an inner 10 x 10 cubit chamber, called the “Holy of Holies.” The Holy contained the “golden altar” upon which the incense (ketoret) was burned; the “table” on which the “showbread” (lechem hapanim) was arranged; and the menorah, whose seven lamps were lit each afternoon to burn through the night. The Holy of Holies, into which no man ventured except for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) on Yom Kippur, contained only the ark holding the Tablets of the Covenant and topped by two keruvim (cherubs) of solid gold.

Surrounding the Sanctuary was the “Courtyard” (chatzer), an area 100 x 50 cubits in size enclosed by a partition of woven linen. Within the courtyard, in front of the Sanctuary, stood the “outdoor altar” upon which the korbanotand menachot (animal and meal offerings) were offered to G-d. Between the outdoor altar and the Sanctuary was the “laver” (kiyor), at which the priests washed their hands and feet before entering the Sanctuary or performing any part of its service.

As the prototype for the divine purpose of creation, the structure of Sanctuary, with its three primary areas—the Courtyard, the Holy, and the Holy of Holies—reflects three basic domains in the macro-universe, in time, in society and in every individual life.[4]

Degrees of Matter

For most of our waking hours, our attention is focused on physical things and physical activities. Either we’re eating, or we’re preparing a meal, or planning it, or earning the money to buy it; or else we are attending to another of the body’s physical needs, or to one of the numerous physical objects with which we furnish our lives.

But every so often, the physicality of life takes on a deeper significance. Suddenly, we find ourselves looking at all these things and activities in a different light. We realize that the person we’re talking to is not just a body—that there’s a soul in that body that’s seeking the attention of our own soul. We realize that the food we’re eating is not just food—it’s the energy that drives the engine of our lives, energy that can be expended on useful, constructive, even spiritual things. We realize that our home, furniture and bank account are not just objects and statements of material wealth—they are tools that can be utilized to achieve the deeper, more meaningful goals we’ve always dreamt of achieving.

At such times, the physical things that surround us seem to shed the skin of corporeality that encases them at all other times. In our mind’s eye, they becomes lighter, more porous, more refined, as if illuminated from within by a spiritual light. We have caught a glimpse into the soul of the physical world.

And then there is the rare moment, experienced perhaps once in a lifetime, in which the veil of materiality not only becomes more transparent, but lifts entirely. A moment in which we completely transcend the physical trappings of life to encounter its spiritual essence. A moment in which the physical body and its physical needs become utterly insignificant in the face of the infinity and eternity of the soul.

Domains in Time

These three visions of reality are imbedded in the time-cycles that govern our lives. The Jewish calendar defines areas for material involvement, elevations from which the physical world is seen in a more refined state, and peaks of consummate spirituality.

“Six days you shall labor,” decrees the Torah, “and do all your work”[5]; the Midrash[6] considers this divine command as much a mitzvah as the continuation of the verse, “…and on the seventh day you shall rest.” For six days of the week, we are commanded to develop the physical world, to deal with it on its terms, to grapple with its material face. And though we foster an awareness of a more spiritual reality, and endeavor to infuse this awareness into our physical activities, on the whole, the world retains its mask of corporeality. The higher purpose to what we do resides in our own consciousness, but cannot be seen in the “real” world in which we are immersed.

But on the seventh day, the physical world shows us a holier, more refined face. It’s not that our lives are less physical. On the contrary, we are commanded to honor the Shabbat with sumptuous food and drink, fine clothes, and the enjoyment of other physical pleasures.[7] But on Shabbat, these physical activities are aglow with spiritual content. We experience them not as material indulgences, but as a celebration of G-d’s creation.

For fifty-plus weeks a year, we follow this cycle: six days of materiality, followed by a seventh day of refined physicality—physicality whose soul has been made visible. Then, once a year, comes Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”[8]

On the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” we forswear work, food, drink, and a host of other material needs and comforts to focus exclusively on matters of the spirit. On this day, the bodily aspect of our existence recedes entirely and our soul shines forth independently of its physical vessel.

The Nation

On the national level, the people of Israel are divided into three classes, to each of which is assigned another of these three domains—material involvement, refined physicality, and total transcendence—as the focus of their lives.

Twelve of the thirteen tribes of Israel are designated as “Israelites”: the farmers, merchants and statesmen whose lives are taken up with the business of material life.

One tribe, the tribe of Levi, was chosen by G-d for a more spiritual calling. The tribe of Levi includes the Kohanim (“priests”), who conducted the service in the Sanctuary, offering the korbanot, burning the incense, lighting the menorah and performing a host of other rituals, and the Levites, who assisted the Kohanim in their holy work.

The divine service performed by the Kohanim and the Levites was not divorced from the physicality of human life. Animals were slaughtered; certain portions were offered to G-d, but the bulk of the meat was eaten by the Kohanim, or by the one who brought the offering. The menorah shed physical light, and the incense filled the Sanctuary with a physical aroma. The “showbread” which was displayed all week on the “table” was distributed among the Kohanim each Shabbat for their consumption.

But these were sacred objects and activities—physical in substance and form but with an aura of divinity about them. The meat was holy meat, the light was holy light, and the aroma was a sacred aroma. Even the most casual observer could see that the Kohanim and Levites were not engaged in ordinary activities, but in holy work, work whose manifest purpose is the service of G-d.

Among the divine servants of Levi, a single individual was designated as a “holy of holies”[9]—as one whose holiness transcends even the sacred physicality practiced by his tribe. This was the Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”), commanded to lead a life of total disassociation from material life. The Kohen Gadol “never leaves the Sanctuary”[10] and does not partake in the social and civic activities that are integral to a person’s life as an individual and a member of society.[11] His entire being is devoted to maintaining a state of perpetual, self-obliterating attachment to G-d.

The Universe

Man is a universe in miniature,[12] and the universe is a macrocosm of man.[13] The entirety of creation is reflected in our lives, and the structure of our lives is mirrored by the cosmos.

Thus, the division of life into material, refined physical and purely spiritual domains is reflected in the structure of creation as a whole. In the words of Maimonides, “All things that G-d created in His world are divided into three categories.” The first category is the material world: “creations that are comprised of matter and form and are constantly deteriorating, such as the bodies of humans and animals, plants, and minerals.” The second category includes physical entities of a more refined nature, such as the stars and other heavenly bodies; they, too, “possess matter and form, but they are not as ephemeral as the first category.” The third and highest sphere of creation embraces the utterly spiritual creations, that are “forms alone, without matter. These are the angels, which are not physical bodies, but various forms” of divine energy.[14]

Taste, Sight and Smell

The Sanctuary, G-d’s first home on earth, was a model of the universe, of time, of the nation of Israel, and of every individual life.

The outermost domain of the Sanctuary, the Courtyard, was also its most “material” part. Here the korbanot—which G-d refers to as “My food”[15]—were offered on the “outdoor altar.” Many of the korbanot were cooked and eaten in the courtyard by the Kohanim; some of the korbanot offered here were even eaten by ordinary Israelites in their own homes.

Not only was the Courtyard the place for the “food” element of the service, it also contained elements of another signature feature of materiality—waste. (The defining difference between the two types of physical creations described by Maimonides is that the more material creations “are constantly deteriorating” while the loftier ones “are not as ephemeral as the first category.”) The ashes from the daily cleaning of the two altars and the menorah’s lamps were deposited in a special place designated for them in the Courtyard,[16] as were the “crop and feathers” (mur’ah v’notzah) from the bird offerings[17]; in the Courtyard were also deposited the shards of the broken earthen pots in which the meat of sin-offerings were cooked.[18] The Courtyard also contained the laver at which the Kohanim washed when they came in from the outside world, in order to cleanse themselves of the coarseness and materiality that clung to them from their stay outside the Sanctuary walls.

On the other hand, the outer chamber of the Sanctuary proper, the “Holy,” was the designated place for the more refined elements of the service—those involving sight (the lighting of the menorah) and smell (the incense offered on the golden altar). There was one component of the Holy involving food and taste—the showbread—but this, too, emphasized the more subliminal nature of this inner world. The showbread had the special quality that it did not spoil or become stale even  though it was arranged upon the “table” for a full week; thus it represented the higher order of physicality, described by Maimonides as the second stratum of creation, which is immune to dissolution. Furthermore, the showbread was distinctly a Shabbat food, and was eaten by the Kohanim only, implying that its physicality is of the higher, more refined sort.

All Israelites were allowed entrance into the Courtyard, while only the Kohanim were admitted into the Holy. But the Holy of Holies was off limits to all except the Kohen Gadol, who entered it only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

The Holy of Holies was the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” of the Sanctuary: a place that epitomized the utter suspension of materiality and physicality. There was no “food” element in the Holy of Holies (just as there is no eating on Yom Kippur and no materiality in the Kohen Gadol’s life), not even the “Shabbat food” of the Sanctuary’s “Holy” chamber. The only services performed in the Holy of Holies were the offering of the incense[19] and the sprinkling of the blood of two “burnt offerings” (korbanot of which no part is eaten and which are wholly burnt on the altar) brought on Yom Kippur.

Personal Home

In commanding us to construct the Sanctuary, G-d said to Moses: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell within them.”[20] Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of the classic philosophical-kabbalistic work,Shaloh, points out that G-d does not say “I shall dwell within it,” but “within them,” referring to “each and every one of them.”[21]

Each and every one of us is a “Sanctuary,” a virtual universe embracing the various strata of time, space and humanity. A Sanctuary in whose every component G-d can be made to feel at home, be it the inner sanctum of unadulterated spirit, the more external chamber of sanctified physicality, or the outer courtyard of material life.

Based on the Rebbe’s notes for a treatise on the menorah, written in Paris in the year 5699 (1938-1939)[22]


Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.

[2]. “Gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and red-dyed wool, linen, and goat hair; red-dyed rams’ skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, and spices for the anointing oil and the incense; shoham stones and gemstones for setting in the ephod and in the breastplate” (Exodus 25:3-7).

[3]. The Sanctuary accompanied the Jewish people in their travels through the desert. Whenever the Jews broke camp, the Sanctuary was dismantled, loaded onto ox-carts, and erected anew at their next encampment.

[4]. The Beit HaMikdash, erected in Jerusalem as a permanent home for G-d, was modeled after the Sanctuary, and included these three domains as well: the azarah (corresponding to the Sanctuary’s chatzer), the heichal(corresponding to the “Holy”), and the “Holy of Holies.”

[5]. Exodus 20:9.

[6]. Mechilta d’Rashbi on verse.

[7]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 30:3, 7 and 14; see also Likkutei Sichot, vol. XII, p. 254 and sources cited there.

[8]. Leviticus 23:32.

[9]. I Chronicles 23:13.

[10]. Leviticus 21:12. This is not an across-the-board prohibition for theKohen Gadol to ever leave the Sanctuary, but the designation of the Sanctuary as his permanent place (see Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanctuary’s Vessels and Those Who Serve In It 5:7).

[11]. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 5:1-9.

[12]. Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3; Tikkunei Zohar 469. See also Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 31; Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 1:4; Zohar, part I, 134b.

[13]. Guide for the Perplexed, 1:72; see also sources cited in previous note.

[14]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah 2:3.

[15]. Numbers 28:2.

[16]. Leviticus 6:3; Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Daily and Additional Offerings 2:12, 3:4 and 3:12.

[17]. Leviticus 1:16.

[18]. Cf. Leviticus 6:21; Talmud, Zevachim 93b.

[19]. While smell is a physical phenomenon, it is devoid of the tactility of taste and the visibility of light; thus it is regarded as “nourishment for the soul” and as representative of spirituality (Talmud, Berachot 43b).

[20]. Exodus 25:8.

[21]. Shaloh, Shaar HaOtiot, Lamed.

[22]. Reshimot #81-85.


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