The Chatzer of the Mishkan was one hundred amos long and fifty amos wide. Curtains surrounded this space, and the curtains hung on Amudim, pillars. There were twenty pillars on each side, the north and south sides, and ten pillars in the back, the west. On the east side, each Kaseif, or shoulder, of the front wall spanned fifteen amos and required three pillars; the middle twenty amos were called the Masach and required four pillars. Rashi explains that each Amud stood five amos apart.
At first glance, the description above makes perfect sense; twenty pillars, five amos apart, spans a hundred amos. Ten, also five amos apart, spans fifty. And so on. But a closer look reveals a serious flaw, for twenty pillars only have nineteen spaces in between, and if each space is five amos long, there are only ninty-five amos per side of the Mishkan.
Perhaps one could count the width of the pillars separately from the nineteen five-amah gaps. How wide would the pillars be? Five amos short of a hundred, divided among twenty pillars, leaves a quarter amah (or a tefach and a half) width for each pillar. Of course, on the west, the ten pillars would have to be three tefachim wide to compensate the missing five amos there (for ten pillars with nine gaps in between yields a span of only forty-five amos, five shy of the required fifty). It’s difficult to imagine that the pillars of the Mishkan were different sizes, especially after Rashi goes to such great lengths to emphasize the uniformity of the gaps between each pillar. It’s also difficult to imagine a quarter-amah wide pillar with a half-amah wide pole sticking out its top.
He made poles, six tefachim by three tefachim, with a copper ring attached at the center, and folded the edge of each curtain around [the pole] with [the aid of] ropes… one end stood upright, while the other end stuck into the [top of the] Amud.
Rashi, Shemos 27:10
So it certainly sounds like each Amud was the same width and that none of the Amudim could be thinner than three tefachim. Therefore, the width of the Amudim must have counted toward the five amah gaps between each other. But how then can one completely suspend the respective hundred amah and fifty amah spans of the curtains? Rashi implicitly acknowledges this difficulty in one of his comments, and locally resolves the quandary:
“Amudeihem Shloshah,” the southeast shoulder [of curtains] hung by three pillars.
[There are] five amos between each pillar. From the pillar at the head of the south, which stood in the southeast corner, until one pillar from the east side is five amos. From [this first pillar] to the second [pillar of the east side] is another five amos, and from the second to the third is another five amos. So too did the second shoulder [in the northeast corner hang]. And four pillars for the Masach, which spanned twenty amos across the east.
Rashi, Shemos 27:14
Rashi explains the Amud in the southeast corner counted as a southern pillar, not an eastern pillar. Likewise, the northeastern pillar must have counted towards the twenty Amudim on the north side. With another three Amudim for each, the “shoulders of the eastern wall could easily span fifteen amos, as the pasuk explicitly describes (27:14-15). Unfortunately, Rashi’s solution does not address the original difficulty with his description, for if the first southern pillar stood in the southeastern corner, and each subsequent pillar stood five amos apart, then the last pillar of neither the northern or southern walls reached the Mishkan’s western wall. With only ten Amudim left to span the fifty amos in the west, the Amudim would have to be spaced father than five amos apart to cover the necessary distance.
The Mizrachi proposes an elegant solution to this difficulty. He counts the pillar in the southwest corner towards the ten pillars of the west, the pillar in the northwest corner towards the twenty pillars of the north, and the pillar in the northeast corner towards the pillars in the east. The next three pillars, moving north to south along the east side, comprised the northern “shoulder” of the Mishkan. The next four pillars were the Masach, and the last three were the southern “shoulder.” The last Amud of the southern shoulder stood exactly five Amos from Amud in the southeast corner, the Amud Rashi describes as the “head of the southern pillars.”
The Mizrachi’s solution works fairly well, except it contradicts a statement in from the Braisaos DiMeleches HaMishkan:
“The curtains of the Chatzer, on the Mishkan, and the Masach of the Chatzer’s entrance, one the Mizbeiach.” (BaMidbar, 4: )
The [eastern] curtains stood fifty amos from the Mishkan, and the Masach stood fifty amos from the Mizbeiach (which was ten amos in front of the Mishkan).
According to this widely accepted Braissa, the Masach of the eastern wall did not connect to the Kesaifos on either side. Rather, the Masach jutted out ten amos, allowing people to enter without lifting the curtain. This creates an irreconcilable difficulty for the Mizrachi, for he assumed the Masach could hang on five pillars, the four central pillars and the first (or northernmost) of the southeastern pillars. Likewise, the Mizrachi needed the northernmost pillar of the Masach to hold up the edge of the northeastern Kaseif. The only way the Mizrachi’s interpretation could hold is if all the walls of the Mishkan form a perfect box and none jut out.
The Malbim comes to the Mizrachi’s aid and suggests that the drasha in the Braissa is in fact not universally accepted but rather hinges on a machlokes between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose.
“And make the Mizbeiach [HaNechoshes]… three amos high.”
‘Literally [three amos].’ So says Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yose says, ‘Here [the pasuk] states “Ravua” and regarding the [Mizbeiach HaZahav] it also says “Ravua.” Just as [the Mizbeiach HaZahav’s] height was twice its width, so too [the Mizbeiach HaNechoshes’s] height was [ten amos,] twice its width. And how do I uphold “three amos high?” [This distance measures] from the edge of the [decorative] band to the top [of the Mizbeiach].
Rashi, Shemos 27:1
The Malbim explains, based on a gemara in Mesches Zevachim (59b), that the purpose of the surrounding curtain was to keep outsiders from watching the Kohein perform his avodah at the top of the Mizbeiach. According to Rabbi Yehuda, who maintains that the Mizbeiach was only three amos high, the curtains were five amos high (as indicated in Shemos 27:18). According to Rabbi Yose, who maintains that the Mizbeiach was much taller than five amos, the curtains were really fifteen amos, thereby blocking the outsider’s view of the Kohein’s avoda; hence the pasuk calls them “five amos high,” meaning five amos higher than the height of the Mizbeiach. If the purpose of these curtains, the Malbim suggests, was to block sight of the Kohein, then only Rabbi Yehuda should worry about outsiders peeking underneath the curtain. According to Rabbi Yose, however, the Kohein stands ten amos up in the air when he performs his avoda, so even if the bottom of the Masach was permanently suspended, nobody would see the Kohein.
Perhaps, the Malbim concludes, the Braissa DiMeleches HaMishkan only follows the view of Rabbi Yehuda, in which case Rabbi Yose could maintain that the curtains formed a perfact box, that the bottom four amos of the Masach were folded over, forming a permanent entrance, and that the Masach did not jut out ten amos. In this case, Rashi describes the arrangement of the pillars and curtains the way Rabbi Yose would have arranged them, but not according to Rabbi Yehuda’s arrangement, and the Mizrachi’s explanation would not need to fit the description in the Braissa.
But the Malbim’s resolution bears its own difficulties. For starters, there is no clear indication that Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Yehuda argue over the statement in the Braissa. Furthermore, Rashi offers no indication that he is only describing the layout of the Mishkan like the view of Rabbi Yose. In fact, if Rashi’s comments accord to only one Tanna’s view, they certainly sound more like Rabbi Yehuda’s view than Rabbi Yose’s:
“[The curtains are] five amos high.”
[This is] the height of the walls of the Chatzer, and the width of the curtains.
Rashi, Shemos 27:18
The Ma’aseih Choshev suggests a completely different approach. By this alternative method, there were no Amudim in any of the corners of the Chatzer. To illustrate the design, here is a layout of the southern wall’s pillars: The first Amud of the south side stood two and a half amos from the southeast corner. The next Amud stood five amos away, and so on. The last Amud on the south side, therefore, stood two and a half amos from the southwest coner. Each of the sides followed a similar plan.
But the Ma’aseih Chosheiv does not explain what held the curtains up in the corners of the Chatzer. Presumably, a pole could extend across the tops of all the Amudim, and the curtains could hang off this pole. This in turn would explain how the southeast Kaseif hung off the first southern Amud in the southeast corner, provided that the pole count as part of the Amud. However, such an approach would not work so well with Rashi’s description of the vertical poles. Rashi asserts that the curtains were wrapped around the three tefach by six tefach poles that stuck out of the tops of the Amudim, not around any horizontal poles that spanned the length and width of the Chatzer. All in all, the Ma’aseih Chosheiv’s interpretation, like the Malbim’s, provides an elegant understanding of Rashi’s layout of the Amudim, but too requires an imagination to fill in the gaps within Rashi’s description.
I would like to propose a solution of my own, perhaps more imaginative than the two solutions above. The Levush HaOrah, working within the Mizrachi’s alignment of the Amudim, raises a separate issue regarding the dimensions of the Chatzer. Presumably, the curtains would run either along the inner perimeter or outer perimeter of the Amudim, but could not run through their center. But if the Amudim were an amah wide (as indicated by the dimensions of the poles sticking out their tops), then the outer perimeter of the Mishkan would be an amah longer than the necessary length, and the inner perimeter would be an amah shorter. For example, along the southern wall of the Mishkan, there were twenty-one pillars (the westernmost pillar belonging to the ten western pillars). The center of each pillar stood five amos away from its neighboring pillars. This itself spans a hundred amos. But if the curtains ran across the outside of these pillars, the curtain would have to span one hundred and one amos to fully cover the Amudim. The same problem emerges on each side.
The Levush HaOrah answers that the Amudim were an amah wide, but shaped like semi-circles, like such: ∩ ∩ ∩ ∩. The curtain then hung along the outer perimeter. Furthermore, the Amudim in the corner were quarter-circles, half the size of these semi-circle pillars. Although this proposal breaks the uniformity of the design, the purpose of the uniformity was only to enhance the appearance of the Mishkan, and if quarter-circles fit more appropriately in the corners of the Chtzer, then presumably that’s what the design entailed.
The Levush HaOrah otherwise maintains the Mizrachi’s approach to laying out and counting pillars, thereby assuming that the Masach rested flush with the “shoulders” and did not jut out ten amos to the east. This certainly adheres to the simple interpretation of Rashi’s words, but doesn’t rest well with the aforementioned Braissa.
Perhaps one could count the quarter-circle Amudim in the corners as “half pillars” in a sense, for they were indeed half the size of the standard pillars. In such a case, the “half pillars” in the corners could count towards both intersecting sides. For instance, the quarter-cirlce pillar in the southeast corner counted both as a half a pillar in the east and a half a pillar in the south. The southern wall, therefore, consisted of nineteen full Amudim, and two “half Amudim,” one in each corner. The northern wall consisted of the same. The western wall consisted of nine full Amudim and also two halves, again one in each corner.
Lastly, the eastern wall consisted of seven full Amudim and six halves. The Masach took three full Amudim and two halves, one on each side of the twenty amah span. Each shoulder followed a similar layout, with two full Amudim in the middle and a half Amud on each side. Of course, each pillar (or half pillar) was five amos from its closest neighbor. Furthermore, the Amudim of the eastern wall lined up perfectly with the Amudim of the western wall; although some of the eastern Amudim were split in half.
The only overt difficulties lie within Rashi’s description of the southeast Kaseif. Rashi calls the southeastern pillar the “head of the southern pillars” and makes no mention of the eastern pillars, suggesting that the southeastern pillar did not count at all towards the pillars of the eastern wall. This is not a strong difficulty, for Rashi may have only been emphasizing that pillar’s role as also a southern wall pillar, lest one think it only counted towards the eastern wall’s pillars. However, Rashi continues by stating that the “first” pillar of the eastern side stood five amos away from the corner, emphatically suggesting that the corner pillar did not belong to the eastern side whatsoever. This comment is a little more problematic, but also understandable (with a little imagination) since one does not encounter a “full” Amud corresponding to eastern side until he reaches this second Amud. The next Amud brings the count to two and a half pillars, which Rashi calls “two,” and the last half-pillar completes the count to three, so Rashi calls this half-pillar the “third” pillar to the southeast shoulder.
Of course, Rashi makes no mention of half pillars altogether. This is a matter of the Levush HaOrah’s imagination. Whichever approach one takes, the layout of Amudim encounters involves some imaginative work and yet encounters a difficulty of one sort or another. Although the mefarshim agree the curtains served a greater purpose than just defining the boundaries of the Chatzer and looking nice (namely, blocking the outsider’s sight of the Kohein’s avoda), the elegance and uniformity of this structure take no backseat to its function, even if this uniformity leaves us with several other difficulties.