Divine Redshift & Blueshift: Spiritual Expansion and Contraction in the Tabernacle

Divine Redshift & Blueshift: Spiritual Expansion and Contraction in the Tabernacle

by Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz

The Question of Color

The color blue plays a prominent role in the Bible. This prominence is most notable via the dye known as tekhelet which tradition relates as being blue and was used in the garments of the High Priest (Exodus 28:5,6,8,15,28,31,33,37) as well as the tzitzit (fringes) which the Bible obligates all men to wear (Numbers 15:38).

A lesser known use of tekhelet was for fabrics that covered a variety of Tabernacle utensils whenever they were transported (Numbers 4:4-15). The list of utensils includes:

–          The Ark

–          The Showbread Table

–          The Candelabrum

–          The Golden Altar

–          The Utensils of the Golden Altar

–          The Altar

The Candelabrum, The Golden Altar and its utensils have almost identical descriptions of the covering procedure. A fabric of blue tekhelet was placed over the object followed by the skin of a takhash. It is not clear what this takhash was, though rabbinic commentaries seem to think it was a particularly beautiful skin that was perhaps even multicolored.

The Ark, The Showbread Table and The Altar had different procedures as per below:

The Ark: The Partition Curtain of the Tabernacle was placed over it, followed by the takhash skin and then followed by the tekhelet.

The Showbread Table was covered first with tekhelet, then its accompanying utensils were placed on the covered table, then the entire combination was covered with a red fabric and then with the takhash.

The Altar was covered by a purple fabric, then its accompanying utensils were placed on it and then the whole combination was covered with takhash.

A summary in table format would look as follows:

Covering order
Article 1 2 3 4
Ark Partition takhash tekhelet
Table tekhelet utensils red takhash
Candelabrum tekhelet utensils takhash
Golden Altar tekhelet takhash
Golden Altar Utensils tekhelet takhash
Altar purple utensils takhash

The differing covering procedures beg the following questions:

  1. What was the purpose of the elaborate coverings?
  2. What was the difference between the covering procedures and what do they demonstrate regarding the qualities of the articles covered?
  3. What qualities did the different coverings provide?

A brief survey of rabbinic commentary provides no answers for the above questions, neither at a specific level nor as part of a general solution.

The author wishes to argue that the answers to the above are based on the interaction between physical properties of the specific colors utilized and the spiritual properties and functions of each of the utensils.

The Doppler Effect

Most of us are familiar with the Doppler Effect. We experience it most commonly when an ambulance or other emergency vehicle approaches. We can tell the direction of movement because of the increased frequency of the siren that we hear. When the ambulance moves away from us, the frequency of the siren drops. The reality of course, is that the frequency of the siren is constant; it is merely its movement through space and time that distorts the frequency that we hear from our specific point-of-view.

The same effect occurs with color and has been noted most famously on a galactic basis. Objects moving further take on a reddish hue while objects moving closer appear bluish. Redshift is evidence of an expanding universe, while blueshift describes the contraction of objects.

Is there a connection between the concepts of expansion and contraction and the components of the Tabernacle?

Deadly Utensils

In Numbers Chapter 4, a group of Levites, the sons of Kehath, are charged with carrying and moving the articles of the Tabernacle whenever the camp of Israel was on the move. However, before the sons of Kehath were permitted to handle these holy articles Aaron and his sons, the priestly Kohanim, needed to cover all the utensils.

The prime reason one would imagine covering the utensils are so they would not be damaged during the hustle and bustle of transport. However, the verse tells us something else, even extraordinary, regarding the transport of these inanimate objects:

“And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture, and all the holy vessels, as the camp is to set forward–after that, the sons of Kehath shall come to bear them; but they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehath in the tent of meeting.” Numbers 4:15

What is it about these utensils that are deadly? How did the priests have regular contact with these utensils and not die? How did the Levites see these utensils on a regular basis and not suffer? Why only during transport were they so dangerous and how did the elaborate coverings neutralize the danger?

Circumscribing the Infinite

A big part of the function of the Tabernacle, and of the commandments in general, is connecting the finite with the infinite. It is the meeting of an immortal soul with a mortal body. It is the nexus of the tangible with the intangible, the spiritual with the physical, the circumscribed with the unbounded. The Sanctuary represents a concentrated meeting of these two extremes.

The untimely death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who brought an unsanctioned fire (Leviticus 10:1-2) demonstrate the fatal danger of interacting in the Sanctuary outside of rigidly defined conventions.

How then does the Sanctuary, its artifacts and rituals breach the wall of the infinite? How does it convey to mortals some aspect of the divine? How does the spirit, through its mortal senses, approach God?

Sacrifice of the Senses

The Sanctuary seems to provide a variety of experiential rituals that may seem unconnected to each other, but that are at once highly symbolic yet unusually holistic. Perhaps a brief review of each artifact and its function will shed greater light upon its overall role and even a certain progression as to its place in the service of the Sanctuary:

The Altar: Was used for the sacrifice of animals. This is perhaps the most physical and common service. Animal sacrifice was known and practiced by humanity for millennia. Nonetheless, it filled a central role in the Sanctuary whereby man could in a sense transmute his persona to the animal being sacrificed, imagining it to be in his own place and feeling upon his body the effect that the particular sacrifice is meant to convey, whether thanks, guilt, supplication or the like. When performed properly, it was a significant transformation of a highly physical act to a spiritual event.

The Showbread Table: Less accessible and common that the use of animal sacrifice. The table and its bread were for the exclusive use of the priests, who ate the holy bread once a week. While not as physical as the killing and burning of an animal, it still involved eating, demonstrating perhaps the divine involvement in providing human sustenance. While the design of the Table was unique and highly symbolic, the utensils were commonplace and perhaps the most ordinary items in the entire sanctuary.

The Golden Altar and Utensils: Used for the daily burning of incense. Much less physical than the previous articles involved in the consumption of food, the Golden Altar affected primarily the senses of smell and sight, creating a strong-smelling column of smoke that rose to the heavens. Other senses besides the one of taste are here engaged in elevating the spirit above the mundane.

The Candelabrum: Lit daily, this is perhaps the most sublime of the senses only affecting sight, shining light – the simplest of the metaphors for connecting a dark material world with a light ethereal one.

The Ark: Affected none of the senses, yet the holiest, most guarded article. Its power is instead a conceptual one, affecting thought. The Ark contains the Tablets of the Law, written by God himself. It is very physical evidence, a testimony of God’s interaction with humanity. It is the infinite intersecting the finite. God has concentrated His presence into a golden box accessible only on the rarest and holiest of occasions. It is the idea of the Ark, of God’s obvious presence in our midst that should have a profound effect upon our relationship to him.

Training and Operations

Having briefly reviewed the role and the connections that each article engenders, it may be easier to understand the reasoning for the different coverings.

When the Sanctuary is fully assembled and functioning an elite cadre of priests tends to the various articles and rituals in a highly prescribed fashion. They are intimately aware of the holiness and distance they must maintain in their very physical interaction with representations of the infinite. They are intensely trained and keep the correct frame of mind when carrying out functions for either individuals or on behalf of the nation as a whole. There are dangers, although, in the day-to-day operations the expectation is that there will be no trouble and the priests do not require further safeguards beyond their intensive training.

Moving Insurance

The Levites charged with moving the holy utensils are another matter altogether. They do not have the requisite training or experience of regular contact with the utensils. Their job is to transport the utensils, taking them out of their normal mode of operation. One of the dangers and in this case a potentially deadly danger (which is famously depicted in the death of Uza for touching the Ark during transport – II Samuel 6:6-7) is that the Levites will handle the utensil inappropriately, perhaps with a lessened regard, seeing it as just another piece of furniture that needs to be moved. He would of course be in error, as these holy articles are nothing less than divine conduits having the power to connect and transcend our physical world and connect us with the eternal.

The power of the holy articles is one that the untrained Levites must be protected against, lest they be struck down for the disrespectful handling of them. Hence the dictate that the articles be covered lest the Levites die.

Covering the Infinite

If we presume that a human conception of the infinite is one of a never-ending expanse of time and space, of an expansive universe greater than man can imagine, the closest scientific representation may be the concept of redshift. How then can man hope to cover the infinite, symbolically if not physically? Our suggestion is that the color blue may counteract redshift.

Blue is the scientific opposite of red. If red is expansion than blue is contraction. If red is moving further away than blue is moving closer. Blue is the ideal protection against a potentially dangerous exposure to infinity. Is that the reason why it is used so predominantly by the High Priest and in our tzitzit? That is a topic for another discussion. However, for our purposes, blue does seem to be the logical choice for protecting the Levites from the holy articles and we see that is the prescribed covering in almost all cases. The exceptions to this may prove the rule.

What is Takhash?

As mentioned in the introduction, it is not clear what the takhash skin was. There are different theories as to what animal may have been the source of this special skin that may or may not have been multi-colored. For the purposes of our theory the characteristics of the takhash will not be significant, as takhash is used without exception for every single article. Whatever the effects and properties of takhash in providing protection, it was apparently consistent and required for every article. What is interesting for us is the differing use of clearly identified colors for different articles.

Ethereal versues Commonplace

The Altar was covered with a purple cover. Building on our theory of using blue to circumscribe the ethereal, the altar was the least ethereal object in the Sanctuary’s repertoire. It was used for the most mundane of actions, the sacrificing of beasts. The spirituality, etherealness of the big heavy altar may be less than that of the more sublime objects and their functions, and therefore the Levites may have required less of the contraction effects of a blue covering. A more neutral purple covering may have been sufficient protection (assuming we are talking about a purple that lies spectrally between red and blue, as opposed to a violet that scientifically is beyond blue, as in ultra-violet).

The only other items that have a covering other than blue are the utensils of the Showbread Table. The dishes, spoons, shelves and bread were covered in a red fabric – the scientific opposite of the constricting effects of the blue. One reason for this may be because of the extremely mundane and commonplace nature of these utensils. All of the other utensils of the Sanctuary are unique in their design if not their use. However, the utensils of the Showbread Table could be found in every home. What is so special about a dish or a spoon? I have one at home. Perhaps, in order to highlight the holiness of these particular items the opposite effect must be invoked. We must take these simple objects and symbolize their connection to infinity. We must “expand” them, if you will. By covering them in red, we are signaling that these objects are truly holy, despite their unassuming appearance. We are scientifically expanding their presence, drawing them closer to infinity.

Finally, the Ark, is different in both the composition of coverings as well as its order. It is first covered with the Partition, a very part of the Sanctuary structure itself. This perhaps highlights more than anything else the extreme holiness and therefore also danger of this object (as attested to by its historical use in battle, notwithstanding the Hollywood depiction in the famous “Raiders of the Lost Ark” film). It is then covered with the standard takhash and then as opposed to all the other articles, it is covered with the blue fabric as the outermost layer. It is reasonable that the Ark with its most sublime and powerful connection to God would require the greatest and most obvious protection with blue on the outside reinforcing and declaring the need for constriction during transport.

Below is a summary table:

Covering order
Article 1 2 3 4 sense ethereal vs. commonplace protection by covering
Ark Partition takhash tekhelet thought most ethereal needs greatest constriction
Table tekhelet utensils red takhash taste (bread) utensils most commonplace needs greatest expansion
Candelabrum tekhelet utensils takhash light “standard” sublimity “standard” constriction effect
Golden Altar tekhelet takhash smell & light “standard” sublimity “standard” constriction effect
Golden Altar Utensils tekhelet takhash smell & light “standard” sublimity “standard” constriction effect
Altar purple utensils takhash taste (meat) most commonplace act needs neutral protection

What does it all mean?

Firstly, we have proposed answers as to the reason, purpose and functions of the coverings in a coherent theory that addresses the differences between the articles being covered. Namely, that blue has the potential to protect and constrict exposure to infinity, while red may have the opposite affect, expanding the symbolic and spiritual attributes of the object in question and bringing it closer to infinity. Hence the strategic use of these colors for the different utensils of the Sanctuary.

What are the deeper implications of such a theory? What is the meaning of the use of scientific theories in understanding spiritual phenomena and ritual law? How do we contend with infinity? How do we approach infinity respectfully, cautiously, yet protect ourselves from potentially overwhelming affects? Is there some spiritual significance and affect of color? How does such a theory translate into our current lives?

I leave these new questions to the reader to ponder.

* * * * * *

For reference, below, is the prime source text from Numbers Chapter 4:

1 And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 2 ‘Take the sum of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, 3 from thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter upon the service, to do work in the tent of meeting. 4 This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting, about the most holy things: 5 when the camp sets forward, Aaron shall go in, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of the testimony with it; 6 and shall put thereon a covering of sealskin, and shall spread over it a cloth all of blue, and shall set the staves thereof. 7 And upon the table of showbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the pans, and the bowls, and the jars wherewith to pour out; and the continual bread shall remain thereon. 8 And they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet, and cover the same with a covering of sealskin, and shall set the staves thereof. 9 And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the candlestick of the light, and its lamps, and its tongs, and its snuffdishes, and all the oil vessels thereof, wherewith they minister unto it. 10 And they shall put it and all the vessels thereof within a covering of sealskin, and shall put it upon a bar. 11 And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of sealskin, and shall set the staves thereof. 12 And they shall take all the vessels of ministry, wherewith they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of sealskin, and shall put them on a bar. 13 And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon. 14 And they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof, wherewith they minister about it, the fire-pans, the flesh-hooks, and the shovels, and the basins, all the vessels of the altar; and they shall spread upon it a covering of sealskin, and set the staves thereof. 15 And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture, and all the holy vessels, as the camp is to set forward–after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear them; but they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting.

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