At Mount Sinai the Israelite nation received the commandment to build for G-d a Sanctuary. The commandment consisted of precise instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle, its attending vessels, and the surrounding courtyard. In this manner the words were fulfilled: "... and I shall dwell among them." For the first time on the face of the earth there existed a nation in whose midst dwelt the One G-d, Creator of the universe. The completed tabernacle was dedicated on the first day of the month of Nisan, one year after the exodus from Egypt. From that point forth, it would travel with the children of Israel throughout their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. It would serve as the spiritual heart of the nation, from which instruction would go forth, and in which the Divine service would be performed. Upon entering the land of Israel, the tabernacle would continue to perform this function for some four hundred years, after which it was superceded by the Holy Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.
The Copper Altar and its Components
"And you will make an altar of acacia wood, five amot long and five amot wide; the altar will be four-square, and the height three amot. And make horns upon it in the four corners. The horns will be of a single piece, (with the altar), and it will be overlaid with copper." (Exodus 27:1-2)
There exists a difference of opinion between the two sages, Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Yossi, (Mishna Zevachim), as to the height of the copper altar, (mizbeach), and the surrounding courtyard curtains. According to the reckoning of Rabbi Yehudah, the height of the altar was three amot, (approximately 1.5 meter) high. In each of the four corners atop the altar was a square keren, or horn.
The Copper Altar rests upon a Stone Base
According to the reckoning of Rabbi Yossi, the total height of the altar reached ten amot, (approximately 5 meter) high. When the Israelites made camp in the wilderness, a stone ramp was built. At the high end of the ramp a base of stone was constructed upon which the copper altar was placed. After the altar was set in place, copper panels were places around the three exposed sides of the altar base.
The Tabernacle Beams and their Fittings
The tabernacle beams, (krashim), were made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. At the top of the beam were three tenons and at the bottom, a double tenon. The beams were adjoined at the top by silver sockets, (taba'ot), that fit over the tenons. The double tenon at the foot of each beam were inserted into silver sockets, (adanim), that served as a base for the wall. For additional support, bolts were inserted into gold rings placed along the length of the beams.
The Courtyard Pillars and their Fittings
The courtyard pillars, (amudim) were composed of three main components: The acacia pillars themselves, which were reinforced by silver bands, (chishukim); the copper bases, (adanim), into which the pillars were inserted; and the silver eyelets, (vavim), which were fitted onto the tops of the pillars, for stretching the curtains, (yeriot) across.
The Tabernacle Courtyard
According to the reckoning of Rabbi Yehuda, the height of the altar was relatively low. At three amot, (approximately 1.5 meter), it was lower that the average height of a man. Likewise, the couryard curtains were five amot high, (approximately 2.5 meter). This meant that the tabernacle itself stood five amot high, (approximately 2.5 meter), proud of the surrounding courtyard curtains.
Rabbi Yossi had a different reckoning: the height of the altar was the same as the height of the tabernacle, (ten amot, or five meter high). The cohen attending to the altar fire would therefore see the curtained roof of the tabernacle below him. The courtyard partition, according to Rabbi Yossi, stood at a height of fifteen amot, (approximately 7.5 meter), and effectively hid the tabernacle from the sight of anyone standing outside the couryard walls.
Assembling the Tabernacle
The above picture depicts the assembly of the tabernacle: toward the left, a leader of the Merari family, who were entrusted with the tabernacle assembly, is seen holding written plans. In the center of the picture, the Gershoni family is seen fulfilling their responsibility of erecting the courtyard curtains. On the right, the Kehati family , bearer of the tabernacle vessels, are seen carrying the ark of the covenant into the tabernacle.
Inaugurating the Altar
"And Moshe and Aharon went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the L-rd appeared before all the people. And there came forth fire from before the L-rd, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces." (Leviticus 9:23-24)
The Levites Encamp around the Tabernacle
The tabernacle as seen in the Sinai wilderness. Brightly colored tachash skins cover the tabernacle. Above the tabernacle is the cloud of glory, which by night would become a pillar of fire illuminating the encampment, providing testimony that G-d's presence, shechinah, was with the children of Israel. Immediately surrounding the tabernacle and its courtyard were the encampments of the Levite families, the bearers of the tabernacle and its vessels throughout the desert journey: the Gershoni family encamped to the west of the tabernacle; the Kehati family to the south; the Merari family to the north. Directly opposite the entrance to the courtyard was the tent of Moshe and Aharon and his children. A special tent was erected for the coffin of Yoseph, enabling Moshe to bring his bones from Egypt to the land of Israel.
At the Foot of Mount Sinai
The tabernacle was assembled and dedicated while the israelite nation was still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the Torah had been received, and the divine plan for the tabernacle had first been revealed.
The Twelve Tribes Encamp East, West, North & South of the Tabernacle
The desert encampment of the Israelites was layed out in a specific pattern, as described in Numbers. In the center of the encampment stood the tabernacle. The courtyard entrance was in the east. Along the northern, southern and western sides of the courtyard were the Levite encampments, as described above. The exterior perimeter of the Israelite encampment was formed by the twelve tribes. Three tribes were encamped along each of the four directions surrounding the tabernacle and the Levite encampments. They were as follows: In the east, Yehudah, Issachar, and Zvulun; in the south, Reuven, Shim'on and Gad; in the west, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benyamin; and in the north, the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naftali. In this formation, they traveled throughout the wilderness.
Traveling through the Wilderness
Twelve sturdy bulls were donated by the leaders of the twelve Israelite tribes, (Numbers 7:3), to carry the beams and curtains, and other tabernacle components on the journey through the wilderness. The above painting depicts the arrival of the Israelites at a new camp site, where the Levites begin to unload the beasts of burden and assemble the tabernacle.
The Tabernacle in Shilo
After the Israelite tribes had entered into the land, the tabernacle eventually made its way to Shilo, where it stood for 369 years. In Shilo the curtained walls of the tabernacle were replaced with stone, but the roof remained a covering of skins. (Zevachim 14:6)
Hanna Prays for a Child
"So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk - now Eli the priest sat upon his seat by the door post of the Temple of the L-rd; and she was in bitterness of soul - and prayed unto the L-ord, and wept sore." (First Samuel 1:9)
Standing before the tabernacle at Shilo, Hanna prays for a son. G-d would answer Hanna's prayer, and the son born to her would grow to be Shmuel, (Samuel), the prophet. Shmuel would eventually reveal to King David the precise location upon which the Holy Temple was to be built, on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. (Yalkut Shimoni)