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Terumah: The Mystery of the Mishkan

Updated: Jun 21

כי האדם עולם קטן או העולם אדם גדול

“Is a person a small world, or is the world a big person?” Ibn Ezra on Genesis 1:26 [1]

In Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1–27:19), we are introduced to the detailed instructions for the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness. The word Mishkan is etymologically related to the word shochen, which means ‘he dwells’, and also forms the shoresh (root word) of Shekhinah. The Mishkan served as a mobile Temple, as Israel journeyed through 42 stages to the Promised Land, eventually coming to rest at the site of Shiloh, where it stood for  369 years (Zevachim 118b). From the mesmerizing colors of techelet, scarlet and purple to the golden clasps upon the curtains, every facet was meticulously designed and ordained. highlights a fascinating fact,

“No less than 13 chapters in the Book of Exodus are filled with the details of the Sanctuary’s construction, from the dimensions of every pillar to the colors in every tapestry. In contrast, the Torah devotes one chapter to its account of the creation of the universe and three chapters to the revelation at Mount Sinai . . .” The Anatomy of a Dwelling, [2]

At first glance, this seems counter intuitive. Hundreds of thousands of books, articles and scholarly papers have been written concerning the creation of the universe, and the Torah only devotes one chapter to this monumental subject? This question opens a gateway to discover an incredible secret: When the Torah describes the construction of the Tabernacle, it is revealing the secrets of the creation of the universe. Like everything in the Torah, the earthly Mishkan forms a fractal pattern in a much larger tapestry. The Tabernacle below is a mirror image of the Tabernacle above,

“Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Tabernacle, and the pattern of all of its furniture, even so you shall make it.” Exodus 25:8-9

According to this verse, when Moshe oversaw the construction of the Mishkan, he was provided a vision of the Heavenly Tabernacle. The Heavenly Temple, the Beit HaMikdash shel Ma’alah, is the reality while the earthly temple serves as a lower dimensional shadow. Our entire world is a shadow of a higher dimensional reality, and the mathematics behind Superstring theory point toward this idea. Rashi and Sforno write that the commandment to build the Mishkan was only given after Israel sinned with the Golden Calf. R’ Nosson Sherman writes,

“Indeed, according to Sforno, the nation achieved such a great spiritual level at Mount Sinai that there was no need for a Tabernacle.” The Mishkan, The Tabernacle, Its Structure and Vessels, R’ Avrohom Biderman, Mesorah Publications, ltd., pg. 20

He cites R’ Ovadiah Sforno’s commentary to Leviticus 11:2,

“Behold, after Israel removed their spiritual crowns which they had attained at the time of the giving of the Torah, and through which they were deemed worthy that the Divine Presence dwell in their midst without (the need for) any intermediary, as it says, In every place where I cause my Name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you (Exodus 20:21), and which shall be in the future (end of days), as it says, And I will set My Mishkan among you, and my soul shall not abhor you (26:11), G-d, the Blessed One, refused to have His Presence dwell among them at all, as it says, For I will not go up in the midst of you (Exodus 33:3). Moses our Teacher (however) achieved through his prayer some amelioration that the Divine Presence would abide among them through the medium of the Mishkan (Sanctuary)…” Sforno, Commentary on the Torah, translated by R’ Raphael Pelovitz, Mesorah Publications, ltd., pg. 532

The purpose of the Mishkan, and by extension the Temple, is to join HaShem and Man back together. In the Garden of Eden, there was no Temple, for Adam walked with the Presence of HaShem. After the sin of Adam HaRishon (The First Man), it was necessary to institute a system where the sin of man could be atoned for, thus drawing the Shekhinah into this world.

The Universe

The universe is mysterious, brilliant stars and galaxies perform a poetic ballet dance through an incomprehensibly vast sea of darkness. So too, inside of the Mishkan, the same fascinating scene took place on a “smaller” yet infinitely “larger” scale,

“As seen from the inside of the Sanctuary, the golden clasps embedded in the tapestries were like stars glittering in the heavens.” Beraita Melechet HaMishkan, cited at [3]

At stellar distances, something counterintuitive becomes more readily apparent. Space is much more than what it seems. The threads began to unravel when Einstein overturned Newtonian physics with his Theory of General Relativity in 1915. Space, under the force of gravity, can bend and warp like fabric. Yet, at the time, Einstein’s equation also resulted in an unsettling conclusion: The universe is expanding. In the early 1900’s, people believed in a static universe, meaning it always was, having no beginning or end. An expanding universe implies a beginning. If space is expanding, simply rewind the tape, and it will contract, leading inevitably to a singularity, the Beginning. This raises the question that is beyond the realm of scientific inquiry: Is there a Prime Mover?

Einstein then added something into his calculations, a cosmological constant (Λ), essentially a superfluous control to stabilize the universe in his equations. He abandoned the cosmological constant in 1929, when Edwin Hubble discovered that galaxies within the Local Group were moving away from each other. He called this his “biggest blunder” (although this idea may be correct on some level, as we will describe below). In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation, essentially the “echo” of the Big Bang, which overtook the static model. The universe was, after all, expanding like stretching fabric. There was a beginning. Incredibly, Psalm 104 says,

עֹטֶה־אֹור כַּשַּׂלְמָה נֹוטֶה שׁמַיִם כַּיְרִיעָה

“He covers himself with light as with a garment. He stretches out the heavens like a curtain.” Psalms 104:2

On February 11, 2016, scientists announced the monumental discovery of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time. The universe is like the woven fabric of the curtains in the Tabernacle, and they are being ‘stretched out’, that is, expanding. Over a thousand years ago, the Midrash explained the connection between the universe and the Tabernacle,

“…It is written, ‘Who stretches out the heaven like a curtain (Ps. 104:2), while of the Tabernacle it is written, And you shall make curtains of goat’s hair for a tent over the Tabernacle, etc. (Ex 26:7). It is written in connection with the second day, ‘Let there be a firmament… and let it divide, etc.’ (Gen. I, 6), and of the Tabernacle it is written. ‘The veil shall divide unto you’ (Ex. 26:33). Of the third day we read, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together’ (Gen. 1:9), and of the Tabernacle it is written, ‘You shall also make a laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, whereat to wash, etc.’ (Ex. 30:18). On the fourth day, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven’ (Gen. 1:14), and of the Tabernacle, ‘You shall make a candlestick of pure gold, etc.’ (Ex. 25:31). On the fifth, ‘Let fowl fly above the earth, etc.’ (Gen. 1:20), and of the Tabernacle , ‘The cherubim shall spread out their wings’ (Ex. 25:20). On the sixth day man was created, and in connection with the Tabernacle it says, ‘Bring near to you Aaron your brother’ (Ex. 28:1). Of the seventh day we have it written, ‘And the heaven and the earth were finished’ (Gen. 2:1), and of the Tabernacle, ‘Thus was finished all the work of the Tabernacle, etc.’ (Ex. 39:32). In connection with the creation of the world it is written, ‘And G-d blessed’ (Gen. 2:3), and in connection with the Tabernacle, ‘And Moses blessed them’ (Ex. 39:43). On the seventh day G-d finished (Gen. 2:2), and in connection with the Tabernacle, ‘It came to pass on the day that Moses had made an end.’ ‘On the seventh day He sanctified it’ (Gen. 2:3), and in connection with the Tabernacle he ‘sanctified it’ (7:1).” Numbers Rabbah 12:13, Soncino Press Edition

The connection of the Mishkan to the universe was an ancient idea, reflected not only in the works of Philo of Alexandria, but even Josephus, who explains the Tabernacle’s curtain as follows:

“[It was] embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.” Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5.5.4

Back to Einstein’s “biggest blunder.” One of the greatest mysteries of cosmology today is: What is the universe made of? Today, 97% of what constitutes the universe is unknown. An unknown force called ‘Dark Energy’ is causing it to spread apart. It is called “dark” because it is invisible and undetectable by modern technology, yet its effects are seemingly apparent. Additionally, within galaxies themselves, an unknown and invisible force named ‘Dark Matter’ is holding them together.

In a parallel fashion, Exodus mentions an unusual board that holds the structure together,

וְהַבְּרִיחַ הַתִּיכֹן בְּתֹוךְ הַקְּרָשִׁים מַבְרִחַ מִן־הַקָּצֶה אֶל־הַקָּצֶה׃

“The middle bar in the midst of the boards shall pass through from end to end.” Exodus 26:28

Rashi comments on this mysterious ‘middle bar’,

“It lay there by miracle. (It was a single, 72-cubit long bar which passed through the three walls; the necessary bending between the angles of the walls was miraculously done by itself).” Rashi, Shabbat 98b, cited at [4]

The Zohar says it is “Jacob,” that is, the Sefirah Tiferet, which harmonizes Judgment and Mercy,

“R. Simeon, we are told, explained thus the words, “And the middle bar in the midst of the boards shall pass from one end to the other.” ‘The middle bar’, he said, ‘signifies Jacob.'” Zohar, Shemot, Section 2, Page 175b, Soncino Press Edition

The Jewish student group Beit Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, made an interesting connection,

“To return to the level of the universal perspective, there is a crossbeam that holds all the boards together; this represents the moshiach.” Divrei Beit Hillel [5]

Paul writes in Colossians,

“[He] is the image of the invisible G-d, the firstborn of all creation. For through him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together.” Colossians 1:15-17

The Human Body

The Midrash Tanchuma says,

האדם הוא עולם קטן 

“The Tabernacle was weighed equally with the whole world and with the creation of humanity, which is a small world. How is this? When the Holy Blessed One created the world, like the fetus in a woman did G-d make it. Just as the fetus of a woman begins with its belly button and grows each way to its four sides, so too G-d began to create the world from the Foundation Stone initially, and the world was based from there.” Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Pekkudei, Siman 3 [6]

The Vilna Gaon says,

“The Holy Temple – G-d’s Sanctuary – was a microcosmic model of the entire universe.  All its edifices, storerooms, upper chambers, rooms and holy vessels were paradigms of the Divine, representing the image, shape and form of the Holy Universes, and the structure of the components of the Divine Chariot.  As mentioned above, man is a “little world” who also encompasses within him all the elements of existence – in this sense, he too is a “Sanctuary.” Indeed, there are striking similarities between the layout of the Temple and human anatomy. . . when man sanctifies himself as required through fulfillment of the mitzvos, the Divine Presence resides within him as it resided within the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.” The Book of Yonah, Journey of the Soul, adapted from the Vilna Gaon’s Aderes Eliyahu, R’ Moshe Schapiro, Mesorah Publications, ltd, pg. 11

Torah = Tabernacle = Temple = Human Body

Midrash HaGadol says,

“The materials donated for the Mishkan correspond to the components of the human being. “Gold” is the soul; “silver,” the body; “copper,” the voice; “blue,” the veins; “purple,” the flesh; “red,” the blood; “flax,” the intestines; “goat hair,” the hair; “ram skins dyed red,” the skin of the face; “tachash skins,” the scalp; “shittim wood,” the bones; “oil for lighting,” the eyes; “spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense,” the nose, mouth and palate; “shoham stones and gemstones for setting,” the kidneys and the heart…” Midrash HaGadol cited at [7]

Divrei Beit Hillel comments,

“On another level, the Mishkan symbolizes the human body. The beams which comprise the sides of the Mishkan symbolize the ribs. The goat-skin curtains represent the skin. The menorah symbolizes the mind. The k’ruvim (cherubim) symbolize the lungs, which lie over the heart, and the aron hakodesh (the holy ark) represents the heart. . .” Divrei Beit Hillel [8]

Gold = Soul Silver = Body Copper = Voice Veins = Blue Flesh = Purple Blood = Red Intestines = Flax Hair = Goat Hair Face Skin = Tachash Skins Bones = Shittim Wood Eyes = Oil for Lighting Nose = Incense Gemstones = Kidneys

The human body is a Tabernacle made without hands.

The Tzaddik

This discussion leads us to the Gospel of John, where Yeshua says something amazing, connecting his body to the Temple,

“What sign do you show us, seeing that you do these things?’ Yeshua answered them, ‘Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Judeans therefore said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this Temple! Will you raise it up in three days?’ But he spoke of the Temple of his body.” John 2:18-21

The Talmud speaks of the death of the righteous on this level,

מיתתן של צדיקים כשריפת בית אלקינו

“…the death of the tzaddikim is put on a level with the burning of the House of our G-d.” Rosh HaShanah 18b, Soncino Press Edition

R’ Chaim of Volozhin makes the comment,

“If someone sanctifies himself properly through the performance of all the Mitzvot…Then he himself is the Beit HaMikdash itself…Because this is the truth regarding Tzadikim through the deeds which are desirable by the blessed one they are the Mikdash mamash.” R’ Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim, Gate 1, Ch. 4

This idea comes to fruition in the book of Second Kings, which tells us the story of a tzaddik named Gedaliah,

“As for the people who were left in the land of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had left, even over them he made Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, governor….But it happened in the seventh month, that Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama, of the royal seed came, and ten men with him, and struck Gedaliah, so that he died, and the Jews and the Kasdim that were with him at Mizpah.” 2 Kings 25:22, 25

Today, his death is observed by a fast day. Yeshiva Tiferet comments on the life of Gedalia,

“By virtue of his constant connection with Hashem and simultaneously with His people, he was the bridge between heaven and earth. He was the Beis HaMikdash in human form. The people were his “service”, and he saw the point of light within each one, bringing together as one in the service of their “Temple”. Thus, the word “Vayagel” is in masculine form. The outpouring of life force from the Creator was channeled through Gedalia to the rest of the world, in the same manner that a husband is mashpia, pours forth his blessing upon his wife. . . Gedalia was THE tzaddik. He was the sole cause of Hashem’s continued personal interest in Eretz Yisroel at the time. It is for this reason that his death is literally the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. The Rambam calls him “the burning coal.” Just as a smothered fire can be brought back to life by a solitary remaining coal, so too, the Beis Hamikdash was not totally consumed as long as Gedalia lived. His death is worthy of a fast day.” Tzom Gedalia 5771, R’ Pesach Siegel, Yeshiva Tiferet [9]

The Talmud brings down the principle, מיתתן של צדיקים מכפרת, “the death of the righteous atones,”

למה נסמכה מיתת מרים לפרשת פרה אדומה ־ לומר לך: מה פרה אדומה מכפרת ־ אף מיתתן של צדיקים מכפרת. אמר רבי אלעזר: למה נסמכה מיתת אהרן לבגדי כהונה? ־ מה בגדי כהונה מכפרין ־ אף מיתתן של צדיקים מכפרת מועד קטן דף כח.א

“Said R. Ammi, ‘Wherefore is the account of Miriam’s death placed next to the [laws of the] red heifer? To inform you that even as the red heifer afforded atonement [by the ritual use of its ashes], so does the death of the righteous afford atonement [for the living they have left behind]. R. Eleazar said, “Wherefore is [the account of] Aaron’s death closely followed by [the account of the disposal of] the priestly vestments? [To inform you] that just as the priest’s vestments were [means] to effect atonement, so is the death of the righteous [conducive to procuring] atonement.” Moed Katan 28a, Soncino Press Edition

Yeshua of Nazareth is the ultimate Tzaddik. His body was the Temple, which was destroyed and rebuilt in three days. He is our atonement,

בָּנַי הִנְנִי כֹתֵב אֲלֵיכֶם אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ וְאִם־יֶחֱטָא אִישׁ יֶשׁ־לָנוּ לִפְנֵי אָבִינוּ מֵלִיץ יֵשׁוּעַ הַמָּשִׁיחַ הַצַּדִּיק׃ וְהוּא כַּפָּרָה עַל־חַטֹּאתֵינוּ וְלֹא עַל־חַטֹּאתֵינוּ בִלְבַד כִּי גַּם־עַל־חַטֹּאת כָּל־הָעוֹלָם

“My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone sins, we have a Counselor with the Father, Yeshua the Messiah, the Tzaddik. And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2

The Heavenly Temple

R’ Yehudah Chayoun cites a Midrash describing the vision of the Heavenly Temple that Moshe experienced before he died,

“Our rabbis said: On the day Moshe Rabbeinu’s death approached, G-d brought him up to the heavens and showed him his Divine reward and what the future held…[he] saw G-d building the Temple with precious stones and pearls. Between each stone was the glow of the Shechinah, more radiant than pearls. Moshach ben David stood in [the Temple] and Aharon, [Moshe’s] brother, stood on his feet, his cloak upon him. . . Moshe fell on his face before G-d and said to Him, “Master of the world, give me permission to speak with your anointed one before I die.” Moshe [then] asked Moshiach ben David, “G-d spoke to me, [saying] He would build the Temple in the land…and behold, I have seen Him build His Temple by hand in the heavens!” Moshiach said to Moshe, “Moshe! Yaakov you forefather saw the house that will be built on earth…’When Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, heard these words from Moshiach ben David, he felt great happiness…[Then] he gave his soul to G-d wholeheartedly.” Midrash Arakim, Midrash “HaShem BeChochmah Yasad Aretz,” cited in Otzros HaAcharis HaYamim, When Moshiach Comes, R’ Yehudah Chayoun, pgs. 201-202

That HaShem can contract his Infinite Light into a majestic heavenly Temple is easier to accept than His glory dwelling in a Temple made by human hands. This baffled Shlomo HaMelech’s mind,

“But will G-d really dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cant contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” 1 Kings 8:27

This is a paradox. The radiance of the Infinite Being can dwell in a finite space. The Midrash speaks of HaShem’s tzimzum, contraction, of His glory into the Tabernacle,

“A Samaritan asked R. Meir: ‘Is it possible that He of whom it is written, ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth? (Jer. 23:24) spoke to Moses from between the two staves of the Ark? ‘Bring me a large mirror,’ said he. When he brought it he said to him, ‘Look at your reflection,’ and he saw it, enlarged. ‘Bring me a small mirror.’ He brought it. ‘Look at your reflection in it.’ He saw it, small. ‘If you, who are but flesh and blood,’ said he, ‘can change yourself at will, how much more so He at whose word the world came into existence!’ Thus when He so wishes, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?,” while when He wishes, He speaks to Moses from between the staves of the Ark.” Genesis Rabbah 4:4, Soncino Press Edition

Divrei Beit Hillel says,

“This correspondence of the Mishkan to the human body comes to teach us that we should never think that the Shechina (Divine Presence) rests only in the wood and stones of the Mishkan; it does (or did, rather) of course dwell there, but more importantly, it dwells within each human being. Because each of us is a resting place for the Shechina, we must continually sanctify and rededicate ourselves to that purpose. To return to the level of the universal perspective, there is a crossbeam that holds all the boards together; this represents the moshiach. We each must sanctify ourselves and dedicate ourselves to serving Hashem as individuals, but we must all come together as a whole. When Moshiach comes (may he do so speedily in our day), he will unite all the individuals, and complete the Mishkan; at that time, the Shechina will finally be able to dwell in the world.” Divrei Beit Hillel [10]

Paul writes,

“So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones, and of the household of G-d, being built on the foundation of the emissaries and prophets, Messiah Yeshua himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the L-rd, in whom you also are built together for a habitation of G-d in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22

R’ Isaiah Horowitz, known as the Shelah, notes,

“They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them (25:8)

“The verse does not say, “and I will dwell within it,” but “and I will dwell within them” – within each and every one of them.” Shelah cited at [11]

Paul highlights the exact same point in 2 Corinthians,

“What agreement has a temple of G-d with idols? For you are a temple of the living G-d. Even as G-d said, “I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their G-d, and they will be my people.” 2 Corinthians 6:16

R’ Shneur Zalman, the author of the Tanya, writes,

“This is what man is all about; this is the purpose of his creation and of the creation of all the worlds, higher and lower – that there be made for G-d a dwelling in the lower realms.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi cited at [12]

Rebbe Nachman says,

“G-d dwells within the Jews, just as a person dresses within a garment.” Likutey Moharan 1:94, Rebbe Nachman’s Torah, Volume 2, Breslov Research Institute, pg. 214

So too, through the Holy Mashiach, who is the living Temple, we also can become a living Mishkan, a miniature universe, a dwelling place for the Light of HaShem. We must press on to build the Temple speedily in our days. Yet we look forward to the time when there will be no more Temple, for its purpose has been accomplished, HaShem and man will dwell together again,

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and the sea is no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from G-d, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, Behold, G-d’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and G-d himself will be with them as their G-d. He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away…I saw no temple in it, for the L-rd G-d, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its Temple. The city has no need for the sun, neither of the moon, to shine, for the very glory of G-d illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Revelation 21:1-4, 22-23



  1. When Humanity Became the World; When You Became the Torah, Jonah Rank, Bima Artists Beit Midrash Source Blog

  2. Anatomy of a Dwelling,

  3. Parashat Terumah in Depth,

  4. Ibid.

  5. PennHillel, Parshat Truma. February 23-24, 1996 | 4 Adar 5756, edited by Aaron Ross, Ruth G. Lowenstein, Jeffrey K. Daman.

  6. When Humanity Became the World; When You Became the Torah

  7. Parashat Terumah in Depth,

  8. PennHillel, Parshat Truma. February 23-24, 1996 | 4 Adar 5756, edited by Aaron Ross, Ruth G. Lowenstein, Jeffrey K. Daman.

  9. Tzom Gedalia 5771, R’ Pesach Siegel, Yeshiva Tiferet [9]

  10. PennHillel, Parshat Truma. February 23-24, 1996 | 4 Adar 5756, edited by Aaron Ross, Ruth G. Lowenstein, Jeffrey K. Daman.

  11. Parashat Terumah in Depth,

  12. Ibid.

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