Ark or Arks

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

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DAYS OF DELIVERANCE: ESSAYS ON PURIM AND HANUKKAH

by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

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Mikdash

 

Lecture 128: Ark or Arks

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            In recent shiurim, we dealt at length with the various names of the ark and the spiritual significance of those names as they reflect the ark's very essence.

 

            In this shiur, we wish to relate to the various places in which the ark is mentioned in the Torah and examine the significance of each reference. We shall focus on one important ramification of this discussion – the question of how many arks there were, one or two. We shall examine the sources and present the primary positions on the matter.

 

THE VARIOUS DESCRIPTIONS OF THE ARK

 

            Two separate descriptions of the ark are found in two different books of the Torah:

 

1. THE ARK AS A VESSEL OF THE MISHKAN IN PARASHAT TERUMA

 

            The first vessel described in Parashat Teruma is the ark:

 

And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and shall make upon it a rim of gold round about. And you shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them in its four corners, and two rings shall be on the one side of it and two rings on the other side of it. And you shall make poles of shittim wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried therewith. The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I shall give you. And you shall make a kaporet (covering) of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two keruvim of gold, of beaten work shall you make them, at the two ends of the kaporet. And make one keruv on the one end, and the other keruv on the other end: of the kaporet shall you make the keruvim on the two ends of it. And the keruvim shall stretch out their wings on high, overspreading the kaporet with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the kaporet shall the faces of the keruvim be. And you shall put the kaporet above, upon the ark; and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I shall give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel. (Shemot 25:10-22)

 

            This ark is located in the innermost and most sanctified part of the Mishkan, as is explained in the continuation:

 

And you shall hang up the parokhet (veil) under the clasps, that you may bring in there within the parokhet the ark of the Testimony; and the parokhet shall be for you as a division between the holy place and the most holy. (Shemot 26:33)

 

            In the account of Moshe's construction of the Mishkan, after the Testimony is placed in the ark, the poles are placed in their rings, and the kaporet is placed upon the ark, the verse says:

 

And he brought the ark into the Mishkan, and set up the parokhet of the screen, and screened the ark of the Testimony; as the Lord commanded Moshe. (Shemot 40:21)

 

            Let us summarize what we learn from here about the ark and its location:

 

            The ark is the first vessel that God commands Israel to fashion for the Mishkan. It is made of shittim wood overlaid with gold, and it has a rim of gold and wooden poles and rings overlaid with gold. Above it rests the kaporet and two keruvim made of beaten gold, from between which God speaks to Moshe. It is located in the Holy of Holies. The Torah does not spell out here the ark's purpose or meaning.

 

            When was this command given? The answer to this question depends upon the disagreement among the Rishonim as to the timing of God's command regarding the Mishkan in general:

 

·           According to the Ramban, the Ibn Ezra, and the plain sense of the verses, the command was given during the first forty days that Moshe spent on the mountain. (According to the calculations of Chazal, this means between the sixth of Sivan, when the Torah was given, and the seventeenth of Tamuz, when Moshe came down from the mountain with the first set of tablets and broke them.)

·           According to Rashi and the Seforno, based on some of the midrashim, the Torah's account regarding this matter is not presented in chronological order. According to this view, this command was given either during the last forty days that Moshe was on the mountain (i.e., between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur), or on the fortieth day itself (on Yom Kippur).[1]

 

These are the two main positions regarding the command to build the Mishkan as a whole, the ark included. The major difference between the two possibilities is the relationship between the Mishkan and the sin of the Golden Calf – did the command to build the Mishkan precede that sin or come after it?

 

2. THE WOODEN ARK THAT SERVED AS THE VESSEL IN WHICH THE SECOND SET OF TABLETS WAS PLACED IN THE ACCOUNT OF THE REVELATION IN PARASHAT EKEV

 

            The Torah in the book of Devarim does not relate to the Mishkan in any way. In the framework of Moshe's account of the sin of the Golden Calf and his efforts to attain God's pardon for that sin, Moshe is commanded to hew two tablets of stone and make an ark of wood:

 

At that time, the Lord said to me, “Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me into the mountain, and make for yourself an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you did break, and you shall put them in the ark.” And I made an ark of shittin wood, and hewed two tablets of stone like the first, and went up to the mountain, having the two tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the Ten Words, which the Lord spoke to you in the mountain out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. And I turned and came down from the mountain and put the tablets in the ark which I had made; and there they were, as the Lord commanded me. (Devarim 10:1-5)

 

            From these verses we learn as follows:

 

·           The ark is made of shittim wood. There is no mention of an overlay of gold, a rim, poles, rings, a kaporet, or keruvim.

·           The explicit purpose of the ark is to contain the second set of tablets.

·           There is no reference to the place in which the ark should be placed.

·           This command was given during the last set of forty days that Moshe spent on the mountain. According to Chazal's calculations, the initial command was on the first of Elul, whereas the descent from the mountain and the placement of the tablets into the ark was on Yom Kippur. It is important to emphasize that in any event, the construction of the ark preceded the construction of the Mishkan, which began on Yom Kippur and ended, according to the Midrash, on the twenty-fifth of Kislev.

 

R. Saadya Gaon makes an interesting comment (ad loc.): "And you already made it for yourself." He may be suggesting that Moshe had already made on his own an ark of wood in which he placed the broken set of tablets. According to him, Moshe's words, "And I put the tablets in the ark which I had made," relate perhaps to the ark that Moshe had made for the first set of tablets. The plain sense of the text, however, gives no indication that an ark already existed, but rather that it fell upon Moshe at that time to fashion an ark of wood that had not existed previously in order to place the tablets inside it.

 

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO COMMANDS

 

            The verses in the book of Shemot and the book of Devarim give rise to several questions:

            1) What is the relationship between the two sets of verses, the two accounts of the ark?

 

            2) Are we dealing with the same ark, about which the Torah offers two separate accounts, or are we dealing here with two different arks?

 

            3) If we are dealing with two different arks, was the ark described in the book of Devarim a temporary ark that was to serve only until the building of the Mishkan, or was it a different and separate ark?

 

            In any event, there are certain points that the Torah does not clarify:

 

·           In the book of Shemot, the question of where the tablets were to be placed following Moshe's descent from Mount Sinai is not addressed. There is no command to prepare an ark for them.

·           In addition, following the breaking of the first tablets, the question of what was to be done with those tablets and where they were to be brought is not addressed. Here too, there is no command to prepare an ark that could contain them.

·           The Torah does not spell out where the ark was to be placed after the tablets were placed inside it or for how long that ark was to remain in use.

 

The Rishonim disagree on this matter, and we shall bring here their various positions.[2] Let us first focus on the disagreement between Rashi and the Ramban, who each cite the words of Chazal as proofs of their respective positions.

 

A. THE VEWPOINT OF RASHI

 

At that time – At the end of forty days, He was reconciled with me and said to me, "Hew for yourself [two tablets]," and afterwards, "Make for yourself an ark of wood." I, however, made the ark first, because when I came with the two tablets in my hand where could I place them? Now this was not the ark which Betzalel made, because with the Mishkan they did not occupy themselves until after Yom Kippur. For only when he came down from the mountain on that day did He give them the command regarding the construction of the Mishkan; and Betzalel made the Mishkan first and afterwards the ark and the other articles. It follows, therefore, that this was another ark; and it was this that went forth with them to battle, while that which Betzalel made went forth to battle only once, in the days of Eli, and they were punished for this, for it was captured [by the Pelishtim]. (Devarim 10:1)

 

            Rashi, based on the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 6:1), maintains that the ark of wood mentioned in Devarim is not the ark made by Betzalel as is described in Shemot. This is proven by the timing: They only began to build the Mishkan after Yom Kippur, for Moshe only commanded the people of Israel to build it after he came down from the mountain with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. Here in Devarim, Moshe is commanded to build an ark on the first of Elul, prior to his third ascent to the mountain in order to receive the second set of tablets.

 

            Rashi adds that this ark of the book of Devarim went out with Israel to war, whereas the ark made by Betzalel was found exclusively in the Mishkan. This ark went out only once to war, at the battle at Even-ha-Ezer in the days of Eli, and the people of Israel were punished for this when the ark was taken captive by the Pelishtim.

 

            Rashi does not explain what was found in this ark. According to one opinion in Chazal the broken tablets were placed in this ark. Rashi elsewhere relates to this issue:

 

And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey – This was the ark that went with them whenever they waged war and in which the broken tablets were placed. It travelled in front of them a distance of three days' journey to prepare for them a proper place for encampment. (Bamidbar 10:33)

 

            It turns out then that according to Rashi, the ark of wood mentioned in Devarim is an ark that paralleled the ark in the Holy of Holies. It is the ark in which were found the broken tablets and which went out to war with the people of Israel.

 

            This view accords with what the gemara says about the ark of wood made by Moshe:

 

"Which you did break, and you shall put them in the ark" – This teaches that the tablets and the broken tablets were put in the ark.

 

            Chazal suggest something here that is not explicitly stated in the verses – that the broken tablets were placed in this ark, and that to them now were added the second set of tablets. This is what they mean when they say that the tablets and the broken tablets were placed in "this" ark. It would seem that the broken tablets were placed in this ark after Moshe's first descent from the mountain, when God commanded him to build another ark, this being before the second set of tablets were placed inside it.[3]

 

            The Tosafot in Eiruvin (63b) understand the gemara differently, interpreting the gemara as referring to the Temple built by Shlomo. At that time, the broken tablets were put into the ark that had been made by Betzalel, but until that time, the broken tablets were in the ark that had been made by Moshe. After building the Temple, Shlomo placed the broken tablets into the ark that had been made by Betzalel because it was then that the ark arrived at its eternal place of rest. Having arrived at its permanent place, it reached its perfect state, and was ready to house the whole and the broken tablets.

 

            It is interesting that when David wishes to build the Temple, the verses say:

 

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 of our God, and I had made ready for building.” (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 28:2)

 

            The house as a whole is called "a house of rest for the ark" – the purpose of the house was that the ark should reach its place of rest.

 

            The spiritual meaning of placing the broken tablets into the ark was that there was no longer any need to take the ark out to war. And indeed, from the time that Shlomo built the Temple, the ark was never removed from the Mikdash to go out to war, the Temple being its permanent place.

 

            The Netziv (Devarim 31:26) understands that when Israel set out on their journey in the wilderness, the broken tablets were placed in the ark made by Betzalel. Whenever they went out in battle, the broken tablets were removed from that ark and after the war they were returned to their place.

 

            It is possible[4] that immediately following the construction of the Mishkan and the placement of the whole tablets into the ark fashioned by Betzalel, the broken tablets were put there as well. According to the Ramban, they remained there and were never taken out, and the ark made by Moshe was stored away, whereas according to Rashi, with each battle the broken tablets were removed from the ark of Betzalel and placed in the ark of Moshe, which then went out to war with Israel.

 

            It turns out, then, that the statement according to which the whole tablets and the broken tablets were placed in the ark is understood by Rashi as referring to the ark made by Moshe, whereas according to the Ramban (who understands in his second explanation that there was only one ark), it refers to the ark made by Betzalel.

 

            As for the location of the broken tablets, there are two understandings. Either they were found in the ark of Moshe from the time of the construction of the Mishkan until the building of the Temple in the days of Shlomo. Alternatively, as suggested by the Netziv, they were found in the ark of Betzalel, and when they actually went out to war, they were removed from that ark and then later returned to it. 

 

B. THE VIEW OF THE RAMBAN

 

            Several objections may be raised against the viewpoint of Rashi, and these brought the Ramban to propose two alternative understandings:

 

"At that time the Lord said to me, Hew you two tablets of stone." After I cast myself down in prayer before God for forty days and forty nights, He was reconciled with me that He would write the second tablets. However, the first ones were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, whereas these [second tablets] He commanded me that they be hewn by my hands and the writing will be like the writing on the first ones, by the finger of God.

"And make you an ark of wood." The meaning thereof is that you put the tablets into this ark when you descend [the mountain]. Now this ark, including its cover, is to be entirely from wood [and not overlaid with gold], like all arks, and the tablets should remain there until the Mishkan is made. [Only] then, they made the ark which was covered with gold and the ark-cover upon it was of pure gold. He did not tell Moshe [to make an ark] for the first tablets because it was manifest before Him that he would break them [immediately upon coming down from the mountain]. And the meaning of the verse, "And there they were, as the Lord commanded me" (v. 5) is that the tablets were there [in the ark] until the Mishkan was made concerning which He commanded me: "And you shall put the ark cover above upon the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I shall give you" (Shemot 25:21). This is the good and correct [interpretation] of these verses.

And Rashi wrote: "Now this was not the ark which Betzalel made [for the Mishkan], because they did not occupy themselves in the making of the Mishkan until after Yom Kippur, for it was only when he came down from the mountain that He commanded them concerning the construction of the Mishkan, and it was Betzalel who made, first the Mishkan, and afterwards the ark and the vessels. Thus it follows that this [ark mentioned here] was a different one, and it was this [ark] that went forth to battle except in the days of Eli and they were punished for this and it  was captured [by the Pelishtim]." This is the Rabbi's language, quoting words of Aggada which he found written in the Tanchuma. Now one may ask: And after they removed the tablets from this ark and placed them in the ark which Betzalel made, what happened to this ark? And why did this one go forth with the people to battle [since it was empty, the tablets having been removed]? Some say that the broken tablets lay in the ark, and so in fact it is found in the Aggada, but these are the words of a single Sage, for thus we learned in tractate Shekalim: "We are taught [in a Baraita]: R. Yehuda the son of R. Itai says: Israel had two arks in the wilderness, one in which the broken tablets lay, etc. But the Rabbis say: There was only one, and once it went forth [to battle] in the days of Eli and it was captured [by the Pelishtim]." The opinion of our Rabbis throughout the Talmud is also not so [that there were two arks], but that [both] the whole tablets and the broken tablets lay in the [same] ark. Besides, where was this ark containing the first [broken] tablets to stay all the years in the wilderness? For in the Mishkan, in the Holy of Holies beyond the parokhet, there were no two arks, and Shlomo also brought but one ark into the Holy of Holies [of the Sanctuary]!

Rather, [we must say] that this ark of Moshe was stored away upon the completion of the ark of Betzalel, as is the law of implements of holiness [which must be stored away after having served their purpose]. This is the correct interpretation in accordance with the opinion of our Rabbis, for, in line with the plain meaning of Scripture, it is possible that the verse here, "And make you an ark of wood," refers to the ark which Betzalel made. This [could be explained as follows]: First Moshe was commanded regarding the making of the Mishkan and its vessels, the first command being, "And they shall make an ark of shittim wood," for this [to contain the tablets} was the main purpose of the entire Mishkan – that the Lord that sits upon the keruvim be there. Afterwards, they made the calf, and when God was reconciled with Moshe and told him that He would write on these tablets according to the first writing, He commanded him briefly that he should make for these [second] tablets an ark of wood, this being the same one concerning which he was commanded for the first tablets. Thus, he mentioned to Moshe [as narrated by Moshe in the verse before us] the primary commandment regarding the Mishkan, and [the one] upon which everything depended. It was from this [charge to build the ark] that Moshe deduced [that he was] to make the Mishkan and its vessels, as he had been commanded earlier. And in that case, the interpretation of the phrase, "And there they were, as the Lord commanded me," is that they be there forever as the Lord commanded me originally: "And in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I shall give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you, etc." Now when Moshe came down from the mountain, he placed the tablets in [his personal] tent of meeting until he made the ark and the Mishkan. For had he not broken the first tablets, they would have been in [his] tent of meeting until Betzalel had made the ark. And so perforce we must also say that the broken tablets were there [in his tent of meeting], for he did not return them with him when he ascended the mountain.

Proof for this [i.e., that the command for making the ark mentioned here is identical with the command mentioned in the book of Shemot with the instructions to build the Mishkan] is the fact that Moshe did not mention this command in the section of Ki-Tisa, for there he mentioned the ark and its vessels for the people saw it before them, and therefore he mentioned it only briefly [through the first command concerning the ark].

Now do not consider it difficult that he said: "So I made an ark of shittim wood, and hewed two tablets of stone," [which would seem to indicate that Moshe made the ark at once and then hewed the two tablets of stone, and, if so, this could not be the ark of Betzalel], for he completed the narration of the subject of the ark at one time. For God had commanded him, "Hew you two tablets of stone… and come up unto Me into the mount; and make you an ark of wood," meaning that he should first come up with the tablets and afterwards he should make an ark of wood; but He prolonged [the subject of the tablets] in order to say, "And I will write on the tables, the words that were on the first tablets which you did break, and you shall put them in he ark," that is to say that these second tablets will be identical to the first ones in writing and, therefore, it is proper that they, like the first ones, be in the [previously] commanded ark, "where I will meet with the children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by My glory." Therefore, Moshe finished the account by stating, "So I made an ark," in order to briefly complete the commandment and the deed. Afterwards, he returned to speak at length on the subject mentioned before.

"And I turned and came down from the mount, and put the tablets in the ark which I made." The meaning thereof is "which I made at the time I came down from the mountain." "And there they were forever, as the Lord commanded me," that His glory dwell among the children of Israel. (Devarim 10:1)

 

            The Ramban's first explanation, which he defines as "the good and correct [interpretation] of these verses," is as follows: This ark was wholly of wood and it housed the tablets until the Mishkan was constructed, and then they made the ark mentioned in Teruma, which was overlaid with gold and above which was the kaporet. The reason that Moshe was not commanded to make such an ark for the first set of tablets is that God knew that he would break them. When the Torah says: "And there they were, as the Lord commanded me," this means until the Mishkan was made.

 

            In other words, the ark of wood was a temporary vessel to receive the tablets, and when the Mishkan was constructed, the tablets were placed in the ark found in the Holy of Holies. According to this position, the ark served as a container for the tablets on a temporary basis until the construction of the Mishkan was completed. When the Mishkan was built, the tablets were placed in the original ark in the Mishkan and the ark of wood was stored away. According to this, we understand why this ark of wood was not very ornate, and we also understand to a certain degree why the Torah does not note its location.

 

            In the continuation, after bringing the viewpoint of Rashi, which he defines as "words of Aggada which he found written in the Tanchuma," the Ramban raises several objections against that position:

 

·           The gemara in Bava Batra and in Menachot asserts that the whole tablets and the broken tablets were placed in an ark – that is to say, there was not one ark with the whole tablets and another ark with the broken ones, but rather both the whole tablets and the broken tablets were placed in the same ark.

·           Where was the ark of wood found? Surely the Holy of Holies did not house two arks.

·           When Shlomo dedicated the Temple, he brought one ark into the sanctuary, and not two.

 

Rather, the Ramban proposes that when Betzalel made an ark and it was placed in the Mishkan, the ark of Moshe was stored away like any other implement of holiness that was no longer being used. According to the Ramban himself, the ark of wood mentioned in Devarim was the same ark mentioned in Teruma that was made by Betzalel. This ark was generally found in the Holy of Holies, but in times of war, it went out to battle together with Israel.[5]

 

In any case, according to both viewpoints, that of Rashi and that of Ramban, the Torah left out many of the details. In the coming shiur, we shall examine the spiritual significance of the various positions.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] We dealt with this issue at length in a previous year.

[2] This issue was addressed by R. Eitan Sandorfi in his book, Hadar Olam Yerushalayim (5758), in the section, "Aron Ha-Berit Echad o Shenayim," pp. 317-38; by R. Tamir Granot in his shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Parashat Shavua, Parashat Eikev; and by Dr. Eli Tal Mor in two articles in Shema'atin 163 and 164: "Ha-Aronot She-Hayu im Yisrael Ba-Midbar."

[3] The gemara does not clarify, according to the viewpoint that there were two arks, in which of the arks rested the whole and the broken tablets. Some understand that the passage in Bava Batra supports the view of the Ramban.

[4] So suggests R. Eitan Sandorfi (cited above) in the position of Mishnat Eliyahu in his commentary to Shekalim 6:1.

[5] An additional question arises with regard to Bamidbar 10:23, which states that the ark of the covenant of God went before the camp three days' journey, and not in its regular place in the middle of the camp. Was it only on the first journey that the ark went before the camp, or was this the case in all the journeys?