Mishkan model[1]

I found this image of the Mishkan at an online site that included many others; among them, to my surprise, a design of my own! (see below)

The parshiyot that deal with the Mishkan, beginning in Shemot/Exodus, parshah Terumah, are rich in detail, to say the least. Older chumashim — the Hertz or the Hirsch, for example — don’t enhance the text with illustrations that would help us visualize what’s being described. The contemporary Conservative chumash, “Etz Hayim,” includes some illustrations of the Mishkan and its details. So do the Plaut commentary (Reform) and the various Art Scroll editions. 

There’s even more material available online and in digital format (DVD’s) from both Jewish and Christian sources. This is a big change from when I began learning this subject.

I first found a visual representation of the Mishkan in a book by The Rt. Rev. George de Charms, a Swedenborgian minister! [2] It was about a scale model of the Mishkan that he had created with students in the 1920’s.

Why such interest by Swedenborgians? Because much of founder Emanuel Swedenborg’s teachings are allegorical or symbolic explanations of biblical details. Thus, familiarity with the details themselves becomes of increased importance.

With some inquiry, I found that the model still existed (and continues to do so) at the Glen Cairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, [3] about 100 miles from New York City.

Around 1994, I took a drive down there (finding out in the process that in my 40’s, I could no longer drive 200 miles in a day as easily as I did in my 20’s). It was an exciting, inspiring trip.

Although the introductory image on this post isn’t from that collection, here’s a link to a short video of that display:


When I arrived, I was led to the room in which the model was displayed. It was a quiet room, sort of dark, as I remember, except for the illumination of the model. I was in there for quite a while taking 35mm pictures (no digital camera or computer for me back then).

What I remember most is the satisfaction of seeing a visual representation. It made it all so much clearer to me!

There’s also a more life-sized model at the Mennonite (Amish) Visitors’ Center in Lancaster, PA. [4] It’s open for public viewing.

Many things are open to question. We don’t know, for example, whether the biblical “cubit” (“amah”) was equivalent to 1 1/2 ft. or 2 ft. Where Torah says that the “Holy of Holies” was 10 cubits long — is that 15 ft. or 20 ft.?

Models therefore vary, but the differences in the details needn’t spoil the value of at least a preliminary viewing. The finer points can be refined — to whatever extent possible — over time.

Some years after my visit to Glen Cairn Museum, I created the design that appears on the website I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

mishkan iluminated 2.2 centered

I did this to demonstrate the essential elements and their locations within the Mishkan, and to show the spatial orientation of the Mishkan itself. For example, it’s explicitly designated to be placed on an East/West axis. The placement of the various objects constantly refers back to that orientation. This also might help explain Rabbi Abbahu’s opinion that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is in the West [5] — the Presence was, as it were, in the West end of the Mishkan and later, the Temples (which were oriented according to the model of the Mishkan). It also helps to explain the synagogue custom of bowing to the West — opposite the usual Eastward direction of prayer — to welcome the “Shabbat Queen” (i.e. the Shechinah) during the singing of “L’chah Dodi” in the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights: The Shechinah was in the West end of the Mishkan and Temples!   

My design isn’t strictly to scale, but it’s not vastly in error, either. Although it doesn’t replace a scale model, I think that it remains educationally useful as a visual aid to the study of the subject.

The study of the Mishkan can lead to learning about the Temples and how the synagogue evolved physically and liturgically from them.

For example, both Temples were based on the “floor plan” of the Mishkan. Although the dimensions were enlarged, the proportions were not.

The structure of a synagogue refers back to the design of the Temple and therefore the Mishkan. For example, the curtain that separated the outer room of the Tent, and later the Temples, from the inner room, where the tablets of the 10 Commandments were enshrined, is called the “parochet.” The same word is used for the curtain that separates the Torah scrolls in the Ark in the synagogue from the room outside, where praying and learning otherwise take place. 

In Hebrew, the Temple was called “Beit ha-Mikdash” — “House of Holiness” (or “Holy House”). For the synagogue, where learning occupied even more time than praying, a term, “Beit ha-Midrash,” (“House of Learning” or “Learning House”) was created, using a rhyme or pun on the Hebrew name for the Temple.  

The Mishkan has ramifications in both Christian and Muslim education, too. Much church architecture harks back to the Temples:

“In Eastern Christianity an iconostasis (plural: iconostases) is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church…A direct comparison for the function of the main iconostasis can be made to the layout of the great Temple in Jerusalem. That Temple was designed with three parts. The holiest and inner-most portion was that where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This portion, the Holy of Holies, was separated from the second larger part of the building’s interior by a curtain, the ‘veil [i.e. parochet] of the Temple’. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. The third part was the entrance court [which did not exist in the Mishkan but was a feature of the Second Temple]. This architectural tradition for the two main parts can be seen carried forward in Christian churches and is still most demonstratively present in Eastern Orthodox churches where the iconostasis divides the altar, the Holy of Holies containing the consecrated Eucharist…from the larger portion of the church accessible to the faithful. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition only men can enter the altar portion behind the iconostasis.” [6]

Islam, emerging some 500 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, doesn’t reflect Temple practice to the extent that Christianity does. But a Muslim school is called a “madrasah” — the Arabic form of “Midrash” — not only for linguistic reasons, but in definite emulation of the original Jewish usage:

“The word ‘madrasah’ derives from the triconsonantal Semitic root د-ر-س D-R-S ‘to learn, study’, through the wazn (form/stem) مفعل(ة)‎; mafʻal(ah), meaning ‘a place where something is done’. Therefore, ‘madrasah’ literally means ‘a place where learning and studying take place’.” [7]

One might add that the facets of Muslim worship are collectively referred to as “ibadah” — the Arabic form of “avodah,” which was the word used for the sacrificial practices in the Mishkan and Temples.

The Arabic word ibādah (عبادة) or ibada (usually translated “worship”) means ‘service’ or ‘servitude.’ It is connected with related words such as ‘Ubudiyyah’ (‘slavery’), and has connotations of obedience, submission, and humility. The word linguistically means ‘obedience with submission.’ [The same in Hebrew: as slaves in Egypt, Torah calls us ‘avadim’].
In terms of Islam, ibadah is the obedience, submission, and devotion to Allah along with the ultimate love for Allah. Muslims believe that ibadah is the reason for the existence of all humanity. That is, Muslims believe that all people exist only to submit to Allah.
Ibadah consequently means following Islamic beliefs and practices – its commands, prohibitions, the halal, and the haram. For Muslims, ibadah is also something that comes from the heart, or sincerity, as a result of belief in Islam. Therefore, ibadah is something that cannot be forced upon another person.” [8]

So: Words (mikdash/midrash/madrasah; avodah/ibadah) that referred to Temple practices found a place in Islam that recalls their origins.

It’s interesting that the recent Muslim translator of the Qur’an into Hebrew likened the Qur’an itself to the “Holy of Holies”:

“[Subhi Ali] Adawi spent 3½ years working intensely on this project…’I approached it with a sense of awe for the divine. After all, the Quran is our Holy of Holies’.” [9]

We English-speakers refer back to the same word (avodah/service/worship) when we call religious prayer-gatherings “services,” because “avodah” can mean “work” or “service.”

Thus, understanding the Mishkan clarifies much about the religious practices of all branches of Christianity and Islam, as well as Judaism!

If looking at images of the Mishkan serves the needs of visual learning or learners, then constructing or assembling models could address the “kinesthetic” mode of learning.

One online site, Nehora.com, markets a model of the Mishkan that can be assembled — like the model airplanes we assembled as children. It strikes me as a useful project for Jewish education. Young children might create/assemble a model, followed by more learning about the details in upper grades.

Drawing the Mishkan might meet the needs of a “tactile” learner. An interesting example of this is the comment of an artist who worked on the renovation of a historic Polish synagogue:

“Physically recreating the murals was an ideal tactile way for me to engage history…” [10]

Or “tactile/kinesthetic.”

I strongly encourage using visual aids in studying the Mishkan, to begin to get a firm understanding and appreciation of its monumental importance and incalculable influence.


[1] http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=mishkan+pictures&qpvt=mishkan+pictures&qpvt=mishkan+pictures&FORM=IGRE&adlt=strict

[2] De Charms, Rt. Rev. George; The Tabernacle of Israel; Pageant Press Int. Corp.; © 1969 by Rt. Reverend George de Charms

[3] http://www.glencairnmuseum.org/storage/tabernacle/glencairn.htm

[4] http://www.mennoniteinfoctr.org/biblical-tabernacle-reproduction

[5] Talmud; Baba Batra 25a (Rabba Abbahu uses a proof based on the Hebrew language)

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconostasis

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madrasa

[8] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibadah 

[9] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/quran-translation-hebrew-galilee-israeli-arab-muslim.html

[10] http://njjewishnews.com/article/30186/film-captures-recreation-of-great-polish-shul#.VuMICU2FOUm