Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sacred Tents, Divine Sanctuaries

Given that the Israelites began as a semi-nomadic people, it should come as no surprise that a ohel (“Tent”) is a significant object

[Araber Zelte, illustration of Ottoman Palestine by E.M. Lilien]

with metaphorical and even spiritual significance, symbolizing authority, shelter, salvation, sanctuary, and pilgrimage (Ps. 27:5, 61:4, 91:10, 104:2; Isa. 15:5, 54:2; Jer. 30:18; 35:7).

Pre-Israelite Canaanites believed that the gods assembled in the sacred tent of El, the supreme god (Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan, pp. 12; 95):

She [Anat] stamped her feet and left the earth;
then she headed toward El,
at the source of the two rivers [Mount Zaphon] in the midst of the two seas' pools;
she opened El's tent and entered the shrine of the King, Father of Time....

Pss. 15:1 and 61:5 describes God’s celestial tent sitting atop a sacred mountain, so we see a mythic motif in Israelite thought similar to the Canaanite one. Thus the idea that the God of Israel would command Moses to build a tent-sanctuary, the Mishkan, (Tabernacle), must not have seemed entirely alien to the Children of Israel. Still, it was novel in another regard - that God would transfer the dwelling place of His glory to the earth (Ex. 25-28) is a startling innovation. No longer would divinity be remote from humanity, but instead would dwell amidst people! This is a revolutionary notion of deity in relationship to humanity couched (pardon the pun) in mythic imagery (I will devote a separate entry to a more detailed consideration of the Ohel Moed/Mishkan).

In the World-to-Come, the righteous enjoy the comfort of dwelling in palatial tents; a messianic tent made from the skin of Leviathan, and/or under seven canopies in Eden (B.B. 75a; Seder Gan Eden).
This idea of the "canopy of the righteous" in the World-to-Come continues to resonate in more recent times, even as ordinary tents have ceased to occupy any significant role in Jewish life (my wife considers camping a violation of the commandment against self-abuse). Pious Jews will sometimes construct a canopy over the grave of a beloved rebbe, at times with furnishings, such as a ner tamid, or perpetual light, turning the grave into a tent-like sanctuary. This too is called an ohel and pilgrims will gather there to pray for the intercession of the righteous dead person and to leave a petitionary note, called a pitka or kvittle. The logic is analogous to the Mishkan, which brings the divine presence down from the celestial realms. The grave/ohel transfers the presence of the righteous dead from their supernal tabernacle to the more proximate space of the cemetery, which is, afterall, a nexus point between this world and the Next.

To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


Blogger Mona said...

Ah! Fresh from today's headlines. As they line up to enter the Ohel to pay hommage to the Rebbe!. Thanks!

6:25 PM  

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