The Keruvim in the Holy of Holies and the Prohibition of Idolatry

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

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This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Joseph and Phyllis Eisenman
in honor of Judah L. Eisenman

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Lecture 142: THe Keruvim in the Holy of Holies and the prohibition of idolatry

 

 

            As we said at the end of last year's series of shiurim, it is our intention this year to continue discussing the vessels of the Mishkan and the Mikdash.

 

            Last year, we examined several aspects of the ark, the kaporet, and the keruvim, and this year we shall continue with a discussion of a number of issues relating to these vessels. In this framework, we shall relate to the structure of the ark, the poles of the ark, the issues of touching and seeing the ark, the question of who carries the ark, and the significance of the various articles that rested in the ark.

 

            In this shiur, we will consider the question of whether the keruvim constitute some form of idolatry, and if not, what is the significance of the fact that in the most sanctified part of the Temple, atop the holiest vessel, there are forms made of beaten gold.[1]

 

            This question was already raised by several commentators. Thus, for example, the Abravanel asks:

 

As for the keruvim that God commanded to be fashioned on the kaporet, it would seem that this is in violation of the prohibition, "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath" (Shemot 20:4). How then did He command them to make that which was forbidden to them? (Shemot 25:1)

 

            A similar question is placed by Midrash Eikha Rabba in the mouths of Israel's enemies:[2]

 

R. Yitzchak opened: "We are ashamed, because we have heard reproach; shame has covered our faces, for strangers are come into the sanctuaries of the Lord's house" (Yirmiyahu 51:51). You find that when the enemies entered Jerusalem, Amonites and Moavites entered with them, as it is stated: "The adversary has spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things; for she has seen that heathen nations invade her sanctuary, those whom you did forbid to enter into your congregation" (Eikha 1:10). They entered the Holy of Holies and found there two keruvim. They took them and put them in a box and paraded them in the streets of Jerusalem, saying: Did you not say that this nation does not worship idols? See what we found with them and what they worshipped. Surely they are all alike. This is what is written: "Because Moav and Seir do say, Behold, the house of Yehuda is like all the nations" (Yechezkel 25:8). At that time, the Holy One, blessed be He, swore that He would stamp them out of this world, as it is stated: "Therefore, as I live, says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Surely Moav shall be like Sedom, and the children of Amon like Amora" (Tzefanya 2:9). When they sinned, they were exiled, and when they were exiled, Yirmiyahu began to recite the lamentation Eikha. (Petichta 9)

 

            The midrash describes what happened in the aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple, when the army of Nevuchadnetzar, king of Bavel, entered the sanctuary together with the Amonites and Moavites.[3] It would seem from this midrash that following the destruction of the Temple, the heathen nations related to the keruvim in the Holy of Holies as idols for all purposes.

 

You shall not make for yourself, but for me you shall make

 

            The Midrash Aggada also deals with this question:

 

"Go and make two keruvim." But surely He said to you and commanded you at Mount Sinai: "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness." There is no difficulty: You shall not make for yourself, but for Me you shall make.

In similar fashion: "Everyone that profanes it shall surely be put to death" (Shemot 31:14). And elsewhere: "And on the Sabbath day two lambs" (Bamidbar 28:9).[4]

 

            The midrash's answer seems to distinguish between two completely different objectives: The prohibition to make an idol applies when it is made for man, and therefore the Torah's formulation is: "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness." But when it is made for God, there is no prohibition. According to this, the keruvim are, as it were, for God, and not for man, and therefore there is no prohibition to fashion them.

 

The mouth that forbade is the mouth that permits

 

            Similarly, Midrash Lekach Tov brings a series of examples that on the face of it entail opposites:

 

"And you shall make two keruvim of gold." When Moshe our master said: "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness," he was told: "And you shall make for yourself two keruvim of gold." And similarly regarding the matter of levirate marriage and your brother's nakedness (Vayikra 18:16); "You shall not wear a garment of diverse kinds," "You shall make fringes" (Devarim 22:11-12); "Everyone that profanes it shall surely be put to death" (Shemot 31:14), "And on the Sabbath day two lambs" (Bamidbar 28:9). These and similar [sets of opposites] were said with a single intent.[5]

 

            When the Chizkuni relates to this issue, he adds to what is stated in the midrash and explains the allowance:

Even though He said: "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness," here He permitted the image of the keruvim, for they were not made to be bowed down to, but as a seat for [God], similar to the keruvim on the throne of glory (Yeshayahu 6:1-2). We find many such contrasts in the Torah, as it is written: "Whoever does work on it shall be put to death" (Shemot 35:2), but He permitted to bring on it the daily offering and the additional offering, and to perform circumcision; the nakedness of one's brother's wife and levirate marriage; "You shall not wear a garment of diverse kinds," "You shall make fringes."

 

The Chizkuni emphasizes the purpose for which the keruvim were made and to the fact that they were not made to be bowed down to in any way.

 

            It should be noted that the vessels in the Holy of Holies are not vessels used in the service of God. Even when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, the keruvim are not used in any way in the service. According to the Chizkuni's understanding,[6] the keruvim serve as a seat for the Shekhina, and they are like the keruvim that serve as God's throne of glory, as mentioned in Yeshayahu 6:1-2.[7] Since they serve as a seat, and not at all for the purpose of worship, there is no prohibition.

 

            This seems to accord with what the Torah explicitly states in the continuation:

 

You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate Me. (Shemot 20:4-5)

 

On the face of it, according to the plain sense of these verses, there is not even a hint that making an idol or likeness to which people will not bow down is permitted. The prohibition to make an idol stands independently. But if an exception is to be made here, it may be hung on the continuation of the Biblical passage, which connects the making of idols with the objective of bowing down to them.

 

            In a certain sense, this understanding accords with the answer given by the midrash cited above: "You shall not make for yourself, but for Me you shall make." The keruvim are not for Israel's prostrations or service, but rather a seat for God.

 

            The Chizkuni adds:

 

"And their faces shall look one to the other" – These words prove that they were not made to serve as a likeness in front of which to bow. How so? Were there only one of them,[8] or had the face of one of them looked to the people while the face of the second looked to the first one, there would have been room to say that it was made to instill fear. Now that each face looks at the other, and what is more the two faces are directed down to the kaporet, the site of the Shekhina and the Torah, and furthermore they would not be seen by anyone except for the High Priest on four occasions on one day of the year[9] – it is obvious that they were there only to serve us as examples of servants, as it is stated: "Serafim stood above Him" (Yeshayahu 6:2). (Shemot 25:2)

 

            The Chizkuni adduces proof from the form and location of the keruvim, as well as from the direction of their faces, that they were not made for the purpose of prostration.

 

            The Abravanel takes a similar approach in the answer that he gives to his question cited above:

 

There ["You shall not make for yourself a carved idol"], the prohibition is that they should not come to serve them, as it is stated: "You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them." But the building of the Mishkan and the vessels was for the sake of God, and the keruvim were not meant as intermediaries between them and their God, but as a reminder of awesome deeds.

 

            Since the building of the Mishkan was for the sake of God, the keruvim were not made to serve as intermediaries between Israel and God, but were rather meant to symbolize the eternal connection between Israel and their Father in heaven, between He who bestows blessing and those upon whom blessing is bestowed. Since this command brings to mind God's bounty, it is not subject to any prohibition.

 

            The gist of the two answers is the same – fundamentally, the keruvim are not meant for prostration or any other form of worship. The prohibition to make an idol applies when it is made for the people of Israel, but not when it is made for God. The keruvim are meant to symbolize the seat of the Shekhina, and nobody sees them except for the High Priest on Yom Kippur the four times that he enters the Holy of Holies.

 

            R. Yehuda Halevi in his Kuzari also touches upon the issue of the Golden Calf as opposed to the keruvim:

 

Until at last some decided to do like the other nations, and seek an object in which they could have faith… Their sin consisted in the manufacture of an image of a forbidden thing, and in attributing divine power to a creation of their own, something chosen by themselves without the guidance of God… They should have waited and not have assumed power, have arranged a place of worship, an altar, and sacrifices… The whole affair is repulsive to us, because in this age, the majority of nations have abandoned the worship of images. It appeared less objectionable at that time, because all nations were then idolators… There was nothing strange in the form of the keruvim made by His command. (Kuzari I:97)

 

            According to the Kuzari, Israel's objective when they made the Golden Calf was to draw nearer to God. The path they took was wrong because it involved the manufacture of an image of a forbidden thing. However, it did not involve idolatry or heresy, but only a yielding to the widespread psychological need to serve God in some tangible way.

 

            According to the Kuzari, the only difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf lies in God's command. The keruvim are viewed positively because God commanded them, whereas the Golden Calf is seen in a negative light because God did not command them. Sanctity lies not in objects, but in God Himself.

 

The Meshekh Chokhma explains the essence of the Mishkan and the Mikdash in similar fashion. In his commentary to Parashat Ki-Tisa, he relates to Moshe's breaking of the tablets in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, and he explains that the Mishkan and the Mikdash are not holy in themselves. God rests among His children, but not in buildings or objects, and not in the Mishkan or the tablets. All of the sanctity is only for the sake of the people of Israel who observe God's commandments. Only God is holy in His necessary existence, and all other sanctity follows exclusively from God's commands:

 

Moshe cries out about this: Do you think that I am something holy apart from God's commandments, to the point that in my absence you fashioned for yourselves a calf? I too am human like you are. The Torah does not depend upon me, and even had I not come, the Torah would still exist absolutely unchanged. The proof is that during the thirty-eight years that [Israel] was reprimanded in the wilderness, there was no communication with Moshe. Do not imagine that the Mikdash and the Mishkan are intrinsically holy, God forbid! God rests among His children, and if "they like Adam have transgressed the covenant" (Hoshea 6:7), all sanctity is removed from them, and they are like a profaned vessel; "robbers shall enter it, and profane it" (Yechezkel 7:22). Titus entered into the Holy of Holies together with a prostitute, but suffered no harm (Gittin 56b), for its sanctity had already been removed. What is more, the tablets – "the writing of God" – they too are not intrinsically holy, but only for you. And when the bride is promiscuous in her bridal chamber, they are considered like earthen pitchers. They have no intrinsic sanctity, but only for you when you observe them.

In summary: There is nothing holy in this world to which service and submission are assigned. Only God, blessed be His name, is holy in His necessary existence, and it is to Him that praise and service are fitting. All sanctity stems from the commands issued by the Creator to build a Mishkan and offer sacrifices there to God alone. The keruvim are not subject to any service whatsoever. They are like a sea-captain who wishes to know from which direction the wind is coming, and so he raises a mast. So too, the Creator, blessed be He, made signs to inform Israel whether they are performing the will of God, when "their faces shall look one to the other." And therefore, "there was nothing in the ark except for the two tablets of stone" (I Melakhim 8:9) and the book of the Torah (Bava Batra 14a), while the keruvim were outside on the kaporet, not in the ark, merely hinting at the existence of the angels, as is explained in [the Rambam's] Moreh Nevukhim III:45. (Shemot 32:19)

 

            The Meshekh Chokhma relates to the idea of the holiness of the place, the holiness of the structure, and the holiness of the various holy vessels, and emphasizes that there is no intrinsic holiness to any place, structure, or vessel.

 

            In this context, he relates also to the keruvim, explaining that all of their sanctity stems from God's command. According to him, no service or thoughts are directed to them; they serve merely as signs to show whether the people of Israel are performing the will of God. The Meshekh Chokhma adds that the keruvim also allude to the existence of the angels, following the Rambam in his Moreh Nevukhim.

 

            The Meshekh Chokhma refers us to the gemara in Bava Batra (99a), which addresses the contradiction between what the verse says about the Mishkan, "And their faces shall look one to the other" (Shemot 25:20), and what the verse says about Shlomo's Temple, "And their faces were inward" (II Divrei ha-Yamim 3:13). The gemara resolves the apparent contradiction by saying: "Here when Israel performs the will of god; here where Israel does not perform the will of God." From here, the Meshekh Chokhma learns that no service is directed toward the keruvim; they are merely a sign by way of which God informs Israel whether or not they are performing His will.[10] For this reason, only the tablets are found inside the ark, whereas the keruvim are outside on the kaporet.

 

            It should be noted that in addition to the discussion concerning the appearance of the keruvim in the Holy of Holies, the Mekhilta learns from here the following halakha:

 

"You shall not make for yourselves." You must not say: Since the Torah granted permission to make [keruvim] in the Temple, I shall make [them] in the synagogues and study halls. Therefore it says: "You shall not make." (Shemot 20:20)

 

            The allowance to make the keruvim is limited to the Temple in the Holy of Holies and for the objective commanded to Moshe. There is no allowance whatsoever to make additional keruvim in synagogues or study halls.

 

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] In the final shiur of last year's series, we dealt at length with the various identifications of the keruvim. Our question here is relevant no matter how we understand the forms that were found in the Holy of Holies.

[2] The gemara in Yoma (54b) offers a similar account, but there, the emphasis is on the fact that the heathens entered the Temple and "saw the keruvim whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they carried them out and said: These Israelites, whose blessing is a blessing, and whose curse is a curse, occupy themselves with such things! And immediately they despised them, as it is said: 'All that honored her, despised her, because they have seen her nakedness.'" Without going into a deeper analysis of this gemara, the criticism here relates to the lewdness of the keruvim, and not to the issue of idolatry.

[3] There is room to discuss whether we are dealing here with the keruvim on the ark, for according to Chazal, these keruvim were hidden away in the days of Yoshiyahu. Are we dealing here with the keruvim that Shelomo added in the First Temple or with the images of the keruvim that were found on the walls? The matter requires further study. The wording of the midrash, that they put took them in a keliva – a roped bed – suggests that we are dealing with carved forms.

[4] Cited by R. Kasher in his Torah Sheleima, Shemot 20, no. 135.

[5] Cited by R. Kasher in his Torah Sheleima, Shemot 25, no. 132.

[6] We dealt with this understanding at length in the shiurim at the end of last year's series.

[7] We will mention in this context the phrase, "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who sits on the keruvim," found, for example, in I Shemuel 4:4, and the phrase, "the footstool of our God," in I Divrei ha-Yamim 28:2, both of which express this understanding.

[8] The significance of the fact that there are two keruvim and not one will be addressed in a separate shiur.

[9] This was also limited, for the first time that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, he burned the incense. One of the functions of the incense was to serve as a screen between man and the Shekhina, and the cloud of the incense remained in its place for all of the High Priest's subsequent entries.

[10] The Meshekh Chokhma focuses on the issue of holiness. From there he touches upon the issue of the keruvim, arguing that they were not involved in any service whatsoever.