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.
HOME OF THE SHECHINA
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.
PROGRAMMED FOR DESTRUCTION
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.
YOSEF AND YEHUDA
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.)