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The History and Meaning of Tabernacle

Tabernacle is known in Hebrew as the Mishkan ("Residence" or "Dwelling Place"). It was a portable dwelling place for the divine presence from the time of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt through the conquering of the land of Canaan. It is said to have been built under Moses during the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness. Its elements were made part of the final Temple in Jerusalem about the 10th century BC. The fullest description of the Tabernacle describes an inner shrine (Holy of Holies) housing the Ark and an outer chamber (Holy Place), with a golden lampstand, table for shewbread, and altar of incense. This description is generally identified as part of the Priestly source, written in the 6th or 5th century BC. Many scholars contend that it is of a far later date than Moses, and that the description reflects the structure of the Temple of Solomon, while some hold that the description derives from memories of a real pre-monarchic shrine, perhaps the sanctuary at Shiloh. An earlier, pre-exilic source describes the Tabernacle as a simple tent-sanctuary. The English word "tabernacle" is derived from the Latin word tabernaculum meaning "tent." Tabernaculum itself is a diminutive form of the word taberna, meaning "hut, booth, tavern." The word sanctuary is also used as its name, as well as the phrase the "tent of meeting".


Hebrew Mishkan

The Hebrew word, however, points to a different meaning. Mishkan is related to the Hebrew word to "dwell", "rest", or "to live in", referring to the "[In-dwelling] Presence of God", the Shekhina (or Shechina) (based on the same Hebrew root word as Mishkan), that dwelled or rested within this divinely ordained mysterious structure.

The Hebrew word for a "neighbor" is shakhen from the same root as mishkan. The commandments for its construction are taken from the words in the Book of Exodus when God says to Moses: "They shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell (ve-shakhan-ti) among them. You must make the tabernacle (mishkan) and all its furnishings following the plan that I am showing you." (Exodus 25:8-10). Thus the idea is that God wants this structure built so that it may be a "dwelling", so to speak, for his presence within the Children of Israel following the Exodus.

It is a crucial component for understanding many of the foundations of Judaism, such as the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath), the Jewish priesthood who were commanded to serve in it, and the meaning and atonement of the sin of the Golden calf.



There are two accounts of the Tabernacle in Exodus, a briefer account and a longer one.

Critical scholars cite the briefer one as earlier and the longer one as later.


Elohist Account

The first written description of the tabernacle is in Exodus 33:7-10. The tabernacle would be set up outside of camp, and the pillar of cloud, symbolizing the divine presence, was visible at its door. The people directed their worship toward this centre. There is no reason that the Hebrews might not have built and used this simple tent-sanctuary Scholars attribute this description to the Elohist source, which was written about 850 BC.


Priestly  Account

The more detailed description is in Exodus 25-31 and 35-40. This description of the Tabernacle describes an inner shrine (Holy of Holies) housing the Ark and an outer chamber (Holy Place), with a seven-branched lampstand, table for shewbread, and altar of incense. An enclosure containing the sacrificial altar surrounded these chambers. This description is generally identified as part of the Priestly source, written in the 6th or 5th century BC. Many scholars contend that the description is of a far later date than Moses, and that it reflects the structure of the Temple of Solomon, while some hold that the description derives from memories of a real pre-monarchic shrine, perhaps the sanctuary at Shiloh.



In chapter 31 the main builder and architects are specified:

"God spoke to Moses, saying: I have selected Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, by name. I have filled him with a divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and with all types of craftsmanship. He will be able to devise plans as well as work in gold, silver and copper, cut stones to be set, carve wood, and do other work. I have also given him Oholiab son of Achisamakh of the tribe of Dan. I have placed wisdom in the heart of every naturally talented person. They will thus make all that I have ordered, the Communion Tent, the Ark of the Covenant, the ark cover to go on it, all the utensils for the tent, the table and its utensils, the pure menorah and all its utensils, the incense altar, the sacrificial altar and all its utensils, the washstand and its base, the packing cloths, the sacred vestments for Aaron the priest, the vestments that his sons wear to serve, the anointing oil, and the incense for the sanctuary. They will thus do all that I command." (Exodus 31:1-11)



The tabernacle of the Hebrews, during the Exodus, was a portable worship facility comprised of a tent draped with colorful curtains. It had a rectangular, perimeter fence of fabric, poles and staked cords. This rectangle was always erected when they would camp, oriented to the east. In the center of this enclosure was a rectangular sanctuary draped with goats'-hair curtains, with the roof made from rams' skins. Inside, it was divided into two areas, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. These two compartments were separated by a curtain or veil. Entering the first space, one would see 3 pieces of sacred furniture: a seven-branched oil lampstand on the left (south), a table for twelve loaves of show bread on the right (north) and straight ahead before the dividing curtain (west) was an altar for incense-burning. Beyond this curtain was the cube-shaped inner room known as the (Holy of Holies) or (Kodesh Hakodashim). This sacred space contained a single article called the Ark of the Covenant (aron habrit)


Incorporated into Temple in Jerusalem

According to the Bible, when the Israelites settled in Canaan they set up the Tabernacle on Mount Shiloh. There it stayed until God requested a stationary abode: "And it came to pass that night, that the word of the LORD came unto Nathan, saying, Go and tell my servant David, Thus saith the LORD, Shalt thou build me an house for me to dwell in? Whereas I have not dwelt in [any] house since the time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle" (2 Samuel 7:4-6). Although King David himself was not allowed to build this temple, because he was a man of war, God promised that his son would build it. After King David died at Jerusalem his son King Solomon built the first temple known as Solomon's Temple, incorporating all the elements of the Tabernacle into the newly built Temple in Jerusalem.


Significance for Sabbath

The concluding instructions for the Tabernacle's construction are stated at the end of the Book of Exodus, chapter 31, and in that same chapter, immediately following the words about the Tabernacle, God reminds Moses about the importance of the Jewish Sabbath:

"God told Moses to speak to the Israelites and say to them: You must still keep my sabbaths. It is a sign between me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy. Keep the Sabbath as something sacred to you. Anyone doing work shall be cut off spiritually from his people, and therefore, anyone violating it shall be put to death. Do your work during the six week days, but keep Saturday as a Sabbath of sabbaths, holy to God. Whoever does any work on Saturday shall be put to death. The Israelites shall thus keep the Sabbath, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant. It is a sign between me and the Israelites that during the six weekdays God made heaven and earth, but on Saturday, he ceased working and rested." (Exodus: 31: 12-17).

The rabbis of the Mishna derive from this juxtaposition of subject-matter, the fact that the commandment to rest on the Sabbath day, as stated in Genesis 2:1-3 "Heaven and earth, and all their components, were completed. With the seventh day, God finished all the work that He had done. He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day, and he declared it to be holy, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work that he had been creating to function” is not pushed aside by the commandments to construct the Tabernacle. Not only that, but the very definition of what constitutes "work" or "activity" that must not be done by any Israelite, on pain of death (only when there was a Sanhedrin, and only with acceptable witnesses present), is defined by the 39 categories of activity needed for the construction of the Tabernacle and for its functioning as the center of the sacrifices enumerated in the Book of Leviticus.


Relationship to the Golden Calf

Some rabbis have commented on the proximity of the narrative of the Tabernacle with that of the episode known as the sin of the Golden Calf which begins in the Book of Exodus 32:1-6. Maimonides asserts that the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, such as the golden Ark of the Covenant and the golden Menorah were meant as "alternates" to the human weakness and needs for physical idols as seen in the Golden Calf episode. Other scholars, such as Nachmanides disagree and maintain that the Tabernacle's meaning is not tied in with the Golden Calf but instead symbolizes higher mystical lessons that symbolize God's constant closeness to the Children of Israel.


Blueprint for Synagogues

A modern Menorah replica (left).


Synagogue(mishkan) construction over the last two thousand years has followed the outlines of the original Tabernacle, which was of course also the outline for the temples in Jerusalem until they were destroyed. Every synagogue has at its front an ark, aron kodesh, containing the Torah scrolls comparable to the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue equivalent to the Holy of Holies. There is also usually a constantly lighted lamp, or a candelabrum lighted during services, near this spot similar to the original Menorah. At the center of the synagogue is a large elevated area, known as the bimah where the Torah is read. This is equivalent to the Tabernacle's altars upon which incense and animal sacrifices were offered. On the main holidays the priests, kohanim, gather at the front of the synagogue to bless the congregation as did their priestly ancestors in the Tabernacle from Aaron onwards.


Prayer in the Tabernacle

Twice a day, a priest would stand in front of the golden prayer altar and burn fragrant incense. Other procedures were also carried out in the Tabernacle.


Other Uses

A Roman Catholic Style church tabernacle (left.


Within Anglicanism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a tabernacle is a box-like receptacle for the exclusive reservation of the Blessed Sacrament of consecrated bread and wine which the faithful believe to be the True Body and Blood of Jesus Christ after the manner of a sacrament. In it, it is believed He is truly present, but not materially or locally (St. Thomas Aquinas). The sacrament is Jesus's instrument and means of grace: it is not intrinsic to him like our bodily organs, but extrinsic. The sacrament is distributed during the rite of Holy Communion in lieu of the celebration of the Eucharist itself or taken to the sick or homebound. In the Early Christian times such tabernacles containing the sacred species were kept within private houses where Christians met for church, for fear of persecution.

In the Roman and Western rite Catholic Church these tabernacles are traditionally covered by a covering known as a conopaeum. These may be tent-like in appearance or they may resemble curtains, depending on whether the Tabernacle is recessed into the wall or free-standing, as in the illustration here. These conopaeae are coloured in the Liturgical colour of the day or the season. This practice is now optional. A conopaeum covering a tabernacle is a symbol of the indwelling of the Body of Christ, much in the same way as the Spirit of God dwelled within the Tabernacle in the Desert in the five books of Moses. This covering also helps represent the nature of the tabernacle as a Tent. And like the original Tabernacle, the Christian Tabernacle is closed, often taking the form of a strongbox.

Catholics and Orthodox alike also refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Tabernacle in their devotions (such as the Akathist Hymn or Catholic Litanies dedicated to Mary), as she carried within her the body of Christ (The Word Incarnate in Christian Theology) in her role as Theotokos, just as a Church tabernacle does today.

The Tabernacle is also seen in some Christian circles as being typical of Jesus Christ

In Seventh-day Adventist theology, emphasis is placed on understanding the sanctuary as a symbol or type illustrating God's plan of salvation to make believers righteous and to cleanse the universe of sin.


LDS Church

The Salt Lake Tabernacle (left).

Home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir ca. 1870.


In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), a tabernacle  was historically a multipurpose

religious building, used for church services, conferences, and as community centers. They differ from meeting

houses and temples in design, scale, and purpose. There were 79 total tabernacles built during the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth century, usually within areas of the Mormon Corridor that had predominantly Latter-day Saint populations. The largest such tabernacle is in Salt Lake City on Temple Square. While some tabernacles are still used for a few ecclesiastical and community cultural activities, stake centers are now used in their place. Tabernacles have also been repurposed, such as the one in Vernal, Utah, which was extensively remodeled to become the Vernal Utah Temple.





The History and Meaning of Tabernacle