In these parshiyot we are introduced in much detail to what became the epicenter of Jewish life for millennia: the Mishkan, which ultimately became the Beit Hamikdash. The Jewish people are commanded to build a sanctuary, a place of dwelling for The Divine presence, in their midst. The Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvot Aseih 20) counts this as one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth that are incumbent upon us to fulfill. However, he emphasizes that the commandments to craft different vessels for the Mishkan, i.e. the Shulchan, Menorah etc., are not to be counted as separate mitzvoth. Since these vessels’ purpose to serve as part of the greater Mishkan, they are not to be listed as separate mitzvoth, but rather as details and parts of the mitzvah to build a Mishkan. The Ramban, in his critique to the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot (Mitzvah 33), takes sharp issue with this premise of the Rambam, and concludes that each one of the Holy vessels should be counted as a mitzvah unto itself. The only reason we don’t end up counting separately the assembly of most utensils is that fashioning these utensils is included in the commandment to use the utensils, each for its specific service. In other words, the reason we need not count the assembling of the Menorah as an individual mitzvah is because such an obligation is inherent in the commandment to light a menorah, as it is impossible to light a Menorah in the absence of a Menorah. If, however, this would not be the case, then indeed we would need to enumerate the assembling of a Menorah as one of the mitzvoth.

Stepping back for a moment, what is it that was bothering the Ramban about the Rambam’s position; why couldn’t he accept that assembling the Holy vessels is included as part of the commandment to build the Mishkan?

In outstanding elegance and refreshing originality, Rabbi Asher Weiss, in his Minchat Asher (Shemot, siman 48), suggests the following source for the contention between the Rambam and Ramban. When we look at the commandment to build the Mishkan, there are two possible ways to explain the imperative for such a commandment. On the one hand we can explain that the purpose and raison d’être for the Mishkan is so that there is a proper place of worship for the Jewish people; so there is a place to perform the avodah of the korbanot, a place to serve God and follow the instructions He has given us as to how to worship Him. Another possible explanation, however, is that the main purpose of the Mishkan, as is indicated in many psukim, is to serve as a place for the Divine presence, theShechinah, to dwell. When taking a careful look at the description of the Mishkan, one sees these two approaches reflected in the words of the Rishonim. When the Rambam describes the purpose of the commandment to build the Mishkan (Sefer Hamitzvot, ibid. and Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 1:1), he describes the Beit Hamikdash as  a place of worship, a place where korbanot can be brought and the Temple service can be properly fulfilled. When taking a look, however, at the Ramban’s description of what purpose the Mishkan is to fulfill, one finds a different description and explanation. The Ramban writes (Shemot 25:1) that by building the Mishkan, we create a place where God’s Divine presence can dwell among the Jewish people.

This sheds light on the other disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban. The Rambam, who sees the quintessence of the Mishkan and Mikdash as a place of service and a facilitator for the offering of the korbanot, does not need to count the assembling of the Holy vessels as a separate mitzvah, since one cannot imagine a Mikdash as a place of offering korbanot without the vessels and utensils that make the offering of those sacrifices possible. The Ramban, however, who sees the Mikdash’s primarily as a place of resting for the Divine presence that does not necessitate the use of any specific utensil, views the assembling of those utensils as distinct from the actual structure and building of the Mikdash.

This approach explains a mystery that has long puzzled scholars and commentators (see Minchat Chinuch Mitzvah 97). While the Rambam, in his Yad HaChazakah, seems to cover every aspect of the description and construction of the Beit Hamikdash, the one element that is conspicuously missing from his description, an item that by no means can be ignored, is the Aron – the Holy Ark. Why does the Rambam omit this centerpiece of the Mikdash, and give a detailed description of everything but this most important item?

Some suggest, based on the aforementioned argument, that the Beit HaMikdash, from a halakhic perspective, serves as a place of worship and sacrifice; the Aron, despite being possessed of the utmost meaning and holiness, does not have a specific operational function or mitzvah with which it is associated. Since the Rambam is halakhically codifying the role of the Mikdash, and since he sees the primary function of the Mikdash as a place of worship, he therefore does not give a description of the Aron in the Yad HaChazakah.

Published in The YU Lamdan 2013