The Identity of the Keruvim

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



Rav Yitzchak Levi



Lecture 141: IdentiTy of the Keruvim

Rav Yitzchak Levi




            In the previous shiur, we noted that the keruvim appear in the Garden of Eden (in the book of Bereishit and in the prophet Yechezkel's description in his prophecy regarding the king of Tzor), in the Mishkan, in the first Temple, and in Yechezkel's Temple.


            We emphasized that in addition to the keruvim located above the ark of the Testimony, and in addition to the keruvim added by Shelomo in the Holy of Holies, in the Mishkan and in the Temple there were keruvim embroidered or engraved on the curtains, the parokhet, the walls, the doors of the Heikhal and the Devir, and even on the bases of the lavers.


            We also noted that the root and essence of the word "keruv" remains unclear. Even though the Torah refers to the keruvim with a definite article (heh ha-yedi'a), which seems to imply something that is well known and doesn't need explanation, we have no clear idea about their appearance.


            In this shiur, I wish to bring the principal viewpoints on the matter in the words of Chazal and the Rishonim.[1]


I. Like the face of a child


            The gemara states:

What is the derivation of keruv? R. Abbahu said: Like a child (ke-ravya), for in Babylonia they call a child ravya. R. Pappa said to Abaye: If so, how will you explain the Scriptural text: "The first face was the face of the keruv and the second face the face of a man" (Yechezkel 10:14), seeing that the face of a keruv is the same as that of a man? [One has] a large face and the other a small face. (Sukka 5b)


Rashi explains:


Surely the two are the same! Why then did Scripture distinguish between them? And it answers: In fact, keruv means like the face of a child. And this is the difference: the face of a man – a large face; the face of a keruv – a small face.


            Another passage connected to the matter at hand is found in Bava Batra (99a), which discusses the relationship between the various verses that describe the positioning of the keruvim: "One verse says: 'They faced each other'; and the other says: 'Their faces were inward.'"[2]


            The gemara's second answer is as follows:


They were slightly turned sideways. For [so] it was taught: Onkelos the proselyte said: The keruvim were ma'aseh tza'atzu'im (II Divrei ha-Yamim 3:10), and their faces were turned sideways as a student who takes leave of his master.


Rashi explains (s.v. ma'aseh tza'atzu'im):


This is a verse regarding the keruvim in Divrei ha-Yamim. The term tza'atzu'im means children, as it is said (Sukka 5b): "What is the derivation of keruv? R. Abbahu said: Like a child (ke-ravya),” that is to say, like children taking leave of their masters. This is "slightly turned sideways," mentioned above.


            Rabbeinu Bachye adds:


The keruvim – one of them was in the image of an adult man, and the second in the image of a small child, like what Yechezkel saw: "The first face was the face of the keruv and the second face the face of a man." And Chazal expounded: Surely the two are the same… rather a large face and a small face. This comes to attest to [God's] love for Israel, like the love of a father for his son, which is a strong love.


So too writes the Ibn Ezra:


Our ancient Sages said that the keruvim were like two young children. They explained [keruvim as] ke-ravya in Aramaic, the kaf serving as a preposition. This is right, as they were in the form of children, and the name [keruvim] is a reminder. (Shemot 25:18, s.v. ve-asita)


            In other words, they knew by tradition that the keruv resembled a child, and they expounded the word keruv as kemo ravya – like a child – as a reminder.


            The Tzafnat Pa'ane'ach writes on the verse that states that the voice of God issued forth from between the two keruvim:


From this it seems that they were similar to one who has a speaking voice, as it says there: "And I shall speak with you." And it is known in the world who is endowed with speech – only man. And from this we know that they had the form of a human being.


            This also follows from the wording of the verse in Yechezkel (10:8): "And the keruvim appeared to have the form of a man's hand under their wings." This suggests that the keruvim had the form a man with human limbs, as argued by the Tzofnat Pa'ane'ach.


            The Maharal expanded upon this issue in his Gur Aryeh:


The keruvim had the form of the face of a child. In the first chapter of Sukka (5b), the Aramaic translation of child is ravya, and the kaf is the kaf that indicates similarity. The Ibn Ezra objects that the kaf in keruvim is part of the root. And the proof is "ha-keruvim" (v. 20) with the definite article, which cannot precede a prepositional kaf. This is not an objection, for even Chazal agree that the kaf is part of the root, and not a preposition, only they explain that this name is a compound name, like Shemuel – me-Hashem she'altiv (I Shemuel 1:20), and similarly Yeruba'al – yarev bo ha-ba'al (Shofetim 6:32), and it is certainly a name. And so too keruvim is a name for the face of a young child. Chazal are not saying that only the term keruvim mentioned here means children, but rather that all [instances of] keruvim, that is the meaning, for a keruv is that which has the form of a young child.

Regarding his further objection, that if keruvim means the face of a young child, how could he say about all of them: "And I knew that they were keruvim" (Yechezkel 10:20) – this is not an objection at all. For they were certainly all called keruvim because they slightly resembled the face of a young child, even though there is one who is more like the face of a young child than the other. And furthermore, that which it says: "And I knew that they were keruvim," refers to other matters, for every keruv has wings, and all the animals that he saw had wings, and therefore he called all of them keruvim. For this reason he substituted a keruv for the ox that he saw in the first chariot (Yechezkel 1:10), for they all resembled the keruvim. And he said: "The first face was the face of a keruv" (Yechezekel 10:14), even though at first it had the face of an ox, now he called it a keruv. Chazal explained (Chagiga 13a) that Yechezkel prayed for mercy concerning the matter, that He should not remember for Israel the sin of the golden calf, for they made an ox and he turned it into a keruv. As we have said, they all resemble a keruv, only that they are distinct in their faces. Now he turned the face of the ox into a keruv, that is to say, that only the form that is common to all of them should be seen in it.

For the prophet sees many things, and things appear to the prophet as is fit at that time. As Chazal have explained (Mekhilta 20,2) that [God] revealed Himself at the sea like a warrior who is waging war, and He revealed Himself at Sinai like an old man filled with mercy. So are all the visions of a prophet as is fit. And when he prayed for mercy regarding this ox, that it should not be a reminder of the [golden] calf, what he saw turned into a keruv which includes all four animals, and the face of an ox turned into the shared form of a keruv, so that the sin of Israel should no longer be found. This Rabbi thought that the words of the Sages are as he understood them at first thought, and he did not understand them to the end, not even to the middle. (Shemot 25:18).


            The Maharal first explains the linguistic context of the word keruvim. According to the gemara in Sukka, the kaf in the word keruvim is the kaf denoting similarity. The Ibn Ezra objects that the fact that the word keruvim appears together with a definite article proves that the kaf in keruvim is part of the root of the word.


            The Maharal rejects the Ibn Ezra's objection, arguing that even Chazal understand that the kaf is part of the root of the world, but the word is a compound, and that the word keruvim is a noun that denotes the face of a young child.


            He then addresses the words of Yechezkel in his vision of the chariot (Yechezkel 10:20): "And I knew that they were keruvim," that is to say, all the images that he saw there were keruvim. Even though there were other images, and the four animals of the chariot were different from each other, all of them shared a slight resemblance to the face of a child. The four animals did not resemble the keruvim in their faces, but in other ways.[3]


II. Male and female


            Rabbeinu Bachye (ad loc.) explains that the keruvim were male and female. The source for his view is the gemara in Yoma (54a) which speaks of the faces of the keruvim as the faces of a male and a female:


That which it says in the command: "And you shall make two (shenayim) keruvim of gold" (Shemot 25:18) – shenayim, and not shenei – because shenei implies equivalence, e.g., the two (shenei) tablets of the testimony, the two (shenei) sheep, the two (shenei) goats. Therefore it had to say shenayim, because they are different from each other, the one male and the other female. Later it says: "From between the two (shenei) keruvim," and "And he made two (shenei) keruvim of gold (37:7), to allude to their equivalence in gold and uniformity. According to the plain sense, two keruvim, male and female, come to teach how precious Israel is to God, like the love of a man for a woman. So too Chazal expounded in tractate Yoma (54a): "R. Katina said: Whenever Israel came up on a pilgrim festival, the parokhet would be removed for them and the keruvim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman." "And it is written also (I Melakhim 7:36): 'According to the space of each, with loyot [wreaths round about].' Rabba bar Sheila said: Even as a man embracing his companion."


            R. Kasher comments in connection with the words of Rabbeinu Bachye that since the foundation of man's holiness lies in the sanctity of sexual union, the command was therefore given to fashion in the Holy of Holies the image of a young boy and a young girl and above them the Shekhina. This is shown to the pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem on the festival, to teach them that the sexual union must be and can be like the Holy of Holies, like a young boy and a young girl who are innocent of all sin. As Chazal have said: Man and woman, the Shekhina is between them. Perhaps this is what R. Akiva was alluding to when he said that Shir ha-Shirim is the Holy of Holies.


            Furthermore, according to this understanding, the fact that the keruvim are young children symbolizes vitality and renewal, life with its newness, and the original relationship between God and creation.


            In the book Midreshei ha-Torah, Parashat Teruma, we read:


The keruvim in the image of man teaches that after one attains Torah he can attain prophecy with the help of God. This is "stretching out their wings on high," alluding to prophecy that is received below from on high. They were male and female, to teach that while man's matter comes from male and female, his form comes from God, as it says: "Three partners are involved in [the formation of man]" (Nidda 32a). Therefore, they were male and female as an allusion to matter with form for the maintenance of the species for the greatest benefit.


The Abravanel in his commentary to the Torah understands this interpretation of the keruvim as follows:


In my opinion, it is also possible that these keruvim were in the image of the two young children, who are free of any flaw and who have never tasted sin. The one having the form of a male and the other the form of a female, to allude and to teach that each and every man and woman in Israel are fit from childhood to persevere and finish their days over God's Torah and meditate therein day and night, whether by reading it or by observing its commandments.


            The first point arising from the words of the Abravanel is that the keruvim were fashioned as children who had never tasted sin, and the second point is that from their childhood they should persevere in the study of Torah and the observance of its commandments. It is very appropriate that in the Mikdash, which as a whole served as a place of atonement, the keruvim that are over the kaporet symbolized a male child and a female child who are free from sin.


            This understanding of the keruvim as male and female and as symbolizing, as it were, God and the people of Israel, is exceedingly daring. It contains within it the understanding that one keruv, as it were, represents the Shekhina, and the other the people of Israel.


            According to this understanding, the people of Israel are represented in the Holy of Holies itself. In this sense, it is not a chamber that represents only the presence of the Shekhina, but a chamber that represents the most intimate connection between the people of Israel and God.


            However we understand the connection between the two keruvim – which are male and female – this structure emphasizes that the space between the two keruvim is the most sanctified space, in which the connection and relationship between the two keruvim is created in the most meaningful manner.


            In a later shiur, we will relate to the significance of the two keruvim being found specifically in the Holy of Holies. Here we wish to emphasize the relationship between male and female, between giver and receiver, that is found in the Holy of Holies between the two keruvim above the kaporet, that being the site of revelation.


            It is interesting to consider the connection between the understanding of Rabbeinu Bachye cited above, according to which we have here the relationship between father and son, and the generally accepted understanding that we are dealing here with male and female. These are two different relationships that describe the connection between the people of Israel and their God. The relationship between father and son is common and easily understandable, whereas the relationship between male and female is far more daring and new.[4]


III. The Form of a Bird


            The Rashbam (Shemot 25:18) brings a novel understanding, according to which the keruvim were birds. He adduces proof from the words of the prophet Yechezkel (28:14): "You were the far-covering keruv" – a large bird with a great wing-span.


IV. Half Man and Half Bird


            The Rambam writes as follows:


As for the form of the keruvim that were made, the side of their head and their face was apparently in the image of the head of a man, and they had wings like the wings of birds, while the form of the feet is not explained here. What seems right in my opinion is that they had the feet of birds, so that the entire keruv from head to shoulders was in the image of man, and from the wings to the lower end of the body in the form of a bird. (Guide of the Perplexed III:45)


            This is also the understanding of the Ralbag:


And the form of the keruvim was like the form of a man, only that they had wings.  These are forms that Yechezkel saw in the chariot, only that in this place he does not mention the form of an eagle. (Shemot 25:18)




            Rashi in Bereishit (3:24) explains that the keruvim are destructive angels. So too the Ibn Ezra (ad loc.):


These are the well-known angels, and in their hands is a sword with a blade that has two edges. This is the meaning of revolving (it is sharp from both sides, and therefore it can be turned around and cut from each side).


            The Tzofnat Pa'ane'ach commentary cites from Midrash Tehillim (psalm 18, no. 15):


The Holy One, blessed be He, did as follows: He took one keruv from the Throne of Glory and rode on it and waged war against Pharaoh and Egypt, as it is stated: "And He rode upon a keruv, and did fly" (II Shemuel 22:11). From where did He bring it? From the wheels of the chariot.


            And in the continuation of the words of the Tzofnat Pa'ane'ach, p. 279:


Now the keruvim were in the Mishkan on the kaporet corresponding to the angels that are on the Throne of Glory, as is alluded to by Yechezkel (1:26). The root of the word keruv is a rearrangement of the word rakhuv, as in "And He rode upon (va-yirkav) a keruv," because by way of the angels, it is as if He rides and becomes revealed through them.


            Mention is made of a keruv in Midrash Rabba:


R. Avin said: When a person sleeps, the body says to the neshama, and the neshama to the nefesh, and the nefesh to an angel, and the angel to a keruv, and the keruv to a winged one, and the winged one speaks before He who spoke and the world came into being. (Vayikra Rabba 32:2)


            In light of this, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah:


The different names with which the angels are called reflect their [spiritual] levels. Thus, they are called: 1) The holy chayyot, who are above all the others; 2) the ofanim; 3) the er'elim; 4) the chashmalim; 5) the serafim; 6) the mal'achim; 7) the elohim; 8) the sons of the elohim; 9) the keruvim; 10) the ishim.


            It is in this context that the Rambam relates to the keruvim in his Guide of the Preplexed:


Thereupon when the truth became clear to the men of knowledge and it became known by demonstration that there is a being that is neither a body nor a force in a body, who is the true deity, and that He is one; and that there are also other beings that are separated from matter and are not bodies, being toward whom His being, may He be exalted, overflows – namely, the angels, as we have explained…

Thus it has become clear through what we have stated before that the belief in the existence of angels is consequent upon the belief in the existence of the deity and that thereby prophecy and the Law are established as valid.

In order to fortify belief in this fundamental principle, He, may He be exalted, has commanded that the image of two angels be made over the ark, so that the belief of the multitude in the existence of angels be consolidated; this correct opinion, coming in the second place after the belief in the existence of the deity. (III, 45)


            This is also the understanding of Rabbeinu Bachye, according to the plain meaning of the text:


And because the keruvim in my opinion allude to the existence of angels, and there are many angels, we can therefore say according to this that the word keruvim comes to allude to the plural, and the Lord God of Israel is above them, as it says: "Sits on the keruvim." (Shemot 25:18)


            It is interesting to examine the relationship between understanding keruvim as children and understanding them as destructive angels.


            The Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) says: "And when I searched after the word keruvim, I found it means forms." According to this, the word has no fixed meaning.


            Rashi who explains the keruvim in Parashat Teruma as children, explains the keruvim mentioned in Bereishit in the Garden of Eden as angels of destruction. Whereas the Rambam who explains the keruvim in the book of Shemot as angels understands the keruvim in the visions of Yechezkel as children: "Keruv designates a human being of tender age" (Guide of the Perplexed III:1).


            This fits in with what the Ibn Ezra says that keruvim are forms that can change in accordance with the context.


VI. Ox


            The Ibn Ezra also brings another explanation:


… Therefore every form of an ox is a keruv, but not every keruv is the form of an ox [in other words, every ox can be called a keruv, but not every keruv refers to an ox]. (Bereishit 3:24)[5]


VII. Keruv as a general term


            Rashi in Parashat Teruma refers to the keruvim that are "an artistic work." He says as follows:


Keruvim were figured on them [the curtains] in the process of weaving them, not afterwards by embroidery which is needlework – but by weaving it on its two surfaces, one design on one side, a different design on the other; e.g., a lion on one side and an eagle on the other side. (Shemot 26:1)


VIII. Chariot


            S.D. Luzzato (Shadal) in his commentary to the Torah explains that keruvim are called by that name because they are God's chariot (rekhev):


"The keruvim" – angels, and the word is the opposite of keruv (II Shemuel 22:11): "And He rode upon (va-yirkav) a keruv, and flew." It seems to me that angels are called mal'akhim because they perform the will of God and his missions, and [they are called] keruvim because the glory of God and his great power are revealed through them, and it is as if he rides and becomes revealed through them. (Bereishit 3:24)


            And in his commentary to Parashat Teruma he writes:


It is the opposite of keruv… But it is called that because they are the chariot of God, like: "And He rode upon a keruv"; "And gold for the pattern of the chariot, that is the keruvim" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 28:18). (Shemot 25:18)


            For a deeper understanding of this, we cite the words of Yishai Reggio:[6]


For this investigation, we have no source to draw upon except for the twenty four books of the Holy Scriptures that are founded on the pillars of prophecy and supernal wisdom. All human explanations dealing with this matter – have no part in truth, except for the degree to which they are consistent with the verses of the Torah and the Prophets, because it is from them that truth and justice issue. We see that the Torah wished to conceal the nature of the keruvim … and truly it is a profound matter, who will understand it.

Nevertheless, there are some scattered pieces of information, one here and another there in the verses of the Torah, through which we can understand the substance of the matter…

The term keruv has two meanings: one that is general, applying to every keruv, and a second meaning that is specific to those keruvim fashioned by Moshe in the Mishkan or made by Shelomo in the Mikdash or seen by Yechezkel in his prophecy. They are called keruvim only because there is something in their fashioning or in their form that is similar to a keruv. I shall now explain: The word keruv originally referred to any physical object, swift in motion that is fit for riding, to move quickly from place to place. It is derived from the root r-kh-v, the khaf being moved in front of the resh, so that keruv is but rakhuv with the letters transposed…

This matter was revealed to us by the Divine psalmist who in one place says… and in another place says… One who studies the two verses sees that they speak of one thing, for in both the first part speaks of the clouds and the second part of the wind, only that in one place he calls the clouds "keruv" and in the other place he calls them "rakhuv," and it is all the same thing. The psalmist with his holy spirit imagined that God (blessed be He), as it were, rides upon the clouds which are swift in motion. It is all a metaphor referring to the quick revelation of His will without hesitation or hindrance.

And similarly the hosts, angels of heaven who do His will on earth below are sometimes called keruvim, and sometimes rekhuvim, and sometimes rekhavim… teaching us that keruv and rakhuv are the same. The angels are called this because it is their role to transform the will of their Maker from potentiality to actuality, as if God, blessed be He, were riding upon them to perform His actions.

For this reason, those forms that Moshe was commanded to make on the kaporet and from which Shelomo learned to make the likes of them in the Mikdash are called keruvim, for their role is that the Shekhina should rest upon them, as if God were riding on them and His glory rests there… And so He is called "who sits on the keruvim," that is to say, He hovers and rests upon them like a king who sits on his throne of glory in his palace. All this is a metaphor, as we know. (Bikkurei ha-Ittim, 5590, p. 7, keruvim)


            Reggio first emphasizes that the Torah tried to conceal the nature of the keruvim. Afterwards he explains that the connection between the word keruv and rakhuv teaches that the purpose of the keruvim is that the Shekhina should rest upon them, as if God were riding on them.


            According to this there is an essential connection between the keruv and the Divine chariot.


            The keruv as chariot teaches that God rides upon the chariot and when necessary can leave the Mikdash, as is described in detail in the book of Yechezkel in his account of the Shekhina's departure from the Mikdash and from the city.[7]




            In this shiur we dealt with the identity of the keruvim, and based on the words of Chazal and the Rishonim we proposed several understandings:


·           The face of a human being: the faces of children, as male and female, as father and son, or as half man and half bird.

·           An animal: a bird or an ox.

·           Angels.

·           Divine chariot above the kaporet which symbolizes the Divine presence resting in that place.


The fact that there are many and different identifications may support the view of the Ibn Ezra that the keruvim have various different forms, as we saw, for example, in the book of Yechezkel, where in 1:10, it speaks of an ox, whereas in 10:14, it speaks of a keruv.


This fact does not come to diminish the uniqueness of each form and understanding, each of which adds spiritual meaning to the understanding of the nature of the keruvim.


Next Year


            We shall open next year's shiurim with a discussion of several topics connected to the keruvim which still require clarification:


·           What is the spiritual meaning of their presence in the Holy of Holies?

·           What is the significance of two keruvim, and how is it possible that such a form should be found in the Holy of Holies? Does it not violate the prohibition against an image or idol?


Afterwards, we shall return to the structure of the ark, the kaporet and the keruvim, the materials of which they are formed, the poles and the rings, their numbers and meanings, and the rim.


We shall then move on to the other vessels in the Mishkan: the table, the candlestick, the incense altar, and the burnt-offering altar.


Have a good summer!

[1] R. Kasher, in his book Torah Sheleima, in the addenda to Parashat Teruma, no. 6, brings many sources related to this issue, only some of which are brought here.

[2] The simple solution to the problem is that “they faced each other” is the expression used regarding the keruvim on the ark in Parashat Teruma, whereas “their faces were inward” is taken from the account of the keruvim that Shelomo added in the Holy of Holies.

[3] We only cited the words of the Maharal that deal with the meaning of the term keruv, but we did not expand upon the other issues to which he alludes.

[4] This topic requires further expansion, but this is not the forum for such a discussion.

[5] This explanation stems from the fact that in Yechezkel (1:10), one of the figures in the Divine visions that the prophet sees is an ox, whereas in the parallal account (10:14), the figure is a keruv.

[6] This section is brought in Nechama Leibowitz's parasha sheets, Parasha Teruma (5730).

[7] This idea is certainly consistent with the understanding of the Rashbam, according to which we are dealing with a bird - that is to say, some kind of living creature that can fly when necessary. According to the Rambam and the Ralbag that we are dealing with something that is half human and half bird, and also according to the understanding of the Rishonim (Rashi and Ibn Ezra) that we are dealing with angels, these understandings are consistent with the possibility that we are dealing with something that can remove itself from its present location.