The Oldest Holy Places

EnglishAz Yashir, the Song at the Sea, makes a number of references to holy places. What are those holy places the barely freed Israelite nation sang about, and are they all “places,” in the usual sense of the word? How far must we travel to visit them all?

The following three phrases are of interest here (Shemot ch. 15, verses 2, 13 & 17):

  • זֶ֤ה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ
  • נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל־נְוֵה קָדשֶׁךָ׃
  • תְּבִאֵמֹו וְתִטָּעֵמֹו בְּהַר נַחֲלָֽתְךָ מָכֹון לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֛ פָּעַלְתָּ ה’ מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָ-י כֹּונְנוּ יָדֶיךָ׃

The first two are a bit harder to see, because the noun נָוֶה is somewhat ambiguous, and because the root of the verb וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ is not readily apparent.

And I shall glorify Him

So what does וְאַנְוֵהוּ mean? Targum Onkelos translates it into ואבני ליה מקדש, and I will build Him a sanctuary, which, Rashi explains, is based on identifying the verb וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ with the noun נָוֶה. Thus, for Onkelos, וְאַנְוֵהוּ literally translates into “I will make Him a נָוֶה, a sanctuary.” נָוֶה, in turn, would mean a dwelling (Gesenius) or a pleasant place (R’ Hirsch ad. loc.).

Rashi, however, offers an alternative etymology: the root of וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ, Rashi suggests, is not נוה, but נאה (never mind that the א is missing from that conjugated verb), and it mean “and I shall glorify Him.

While it seems that both etymologies conflict with one another, Gesenius suggests that they are one and the same! For him, נאה and נוה are but different expressions of the same root. Thus, his entry to נוה reads [abbreviated –AF]:

נָוָה i.q. נָאָה I. to sit, to rest, to remain tranquil … Also to dwell, see נָוָה, נָוֶה.
2. to be decorous,becoming
HIPH. to decorate with praises, to celebrate. Ex. 15, 2 אַנְוֵהוּ …

If Gesenius is right, the literal difference between Rashi and Onkelos becomes rather minor. However, a significant semantic difference between them remains; for Onkelos, the reference is to the future construction of a sanctuary (which one? See below), while for Rashi, the reference is to a ritual pattern of behavior: “I shall proclaim His excellence to the world.”

Rabbiner Hirsch, however, bridges that semantic difference, too, by interpreting the sanctuary of Onkelos’ translation as a virtual sanctuary of the self. The verse would thus translate into: I shall make myself into a sanctuary for Him [and thereby proclaim His excellence to the world].” The circle has been squared, though, for intellectual honesty’s sake, I should stress that the most straightforward reading of Onkelos is that the Israelites made, at that time, a pledge to build a physical sanctuary (what kind? See below).

The holy abode

נְוֵה קָדשֶׁךָ is harder to interpret that way. The verse considers that holy habitation or abode to be quite physical, as the verse begins with: Thou in Thy love hast led the people that Thou hast redeemed; Thou hast guided them in Thy strength to Thy holy habitation. Thus, the people are being led, i.e., moved around from one place (Egypt) to another (the holy abode).

For R’ ‘Ovadya Seforno, the reference is to a house of worship, where the people will pray to G”d and serve Him. As is eveident from his comments later on, this would be the Holy Temple, which King Solomon would build, 480 years after the Exodus; the statement is thus prophetic, and the use of the perfect verb form (נהלתה, Thou hast led) in v. 13 implies that with the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelite nation was irrevocably put on a course to eventually build this Dwelling of the Divine Presence that was the holy Temple.

For Ibn Ezra, however, the holy habitation is Mount Sinai, where the Divine Revelation to the whole nation was imminent. Sinai, however, was only a temporary Divine abode, and indeed, the Torah teaches בִּמְשֹׁךְ הַיֹּבֵל הֵמָּה יַעֲלוּ בָהָֽר – when the ram’s horn soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount (Shemot 19:13), meaning, that the sanctity of Mount Sinai would be lifted after a brief stay, when they will sound the ram’s horn. Thus, another suggestion as to the nature of this Divine abode is stated by a number of commentators.

Rabbiner Hirsch echoes Rashbam and Chizquni, who all identify the holy abode as the Land of Israel.

The Netziv interprets this place, this “abode,” metaphorically, explaining it is the spiritual destination of being granted [with the Revelation at Sinai on] the explicit privilege to serve G”d.

The sanctuary wrought by G”d’s “hands”

What about the more explicit מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָ-י כֹּונְנוּ יָדֶיךָ – the sanctuary, O L”rd, which Thy hands have established? That verse apparently speaks of a physical place, too. The full verse reads:

Thou bringest them in, and plantest them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, the place, O HASHEM, which Thou hast made for Thee to dwell in, the sanctuary, O L”rd, which Thy hands have established.

For Seforno, this is again a reference to the future Solomonic holy Temple. The Netziv concurs. Thus, the statement is once again prophetic.

Rashi concurs, too, with a little caveat: the earthly Temple would be built by hand a couple of centuries hence, however, the verse speaks of the sanctuary, “which [G”d’s] hands have established?!” Thus, Rashi teaches, that “opposite” (should we say, in “spiritual space,” whatever that be) the place of the earthly Beit haMiqdash, there is the heavenly Beit haMiqdash, which G”d personally created. The place where the people are being led to is thus “opposite” the supernal Temple. Ibn Ezra kind of agrees, in that the phrase is about Mount Moriah, where the Temple would later be built.

For both the Meshekh ‘Hokhma and the Beit haLevi, this is actually a still unfulfilled prophetic reference to the future, Third Temple, which will wholly be created by G”d and will come down from heaven (this is actually a matter of some debate, but theirs is the most common view in this matter).

Neither Rashbam nor Chizquni clearly interpret this last phrase. However, Rabbiner Hirsch remains consistent; for him, the sanctuary in question is the Land of Israel, as it moves the People of Israel to become the center of holiness. Thus, his comments to the two previous phrases זֶ֤ה אֵ-לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ and נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ אֶל־נְוֵה קָדשֶׁךָ come together in his understanding of מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָ-י כֹּונְנוּ יָדֶיךָ.

Finally, this time it is the Keli Yaqar who squares the circle, as for him, this sanctuary is both a physical and a virtual place, it is both a place and a spiritual destination (as per the Netziv above), because the sanctuary, “which [G”d’s] hands have established,” is none other than the Tabernacle, which Moshe built according to the very precise plans G”d had shown him at Mount Sinai (Shemot 25:9), where the people would serve G”d.

Our Oldest Holy Places

In conclusion, which are the oldest of our holy places? Mount Moriah and the Land of Israel, which were both conceived and created to later imbue the Jewish People and eventually all of humanity, with the spirit of holiness as it imbues the Word of G”d. However, the most efficient adventurer is also an armchair tourist, when he researches and prepares his exploration. It isn’t only the physical Land of Israel and Mount Moriah that are our holy places, but also our own selves, our souls, deep within us, which can be our ever present holy place.

One Response to The Oldest Holy Places

  1. ROH says:


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