Israel – Shiloh

Why is Shilo a heap of forgotten ruins?  Why is the town where the Mishkan  stood for centuries so different than  Yerushalayim? After all, we daven three  times a day for Yerushalayim’s rebuilding,  but what about Shilo? The answer can be  found in the following secret: it was a  stepping-stone to eternity. 

The Rambam traces the illustrious  history of Shilo in Hilchos Beis Habechira  (1:2):      “After they entered the land, they set  up the Mishkan in Gilgal for the fourteen  years they conquered and divided, and  from there they came to Shilo and built  a house of stones and spread the curtains  of the Mishkan over it, and there was  no ceiling there. The Mishkan of Shilo  stood for 369 years. After Eli died by the  sword, they came to Nov and built the  Mikdash there, and when Shmuel died it  was destroyed and they came to Givon  and built the Mikdash there. And from  Givon they came to the Eternal House [in  Yerushalayim], and the days of Nov and  Givon were 57 years.”      In other words, the Mishkan stood in  Shilo for most of the 480 years stretching  from the time the Jews left Mitzrayim until  King Shlomo built the Bais Hamikdash in  Yerushalayim.

This provokes the question: seeing  that the Mishkan stood in Shilo for  almost as long as each of the two  Temples, why doesn’t its spot retain any  of its former sanctity? Why does the  Gemara (Zevachim 112b) unequivocally  state, “The sanctity of Shilo is revoked  afterwards, the sanctity of Yerushalayim  is not revoked afterwards”?

The answer may be that Shilo was  much like Sinai where Hashem brought  down his Shechina in order to give the  Torah, and afterwards withdrew His  Shechina to such an extent that even the  location of Har Sinai is nowadays in doubt  with a number of mountains contending  for the honor. As the Ramban writes in  his introduction to parshas Terumah, the  Mishkan was similar to Har Sinai in that  its purpose was to perpetuate Hashem’s  Shechina among His people:

“The secret of the Mishkan is that the  glory [the Shechina] that dwelled [openly]  on Har Sinai will dwell in it in private.”

Therefore, one can say that just as Har  Sinai lost its kedusha once the Shechina  departed, so the site of the Mishkan  in Shilo lost its special status after the  Shechina moved on.

Because of this, people visiting the  ancient tel (archeological mound) of  Shilo may wander with impunity through  the fl at field on the tel’s north side of the  hill’s slope presumed to be the Mishkan’s  old location — deep cuts in the bedrock  indicate that the field was flattened into  a rectangular shape. Tourists can explore  the remains of what seem to be its ancient  storerooms, and handle ancient stone  containers, which, since stone containers  do not contract impurity, they may well  have been used to store the Mishkan’s  wine and grain.

Unlike Yerushalayim, which possesses  a rich history dating back to when Hashem  made it the vortex of creation, Shilo  became part of the Jewish experience  much later when Yehoshua made it  home to the Mishkan as it says, And all  the congregation of Yisroel gathered at  Shilo and erected the Ohel Mo’ed there”  (Yehoshua 18:1).

The Radak explains:  “This was fourteen years after they  reached the land; they had conquered for  seven years and divided [the land] for  seven years. During these fourteen years  the Mishkan was in Gilgal and afterwards  they erected it in Shilo, and then the  bamos (private altars) were forbidden all  the time it was in Shilo.”

Why this distinction regarding  bamos between Gilgal and Shilo? Why  were bamos sometimes permitted and  sometimes forbidden?

The Yerushalmi (Megilla 1:12)  explains that bamos are only forbidden  when the aron is located inside the Holy  of Holies, and the aron was absent from  the Mishkan when it dwelled in Gilgal,  Nov and Givon. It was absent from Gilgal  because the people took it with them to  war as they conquered the land, and in the  days of Nov and Givon the aron was kept  in Kiryat Yearim (near modern day Telz-  Stone) and Yerushalayim.

Another difference between Shilo and  the Mishkan’s other locations was that the  walls of the Mishkan in Shilo were built  not of acacia wood like the Mishkan in  the desert but of stone walls, and only  the ceiling remained of woven curtains.

This is derived from various verses that  describe the Mishkan of Shilo as the  house of Hashem, and heichal, even  though these terms generally apply only  to the Temple of Yerushalayim.  All this indicates that Shilo was like  a stepping stone between the wood and  curtained Mishkan of the desert to the  wood and stone structure of the Temple in  Yerushalayim. 

As the dwelling place of Hashem’s  Shechinah, Shilo became a focal point  of Eretz Yisroel despite its tiny size and  was the location of many pivotal events.  This is where Yehoshua divided the  land according to lots (Yehoshua 18:10)  and where the men of Binyomin were  provided with wives after their tribe was  almost eradicated (Shoftim 21:21-23).  Here is where Chana, wife of Elkana,  came to daven before Hashem and was  observed by Eli the Kohen Gadol as he  sat upon a seat by the door post of the  Temple of Hashem (Shmuel I 1:9), and  was blessed with the birth of the great  Shmuel Hanavi.

This is where Eli heard that Yisroel  had been defeated by the Plishtim and fell  backwards off his chair and died, signaling  the dissolution of Shilo’s Mishkan soon  afterwards.

Shilo could not last forever as Yaakov  had predicted its fall when he prophesied  in Yehuda’s blessing, The scepter will not  leave Yehuda… until He comes to Shilo…  until the Mishkan of Shilo is destroyed.

And it means as follows: “No king of  Yehuda will flower and bud until Hashem  leaves the Mishkan of Shilo” (Bereishis  49, Daas Zekeinim miBaalei Tosfos).

This destruction was also foretold in  the Torah’s verses that speak of Yisroel  being permitted to sacrifice on private  altars until they reach el hamenucha ve’el  hanachala, the rest and the inheritance  (Devorim 12:9). The Tosefta (Zevachim  13:20) comments, “Rest is Shilo, and  inheritance is Yerushalayim.”

Binyomin too knew that Shilo would  be destroyed as the Gemara (Megilla  16b) says, “He wept over the necks of  Binyomin his brother. How many necks  did Binyomin have? Said R. Elazar, ‘He  wept over the two Temples that would  one day be in the portion of Binyomin.’  And Binyomin wept on his neck – he wept  over Mishkan Shilo that would one day be  in the portion of Yosef and would one day  be destroyed.”

Another possible indicator of  Shilo’s impermanence was that unlike  Yerushalayim where minor sacrifices  could be eaten only within the city walls,  in Shilo they could be eaten anywhere  within sight of the town, which could  indicate that Shilo was a stepping stone  from the previous situation where people  sacrificed everywhere on private bamos.

However, the Gemara (Zevachim  118b) seems to say the opposite, asking,  “From where do we know this [that people  can eat minor sacrifices within sight of  the town]? R. Avihu said, ‘The verse  says, Yosef is a fruitful son, a fruitful son  over the eye (Bereishis 49). The eye that  did not want to feed and benefit from that  which was not his, can now eat as far as  it can see.’”

The Maharal (Chiddushei Aggados  ibid) explains, “Because of Yosef’s  great separation from physicality, people  ate sacrifices in Shilo as far as the eye  could see because this indicated a level  of transcendence, that the sanctity of  the Mishkan spread as far as one could  see.”

The Avnei Nezer explains further,  that holy objects are generally restricted  to specific boundaries in order to protect  them from contamination. But because  Yosef transcended human nature  by remaining moral while alone in  immoral Egypt, his city too transcended  the normal rules of kedusha. Therefore  when Eli’s sons were disrespectful to  the sacrifi ces, this upset Shilo’s unique  status and the Mishkan had to be  removed. 

The Medrash Rabba (70:15)  indicates that Shilo’s impermanence was  only part of a larger struggle between  the shevatim dating back to before they  were even born:

The name of the bigger one was  Leah, she was big in her gifts, Kehuna  forever and kingship forever as it says,  And Yehuda will dwell forever (Yoel  4:20), and it says, This is My resting  place forever (Tehillim 132:14). And  the name of the small one was Rochel,  small in her gifts, Yosef temporary,  Shaul temporary, and Shilo temporary  [as it says], And He rejected the tent of  Yosef and He did not choose the tribe of  Efraim (Tehillim 78:67).”

In other words, the status of  Shilo and Yerushalayim parallels the  struggle between Shaul and Dovid. The  possibility that it perhaps also reflects  the concept of Moshiach ben Yosef  and Moshiach ben Dovid is beyond the  scope of this article.

Some trace of Shilo’s former glory  remained as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha  relates in Yoma (39b), “An old man  told me, ‘I went to Shilo and smelled  the odor of incense between its walls.”  This indicates that although Shilo was  relatively unvisited by then, it retained  even a physical trace of the time when it  had served as the Shechina’s residence  on earth. Indeed, people visiting the  Shilo ruins nowadays still feel a special  aura about the place.

Although Shilo is described in the  sefer Kaftor Vaferach, its location was  eventually forgotten until relocated in  1838 by its pile of ruins and its position  in relation to adjacent towns and villages,  as the verse says, “Behold the chag of  Hashem was in Shilo… that is north of  Beis El, east to the road that comes up  from Beis El to Shechem, and south of  Levona” (Shoftim 21:19).

The main excavations of Shilo were  conducted in the ‘80s by archeologist  Finkelstein who discovered that despite  its small size, Shilo was an important  town with massive walls in ancient  Canaanite times. He also discovered  charred stores of grain and dates,  evidence of Shilo’s destruction at the  hands of the Philistines.

In 5738/1978 a Jewish settlement  was built on a neighboring hill where its  Mishkan shaped shul serves as a mute  reminder of Shilo’s glorious past.

(Many sources and the “stepping  stone” concept are from shiurim of Rav  Yitzchak Levi of Yeshivas Har Etzion.)

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