Word of the Day / Mishkan: The Biblical Portable Temple's Modern Legacy

MK Reuben Rivlin used the word for 'tabernacle' when formally declaring his candidacy for president, but not in the sense you may think.

The President's Residence, Jerusalem.
The President's Residence, Jerusalem. Alex Levac

You might have thought the Tabernacle that the Israelites built as a portable temple while wandering the desert wouldn’t be playing a prominent role in recent news articles about politics – in which case, you’d be kind of right, but also sort of wrong.

MK Reuven Rivlin, a longtime Likud politician and former speaker of the Knesset, used the Hebrew word for “Tabernacle” – mishkan – this week, when he formally announced that he was running for president in the June 10 election. Asking for the support of the Knesset members, the only Israelis who get to vote for the country’s most prominent figurehead, Rivlin said he wanted the presidency “in order to turn the president’s mishkan into a home of partnership, discussion and understanding,” adding that the president can build bridges that span the ideological, cultural and religious chasm separating various segments of Israeli society.

Mishkan is the word used in the Bible to refer to the Tabernacle, as in Exodus 25:9: “According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the Tabernacle [mishkan], and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall ye make it.” It also means “residence” or “dwelling,” as well as a structure intended for a special purpose, such as hosting dignitaries or making the country’s laws, which the folks who vote in the president do in mishkan haknesset (the Knesset building). Since the president lives in the President’s Residence – mishkan hanasi, also called beit hanasi, literally “the president’s home” – both those meanings come into play when it comes to the place Israel’s president calls home for seven years.

In fact, the first mishkan hanasi was the private 25-room home of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, which has since undergone extensive renovations and is now one of Israel’s best-kept Bauhaus buildings. Jerusalem became the location of the mishkan hanasi in 1952, and the current tabernacle – the Latin-derived word, fittingly, used to mean “dwelling place” – was built in 1971.

The same root that became mishkan is also used for other residence-related words, like shekhunah (neighborhood), shekhenim (neighbors) and mashkanta (mortgage).

Though the use of mishkan to refer to the President’s Residence is of recent vintage, the word is used in a more generic sense even in the Bible itself. “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings [mishkenotekha, from the plural, mishkenot], O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).

That plural form is part of the name of the first Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a reference to a verse in Isaiah: “And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in secure mishkenot, and in quiet [sha’ananot] resting-places” (32:18).

For Reuven Rivlin, or whoever wins this year’s brief presidential race and moves in to mishkan hanasi, a man’s home is his Buckingham Palace.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day

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