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The Torah describes how the nesiim gave wagons for the purpose of transporting the Mishkan. The Gemara gives the dimensions of those wagons: 5 amos long, 2.5 amos wide, with the 10-amah kerashim placed along the width of the wagon. The Ritva says the Gemara knows this based on a tradition (which is really the only possibility, unless you can somehow derive this from the sparse pesukim in Naso).

Rashi explains that, the middle of each keresh was supported by the wagons, with 3.75 amos hanging off on each side. This was so precarious that it required a Levi to jog behind the wagons and, when one of the stacks of kerashim looked like it was about to fall, run up and steady it.

Tosfos and the Rashba give a different picture, with the kerashim stretched out between two wagons. This requires tall and potentially unstable stacks of kerashim. And neither explanation leaves much room for the amudim, adanim, berichim - the Gemara doesn't describe where they went, but either they went on top, got squeezed in somewhere, or were carried. The yerios had to go on wagons too, and while again the Gemara doesn't say how that was accomplished, it must have involved folding them over many times.

What were the nesiim thinking? Why did they give such small wagons that barely fit what needed to go on them?

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    How many kinds of wagons did they have to choose from? – bluejayke Nov 13 '18 at 0:02
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    @user2016831 They could have built bigger ones. – Heshy Nov 13 '18 at 0:10
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    I went ahead and removed the chanuka tag, since the question’s not actually about the holiday, per se; the text happens to be read on Chanukah, but your question isn’t inherently about the holiday. – DonielF Nov 13 '18 at 14:46
  • The gemara specifically says that they were these dimensions so that they could support all of these materials (or at least the Kerashim). What more do you want? – רבות מחשבות Nov 13 '18 at 19:51
  • @רבותמחשבות but they could barely support the Kerashim, especially according to Rashi. And if you fold the yerios where they're sewn, you still have to fold it twice along the length, so in the case of the biggest one, the set of 6 goat hair yerios, it ends up being 6 * 2 * 2 = 24 layers thick, with 1.25 amos hanging off the front and back and 0.75 off the sides. It's doable I guess, but again, barely. If you have a reason why the wagons have to be the smallest possible dimensions to do the job, that would be an answer. – Heshy Nov 14 '18 at 13:24
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Here's my take on it, based on the pesukim and this Gemara as well as some other Midrashim.

First of all, the nesiim gave three sets of gifts to the Mishkan:

  1. the gemstones, oil, and spices in Vayakhel
  2. the wagons in Naso
  3. the offerings for the Chanukas Hamizbeiach, also in Naso immediately after (2).

Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains the progression from (1) to (2).

אָמַר רַבִּי נָתָן מָה רָאוּ הַנְּשִׂיאִים לְהִתְנַדֵּב כָּאן בַּתְּחִלָּה, וּבִמְלֶאכֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן לֹא הִתְנַדְּבוּ תְּחִלָּה? אֶלָּא כָּךְ אָמְרוּ הַנְּשִׂיאִים, יִתְנַדְּבוּ צִבּוּר מַה שֶּׁיִּתְנַדְּבוּ, וּמַה שֶּׁמְּחַסְּרִין, אָנוּ מַשְׁלִימִין, כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאוּ שֶׁהִשְׁלִימוּ צִבּוּר אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר "וְהַמְּלָאכָה הָיְתָה דַיָּם" (שמות ל"ו), אָמְרוּ מֵעַתָּה מַה לָּנוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת? הֵבִיאוּ אַבְנֵי הַשֹּׁהַם וְהַמִּלּוּאִים לָאֵפוֹד וְלַחֹשֶׁן, לְכָךְ הִתְנַדְּבוּ כָּאן תְּחִלָּה

Rabbi Nathan said: What reason had the princes to give their contributions here first of all the people, whereas at the work of the Tabernacle they were not the first but the last to contribute? But — he replied — the princes spoke thus: “Let the community in general contribute all they wish to give and then what will then be lacking we shall supply”. As soon as they saw that the community gave everything needed in its entirety (lit., that the community completed everything) — as it said, (Exodus 36:7) “For the stuff they had was enough [for all the work to make it]” — the princes asked, ‘What can we now do’? Therefore they brought the onyx stones, and stones for setting for the Ephod and for the breast plate. That is why they were here the first to contribute”

(copied from Sefaria)

This explanation is really odd. It's not like the nesiim didn't have anything left to contribute, and therefore they learned their lesson and came first next time. The stones, oil, and spices are an important part of the Mishkan's operation, and the stones are an especially prominent and unique gift. What more could they have wanted?

Also note that nobody explains the progression from (2) to (3). It seems that when the brought the wagons, they hadn't yet planned to give the Chanukas Hamizbeiach. Rashi touches on this point but doesn't give an explanation.

Apparently, the Nesiim wanted to contribute to the construction of the vessels of the Mishkan, like the Aron and Mizbeiach. (And it's hard to blame them - if I could donate to any part of the Mishkan, I'd probably pick the Aron.) They initially failed to do this, because all of the materials had already been donated.

The wagons were an attempt to give a unique service and honor to the vessels. The wagons as described in the Gemara barely fit the mishkan, but had plenty of room to fit the vessels, which were smaller, with small parts of the copper mizbeiach hanging off the sides. The 6 wagons would have held the aron, shulchan, menorah, two mizbeichos, and kiyor.

But their plan failed - the vessels have to be carried on the shoulders of the Bnei Kehas, not on wagons. The Nesiim still wanted to contribute to the vessels, so they came up with Plan C, to donate the Chanukas Hamizbeiach. This reads very nicely in the pesukim: Moshe didn't give the wagons to the Bnei Kehas, and then the Nesiim brought the Chanukas Hamizbeiach.


A weak point in my theory is that I'm considering the shemen hamishchah's use on the vessels as part of the Mishkan's "operations" and the Chanukas Hamizbeiach as part of the "construction", when their functions are very similar on the surface. I can think of reasons why this would be the case, but I could have easily seen it the other way as well.

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