“Mishkan” vs. “Mikdash”
What is the correct Hebrew name for the Tabernacle that God commanded the Jews to construct in the desert? That’s easy: It’s called the “Mishkan.” However, the very first time the Torah identifies the structure, Hashem calls it a “Mikdash” (25:8): “וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם” – “They shall make for me a ‘Mikdash,’ and I will dwell in their midst.” The edifice is mentioned by name an additional 19 times in our parsha, but each time it is called “Mishkan!” What, then, is the difference between a Mikdash and a Mishkan, and why are there two terms for the very same thing?
The Talmud acknowledges that the correct term for the temporary portable edifice that the Jews built in the desert is “Mishkan,” and the correct term for the Temple in Jerusalem is “Mikdash.” The reason why the Torah first calls the Mishkan a “Mikdash” is to teach that the technical halachot of ritual impurity and other holy protocols apply equally to both the Mishkan of the desert and the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.
I might have thought, the Talmud explains, that there are certain additional holy aspects to each edifice, and so Scripture needed to connect them, demonstrating that both structures occupy the same level of holiness.
But we are still left with the question: Why are two different words used to describe two buildings which have essentially the same function, namely, a holy edifice for worshipping God? The commentaries note a number of differences between the words, “Mikdash” and “Mishkan.” Here are some of those differences:
Two building, two names
1. On the basic level, the word “Mikdash” is a sanctified place. This word describes the job of the Jewish people in building the edifice. They needed to “sanctify” it and make it distinct and separate from their own homes and other structures. In exchange for building a holy place that is habitable for Hashem, God promised, “וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם” – “I will dwell in their midst.” The word “Mishkan” derives from the word, “Shekhinah,” the infusion of God presence, as it were, into the edifice that Bnei Israel had sanctified. Put another way: “Mikdash” represents Israel’s role in this project, and “Mishkan” represents God’s reaction to that effort.
2. The Mishkan was a portable edifice; whenever the Jews encamped in a new place in the desert, they reconstructed the Mishkan, and it regained its holy status. The Beit HaMikdash, by contrast, was fixed permanently on one piece of real estate, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, never to be relocated.
3. As per the Talmud cited above, the Mishkan’s holiness was temporary. The edifice was only meant to be utilized until Bnei Israel would find a permanent place for building a Temple. By contrast, the Temple was meant to last perpetually. Even after its destruction, the Temple Mount retains its sanctity.
4. Both the Mishkan and the Temple were meant as places for communion with God. However, the method of Divine communion in the Mishkan was primarily achieved when God rested His Shekhinah among the people in order for Him to communicate the laws of the Torah to Moshe. Sacrifices were also brought in the Mishkan, but this was only its secondary function. The Temple, by contrast, created Divine communion solely through the Jews’ bringing their korbanot (sacrifices). God never communicated Torah law via the Temple.
Mikdash and mishkan today
We might apply these four distinctions between Mikdash and Mishkan to our own lives:
1. The Kotzker was known to say: “Where is God? Any place where you let Him in.” Our job is to construct the “Mikdash.” If we live our lives with dignity, moderation, and morality, then we can expect Divine influence in our lives. The Shechinah can only rest upon those who properly invest in living a life dedicated to Torah study and mitzvot, and create a welcoming place for God to rest within.
2. There’s value in knowing that there are two types of holy places: the portable ones, and the ones fixed in place. Tradition teaches that we should assign specific places and times for spiritual efforts. That is why we have designated holy days, and designated places of holiness. The authorities advocate that a person should designate one spot, known as a makom kavua, whether in the synagogue or in the home, which is reserved for prayer.
The human psyche reacts better to the idea of transcendence when it is bounded by specific times and places. At the same time, we often find ourselves traveling through the deserts of the world, whether literally or figuratively. We should attempt to create holiness even in places where holiness is not to be found. In the desert, we anointed the Mishkan utensils in order to imbue them with a holiness that was not endemic to the desert environment.
We can do the same while in our own deserts. Whether it’s assembling a minyan at the airport, or putting together a minyan amidst the rubble in Gaza, we can create holiness anywhere. We should never be embarrassed to express ourselves religiously in public.
3. Rav Kook teaches something profound: The Mishkan was a prerequisite to the Temple in Jerusalem. Something as transcendent and holy as the Divine Presence could not initially rest in something permanently ensconced within our physical world. The Mishkan needed to be a temporary edifice in order for Hashem’s transcendence to feel “comfortable” descending into it.
Only after Moshe and the Jewish people expressed great love and desire for a more permanent home, did Hashem allow His presence to rest in a permanent edifice. I was just at a new restaurant in the neighborhood, where they advertised that they were having a “soft launch.” I asked the owner why he didn’t just open up fully right away. He responded that both he and his partner were not coming from the foodservice industry, and they needed to ease themselves into this new venture before committing to a full-service restaurant. The same is true with any spiritual endeavor.
No one should go from zero to 100 in one fell swoop. We always advise baalei teshuvah and others who are assuming new responsibilities in life: Take it slow, and ease your way into your new role. This is the only way to succeed, especially when attempting something that is spiritually monumental.
4. Finally, utilize your holy places, especially your shul, for both worship (Mikdash) and Torah study (Mishkan). Both are holy endeavors, and both create communion with God. One is not a holier endeavor than the other, even though they serve different functions. We need both a Mishkan and Mikdash in our lives.
Making a place for God in our lives
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (d. 1980) is credited with the moving poem, “בלבבי משכן אבנה”, which has been popularized as a beautiful song (which is actually based on a poem written by Rav Elazar Azkari of the 16th century). The lyrics translate as:
In my heart I will build a Mishkan for His glorious honor.
Mishkan I will establish an altar for the corners of His glory.
For an eternal light, I will use the fire of the Akeidah.
For a sacrifice, I will offer up to Him my only soul.
We can use these parshiyos which detail the Mishkan’s construction to try our best to sanctify our lives with efforts that will make us a place for God to feel welcome. Whether it’s our home, our workplace, or our vacation spots, let’s welcome Hashem into our spaces, so that we can commune with Him at the Redemption, bb”a.