The English word "tabernacle" is derived from the Latin word tabernaculum meaning "tent." Tabernaculum itself is a diminutive form of the word taberna, meaning "hut, booth, tavern." The word sanctuary is also used as its name, as well as the phrase the "tent of meeting".
The Hebrew word, however, points to a different meaning. Mishkan is related to the Hebrew word to "dwell", "rest", or "to live in", referring to the "[In-dwelling] Presence of God", the Shekhina (or Shechina) (based on the same Hebrew root word as Mishkan), that dwelled or rested within this divinely ordained mysterious structure.
The Hebrew word for a "neighbor" is shakhen from the same root as mishkan. The commandments for its construction are taken from the words in the Book of Exodus when God says to Moses: "They shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell (ve-shakhan-ti) among them. You must make the tabernacle (mishkan) and all its furnishings following the plan that I am showing you." (Exodus 25:8-10). Thus the idea is that God wants this structure built so that it may be a "dwelling", so to speak, for his presence within the Children of Israel following the Exodus.
It is a crucial component for understanding many of the foundations of Judaism, such as the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath), the Jewish priesthood who were commanded to serve in it, and the meaning and atonement of the sin of the Golden calf.
The detailed outlines for the Tabernacle and its leaders are enumerated in the Book of Exodus:
The tabernacle of the Hebrews, during the Exodus, was a portable worship facility comprised of a tent draped with colorful curtains (see diagram). It had a rectangular, perimeter fence of fabric, poles and staked cords. This rectangle was always erected when they would camp, oriented to the east. In the center of this enclosure was a rectangular sanctuary draped with goats'-hair curtains, with the roof made from rams' skins, (see diagram). Inside, it was divided into two areas, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (see diagram). These two compartments were separated by a curtain or veil. Entering the first space, one would see 3 pieces of sacred furniture: a seven-branched oil lampstand on the left (south), a table for twelve loaves of show bread on the right (north) and straight ahead before the dividing curtain (west) was an altar for incense-burning. Beyond this curtain was the cube-shaped inner room known as the (Holy of Holies) or (Kodesh Hakodashim). This sacred space contained a single article called the Ark of the Covenant (aron habrit) (see diagram).
The concluding instructions for the Tabernacle's construction are stated at the end of the Book of Exodus, chapter 31 , and in that same chapter, immediately following the words about the Tabernacle, God reminds Moses about the importance of the Jewish Sabbath:
Some rabbis have commented on the proximity of the narrative of the Tabernacle with that of the episode known as the sin of the Golden Calf which begins in the Book of Exodus 32:1-6 Maimonides asserts that the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, such as the golden Ark of the Covenant and the golden Menorah were meant as "alternates" to the human weakness and needs for physical idols as seen in the Golden Calf episode. Other scholars, such as Nachmanides disagree and maintain that the Tabernacle's meaning is not tied in with the Golden Calf but instead symbolizes higher mystical lessons that symbolize God's constant closeness to the Children of Israel.
Synagogue construction over the last two thousand years has followed the outlines of the original Tabernacle, which was of course also the outline for the temples in Jerusalem until they were destroyed. Every synagogue has at its front an ark, aron kodesh, containing the Torah scrolls comparable to the Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets with Ten Commandments. This is the holiest spot in a synagogue equivalent to the Holy of Holies.
There is also usually a constantly lighted lamp, ner tamid, or a candelabrum lighted during services, near this spot similar to the original Menorah. At the center of the synagogue is a large elevated area, known as the bimah where the Torah is read. This is equivalent to the Tabernacle's altars upon which incense and animal sacrifices were offered. On the main holidays the priests, kohanim, gather at the front of the synagogue to bless the congregation as did their priestly ancestors in the Tabernacle from Aaron onwards.
Twice a day, a priest would stand in front of the golden prayer altar and burn fragrant incense. Other procedures were also carried out in the Tabernacle.
Within Anglicanism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a tabernacle is or box-like receptacle for the exclusive reservation of the Blessed Sacrament of consecrated bread and wine which the faithful believe to be the True Body and Blood of Jesus Christ after the manner of a sacrament. He is truly present, but not materially or locally - St. Thomas Aquinas. The sacrament is Jesus's instrument and means of grace: it is not intrinsic to him like our bodily organs, but extrinsec. The sacrament is distributed during the rite of Holy Communion in lieu of the celebration of the Eucharist itself or taken to the sick or homebound. In the Early Christian times such tabernacles containing the sacred species were kept within private houses where Christians met for church, for fear of persecution. In the Roman and Western rite Catholic Church these tabernacles are traditionally covered by a covering known as a conopaeum. These may be tent-like in appearance or they may resemble curtains, depending on whether the Tabernacle is recessed into the wall or free-standing, as in the illustration here. These conopaeae are coloured in the Liturgical colour of the day or the season. This practice is now optional. A conopaeum covering a tabernacle is a symbol of the indwelling of the Body of Christ, much in the same way as the Spirit of God dwelled within the Tabernacle in the Desert in the five books of Moses. This covering also helps represent the nature of the tabernacle as a Tent. And like the original Tabernacle, the Christian Tabernacle is closed, often taking the form of a strongbox.
Catholics and Orthodox alike also refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Tabernacle in their devotions (such as the Akathist Hymn or Catholic Litanies dedicated to Mary), as she carried within her the body of Christ (The Word Incarnate in Christian Theology) in her role as Theotokos, just as a Church tabernacle does today.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Tabernacle was used as a multipurpose religious edifice, both for services, Church conferences, and community centers, although today the stake center has taken the place of the Tabernacle for services and community centers. The Tabernacles, located primarily in Utah and Hawaii, are today still used as ecclesiastical cultural centers and for other religious purposes.