by R. Gil Student
My first extended interaction with Abarbanel, the great 15th-16th century biblical commentator, left me confused for many years. When I was in yeshiva, I spent a few hours one Friday morning attempting to study Abarbanel’s commentary on Parashas Terumah, in particular his explanation of the details of the Mishkan (tabernacle, in Ex. 25). However, his terminology was too technical for me to decipher his meaning.
That afternoon, as I traveled with a friend to Queens for Shabbos, I mentioned to him that I thought there were great kabbalistics secrets in Abarbanel’s commentary. My friend, who was more aware than I of Jewish intellectual history, recognized that I had been misled by the esoteric terminology. He said that it must be philosophical secrets. While my friend was more correct than I, we were both wrong. Abarbanel actually explained the mishkan‘ s significance in what centuries later would be considered a typical Lithuanian-yeshiva (Litvish) fashion. Over two decades after this conversation, I believe I have gained a better understanding of Abarbanel’s terminology and explanations. I offer here a brief summary.
I. Mishkan and Monotheism
Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:45) sees the Mishkan’s utensils as a protest against paganism. Pagans fail to see beyond the physical world. The keruvim represent angels, which are purely intellectual beings and serve as the conduit of prophecy. The Mishkan had two keruvim so no one would think the statue was an idol representing God. The other utensils were for practical and esthetic purposes.
Abarbanel considers this explanation weak. Was there really such a need to instill belief in angels? And do all the other utensils have no symbolic meaning at all?
II. Mishkan and Philosophy
Abarbanel quotes the Ralbag (Parashas Terumah) as explaining that the Mishkan’s utensils symbolize Aristotelian astronomy. They are intended to teach philosophy to the unlearned, helping them reach knowledge of God and the metaphysical world. The two keruvim represent the passive and active intellects. Their wings spread above because the intellects strive for higher comprehension. The keruvim rest on top of the ark of the covenant because prophecy comes through the intellects. The table and menorah represent the soul, the table symbolizing the nourishing soul and the menorah the sensory soul. The two altars represent the frailty of humanity and all animals. Ralbag sees additional significance in many of the details of the Mishkan’s structure, all pointing to philosophical ideas.
Abarbanel finds this interpretation farfetched. Ralbag reads Greek philosophy into the text, which is not only bound to a specific philosophical approach but also esoteric and lacking any textual hint.
III. Mishkan and the Universe
Abarbanel then quotes Christian and some later Jewish commentators who interpret the Mishkan and its utensils as representing the world structure. The Mishkan had three sections: 1) the kodesh kodashim (holy of holies), with its keruvim, represents the spiritual realm; 2) the heikhal (sanctuary) symbolizes the heavenly spheres, with the table and its 12 breads representing the 12 constellations and the menorah with its seven branches representing what were thought to be the seven planets; 3) the chatzer (courtyard) represents the world in which we live.
All of these three explanations are based, to some extent, in outdated astronomy. It may be possible to salvage them with updated knowledge, but that will probably result in a very forced interpretation. Abarbanel was not in a position to reject the regnant scientific theories of his time. However, he proposes an ethical interpretation that is unrelated to science.
IV. Mishkan and Torah
Abarbanel suggests that the Mishkan represents the path to proper religious behavior. The Mishkan had four coverings that symbolize four types of people: scholars, workers, warriors and politicians (in Abarbanel’s day, wealthy noblemen and ministers). However, the center of Judaism is the ark in the kodesh kodashim, representing the ideal of Torah study and observance. Regardless of your occupation, Torah must be your guide and your goal. The keruvim symbolize the heavenly source of the Torah, each with the face of a sinless child (boy and girl) with the potential to study and practice Torah. The keruvim face each other but also stand right before the parokhes (curtain), teaching that both our interpersonal relations and actions toward God must be governed by Torah.
Abarbanel continues explaining the symbolism of individual utensils representing the necessity and effect of Torah study and observance. This is the quintessential Litvish approach. Torah is placed as the highest goal, the loftiest ambition and the greatest daily necessity.
Modern commentators offer other approaches. Prof. Nehama Leibowitz (New Studies in Shemot, Terumah no. 2) rejects Abarbanel’s approach as feeble and farfetched, like he rejected the approaches of his predecessors. Instead, she compares the mishkan to creation, not literary similarities. Others, such as Cassutto (Introduction to Ex. 25) compare it to Mt. Sinai, seeing the mishkan as an extension of the Sinai experience (as did Ramban earlier, on Ex. 25:1).
Even if Abarbanel’s explanation seems homiletic, it strikes me as excellent and particularly meaningful. Unlike many other interpretations, his withstands time and remains eternally relevant.