Tetzaveh: The Special Structure of Parshiyot HaMishkan

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Order in the 'court-yard'?  Certainly that's what we'd expect to find when the Torah presents the laws of the mishkan; and that is exactly what we do find - most of the time.

However, there is one glaring exception - that relates to the placement of the laws of the mizbeach ha-ketoret at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh (instead of at the beginning of Parshat Teruma).

In the following shiur, we will first clarify our question; afterward we will offer an explanation that relates once again to the thematic connection between the mishkan and Ma'amad Har Sinai.


Recall, from last week's shiur how Parshat Tetzaveh forms part of the larger unit (chapters 25 thru 31), which we referred to as tzivui ha-mishkan [the commandment to build the mishkan].  This unit contains a complete set of laws in which God explains to Moshe how the mishkan is to be built and how it will operate.

In that shiur, we discussed the controversy concerning when and why this set of laws was first given to Moshe Rabbeinu.  In the following shiur, we analyze the internal structure of this unit, to show how (and why) it actually contains two distinct units - that overlap in a very special manner.

A Very Long 'Dibbur'

Before we begin, we must make one general observation concerning why parshiyot Teruma and Tetzaveh (i.e. Shmot 25:1-30:10) should be considered a distinct 'sub-unit'.  Note how Parshat Teruma begins with God's commandment to Moshe to "speak to Bnei Yisrael and tell them..." (25:1) - followed by a lengthy set of instructions that continues all the way until the end of Parshat Tetzaveh (i.e. 30:10).  To prove this, simply note how the next "dibur" doesn't begin until the opening pasuk of Parshat Ki Tisa. [See the new "dibur" in 30:11, while noting that there has not been any similar opening statement since 25:1.  However, from 30:11 till the end of chapter 31, every parshia in a separate "dibur"!  We'll return to this observation later in the shiur.]

Therefore, we begin our study with an analysis of this first 'sub-unit' (i.e. 25:1 thru 30:10).  Afterward, we will discuss how the six short 'parshiot' in Parshat Ki Tisa (30:11 thru 31:18) that follow, even though they are outside this unit, complete the larger unit of "tzivui ha-mishkan" - the commandment to build the Mishkan.

An Outline of Terumah/Tetzaveh

The following outline summarizes the topic of each parshia within this unit of parshiyot Terumah/Tetzaveh.  Study it carefully, noting how it appears to follow in a rather logical order (at least until the very end).  It will clarify our opening question.

[Follow this chart with a Tanach Koren at hand.]

Introduction - Donation of the materials  (25:1-7)

& the purpose of this project: "Ve-asu li mikdash ve-shachantI betocham" (25:8-9)

Vessels in the Kodesh Kodashim (innermost sanctuary)

Aron - the ark to house the "luchot"  (25:10-16) Kaporet -  the special lid for the ark (25:17-22)

Vessels in the Kodesh (main sanctuary)

Shulchan - the table for the show-bread (25:23-30) Menorah - the candelabra (25:31-40)

The Ohel Mo'ed [The tent housing these vessels] (26:1-37)

Yeriot  - The canvas of the tent - from cloth & goatskins Krashim - the wooden beams supporting this tent Parochet - the curtain to partition the Kodesh HaKodashim

The Chatzer  [The outer courtyard & its vessels]

Mizbeiach Ha-Ola (the altar / 27:1-8) Chatzer - the outer courtyard Its curtains and poles  (see 27:9-19)

Oil For The Menora  (27:20-21)

[A priori, we would have expected to find this commandment with the menorah.  See further iyun.]

The 'Bigdei Kehuna' - (28:1-43)

Six parshiot describing the priestly garments

The Seven-Day Inaugural Dedication Ceremony (29:1-37)

Olat Tamid  (29:38-46)

The daily offering on the altar (after its dedication)

The Mizbeach HaKetoret - the incense altar (30:1-10)

[This seems 'out of place', as we will discuss.']

As you review this outline, note the logical order of its progression.  It begins by describing the 'aron' - the most sacred object in the mishkan, situated in the 'kodesh kodashim'; then continues with the vessels located in the 'kodesh', followed by the 'ohel mo'ed' [Tent of Meeting], which houses these vessels.  Afterward we find the 'mizbeach ha-ola' - which is located outside this tent - and the courtyard ['chatzer'] that surrounds it.  This unit concludes with the 'bigdei kehuna' - the special garments for the kohanim who will officiate in the mishkan, followed by the details of its seven-day dedication ceremony (and the daily sacrifice that will be henceforth offered).

However, the final parshia describing the "mizbeach ha-haketoret appears to be totally 'out of place'.  After all, this golden altar is one of the three vessels situated in the kodesh.  Clearly, this parshia should have been recorded in chapter 26 together with the laws of the "shulchan and menorah - the other vessels located in the ohel mo'ed.

To verify this point (that the mizbeach haketoret is recorded out of place), simply note the parallel mention of these vessels in Parshat Vayakhel (see 35:13‑15, 37:10‑29, & 39:35‑39).  There the laws of the mizbeach haketoret are consistently recorded together with the laws of the menorah and the shulchan.

Furthermore, this 'displacement' of the mizbeach haketoret is only half the problem.  We will now explain how the pesukim that precede this parshia place this golden altar in even greater 'isolation'!

Out of 'Place'  and  'Out' of Place

Review the above outline once again, noting how the parshia of the olat tamid (29:38-46) forms what 'should have been' the conclusion of this unit.  Let's take a closer look at this parshia, noting how its concluding verses forms a beautiful summary for this entire unit (see 29:42-44):

"Olat tamid for all generations, in front of the ohel mo'ed - the place where we will meet to speak to you from there."         [note how this pasuk 'matches' 25:22!] And I will sanctify the OHEL MO'ED (& its vessels),         [summarizing chapters 25 & 26]               the MIZBEACH (i.e. the chatzer),                              [summarizing chapter 27)               and the KOHANIM... (i.e. their garments & dedication)                              [summarizing chapters 28 & 29] (see 29:44)

As you review these pesukim, note how the words in CAPS correlate to the primary topics in the above outline!  But that's not all, for the next pasuk forms almost a perfect 'bookend' for this entire unit: "ve-shachanti betoch bnei Yisrael..." (see 29:45) - matching: "ve-asu li mikdash ve-shachanti betocham" (see 25:8) -the opening commandment of this entire unit - found at the beginning of Parshat Teruma!

Finally, to top it off, this parshia concludes with its 'grand finale' - that connects the purpose of this mishkan to the very purpose of the entire process of Yetziat Mitzrayim:

"And they shall know that I am their God who took them out of Egypt - le-shochni betocham - in order to dwell among them; I am the Lord their God"  (see 29:42-46).

 Thus, chapters 25 thru 29 form a clearly defined unit with 'matching bookends'.  But this only magnifies our opening question regarding the placement of the laws concerning the mizbeach haketoret (in the next parshia / see 30:1-10) - for it is not only 'out of place' - it is totally isolated - outside this 'shechina' unit!

This total isolation of the mizbeach haketoret forces us to search for a thematic reason for the Torah's intentional placement of these laws after the closure of the shechina unit.

Back to Har Sinai

To suggest an answer to this question, let's return once again to the conceptual parallel between the mishkan and Har Sinai, as discussed in last week's shiur, and as explicated by Ramban:

"... the hidden purpose ['sod'] of the mishkan is for God's glory which dwelled ('shachan') on Har Sinai to dwell upon it..." (Ramban on 25:1, see TSC shiur on Teruma).

According to Ramban, the very purpose of the mishkan was to serve as a vehicle that could perpetuate the Sinai experience!  This purpose is reflected in the numerous parallels that exist between Ma'amad Har Sinai and the mishkan.  For example:

  • The aron: Contains the luchot ha-eidut (25:21), the everlasting testimony of the covenant forged between God and bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai (see 24:3-12).
  • The keruvim: situated above the kaporet (on top of the aron), serve as the site from where God will continue to speak to Moshe.  There, Moshe will receive the remaining mitzvot, just as he had received the dibrot from God on Har Sinai.
  • The mizbeach ha-ola: - where Bnei Yisrael will offer their olot & shelamim, is similar to the mizbeach that Bnei Yisrael built at the foot of Har Sinai, upon which they offered olot & shelamim (see 24:4-8).

Following this train of thought, we should expect to find a parallel as well between the mizbeach haketoret and Ma'amad Har Sinai - a parallel that may shed light on why the Torah places the mizbeach haketoret after the Shechina unit of the mishkan was completed.  To find it, we must first consider a more general parallel between Har Sinai and the mishkan.

Three Mechitzot

One of the most striking parallels between the mishkan and Har Sinai relates to the concept of 'mechitzot' - boundaries.  At Har Sinai, the people are instructed to remain at the foot of the mountain while the kohanim are permitted to come a bit closer (see 19:22;  24:1-2 & 24:9).  Only Moshe is granted access to the top of the mountain (see 19:20-24 & 24:2 & 24:12).

In regard to the mishkan, we find a very interesting parallel.  The people are permitted to proceed only as far as the outer courtyard of the mishkan (where the mizbeach ha-ola is located).  The kohanim are allowed into the "kodesh" (where the shulchan & menorah are located), and only Moshe (and Aharon) can enter the "kodesh ha-kodashim" (where the aron & keruvim are located).

[Additionally, Bnei Yisrael may enter the courtyard only after first purifying themselves (i.e. they must be "tahor"), just as a purification process was required in preparation for Ma'amad Har Sinai (see 19:10-15).]

The following table summarizes this parallel:

Moshe top of mountain Kodesh kodashim dibur
Kohanim mid-mountain Kodesh (ohel mo'ed) meeting
People foot of mountain Chatzer (courtyard) korbanot

So how does the mizbeach haketoret fit into all this?

In our shiur on Parshat Yitro, we discussed the dialectic nature of the encounter between God and Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai.  Ideally, Bnei Yisrael should have heard the commandments directly from God ['panim be-panim'].  However, as mortal man is incapable of withstanding God's Presence (see Devarim 5:4-5, 20-25), God found it necessary to 'buffer' this encounter.  due to this tension, God found it necessary to cover Har Sinai with a cloud before revealing himself:

"Behold I am coming to you be-av he-anan - in the thickness of a cloud - in order that they can hear as I speak to you..."  (see 19:9) 

"... And Har Sinai was full of smoke ['ashan'], for God had come down upon it with fire... " (see 19:16-18 and the TSC shiur on Parshat Yitro).

In this manner, the anan (cloud) on Har Sinai effectively served as a buffer between:

  • Bnei Yisrael at the foot of the mountain, and
  • God's revelation at the top of the mountain.

One could suggest that the mizbeach haketoret serves a similar function.  When the ketoret [incense] is offered on the coals of this small altar, it creates a cloud of smoke (see Vayikra 16:13) in the "kodesh".  In this manner, this "anan" [cloud of smoke] forms a buffer between Bnei Yisrael, who stand outside in the chatzer - and God, whose presence dwells in the "kodesh ha-kodashim".

The Axis: Aron -- Mizbach Ktoret -- Mizbach Ola

This interpretation is supported by two key pesukim that describe the relationship between the mizbeach ha-ola, mizbeach haketoret, and the kodesh kodashim.

The first pasuk stresses the connection between the mizbeach ha-ola and the ohel mo'ed.  As you study this pasuk, note how redundant it appears to be:

"olat tamid [the daily offering on the mizbeach ha-ola] - for all generations, - in front of the entrance to the ohel mo'ed - - before God  [lifnei Hashem] - from where I will meet you - to speak to you there"   (see 29:42).

Surely, the Torah could have explained where this public offering is brought in half the words; yet for some reason the Torah wishes to emphasize a thematic connection between the "olat tamid" and the place where God will speak to Bnei Yisrael.

Then, in the next 'parshia', the Torah provides explicit instructions concerning where to place the mizbeach haketoret. Note once again the 'wordiness' of this pasuk, and how it relates to the pasuk above:

"And you shall place it [the mizbeach haketoret]  - in front of the parochet,  - which is over the aron ha-eidut,  - in front of the kaporet which is upon the eidut  - from where I will meet with you."  (see 30:6).

It is for this reason that the Torah emphasizes that the mizbeach haketoret must be located between these two focal points, i.e. along this very same axis that connects the mizbeach ha-ola with the kodesh kodashim.

In fact, later on in the same chapter, when the Torah explains how the ketoret was made, it emphasizes this point once again:

"...and you shall grind it very fine, and put it:  - before the testimony  [lifnei ha'eidut]  - in the tent of meeting [ohel moed],  - where I will meet with you;  -  it shall be for you most holy."  (see 30:36) 

A 'Protected' Divine Encounter

In a manner very similar to what took place at Har Sinai, God 'comes down' from the heavens, as it were, to the kodesh kodashim; while Bnei Yisrael come from their camp, to stand before God in the chatzer of the mishkan.

Hence, the main section of the ohel mo'ed serves as a buffer between God and Bnei Yisrael.  There, the ketoret must be offered each time the kohen enters to perform his service, which creates an anan [cloud of smoke] to 'protect' the kohen when he enters the kodesh:

"And Aharon shall offer the ketoret daily, in the morning before tending to the menorah, and when lighting the menorah in the evening..." (30:7-8). [Note also Vayikra 16:2, where Aharon must also offer ketoret to create a similar cloud of smoke to protect himself before entering the kodesh ha-kodashim on Yom Kippur!]

With this background we can answer our opening question. One could suggest that by placing the commandment to build the mizbeach haketoret after the summary pseukim at the very end of this unit, the Torah alludes to its unique function as a 'buffer' in this covenantal encounter.  As - 'realistically' - Bnei Yisrael may not be worthy of this encounter, the Torah commands Bnei Yisrael to place the mizbeach haketoret in the kodesh to serve as a buffer, to protect them for the Shechina that dwells in the kodesh kedoshim.

[Note the similarity between the nature of this 'protected encounter' in the mishkan and what we referred to in our shiur on Parshat Yitro as 'plan A,' by which God speaks to Moshe while 'covered by a cloud' so that the people can only overhear their conversation.  See Shmot 19:9! See also Devarim 5:5.]

Furthermore, the dialectic nature of this encounter is highlighted by the placement of the laws of the mizbeach haketoret outside this Shechina unit, yet within the same dibur!

The Ketoret Unit

Up until this point, we have treated parshiyot Terumah-Tetzaveh as one, integrated unit, as indicated by the single dibur that introduces these two parshiot.  Now we must consider the remaining parshiot (in Parshat Ki Tisa) that form the final six paragraphs of the greater tzivui ha-mishkan unit.

Take a minute to review the beginning of Ki-Tisa (i.e. 30:11-31:17), noting how it describes several other mitzvot concerning the mishkan that were also 'left out' of the Shechina unit.

When we list these parshiot in order, we find once again a set of 'bookends':

30:1-10 Mizbeach HaKetoret (*bookend 1*) (as explained above)
30:11-16 Machatzit ha-shekel money collected to fund the ohel mo'ed
30:17-21 Kiyor the faucet for the kohanim to wash their hands
30:22-33 Shemen hamishcha special oil to anoint the mishkan's accessories and the kohanim
30:34-38 Ketoret (*bookend 2*)  the incense for the mizbeach haketoret

[At this point, the laws concerning the mishkan end.  Chapter 31 discusses the appointment of Betzalel to build the mishkan and the prohibition to work on Shabbat (to preclude the possible, mistaken notion the work for the mishkan on shabbat is permissible).  Whereas these do not involve laws directly relating to the construction of the mishkan and its accessories, we have omitted them from this table.]

The above table shows how (1) the mizbeach haketoret and (2) the mitzvah to make the ketoret delineate a second unit, which contains several peripheral commandments regarding the mishkan.

A Parallel Structure

As your review these parshiot, note how a rather amazing parallel structure emerges; pointing to the direct connection between this Ketoret unit and the previous Shechina unit.  Note how each of these peripheral commandments in the Ketoret unit corresponds (in the same order!) to a related topic in the Shechina unit!

The following table illustrates this parallel:

Accessories in the mishkan aron, kaporet, shulchan, menorah mizbeach haketoret
Ohel Mo'ed yeriot, krashim machatzit ha-shekel le-avodat ohel mo'ed
Chatzer mizbach ha-ola kiyor
Dedication bigdei kehuna & milu'im (to anoint the kohanim) shemen hamishcha
Daily Offering korban tamid on mizbeach ha-ola ktoret tamid on mizbeach haketoret

The mitzvot found in the Shechina unit, which focus on God's 'hitgalut' in the mishkan, are complemented by the mitzvot in the Ketoret unit, which focus on the need to protect Bnei Yisrael in this special encounter.

Note as well how all of the mitzvot in the Ketoret unit emphasize either kapara (see shiur on Yom Kippur, where we explained how kapara involves protection from God's hitgalut) or warn of impending death if not performed properly (see 30:10; 30:12; 30:21; 30:33; 30:38; relate to Devarim 5:21‑23!).  Protection is required from the potential punishment enacted should man not prepare himself properly for this encounter with God in the mishkan.

In this manner, the laws of the mizbeach haketoret can serve as an eternal reminder of how man must not only value his ability to enjoy a relationship with God, but also remain aware of the natural limits of this encounter.