Written by: Alexander Bolotnikov

Heavenly Sanctuary in Rabbinic Literature


The nature of the sanctuary represents a major fundamental issue that separates Seventh-day Adventist theology from the mainstream of Christianity. The structural similarity between the Eastern Orthodox cathedral and the Jerusalem Temple is emphasized as proof of the church’s representation of Jerusalem on this earth. 1

Many cathedrals in the western tradition follow the same pattern of thinking in their design. For example, the famous cathedral in Worms, Germany, has a literal replica of the Arc of the Covenant in its sanctuary. In fact, even in Protestant culture, the worship hall is traditionally called a sanctuary. This is why acknowledgement of the existence of the heavenly sanctuary is a problem for many Christian scholars because it goes against the traditional values of mainstream Christianity. And for this reason, many modern scholars prefer to use a platonic approach in their interpretation of the book of Hebrews 9.

In the study of the heavenly sanctuary/temple motif in the book of Hebrews, it is possible to perceive a variety of opinions. On the one hand, some critical-historical scholars tend to see a connection between the Hebrews’ description of the heavenly Sanctuary/Temple and the philosophical thought of Judaism in the Greek-speaking Diaspora represented by Philo of Alexandria.2 For Harold W. Attridge, although “there is no single strand of Judaism that provides a clear and simple matrix within which to understand the thought of our author or his text,”3 throughout his commentary he regularly indicates, “there are undeniable parallels that suggest that Philo and our author are indebted to similar traditions of Greek-speaking and thinking Judaism.” 4

Greek-speaking and thinking Judaism, or Hellenistic Judaism, is the combination of both Greek thought and the needs of Jewish interpretive praxis,5 the effort to harmonize the Holy Scriptures with Greek philosophy.6 From this combination emerges the allegorical method developed by Philo of Alexandria, which he draws especially from Platonic, Pythagorean, and Stoic philosophy, showing obvious kinship with Middle Platonism.

Therefore, when Attridge refers to the correspondence of the earthly and heavenly sanctuary/temple in the book of Hebrews, he uses the word “allegory.” He says that Philo “understands this correspondence within the framework of his Platonic metaphysics.” 8 And, even though “the correspondence between earthly and ‘heavenly’ sanctuaries in Hebrews does not appear to be as complex as it is in Philo, yet there are significant parallels between Philo and Hebrews in the structure of their treatment, parallels that point to their common Hellenistic Jewish background," 9 For him, the language and the function of the earthly-heavenly dichotomy are strikingly similar in both Philo and Hebrew. What is most transcendent is also most real in a psychological and moral sense. As a corollary, the interior reality that the heavenly sanctuary or temple symbolizes is not a principle or virtue generally available to humankind but a relationship made possible by Christ. 10 That is, the heavenly sanctuary or temple has a spiritual sense.

On the other hand, other scholars support a much more literal interpretation of the Sanctuary/Temple in their tentative attempt to safeguard the objectivity of Christ’s work there.11 For William Johnsson, “it is becoming more and more clear that many Jewish groups believed in a realistic heavenly sanctuary and liturgy.” 12 In this context, rabbinic literature is a valuable source in order to grasp the Jewish mindset of the early Christian era and, therefore, a closer view of Judeo-Christian, otherwise called apostolic, theology.

Scope of the Research

In dealing with Rabbinic literature, one must be aware of the historical period during which the main rabbinic documents were composed. Many historians define the era that began after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE as a period of Rabbinic Judaism. 13 In the first half of the 2nd to 7th centuries, major Rabbinic documents such as the Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrashim, and both Talmuds were composed. 14

When studying the issue of the Heavenly Temple in Rabbinic literature, it is important to be aware of the two trends in the development of Rabbinic Judaism: classical and mystical. The first documents of the mystical trend are believed to have appeared in the 6th–8th centuries. 15 Among the first documents of the early Jewish mysticism of that period, the Heikhalot literature occupies a significant place. According to Sholem Heikhalot, mystics clearly represent a Jewish spin on Neo-Platonist philosophy. Most of the Heikhalot works did not survive, but they are heavily quoted in the document called Sefer Yetzira. 16 While the Hebrew word heikhal means temple and is used in the Hebrew Bible to designate the Heavenly Temple,17 the Heikhalot in Jewish mysticism is used to designate mileposts on the way of the soul towards the Throne of Almighty.

The study of all aspects and details of the Heavenly Sanctuary in Jewish mystical literature is beyond the scope of this presentation, whereas the discussion of the Celestial Temple in the classical rabbinic documents will be the focus of our investigation. Research on this subject has been scarce over the years. The most detailed investigation of this subject was done by Avigdor Aftovitzer in the 30th.18 However, in this article, Aftovitzer presents the aggadot 19 about the heavenly temple found in both classical and mystical rabbinic sources. The other helpful research on the subject of Heavenly Sanctuary was done by Luis Ginzberg20, where he gives a brief overview of many classical rabbinic sources that mention and discuss the Sanctuary in Heaven. Among the over 30 different occurrences mentioned by Ginzberg, three deserve special consideration and analysis. They are found in the Homiletical whoim 21: Tankhumah Yilamdeynu 22 and Bamidbar Rabbah 23. Even though it is assumed by a number of scholars that these midrashim were compiled in the IVth century CE24, the citations found there can be traced to earlier sources and traditions that date back to the first century.

Tankhumah Nasoh 11

This homily from the Midrash Tanhumah is part of the exposition of the text from the Book of Numbers 7:1, which is part of the Parashat Nahoh (Num. 4:21–7:89). The text ויהי ביום כלות משה refers to the finishing of the sanctuary by Moses, to which Tanhumah presents a following homily that will be cited partially.

Teach us, our Rabbi, how many things preceded creation? Thus did our Rabbis teach us: Seven things were created before the world was created: the Throne of Glory, the Torah, the Temple, the Patriarchs, Israel, and the Name of the Messiah.

A tradition presented in this homily occurs in many other midrashim. This is a part of the traditional derash-type exegetical exercise to determine what was created (i.e., conceived) before heaven and earth were made. 26 In the next paragraph, Tanhumah is going to present a proof text for each of the seven things that the Sages think were planned before creation. Particularly in regards to the Temple, they present the following reasoning: “As to the Temple, it is stated כסא כבוד מרום מראשון מקום מקדשנו (Jer. 17:12).” The Throne of Glory is high from the beginning, the place (i.e., foundation) of our sanctuary. In other words, the statement מראשון gives the Rabbis the right to interpret this text in such a way that the throne of God has existed forever, which is obvious.

However, in addition to this, the Sages clearly see the parallelism in this verse between the phrases כסא כבוד מרום מראשון and מקום מקדשנו. This means that the divine throne is definitely in heaven above and definitely preexists creation. The parallel phrase ‘place of our sanctuary’ definitely indicates that the sanctuary is the place where the throne of God is located, and therefore, since the throne is above and preexists creation, the sanctuary should also be. In other words, the passage in Tankhumah definitely speaks about the Temple in heaven.

The homily in Tanchumah Nasoh 11 continues to elaborate on the verse from Jeremiah.

Come and see, then the Holy One Blessed be He told Moses to tell Israel to make for him a sanctuary (mishkan). He told Moses, ‘Moses, hehold, My Sanctuary is already built up above (bema’alah), as it is stated, ‘The throne of glory is high from the beginning’ and the Temple (heikhal) is built there, as it is stated, ‘but the Lord is in His Holy Temple (heikhal), let all the world be silent before him’ (Hab. 2:20). And the Throne of Glory is built there, as it is stated, ‘The Lord established His Throne in Heaven. (Ps. 103:19, and similarly, Isaiah said, ‘I saw My Lord sitting on the throne high and lofty, and the edges of his garment filled the Temple’. But for the sake of My love for you, I am leaving the Temple of above (Beit ha-Miqdash haelyon), and I am descending to dwell among the sons of Israel, as it is written, ‘They shall make a sanctuary for me, so that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8).

This section of Tanchumah is self-explanatory. It indicates that in classical Rabbinic Judaism, there is a clear association between the sanctuary that Moses built and the sanctuary in heaven that existed before the world was created.

Bamidbar Rabbah 15:9

This short homily found in Midrash Rabbah to the book of Numbers represents a petokhtah, a short sermonette where a preacher teakes a verse from the ketubim (writings) and ties it together with the pericope text. The pericope text of this petikhtah is taken from the book of Numbers 8:2. בהעלתך את הנרת אל מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות (When you light the candles in front of the menorah shell, give light to seven lamps). The expression אל מול פני המנורה presents a difficulty for the Sages. They do not understand the function of this prepositional phrase אל מול פני and thus seek (derash) its meaning. The sermonette appears to present one of the explanations for this syntactical phenomenon.

Israel said, ‘O, send Your light and Your truth; let them lead me. (Ps. 63:3). Great is the light of the Holy One; blessed be He! The sun and the moon light up the world. But whence do they derive their radiance? They snatch a few sparks of the celestial light, as it is stated, ‘The sun and the moon...at the light of Your arrows as they go, at the shining of Your glittering spear’ (Hab. 3:1). Transcendent is the light on high, for only a hundredth part of it was given to all mankind, as it says, ‘He knows what (mah) is the darkness’ (Dan. 11:22). Therefore, ‘I have made the sun and the moon; they shall give you light, as it is stated, ‘and God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light’ (Gen. 1:17). ‘The seven lamps shall give light in front of the menorah’ (Num. 8:2). It is said, ‘In the light of a king’s countenance is life’ (Prov. 16:15) R. Jacob, the son of R. Yose, noted, ‘The light from heaven was withheld from the wicked and given to Israel, seeing that the Holy One, blessed be He, was constrained to dwell with mortals in the light of the menorah, since he said to them, ‘The seven lamps would give the light in front of the menorah.

This homily provides a typical example of Rabbinic Midrashic exegesis. The key verse in this homiletical reasoning is taken from Dan. 11:22, and the work mah ‘what’ is midrashized with the word meah ‘hundred’. Because the text of Dan. 11 looks obscure to the Rabbis, they take the verses from this chapter for the word play and draw the implications out of that. In this case, the implication is that the seven-candle menorah in the temple has, in front of it, seven lamps that represent the lights of the heavenly abode. In his comments on this passage of Bamidbar Rabah, Ginzberg cites the parallel passages from the other rabbinic sources that talk about the Temple Menorah lit straight from the Heavenly Sanctuary.

Tankhumah Nasoh 18

The following passage is another homily that expounds on the verse from Numbers 7:1 mentioned above. Now the question is asked to the last words of the biblical text ויהי ביום כלות משה להקים את המשכן. Rabbis do not understand the role of the direct object marker את. The homily attempts to resolve this difficulty.

Rabbi Shimon said, ‘At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, told Israel to make the sanctuary, he hinted that the angels too should make a sanctuary in heaven. As it is stated, ‘ When Moses finished erecting the sanctuary, The Torah usually does not use the word et in this case.

What does the Scripture teach here when it uses et? This means that it alludes to the Heavenly Sanctuary.

While this homily does not explain why the direct object marker alludes to the heavenly sanctuary, the next homily clarifies the matter. Tanchumah Nasoh 19 equates the construction of the sanctuary with the creation of the world. In the quote from Gen. 1:1, where it says ‘et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-aretz,' in other words, in the mind of the Rabbis, the occurrence of the direct object marker in the phrase heaven and earth must hint to the fact that when Moses completed the Sanctuary (et ha-mishkan) on earth, the Sanctuary in heaven must have also been completed at some point.


The passages from the Midrashim cited in this presentation represent only a small portion of the rabbinic text that explicitly talk about the existence of the Sanctuary in Heaven, whose replica was built on earth by Moses and later by Solomon. The theme of the heavenly sanctuary also appears in the later medieval compilations of Midrashim. Ginzberg particularly cites the Beth Ha-Midrash, a medieval compilation of different Scriptural commentaries that talks about Michael as the High Priest of the Heavenly Sanctuary. All these references indicate that in classical Rabbinic sources, unlike the mystical ones, the Temple in Heaven presents a concrete, not an abstract reality. Based on this, many modern commentators agree with the fact that, in the Jewish mind, the earthly sanctuary was built in accordance with the pattern of the heavenly one.


1 Sf. Alexander Men, Tainstvo I obraz (Russian)

2 E.g. James Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh,: T. & T. Clark, 1924); Ernst Käsemann, Das Wandernde Gottesvolk; Eine Untersuchung Zum Hebräerbrief, 4th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961); Erich Grässer, “Der Glaube Im Hebräerbrief” (Habilitationsschrift, N. Elwert, 1965); Franz Joseph Schierse, The Epistle to the Hebrews, trans., Benen Fahy (London: Burns & Oates, 1969); Gerd Theissen, Untersuchungen Zum Hebräerbrief, Studien Zum Neuen Testament, vol. 2 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1969); Ceslas Spicq, L'épître Aux Hébreux, 2 vols., Sources Bibliques (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1977); Jean Héring, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Epworth, 1970); Lala Kalyan 

Kumar Dey, Intermediary World and Patterns of Perfection in Philo and Hebrews (Missoula, MT: Soc of Bib Lit-Scholar's Pr, 1975); Jean Daniélou, "La Symbolique Du Temple de Jerusalem Chez Philon Et Josephe," in Le Symbolisme Cosmique Des Monuments Religieux, Orientale Roma Xiv  (Roma: Is. M.E.O., 1957).

3 Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia - a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), 29.

4 Ibid. Attridge makes 722 references to the name of Philo in his commentary.

5 Werner G. Jeanrond, "History of Biblical Hermeneutics," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 436.

6 Hans Dieter Betz, "Hellenism," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 129.

7 Peder Borgen, "Philo of Alexandria," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 342.

8 Attridge, 223.

9 Ibid.,  223-224.

10 Ibid., 222-224. For a wider explanation about Philo and the Sanctuary/Temple, see: Stuart Dunbar Robertson, The Account of the Ancient Israelite Tabernacle and First Priesthood in the "Jewish Antiquities" of Flavius Josephus (Ann Arbor, MI: Bell and Howell, 1992), 238-277.

11 E.g. Issues in the Book of Hebrews, ed. Frank B. Holbrook, Daniel & Revelation Committee Series, vol. 4 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1989); William G. Johnsson, “Defilement and Purgation in the Book of Hebrews” (Vanderbilt University, 1973); R. Williamson, "Platonism and Hebrews," Scottish Journal of Theology 16, no. 4 (1963); Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Geschichte Des Hellenistischen Judentums, vol. 4 (Leiden: E J Brill, 1970); Allan J. McNicol, “The Relationship of the Image of the Highest Angel to the High Priest Concept in Hebrews” (Vanderbilt University, 1974).  

12 William G. Johnsson, "The Heavenly Sanctuary - Figurative or Real?," in Issues in the Book of Hebrews, ed. Frank B. Holbrook (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Inst, 1989), 50.

13 Sf. Stephen Whylen, Settings of Silver: an Introduction to Judaism (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 3-12.

14 Sf. H. L. Strack and G. Stermberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Mishrash (T&T Clark, 1991); also Jacob Neusner, Introduction to the Rabbinic Literature (Doubleday, 1994). Neusner particularly defines ‘a canon of the Judaism of the Dual Torah’ to which many documents such as Targumim and Pseudo-Apocripha are not included. While the discussion on the full definition of the canon of Dual Torah is beyond the scope of this presentation, we will note that in our paper we will follow this definition and will not

15 Gershom Sholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books, 1974). 

16 The new academic translation of this document just came out by Hershy Worch Sefer Yetzirah: chronicles of desire: new Hebrew/English translation & commentary. (University Press of America, 2010).

17 For example, Ps. 18:6. HALOT.

18 Avigdor Agtovitzer, "BEIT HA MIQDASH SHEL LEMAALAH AL PE HAAGADAH," Tarbotz, 1930: 139-53.

19 Aggadah (from hifil stem of the Heb. root NGD, tell) is a genre of rabbinic literature that deals with the exposition and interpretation of the Scripture.

20 Luis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. III, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968). 

21 Homiletical or Aggadic Midrahsim are present the compilations of rabbinic homilies that that expound on Scripture through a special exegetical methods called derash  (seeking, searching, exploring).

22 Tanhumah Yilamdeynu is a collection of the homilies that expound on the weekly Torah portions read in the synagogues in accordance with the annual cycle of the Torah reading. NT reference to the existence of such a cycle can be found in Acts 13:15.

23 Bamidbar Rabbah is a part of the collection of Misrashim called Midrash Rabbah. It presents a homiletical commentary on the selected portions verses from the weekly Torah portions found in the book of Numbers.

24 Sf. Strack & Stermberger. 

25 This is a commentary of S. Cassel in Avraham Davis, ed., The Metsidah Midrash Tanchumah, ed. Avraham Davis, trans. Reb S. Cassel, Vol. Bamidbar I (Monsey: Eastern Books Press, 2005). Sf . next comment.

26 The similar trend of thinking occurs in the NT “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” Rev 13:8.

27 While S. Cassel in his comment on the Tanchuma’s statement ‘shevah devarim nubr’u ‘d shelo nibra haolam’ (seven things were created befor the world was created) may be correct in regards to Israel Patriarchs, and Repentance, we believe that this statement in regards the Throne of Glory and the Sanctuary, as well as the Torah and the Name of the Messiah, should be take literally. 

28 The pattern, fashioned of fire, for the ark, the table and the candlestick came down from heaven to Moses, that he might make these vessels for the sanctuary. Sf. Ginzberg, vol. 6, 65, note 338.

29 It may appear from this text that Tanchumah implies that the Heavenly Sanctuary was completed at the same time with the Earthly one, which contradicts the conclusion the homily in Tanchumah Nasoh 11. This is not the case. In rabbinic literature apparent anachronisms are very typical. Many researchers in this subject conclude that Rabbinic Hebrew lacks the sense of time. Because of this many such statements appear anachronistic. On the other hand, Ginzberg notes that in later medieval midrashim the idea that the Temple was built in heaven in place of the destroyed Jerusalem temple became popular.

30 Commenting on the text in Amos 9:6 הבונה בשמים מעלותו (The One who builds His upper chambers in the heavens) David Noel Freedman points to the that the earthly Temple is built after the pattern of the Heavenly Sanctuary.

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1 year ago
Thank you, this was very interesting. Difficult for me to understand, not
being an academic or scholarly myself, but super appreciative and interested nonetheless :-)
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