The Mishna (Shabbat 12:3) in today’s daf (Shabbat 103a) informs us that the melacha of כותב (writing) is contravened when two letters are written together to form a word or part of a word on Shabbat. Rabbi Yossi adds that this rule also includes the writing of two related symbols, since symbols were marked on each of the 48 kerashim (planks) that formed the walls of the Mishkan – which thereby enabled each plank to be placed in its correct place each time the Mishkan was reconstructed. But why would it matter where each of the 48 planks were placed?
One curious answer to this question is found in the Yerushalmi (Shabbat 12:3) in its analysis of Shemot 26:30 which, if translated literally, reads ‘and you shall set up the Mishkan according to its judgement’. Given this strange phraseology the Yerushalmi asks: ‘Is wood ever judged?’ to which it answers that ‘if a given plank was deserving of merit to be placed in the northern region then it was placed there, and if it was decided that it be placed in the southern region, then it was placed there.’ What this suggests that there was a spiritual hierarchy even amongst the 48 planks of the mishkan, with those deemed of higher sanctity being placed closer to the Holy of Holies. Given this explanation, each of the planks would have needed to be marked to know where each plank went in accordance with its measure of spirituality.
However, in addition to this, I believe that a simpler answer can be found as to why the planks would have needed to be marked, and to help explain what I mean, I am reminded of the sukkah of some dear friends and neighbours of mine – Jacques and Zemira.
Unlike some of the modern-day sukkot, Jacques and Zemira’s beautiful sukkah is made of elaborate boards, and like the Mishkan itself, each are marked to remind them where each board should go. And why is this done? Because, even in the bestest of cases, since each board was produced by hand, each slightly differs from each other, and over time and especially in response to changes in weather, each board adapts to its position and location in the sukkah – which means that while any board could technically go any place, some fit better in some places than others.
Like the planks of the Mishkan or the boards in a sukkah, each one of us also have an optimum spiritual and physical place where we are made to fit or, in some cases, where – over time – we can grow to fit into. But unlike physical planks and boards, our optimum location is neither written on us in words or in symbols. And so, as life progresses, each of us try to figure out who we are and where we need to be, while knowing that over our lives and especially in response to our life experiences, just like the planks of the mishkan and the boards of a sukkah, we too are likely to grow and change.