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Thoughts on Tabernacles and Acacia Trees

For more than a month now we have focused in our weekly Torah readings on the creation of a central shrine in the midst of the ancient Israelite camp, a portable sanctuary to represent God’s presence in the midst of the people of Israel, an attempt to bring God into our world.  Moses is given full and detailed instructions on how this Tent of Meeting is to be structured and on the various furniture to be placed within it as well as the sacrificial altar that will be set up outside of it.  All kinds of materials were requested from the Israelite masses including gold, silver, copper, various types of material for the curtains and animal hides to cover and protect them, precious stones, and other items as well.  Though the people had been enslaved for so many years and had few possessions of their own, we had learned that as they prepared to leave Egypt, they were told to go to their Egyptian neighbors and request these various items.  God had indicated that the Egyptians would respond favorably to these requests and indeed they did, perhaps out of a sense of guilt or from fear of more plagues, or simply as a means to partially compensate the Israelites for their many years of servitude.  When Moses repeats these instructions for the tabernacle to the people after coming down from the mountain and requests donations from the riches they had taken from Egypt, he is overwhelmed by the response and the supervisors of the building, Betzalel and Oholiab, tell him that the people need to stop; they have contributed more than enough for the work to proceed.


One item that stands out in the list that Moses receives and was crucial for the construction of this MIshkan, this divine dwelling place, is repeated many times throughout the passage.  It is Atzei Shittim, acacia wood.  From this material Betzalel formed the box that was covered within and without by gold and became the ark of the covenant, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Acacia also was used to create the table of showbread placed within the tabernacle.  The altar for incense and the altar for sacrifices also were constructed from atzei shittim.  The framework on which the drapery of the tent was supported and the fencing round about the whole area required long boards made from Acacia wood as well.  I must confess that I have never given much thought to Acacia trees and where they might be found in the wilderness of Sinai in order to create this structure.  However, our ancient sages considered the problem and had some interesting solutions to it which I will share shortly.


This week, I received a small volume from an old college friend who lives in Jerusalem and with whom I have re-connected, as so many of us have, through Facebook.  The volume entitled “Torah and Flora” is a collection of some of the weekly columns that appeared a number of years back in the Jerusalem Post and other Jewish publications.  The author, the late Rabbi Louis I. Rabinowitz (1906 – 1984), was born in Scotland, served congregations in England and later became chief rabbi of South Africa, before moving to Israel where he not only served in a rabbinic role, but was active in Israeli political affairs, and was also the co-editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Judaica.  As its title indicates, this little volume talks about various trees, plants, and flowers mentioned in the Bible both from the standpoint of natural science as well as rabbinic traditions surrounding them.  So, I checked out what the author had to say regarding acacia trees, atzei shittim. 


It seems that if we go solely on what we might find growing in the midst of the Sinai desert, there are indeed acacia trees, but the ones we find there are rather unlikely choices for providing the long straight boards required for building the tabernacle. Rabinowitz describes the acacias found in the wilderness as “stunted and gnarled.”  He writes that he went out into Sinai and examined tree after tree and could not find even one that might provide the standard-sized planks, twenty cubits long and a half cubit wide, required for the walls of this tabernacle.  Certainly, none of them could be considered for the middle bar, the b’riach, which was supposed to be some 32 cubits long.


One of the Talmudic sages, Rabbi Levi, mentions that there were however a variety of tall acacias that grew in a place in the Jordan Valley called Migdal Zevaya, and according to him, some of these were cut down and brought to Egypt and thus might have been available to the Israelites for this structure.  Indeed, a glance at the Internet shows us that there are hundreds of species of acacia, that grow all over the world, some of which might fill the bill for these long straight boards.  Yet that does not really help us with the problem of finding atzei shittim, the wood of the shittah tree, the acacia, in the wilderness of Sinai where all we see are these short gnarly trees.  Yet, acacia was the kind of wood demanded for this sacred structure.  My own investigations on the Internet mentioned the many fine qualities of acacia wood and its many uses nowadays in manufacturing fine furniture, flooring, and household cutting boards and other utensils.  It is a very hard and durable wood, quite beautiful in appearance, but somewhat more expensive than some other woods.  This wood was favored also because it did not come from a fruit-bearing tree which we know from the laws of warfare mentioned in Deuteronomy we are urged to preserve even when we lay siege to a city. 


The rabbis linked the name “Shittim” with two different events in the course of the Israelites’ wanderings.  They called the sin of the Golden Calf an act of shtut, (a word which begins with the same letters as shittim) an act of folly or insanity. The Hebrew-English Dictionary even suggests another definition, as idolatry.  The sages also connect the Shittah tree with a place in Sinai called Shittim, mentioned in Numbers 25, perhaps a place where some of those gnarly trees grew.  It was at Shittim where the people were seduced by the women of Midian and Moab to participate in a kind of fertility cult which called for the zealotry of Pinchas to bring to a halt.  For the sages, the use of Atzei Shittim, particularly the acacia wood used to create the altar upon which the sacrifices were brought for atonement, was most appropriate.   This same wood was used elsewhere in the tabernacle and was to serve as a reminder of these sins and as an atonement for going astray at those two incidents, in particular, during their wanderings.  Some suggest that ever since this time there has been a tradition in some communities of including acacia wood in the holy ark for the purpose of atonement from our sins, our foolishness. It is suggested that the famous story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to the angels announcing the birth of Isaac took place under a grove of acacia trees.  Thus, they are not only a reminder of sinful acts, but they also serve to remind us of the righteous deeds of our founding patriarch. As the Midrash says, they sinned at Shittim, they were punished by Shittim, but Shittim will heal them as well.


As to the question of how the Israelites obtained the requisite variety of acacia to provide these long and straight boards, the rabbis are even more creative than usual. They take us back to the time of our Father Abraham who, though a kind of nomad, did in fact settle for long periods of time both in Hebron and in Beer Sheba.  We do read of him planting trees in Beer Sheba and among these, the rabbis tell us, were this particular variety of acacia.  When his grandson, Jacob, was told by God to go down to Egypt to settle there near his long-lost son Joseph, he was informed as part of this prophetic vision, they tell us, of the need for acacia wood in the future to provide the boards for the tabernacle.  Jacob traveled from his home in Hebron, continuing on the route to Beer Sheba on his way to Egypt.  It was in Beer Sheba he had this encounter with the Almighty and, while there, he picked up some acacia saplings and took them with him to Egypt and planted them there.  Over time they would grow to great heights and be available to his descendants for use in the tabernacle when they departed Egypt.


According to one version of the midrash, before he died, Jacob urged his sons to plant these acacia trees and he revealed to them that while they may endure servitude for many years in Egypt, God will remember them and redeem them in the fullness of time and when they leave Egypt, he told them to take some acacia boards along with them.  This midrash derives from the fact that the Torah speaks of these boards with a definite article, indicating that God asked for these particular acacia boards, not just any acacia.  The other hint is that we’re told that they are to use “Atzei shittim omdim.”  This can mean and was understood to mean that the boards should be placed vertically, “omdim” means standing, and the rabbis specify that they should have the part from the top of the tree upward in the tabernacle and the part near the roots downward.  However, omdim can also imply something which is already prepared and standing by for use.  Hence the acacia trees foreseen as needed by Jacob and provided for his children in Egypt were the specific ones intended.  Another midrash further embellishes the story and tells us that some of God’s ministering angels appeared as the Israelites were crossing the Red Sea and reminded them to take along these boards of acacia.


Ten times in the instructions for building the Mishkan, this tabernacle, the words “atzei shittim” appear.  While they are an essential element in the construction, they tend to blend into the background.  The beautiful hangings and curtains draped over them, overshadow the boards.  Our eyes are drawn to the gold and silver and copper utensils and the gold covering of the ark along with its golden keruvim, the cherubs atop of it and sometimes we forget just what holds it all up, these wooden beams of acacia.  For the sages, it was important however to link this structure and its values to the patriarchs.  There is a sense of continuity.  It was Jacob’s foresight in planting for the future that provides the framework for building the generations to follow.  The later Temples and synagogues throughout our history, may or may not have included acacia wood per se, but they all sought to continue the traditions of those who came before, reaching out to God, teaching the texts and traditions of the ages, extending our hand to those in need in the community and welcoming them within the walls of our houses of worship.  As the rabbis note, the same expression “atzei shittim omdim,” indicates permanence, the acacia boards and their link to the past are enduring, they still stand as a reminder of the power of atonement, the commitment to tradition, and our mission to the world.  The building of the Tabernacle uses many of the same terms we find when God creates the world.  It is not sufficient simply to build fancy structures for worship, it is our task to build a new world that will embody the teachings of our tradition and its values.


The midrash tells us that these same acacia trees, as they were put into the tabernacle, began to sing, as the Psalmist says “Az yeranenu atzei haya’ar” “Then the trees of the forest will sing.”  The prophet Joel also foretells a time to come when “a spring shall issue from the House of the Lord and shall water the Wadi of the Acacias.”  The very word Shittim, Shin – Tet – Yud – Mem is seen by the Midrash as a reminder of the world we envision.  Shin for Shalom, peace, fulfillment.  Tet for Tovah, goodness, beneficence.  Yud – Yeshuah, salvation, redemption of the world, and Mem for Mechilah, pardon for all our sins. Let us strive to uncover the foundations behind the rituals, to uncover the Shittim, and embrace their values in our lives.

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