Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Words, Weaves, and Waves: The Modern Cosmology of the Ancient Mishkan

Everybody knows that God created the world with words. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and so it was with everything else. According to Jewish tradition, God created the world with ten such statements (Rosh Hashanah 32a), but the Talmud challenges this contention. In Genesis we find nine statements of creation, not ten! The Talmud has an intriguing answer. The very first verse, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” also counts and that gives us a total of ten. Rashi explains the Talmud’s meaning. In addition to all the recorded statements of creation, God also said, “Let there be heaven.”

What is “heaven”? Heaven (shomayim) can refer to the multitude of spiritual realms created by God, the abode of the angels and the constructs of sefiros and mazalos. Heaven can also refer to the cosmos, the space which holds the physical universe. Either way, heaven is invisible, intangible, and difficult for the human mind to grasp. (Maybe this is why the act of its creation is not explicitly stated by the Torah.) This much is clear: Heaven is not nothingness. Like matter and light, it is an entity created by God.


Six days you shall work and perform all your melacha, but the seventh day is Shabbos for Hashem, you shall not perform any kind of melacha… for in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. (Shemos 20:9-11)

When it comes to mitzvos, the Torah does not usually give us reasons, but Shabbos is an exception. The reason we rest on Shabbos was engraved on the tablets: Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh and so we are commanded to do the same, to work for the six days of the week and to rest on the seventh. But this is no ordinary imitatio dei. The thirty-nine categories of work, the melachos of Shabbos, are very same list of labors that went into constructing the Mishkan.

The forty minus one categories of work taught by the Mishnah, what do they correspond with? Rabbi Chaninah Bar Chama said, they correspond with the work of the Mishkan. (Shabbos 49b)

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the Torah put Shabbos and the Mishkan together to teach us to learn one from the other. We could add that the Torah uses the word melacha for both. The Mishkan thus defines the term for Shabbos.

What is the meaning of this association? Why is Shabbos defined by the Mishkan? The answer is that the Mishkan symbolizes creation; it is an abstract, miniature replica of the entire universe.[1] The Mishkan’s project manager, Betzalel ben Chur, was a great mystic who knew the divine wisdom of weaving Hebrew letters into creative words.[2] The Mishkan’s construction thus not only parallels creation, it is a replay of creation; a second universe, modeled on the first, but built this time by man.[3] This is why Hashem rejoiced on the day of the Mishkan’s inauguration like the day He created heaven and earth (Megillah 10a).  

Now we can appreciate Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s explanation of the term melacha:

“You shall not perform any kind of melacha” means “You shall not do not perform any creative work.” Do not carry out your intention on any object; do not make any object the bearer of your idea and purpose. In short: Do not produce or create anything. (The Hirsch Chumash to Shemos ad loc.)

During the six days of the week, man engages in creative work, the thirty-nine basic labors that build up our world. This parallels Gods creation of the universe and it also parallels the construction of the Mishkan. Done right and for the right reasons, our workweek creates a space where the Shechina can enter and feel at home. And then, on Shabbos, we rest from creation itself, just like God. 

They told Moshe, “The nation is bringing more than enough…” Moshe gave the command and the word was spread in the camp: “Men and women should cease working for the sanctuary collection!” The people stopped bringing [materials]. (Shemos 36:5-6)

The pronouncement to stop bringing materials was made on Shabbos. From here we learn that one may not carry goods from one domain to another on Shabbos (Shabbos 96b). The implication is that it was previously permitted to carry on Shabbos (cf. Tosfos to Shabbos 87b, s.v. a’techumin). This comes as a surprise, especially in light of the fact that the mitzvah of Shabbos was introduced before Sinai, in Marah (cf. Rashi to Shemos 15:25). Why wasn’t carrying included together with all the other laws of Shabbos observance? Why was it delayed until now? Rabbi Yaakov Kamanetzky has a fascinating theory.

They came to Marah and they could not drink the water from Marah for it was bitter… They complained to Moshe, saying, “What shall we drink?” He cried out to Hashem and Hashem showed him a tree. He threw it in the water and the water became sweet. (Shemos 15:24-25).

The miraculous transformation of water from bitter to sweet demonstrated that the universe was created ex nihilo. God created matter and He manipulates it as He wishes. This, explains Reb Yaakov, is why the nation was given the mitzvah of Shabbos in Marah. For in Marah creation was revealed and on Shabbos we acknowledge creation by abstaining from creative acts.

All the prohibited activities of Shabbos are united under this basic principle, with the sole exception of carrying. There is nothing creative about carrying. The other categories of work introduce change, but moving an object from one domain to another does not affect the object, it merely changes its location.[4] This is why carrying was not prohibited in Marah.

However, when we received the command to build a Mishkan, carrying became prohibited. Why? Because the Mishkan broadened our understanding of creation.

When Hashem told Moshe, “Build Me a Mishkan,” he was astonished. [Moshe] said, “Hashem’s glory fills the upper and lower realms, and He says, build Me a sanctuary?! … Hashem responded, “The way you think is not the way I think. [Put] twenty boards on the north side, twenty on the south side and eight on the west side. Moreover, I will come down and constrict my presence to one square cubit. (Shemos Rabba 34:1)

How an infinite God fits in a finite sanctuary is unfathomable even to Moses, but at the very least we see that Creator is not bound by the constraints of space. The Mishkan thus demonstrated that God created not only the spiritual realms, but also "ordinary" physical space. If space is a “something,” it follows that moving an object into a different space affects the object. This, explains Reb Yaakov, is why we do not carry on Shabbos. It was thus a lesson we learned not at Marah, but from the Mishkan.[5]


The historic announcement of the measurement of gravitational waves a few weeks ago raises the possibility of an alternative explanation for the prohibition of carrying on Shabbos.

We know that the Mishkan was a miniature universe, each component corresponding to a different part of creation. The tapestry that served as the Mishkan’s ceiling represented the heavens, as King David said, נוטה שמים כיריעה, “[God] spreads the heavens like a tapestry” (Tehillim 104:2; Shemos Rabba 33:4). This symbolism was further illustrated by the golden clasps that held the two tapestry panels together. “The clasps in the [tapestries’] loops looked like stars in the sky” (Shabbos 99a). Furthermore, the tapestry had two images woven into it; a lion and an eagle (Rashi to Shemos 26:1). The lion is one of the mazalos, a zodiacal constellation through which divine blessings flow and the eagle is king of the birds (Chagigah 13b). The two images thus depict the two meanings of shomayim; the spiritual heaven and the physical sky.

Ever since Einstein expounded the theory of relativity, scientists have compared the reality of space to a fabric, calling it the “fabric of space-time.” (Space and time are united under relativity, time being the fourth dimension.) Maybe not everyone always understood it as such, but the defining principle of modern cosmology was built into the Jewish Tabernacle in the Sinai Desert over three thousand years ago. Space is a tapestry.

The Torah tells us that the tapestries of the Tabernacle were handwoven by women (Shemos 35:25). This is not a piece of random trivia. Women are different from men; they are not obligated to perform time-bound mitzvos. This curious Halachic exemption is an expression of a deeper reality. Although God and His Torah transcend time, God’s sanctity can enter time by the performance of [certain] mitzvos here on earth (Sefas Emes, Bamidbar 631). However, this can only be achieved by beings who live within time and are bound by it (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 1:12). The transcendent nature of women[6] thus weakens their ability to sanctify time and, like the Creator Himself, it makes them uniquely qualified to weave the Mishkan’s tapestries, the [wo]man-made fabric of space-time.

Before the command to build a Mishkan, the Jews knew that that Hashem created the world, but they did not know that He also created physical space, for the Torah is ambiguous on that point. It was fair to assume that space does not need creating; it is just nothingness. However, when the people learned that the Mishkan, the microcosm of the created universe, includes a tapestry representing space, that taught them that space is not nothingness. Space is a fundamental component of creation, an entity comparable to a tapestry.  With that insight came the prohibition of carrying on Shabbos, for now the Jews understood that carrying is a profoundly creative act. Changing an object’s location creates a disturbance in the cosmos, vibrating space-time and violating the day of rest.[7]

Gravitational waves oscillate through space in a particular pattern. When space expands horizontally, it contracts vertically, and when it expands vertically, it contracts horizontally. (The wave is unimaginably miniscule, but is nonetheless real and measurable.) It is like a piece of fabric: when you stretch it in one direction, it gets narrower in the other. Fabrics behave this way because they are woven of weft and warp threads. We cannot say what space-time is made of, but comparing it to a fabric turns out to be the perfect analogy.

One of the thirty-nine prohibited activities on Shabbos is weaving. Which component of the Mishkan required weaving? The tapestries, the symbol of space! “He spreads out the heavens like a tapestry.” A tapestry, indeed! It is fascinating that according to some Talmudic sages, a basic law of hotza’ah, the prohibition of throwing objects in the public domain, is learned from the weaving of the Mishkan’s tapestries (cf. Shabbos 96b).

Until recently, carrying was thought to be the least creative of the prohibited activities of Shabbos.   Now we discover that moving an object makes waves that race across the cosmos at the speed of light. Who knew?


Space has great symbolic significance in rabbinic thought. Although we find multiple names for God in Scripture, the sages – amazingly – did not refrain from coining new ones. One of the rabbinic divine names is HaMakom, “The Place,” or “Space.” This is not to say, Heaven forfend, that the sages ascribed divinity to space. Not at all. Just like everything else, space was created by God. Rather, the sages use space to help educate us about the nature of Hashem’s relationship with the universe.

Why did they invent a new name for God and call him “Space”? Because He is the location of the universe. The universe is not His location. (Bereishis Rabba 68)

Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explains the space analogy.

Despite the fact that physical objects do have their own independent reality, nonetheless, without a space to occupy they simply could not exist. The same can be said about the entire universe. Although [the universe] is perceptible and appears to have an independent reality, God is its “space.” If God’s will did not maintain its existence, the universe would most certainly cease to exist! (Nefesh HaChaim 3:2).

The idea sounds esoteric, however, according to the Rambam, it is the foundational principle of Judaism.

The foundation of the foundations and the pillar of the wisdoms is to know that there exists a first being. He brought all things into existence… If one were to imagine that He does not exist, then nothing else could exist either. (Yesodei HaTorah 1:1-2)


This all takes us to a deeper idea, a basic principle of Kabbalistic thought. (I am out of my depth here and sensitive theological concepts do not belong on a blog. I beg the reader to infer nothing without a careful study of the entire third section of Nefesh HaChaim.)

The idea, irresponsibly abbreviated and inaccurately translated, is that the Infinite God is unaffected by creation. From His perspective, I reiterate, from the perspective of the Infinite, creation is meaningless and the universe simply does not exist. Ein Od Milvado. There isn’t anything else other than Him (Nefesh HaChaim 3:3).

To be frank, this is none of our business. We are strictly and explicitly prohibited from indulging in God’s perspective (see Nefesh HaChaim 3:3,6,8). Kabbalistic secrets may be out of bounds, but the study of subatomic particles is permitted and it too challenges our perception of reality. The deeper we go, the more we realize how tenuous matter is. Atoms are 99.9999999999% empty space. Electrons have more in common with waves than particles, and protons, when you break them down, are hardly more significant. The solidity of matter is a mirage; everything can be reduced to waves and forces governed by equations. In other words, it’s all words. Matter is nothing more than the divine statement which created it, the weavings of Hebrew letters and numbers into words and laws. Matter is no more solid than empty space, but even this feeble reality evaporates into non-existence when gazed upon by the Eyes of God.

There is a second perspective, also legitimate, and that is the perspective of Man. The Torah and the view from earth both confirm that God did create a universe. To our great relief, we do, in fact, exist. Moreover, Hashem relates to us (Nefesh HaChaim 3:5).[8]

When our father Yaakov awoke after spending the night on Mount Moriah, he declared, “this is nothing other than the House of God; this is Heaven’s Gate!” (Bereishis 28:17). Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner takes Yaakov literally. At the border between heaven and earth, site of the future Temple, there really is nothing other than God. Here Yaakov was privy to the higher reality, God’s hidden perspective (Nefesh HaChaim 3:7).

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that such spiritual vision is unique to Yaakov. There is a place where the laws of nature go soft and the human perspective turns transparent: The Holy of Holies.

In the Mishkan, the Holy of Holies measured ten cubits by ten cubits. The Holy Ark sat in the center of the room and the Divine Presence, the Shechina, spoke to Moshe from a point between the two Cherubim which stood on the Ark’s lid. The Ark was two and half cubits wide and a cubit and a half deep, but if you measured from any side of the Ark to the nearest wall, the distance was always the same: five cubits (Yoma 21a). The Ark did not take up any space, because the Ark was not in space. Built by Betzalel, it transcended the universe. The Ark stood in a different dimension, the dimension where “there is nothing other than Him.”

Space is both overrated and underrated. We overrate it when we think it is inflexible and inviolable, and we underrate it when we forget that it was created by God’s first act, depicted by the Mishkan’s curtains, legislated by the laws of Shabbos, and utilized as a divine name. Maybe because space is so basic to our existence we just don’t think about it much. Kind of like God.

[1] Cf. Shemos Rabba 33:4. As such, the Mishkan communicated the notion that God was motivated to create the universe because He “desired” to rest His Shechina in a lower realm (Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16). However, the Shechina’s ultimate destination is not the Mishkan, but man: “Build Me a Mishkan and I will dwell within you” (Shemos 25:8; Nefesh HaChaim 1:4, author’s note).
[2] “Betzalel knew how to combine the letters which created heaven and earth” (Berachos 55a).
[3] The Mishkan thus parallels the Tablets which also came in two sets, the second of which was fashioned by man (Shemos 34:1; compare 32:16).
[4] Indeed, the rabbis consider carrying an “inferior” prohibition compared to the other thirty-eight categories (Tosfos to Shabbos 2a, s.v. pashat).
[5] Of course, it is permitted to carry items within a single domain. It is also permitted to move and to walk. Nonetheless, the idea of space as a created entity is expressed by observing the legislated Halachos of Hotza’ah.
[6] Adam was created from the earth, whereas Eve was created from Adam.
[7] See note 5.
[8] As much as these two perspectives appear mutually exclusive, they are ultimately united, see Nefesh HaChaim 3:7.

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