This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, which concludes God’s request for a tent sanctuary so God can dwell among the Israelites. Tetzaveh also describes the special garments the priests will wear as they perform their roles at the sanctuary.
Special garments are also a feature of the book of Esther, which Jews read every year during the holiday of Purim. In most of the world, Purim falls this year on the evening of Monday, March 9, and the day of March 10. But in Jerusalem and ancient walled cities, we celebrate “Shushan Purim” the evening of Tuesday, March 10, and the day of March 11. This is the first time in my life I will be able to celebrate Shushan Purim. I plan to join a group of women reading Megillat Esther, the biblical book behind this holiday, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem!
Next year in this blog I hope to compare the costuming in the book of Esther and the Torah portion Tetzaveh. But this year I wanted to repost my essay on the curious phrase “Tent of Meeting” which first appears in the portion Tetzaveh. Why does God call for a tent-sanctuary that will be the place for scheduled meetings?
The question spoke to me after I visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and looked at artifacts from other ancient places where people went to meet with their gods. So I spent some time rewriting my 2014 post. You can find the improved version here: Tetzaveh: Meeting Room.
The standard floor plan for shrines and temples in the Ancient Near East had a large front room and a smaller, holier room in the back where the god was present. This is the plan of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, which is divided into a larger front chamber where the priests tend the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar; and a smaller back chamber, the Holy of Holies where the ark stood.
A Canaanite temple and a small shrine archaeologists discovered in Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee/Kinneret, follow the same basic plan. Both were built during the 15th to 13th century B.C.E. The temple’s back chamber or Holy of Holies contained a statue of the storm god and a standing stone or massebah carved with a horned sun disk.
One of the religious innovations in the Torah is the prohibition against making or worshiping either a god statue or a standing stone. The God of Israel must not be represented with a carved image, and the people must not worship any other gods.
The smaller shrine in Hazor from the same period had only one room, and a shallow niche in the back wall for the holiest objects. The niche was lined with standing stones, including a central stone carved with two hands and a moon symbol. In front of the standing stones stood a table for offerings and a statue of someone wearing the symbol of the moon god Sin. This shrine was a place to meet the moon god.
In the second book of Samuel, which is set in the 10th century B.C.E., the temple that King Solomon builds in Jerusalem follows the same pattern as the Canaanite shrines and the Tent of Meeting described in Exodus. The temple’s Holy of Holies contains not only the ark, but also two carved winged figures based on the two figures on the lid of the ark in the Tent of Meeting. These pairs of winged figures are not considered idols in the Torah, perhaps because God only manifests in the empty space above the ark. (See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)
Given the biblical history of furnishing the Holy of Holies, I was not surprised to learn that when archaeologists unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. fortress of Arad they found a shrine with a standing stone inside its Holy of Holies—even though Arad was in the kingdom of Judah, where the God of Israel was worshiped. For the people of Arad, the standing stone meant that God was present in their shrine, their own “Tent of Meeting”.
Eight centuries later, the people of Judah were building the first synagogues even before the Romans razed the temple in Jerusalem. These synagogues were buildings where people could encounter God through prayer and study instead of through offerings on the altar. The Israel Museum has restored part of the interior of an early synagogue built in Susiya, near Hebron.
Its sacred enclosed space had three niches in the back wall, which held a Torah scroll flanked by two menorahs. It is no coincidence that a Torah scroll inside its ark is reminiscent of the stone tablets of commandments inside the ark that stood in the Tent of Meeting’s Holy of Holies.
How different is the shrine in Arad, with its standing stone, from the synagogue in Susiya, with its ark?
Today Jews still come to synagogues to encounter God through communal prayer at appointed times. The holiest place inside a synagogue is still the ark containing the Torah scroll.
It must be human nature to want an appointed place to meet God. Perhaps that is why I am going to the Western Wall on Shushan Purim.