"Six days shall project-work (melacha) be done, and on the seventh [it] will be holy for you, a complete desisting (shabbat shabbaton) for YHVH; anyone who does project-work on it will be put to death." (Ex 35:2)
Mishkan and Creation parallels
The restrictions of Shabbat are, in the rabbinic tradition, tied directly to the "thirty-nine melachot," distinct activities of project-work involved in the construction of the Mishkan. That is the work from which Israel desists in the wilderness on the seventh day. But this was a one-time project from thousands of years ago. Why should this specific set of creative work activities be enshrined for all subsequent generations as the work to be abstained from on Shabbat?
In short, it seems that the Mishkan is considered to be Israel’s “act of creation.” And so just as the Creator desists from the work of creation on Shabbat, so too does Israel desist from its work of creation on Shabbat.
The rabbinic tradition draws numerous parallels between the ma’aseh bereshit (act of creation) and the ma’aseh haMishkan (act of building the Mishkan). One instance regards the verse:
בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת משֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן
"On the day Moses finished erecting the Mishkan" (Num 7:1)
The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni states, "We find that the Mishkan was weighed against the act of Creation."
Regarding Betzalel, who was placed in charge of designing the Mishkan, the Talmud (Berachot 55a) states, "Betzalel knew how to arrange the letters through which the heavens and earth were created."
Additionally, Midrash Rabba explains in one place, "Worlds were created and destroyed repeatedly, until finally ours was created and allowed to stand." And elsewhere it states, "Moses set up the Mishkan and took it apart seven times [on each of the seven days of inauguration] until finally he set it up and allowed it to stand."
Furthermore, the the Midrash in several places lists correspondences between components of the Mishkan and the creation narrative. Each comes up with a different set of correspondences. I've also come up with my own set, which not only provides a conceptual match between the days of creation and the components of the Mishkan, like the Midrash does, but also matches them in precise sequential order, according to Genesis 1 and Exodus 37.
Day One, Item One - Light and Ark
Before the "light" of Day One, the world is darkness and chaos. Light is symbolic of order, of life and creativity. The entire creative process is thus powered by that initial "light."
The Ark of the covenant is likewise the central component which the entire Mishkan is built around. The Ark is itself described a source of power, even a dangerous object (killing Aaron's sons, Lev 9:24; dispersing enemies, Num 10:35; killing Uza, II Sam 6:7; "Ark of [God's] power," Ps 132:8). And the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 5:3) understands the word aron (ארון, Ark) as in fact stemming from the word ohr (אור, light).
Other rabbinic references to "light" relating to the Sanctuary: The Midrash Tanchuma explains why the windows in the Temple were narrow toward the inside and wide facing outward - "So that the light should go out from the Temple and illuminate the world." Bereshit Rabbah states, "From the place of the Temple, the light is created." And the Torah itself is called "light" (Prov 6:23), and that Torah, divine instruction, is understood to emanate from the Holy of Holies, the place of the Ark (Ex 25:22, Micha 4:2).
Day Two, Item Two - Firmament and Ark Cover
The firmament is the separator between the lower water (seas) and upper water (clouds). Likewise, the Ark Cover with its Cherubs acts as the separator between the Ark below and the Clouds of Glory above. In fact, the space above the Cherubs is explicitly referred to in Ezekiel (10:1) as the rakia, "firmament."
Ezekiel itself provides another example of the linkage between the creation and the Mishkan/Temple. His Chapter 1, the vision of the Throne of Glory of creation, is recapitulated in Chapter 10, this time about the Temple. Aside from referencing firmament, Ezekiel recognizes the Cherubs to be the “Chaya” that he saw at the Kevar river, i.e., in his first vision (see Ez 10:15). R. Bachye on Exodus 25:18 discusses the parallels between Ezekiel's two visions.
Day Three, Item Three - Land/Produce and Table/Showbread
The land houses the produce, just as the Table houses the Showbread.
Also, it is the produce of the land which is used to make the Showbread. The Midrash Tanchuma Buber offers this parallel as well.
Day Four, Item Four - Luminaries and Menorah
Both the luminaries and the Menorah provide visible light in the everyday usable sense, as opposed to the primordial light of Day One, or the symbolic "light" of the Ark.
There are seven branches in the Menorah, and the rabbinic tradition recognizes seven primary celestial luminaries, these being the sun, the moon and the five planets easily visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (See Tanchuma Buber, which cites this Mishkan-creation parallel.
Additionally, there is a relational correspondence between creation days One and Four, and Mishkan items One and Four. On Day Four, the primordial light of Day One is channeled into practical use by the celestial luminaries, which use light to form times and seasons. Item Four, the Menorah, is conceptualized in rabbinic literature as channeling the "light" of the Ark.
The Talmud (Megila 21b) says of the seven lamps of the Menorah that the outer six (i.e., their wicks) faced the center “western” lamp, and the western lamp faced the divine presence resting on the Ark. Whereas the other lamps burned out over-night, the western lamp (fueled by the divine presence) is said to have stayed lit until the following afternoon, with the same amount of oil (Shabbat 22b).
Day Five, Item Five - Fish/Birds and Incense Altar
Again, this is a relational correspondence, between creation days Two and Five, and Mishkan items Two and Five. The fish and birds of Day Five relate back to Day Two, occupying the lower and upper waters respectively. Likewise, Item Five, the Incense Altar, relates back to Item Two, whereby the smoke from the incense is used to block the Ark Cover. This was done on Yom Kippur to protect the High Priest from the Cloud of Glory which rested on the Ark Cover.
Day Six, Item Six - Beasts/Humans and Outer Alter
Beasts such as cows, sheep and goats are the ones that provide the primary animal sacrifices made on the Outer Altar.
There is also the association of "earth," soil. The Altar in the Mishkan is filled with earth (Ex 20:20). Day Six describes the “earth” bringing forth creatures. The name Adam (אדם, lit. “earthling”) itself comes from the word adama (אדמה, earth), which may also relate to dam (דם, blood). In the sacrificial procedure, blood is sprinkled on the Altar.
Completion of Creation / Completion of the Mishkan
As we alluded to above, both the work of creation and the work of the Mishkan are described as "melacha," and the Torah uses similar language with regard to the completion of that work:
וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
"And E-lohim completed, on the seventh day, the melacha that he did" (Gen 2:2)
וַיְכַל משֶׁה אֶת הַמְּלָאכָה
"And Moses completed the melacha" (Ex 40:33)
"[The Mishkan] will become kodesh with my glory." (Ex 29:43)
וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ
"And E-lohim blessed the seventh day, and he made it kodesh." (Gen 2:3)
Likewise, the rabbinic tradition sees Shabbat as ushering in the divine presence. This is made explicit in the liturgical hymn "Lecha Dodi" of Kabalat Shabbat. The preliminary verses speak about receiving the presence of the “bride," the pnei Shabbat, and in subsequent verses, the theme transitions to the idea of Israel receiving the presence of God, the pnei ha-Shechina, in the Temple.
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That the rabbinic tradition sees a link between the creation and the Mishkan is irrefutable. Ezekiel saw it as well. And it is possible that it was a conscious, deliberate feature of the Torah text itself. As we saw, Genesis 1 and the Mishkan account even share similar terminology, most notably "melacha."
There also does seem to be significant precedent in the ancient world of people modeling their temples based on their conception of the cosmos. Against that backdrop, we might even expect the Mishkan to be built as a microcosm of creation.
So I hold it out as a possibility that the specific set of correspondences I cited above between days of creation and items in the Mishkan may have been part of the intent of the Torah text. (From a Source Criticism point of view, both Ex 37 and Gen 1 are from the same "P" source.) But even if it's not intrinsic to the text, it's a fairly strong drash.
We started with the question of why the work of the Mishkan is prohibited on Shabbat. The answer is that the work of the Mishkan is parallel to the work of creation. In both cases, Shabbat represents desisting from those works, as well as the divine presence entering upon completion.
On Shabbat, we acknowledge both the creation and Mishkan aspects. In Kiddush of Friday night, Shabbat itself is called a "remembrance of the act of creation" as well as a "remembrance of departing Egypt." The latter is a reference to Israel desisting from the work of the Mishkan.
So here's my takeaway for all this. The Torah describes humans as being created in the "image of God." It also says that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, humankind became "like gods." So the act of building the Mishkan is not simply a means of channeling the divine presence. It's also symbolic of our status as creators. We literally fashion a microcosm - a "small cosmos." We recapitulate the act of creation ourselves. We don't just do "avoda," the labor of a servant. We perform "melacha," creative work. And this is representative of the sacred task set forth for humankind: to initiate projects, undertake creative endeavors, build and experiment, bring forth new ideas, new life, and seek to make order out of chaos.
Much of the above is adapted from my book Ohr HaShachar.