The Ark, the Kapporet, and the Keruvim (Part III)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



Rav Yitzchak Levi



Lecture 137: the Ark, the kaporet and the Keruvim –
(Part III)



            In the previous shiur, we examined the various instances where the ark, the kaporeti, and the keruvim are mentioned, and we tried to draw conclusions regarding the connection between them. In this shiur, we will examine the issue based on the function of the various vessels, beginning with the ark and continuing with the kaporet and the keruvim.[1]


The Ark


I. the ark is designed to contain the tablets


            As we saw in previous shiurim, one of the purposes of the ark is to hold the tablets of the Testimony. The verses in Parashat Teruma (Shemot 25:10-16) do not explicitly deal with the function of the ark, and only after a detailed description of the vessel (materials, dimensions, the rim and the rings) does the Torah complete the account: "And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I shall give you" (ibid. v. 16). (We demonstrated in the past that "Testimony" here refers to the tablets or to the book of the Torah.)


            This understanding accords, of course, with the Torah's command in Devarim 10:1-7, according to which the purpose of the ark is to contain the tablets.[2] This role also accords with the shape of the ark – a rectangular box that is designed to receive objects.


            According to this approach, the primary function of the ark is to perpetuate the assembly at Mount Sinai as an expression of God's one-time revelation to the entire people of Israel and to continue the covenant made there for future generations. This is how in many senses the Mishkan serves as a continuation of the assembly at Mount Sinai that accompanied the people of Israel throughout their journeys in the wilderness and until they reached Jerusalem.[3]


            In a fixed manner in the Mikdash, the mitzva of Hakhel that was observed once every seven years perpetuated the assembly at Mount Sinai, with the king reading from the Torah during the festival of Sukkot in the year following the Sabbatical year, a year during which the people engaged in Torah study. The Hakhel assembly constituted a conclusion of the year in the Mikdash.


2. the Ark goes out to war


            The Torah's account in the book of Bamidbar suggests a different role for the ark:


And they departed from the mountain of the Lord three days' journey. And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, “Rise up, Lord, and let you enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before You.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” (Bamidbar 10:33-35)


            According to this definition, the ark serves as a guide that directs the people of Israel on their journeys, and as a vessel that goes out with them to war. In this framework, the ark plays a most important role in some of Israel's wars: in the conquest of the land, in the very crossing of the Jordan river, and in the conquest of Jericho. So too, in the period of the judges, the ark is mentioned in the episode of the concubine in Giv'a (Shoftim 20:28); afterwards in the battle at Even-ha-Ezer against the Pelishtim in which the ark was taken captive (I Shmuel 4); in the war fought by Shaul and Yonatan against the Pelishtim (I Shmuel 14:18);[4] and in the war against Rabat Benei Amon (II Shmuel 11:11). It is similarly mention in connection with Avshalom's rebellion (II Shmuel 15:24), although in that case the ark was actually left in Jerusalem.


            What is the significance of the ark going out to war? It seems to emphasize the understanding that the army of Israel is the army of God, and that God is found with his nation when it goes out to war. The gemara states as follows:


"For the Lord your God is He that goes forth to fight with you" – [This alludes to] the camp of the ark… Because the Name [of God] and all His substituted names were deposited in the ark. (Sota 42a-43a)


And as the Torah states:


And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, “Rise up, Lord…” And when it rested, he said, “Return, Lord.” (Bamidbar 10:35-36)


            The words, "Rise up, Lord," relates to the ark; when the ark is with us, God is with us.[5]


            The gemara in Sota (ibid.) continues with an exposition of the verse, "And Moshe sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Pinchas" (Bamidbar 26:6):


"Them” refers to the Sanhedrin; “Pinchas” was the [priest] anointed for battle; “with the vessels of the sanctuary” refers to the ark and the tablets which were in it.


Rashi (ad loc.) explains that "the name of God and all His substitute names stood in the ark that went out with them to war."


            It follows from these sources that the primary function of the ark in times of war was to emphasize the presence of God in the camp of Israel when it fights against its enemies. The enemies of Israel are the enemies of God, and when Israel engages in battle, it fights in the name of God. As David said to Golyat at the famous battle in Emek ha-Ela:


Then said David to the Pelishti, “You come to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, which you have taunted.” (I Shmuel 17:45)


3. In the ark rests the book of the Torah


            In the book of Devarim, Moshe commands the Levites as follows:


Take this book of the Torah, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. (Devarim 31:26)


            Chazal disagree regarding whether this book of the Torah was found inside the ark or on a shelf on the side of the ark.[6]


            The spiritual meaning of placing the book of the Torah in ark is that the ark with its poles makes it possible for the Torah to be taken to all places. In the Mishkan itself, the Torah is found in the very heart of the structure, and it explains the word of God, the mitzvot that were handed over to Moshe as the representative of all of Israel on behalf of the nation of Israel for all generations. The Torah, which constitutes the mold of the world,[7] rests on the very site of creation, thus expressing God's presence in and providence over the world.[8]


            The Torah is the written word that serves as the unmediated connection between God and His nation. It is the written contract for the covenant between God and Israel, and therefore it is kept in the most sanctified place.


In this context, there is an very strong connection between the ark and the keruvim. The ark contains the tablets and the written book of the Torah – the Written Law. But God meets with Moshe from between the two keruvim and gives him the Oral Law that is constantly renewed. In this sense there is a direct connection between the Written and the Oral Laws. For this reason the keruvim are set above the ark.


4. The ark as footstool


Then David the king stood up upon his feet, and said, “Hear me, my brethren, and my people: As for me, I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool (hadom) of our God, and I had made ready for building. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 28:2)


The term "hadom" means "footstool, small bench." It is possible that the word alludes both to the ark and to the Mikdash.


            On the face of it, we have here a correspondence between the ark and God's footstool. God's feet rest, as it were, on the ark.


            Yehuda Kil, in his Da'at Mikra commentary (ad loc.), notes that there is an allusion to a footstool already in the story of the covenant at Sinai:


And they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet a kind of paved work of sapphire stone. (Shemot 24:10)


            Interestingly, the Gaon of Vilna explains "hadom" as the courtyards of the house of God. He writes as follows:


"For the ark of the covenant of the Lord" – "And for the footstool of our God" – that is, the courtyards of the house of our God. As is explained below: "Shlomo your son will build for me a house and courtyards." And so too it says: "The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool." That is, when the heaven is God's throne, the directions of the world are the four legs of the throne, and the land that is between the legs is called His footstool. And so too here when God is in His holy sanctuary, it is the site of His glory, and then the courtyards of the house of God are His footstool.


            This is, as it were, the limit of the spreading out of the Shekhina – the courtyards of the sanctuary, the site of His glory.


            We similarly find:


Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at His footstool; for He is holy. (Tehillim 99:5)


            The Metzudat David and the Radak (ad loc.) identify the footstool with the Temple. So writes the Metzudat David:


"At His footstool" - This is the Temple. He uses this metaphor, as if from the place of His dwelling in heaven He lowers His feet to rest upon the Temple.[9]


            Elsewhere in Tehilim it says:


We will go into His dwelling places; we will worship at His footstool. (132:7)


            Here the Radak explains: "'At His footstool' – This is actually so, for it stands directly below the throne of glory."  The Malbim writes:


"We will worship at His footstool" – as it says: "And the earth is My footstool." For His plentitude extends as far as the Temple, as it says: "And His train filled the Temple" (Yeshayahu 6:1).


            We read in Eikha 2:1:


How has the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger, and cast down from heaven to earth the beauty of Israel, and remembered not His footstool in the day of His anger.


Rashi (ad loc.) explains:


"His footstool" – A stool for His feet, i.e., the Temple.


And Ibn Yachya explains:


"And remembered not His footstool in the day of His anger" – this is the Temple. As it says: "The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: where is the house that you would build for Me? and where is the place of My rest?" (Yeshayahu 66:1).


            The prophet Yeshayahu says:


The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: where is the house that you would build for Me? and where is the place of My rest? (Yeshaya 66:1)


            Amos Chakham in the Da'at Mikra commentary explains:


In a borrowed sense, you say that the ark of the covenant, the Temple, or Mount Zion and Jerusalem is God's throne and footstool, or that God sits on His throne in Heaven and His footstool is in the Temple. The truth, however, is that the entire heaven is My throne and the entire earth is My footstool upon which My feet rest, as it were, like a king of flesh and blood who sits on his royal throne and his feet rest on an adjacent stool below His throne.


            It is clear that the prophet wishes to say that man is unable to build a house for God and prepare a place for Him, as King Shelomo says in his prayer (I Melakhim 8:27): "For will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built".


            The fact that the Mikdash in its entirety is the house of God's dwelling is stated explicitly in the Song of the Sea (Shemot 15:17): "You shall bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which you have made for You to dwell in, in the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established." The commentators understand this verse in different ways. The Ibn Ezra explains (short commentary, s.v. makhon le-shivtekha): "This is an allusion to the Temple Mount where the Shekhina rests," while the Seforno explains (s.v. makhon le-shivtekha): "As it says: 'Here I will dwell, for I have desired it' (Tehillim 132:14)."


            The image of God sitting, as it were, on His throne, appears explicitly in Yeshayahu's consecration prophecy (6:1): "In the year that King Uzziyahu died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the Temple." The prophet sees the train of God's robe hanging down, as it were, and reaching the earthly Temple and filling it. The image is of a royal throne.


            It may be explained that the prophet saw in his vision an exceedingly high throne that reached from earth to heaven, so that when God sat on His throne, the ends of His robe filled the Sanctuary on earth.


            Amos Chakham in his Da'at Mikra commentary rightly notes that this is similar to the High Priest on Yom Kippur, who enters the innermost chamber and sees there the ark, the kaporet, and the keruvim, the place of the Lord of hosts who sits on the keruvim, but for only a short time – until the cloud of the incense rises and hides everything from his eyes.


            The verse may be referring to the heavenly Temple or to the earthly Temple, or it may mean that the earthly Temple corresponds to the heavenly Temple. If it refers to the earthly Temple, the throne would seem to be the seat of the Shekhina, as it were, on the kaporet in the Holy of Holies.


            The prophet Yechezkel, in his reproach regarding the wicked deeds of the kings whose palace adjoins the house of God, says:


And He said to me: Son of man, behold the place of My throne, and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever; and the house of Israel shall no more profane My holy name, neither they, nor their kings, by their harlotry, nor by the carcasses of their kings in their high places. (Yechezkel 43:7)


            The Metzudat David, following his position elsewhere, explains as follows:


"The place of my throne" – Since he saw the vision that he saw at Kevar river, and there it says that he saw the throne and he also saw the Temple, He therefore said: Behold, I have shown you the place of My throne that is in heaven above and the Temple that is the place of the soles of My feet. And He used the metaphor of a person sitting on a throne with his feet hanging down and resting on a footstool below the throne.


            The Radak says:


"And the place of the soles of my feet" – Like "and the earth is My footstool." And the view of our Rabbis is that the Temple is called a throne like the heaven, as it is written: "A glorious throne exalted from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary" (Yirmiyahu 17:12).


            The prophet Yeshayahu says:


I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the Temple. (Yeshayahu 6:1)


            This image also includes a house which is filled by God.


            In summary, it may be said that this image of God's footstool expresses the way in which God reveals Himself at different levels:


·           If heaven is God's throne, the earth is His footstool.

·           It is possible to see God's footstool as a reference to the Mikdash as a whole.

·           A third and the most specific possibility is to see God's footstool as referring to the ark. This possibility is directly connected to the idea of the keruvim as a seat and throne. The expression, "The Lord God of the hosts who sits upon the keruvim," and the term "sitting" in particular, alludes to the notion of keruvim as a seat. If the keruvim are a seat, it is easy to understand the ark as a footstool.


According to this understanding, there is a very close connection between the ark, the kaporet, and the keruvim. They comprise a single aggregate, the upper portion –the kaporet and the keruvim serving as a throne, and the lower portion –  the ark - serving as a footstool.


We have considered the primary roles of the ark. What can we learn from this regarding the relationship between the ark and the kaporet and the keruvim?


·           If the ark's role is to contain the tablets, it would seem that the ark has an independent role.

·           As for its going out to battle, there is no explicit reference in the verses to this issue, but there is no reason to assume that the ark went out without its cover. Rather, it is obvious that it was carried out together with the kaporet and the keruvim. The expression, "The Lord, God of hosts, who sits on the keruvim," clearly alludes to the keruvim's presence on the battlefield, as it refers to the God of hosts.


The expression itself appears in the story of the battle between Israel and the Pelishtim in the battle at Even-ha-Ezer (I Shmuel 4:4), and also when Chizkiyahu prayed in the wake of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (II Melakhim 19:15). From here we see that the context is wars fought with the enemy, and therefore it is very understandable that the ark goes out to war together with the kaporet and the keruvim. Accordingly, it is difficult to relate to this role of the ark apart from the kaporet and the keruvim.


Regarding the relationship between the ark and the Torah, there is a most significant connection between the ark that contains the Written Law and the kaporet and the keruvim through which God meets with Moshe and the Oral Law and its commandments are passed over as a living Torah.


The stronger the connection between the two vessels, the more reasonable it is to assume that we are in fact dealing with a single vessel or at most with two vessels that comprise a single aggregate.


As for the ark serving as God's footstool – here too if we assume that the keruvim are God's throne and the ark His footstool, the throne and the footstool are closely connected and constitute a single aggregate.


Therefore, already at this stage, I wish to propose that an examination of the functions of the ark and its connection to the kaporet and the keruvim indicates that we are dealing with a single aggregate vessel that is comprised of two parts, each part having its own role and essence, and between which there is an essential connection – and not only a technical connection (that the kaporet serves as a cover for the ark).


The Kaporet


            In general, the kaporet is mentioned together with the keruvim. This is to be expected, as the kaporet and the keruvim are fashioned as a single beaten work, the two keruvim at the two ends of the kaporet.


            It seems, however, that the kaporet has a twofold function: On the one hand, it serves as a cover for the ark, but on the other hand, it serves as a base for the keruvim. Thus, there are two dimensions to the kaporet's purpose: 1) what is below it, what it covers; 2) what is above it; what, as it were, grows from it.


            Before we proceed to discuss the function of the kaporet and the keruvim, let us consider the meaning of the term "kaporet" and see whether it is possible to draw any conclusions from the vessel's name to its function.


The meaning of the term "kaporet"[10]




            Both R. Saadya Gaon and the Rashbam understand that kaporet means "cover." So too writes the Ibn Ezra in his short commentary:


Kaporet – We know its meaning, as it is derived from: "And the priest shall cover [ve-kipper, i.e., cover the sin] for him" (Vayikra 4:26), like: "Whose sin is covered" (Tehillim 32:1).


            R. D.Tz. Hoffmann in his commentary to Vayikra 16:1-2 notes that there are those who challenge this understanding and argue that "kaporet" also bears the sense of an independent vessel. Proofs for this contention may be adduced from the following verses:


And you shall put the kaporet upon the ark of the Testimony in the most holy place. (Shemot 26:34)


And you shall put it [the incense altar] before the parokhet that is by the ark of the Testimony, before the kaporet that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you. (Shemot 30:6)


And he took and put the Testimony into the ark, and set the poles on the ark, and put the kaporet above upon the ark. (Shemot 40:20)


            In the Torah, a cover is referred to as a tzamid, and it is surprising that the term "kaporet" is used only in connection with the cover that is placed upon the ark, and nowhere else.


            In I Divrei Ha-yamim 28:11, the Holy of Holies is called "the house of the kaporet" (and so to in the Aramaic translations of Vayikra 16:2). It is unreasonable to assume that this means "the house of the cover." And furthermore nowhere does the verb k-p-r (in the pi'el) denote covering in the physical sense; only in the symbolic sense does it refer to the covering of sin.




            In light of all this, R. Hoffmann proposes that the kaporet was a vessel of atonement (kapara). According to him, this understanding is found already among the ancients (the Septuagint, Philo, the Peshiteta, and the Vulgate), and accepted by later authorities as well. According to this, the cover of the ark is called "kaporet" because the most elevated service of atonement on Yom Kippur is performed above it.


            The term "kaporet" testifies to the source of Yom Kippur – "For I appear in the cloud upon the kaporet."


            Cassuto adds that in the end, the etymology is one, for the atonement involves covering of the sin, as the verse states in Tehillim 32:1: “Here I will dwell, for I have desired it," as stated by the Ibn Ezra, cited above.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In earlier shiurim, we dealt with the various names of the ark and their meanings. Here, we will focus on the various functions of the ark.

[2] This proof is conditioned on the issue dealt with in previous shiurim regarding whether there was only one ark or two arks. According to the Ramban and others, who say that there was only one ark, this can certainly be adduced as proof.

[3] In a previous year, we dealt with the connection between the assembly at Mount Sinai and the Mishkan.

[4] In this context, there is room to discuss whether we are dealing with the usual ark, since it speaks there of inquiry with Urim and Tumim. In a recent shiur, we mentioned the position of R. Yoel Bin-Nun that this was a special ark containing the Urim and Tumim.

[5] R. Yehuda Halevi in his Kuzari mentions that the ark is called by the name of God: "Occasionally, they addressed the holy ark by the name of God, as it is written: 'Rise up, Lord,' when they made a start, and ‘Return, Lord,’ when they halted" (Kuzari IV, 3).

[6] In previous shiurim, we dealt with the number of arks and with the content of each ark.

[7] As is stated in Zohar Teruma 161a: "When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, He looked in the Torah and created the world, and through the Torah the world was created."

[8] In a previous year, we devoted a shiur to the essential connection between the Torah and the Mikdash.

[9] So too in his commentary to Tehillim 132:7.

[10] The commentators relate to the meaning of the term in their commentaries to Shemot 25:17.