Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  tekheilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of tekheilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of tekheilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in tekheilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet


Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of tekheilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Tekheilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with tekheilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of tekheilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of tekheilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman


A combination of blue (tekheilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of tekheilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.


The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.


Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)




Emor: Challah with a Hole

When you invite a god to be with you, you want to be a good host. Being a good host for human guests always includes offering them food and drink. So the ancient peoples of the Middle East offered their gods bread and cake.

In his book Leviticus, 20th-century scholar Jacob Milgrom noted: “In Egypt the offerings are placed on the outer altar, but only the fresh bread and cakes are brought into the sanctuary and laid on mats (together with incense) before the god’s table … Ritual bread laying was an early custom in Mesopotamia, appearing in a Sumerian inscription of Urukagina of Lagash (c. 2340 BCE). Babylonians laid sweet unleavened bread before various deities, in twelves or multiples of twelve.”

The book of Exodus/Shemot describes the three holy containers in the inner sanctum of the Israelites’ sanctuary: the gold lampstand (menorah) for making light, the gold incense altar for making fragrant smoke, and the small gold-plated table for displaying bread. The display itself is only described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“say”). It begins:

You shall take fine flour, and you shall bake it into twelve challot; a challah shall be two tenths [of an eyfah in size]. And you shall put them in two rows, six in each row, upon the ritually-pure table in front of God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 24:5-6)

challah (חַלָּה), plural challot = loaf or cake made of finely-ground wheat flour, leavened or unleavened, probably  pierced with one or more holes (from the root verb chalal (חָלַל) = pierced through).

Half of the 14 references to challah in the Hebrew Bible specify that the challah shall be unleavened (matzah); in these cases, part of the challah is destined to be burned up on the altar, where leavening is banned. However, when the challah is destined to be eaten by people, it can be sourdough. (A thanksgiving offering, according to Leviticus 7:13, requires both unleavened challah to burn on the altar and leavened challah for people to eat.)

Other cultures in the ancient Middle East laid out bread in front of statues of their gods, and replaced the bread every day. The Israelites are forbidden to make a statue of their god, but the bread table stands in front of the innermost room of the tent, where God’s presence manifests over the ark. The bread is replaced only once a week. The twelve loaves are strictly symbolic; nobody pretends that God eats them. In fact, the Torah orders the priests to eat the week-old challot after the fresh loaves are laid out.

And you shall place as an addition to each row clear frankincense, and it shall become a memorial-portion for the bread, a fire-offering to God. Sabbath day after sabbath day it shall be arranged in rows in front of God, perpetually, as a covenant from the children of Israel forever. And it shall be for Aaron and for his sons; and he shall eat it in a holy place, because it is most holy for him, out of the fire-offerings of God; [this is] a decree forever. (Leviticus 24:7-9)

Unlike the unleavened challot people bring as offerings, the challot on the display table are never burned on the altar. Every seven days the priests set out fresh-baked challot and two new bowls of frankincense. They burn the previous week’s frankincense, so God can enjoy the fragrance (see my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy). Then the priests eat the stale bread.

This week’s Torah portion is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that calls the bread on the sanctuary table challah. Elsewhere it is simply “bread in rows” or “the bread of panim”, the bread that faces God. (See my post Terumah: Bread of Faces.) The twelve challot represent the twelve tribes of Israel, all lined up in front of God.

One might imagine each challah as a fluffy braided loaf, since that is what the challah that Jews eat on Shabbat today looks like. But the root of the word challah is challal, which means “pierced through”. The Torah uses the verb challal most often for fatal wounds, but the word also applies to window-openings in walls and to certain loaves or cakes.  Thus the challot in the Israelite sanctuary and temples might have looked like large bagels.

(Talmudic rabbis, considering the small size of the table—2 cubits by 1 cubit, about 4 square feet—speculated that each challah must have been shaped like a lidless rectangular box, so that one row would stack neatly on top of the other with no gaps. But since we do not know how much flour is in two-tenths of an eyfah, nor how dense the bread was, the table might just as well have held two rows of six bagel-shaped challot, one in front of the other.)

Does the shape matter? I think so. Bread begins as grain that grows as a gift from God or nature. But then humans add a lot of labor to transform that grain into bread. When we display our own creative work to God, are we showing off or expressing gratitude? A continuous loaf with no holes is full of itself; it leaves no empty spaces for God to fill. But a loaf with a hole in the middle says: “The center of my life is for You to fill with Your inspiration. I am building my life around that holy hole.”

That is what I want to say to the divine presence inside me.