The Rings and the Poles - Their Number and Their Location
Rav Yitzchak Levi
Dedicated in memory of Joseph Y. Nadler, zl, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi
Lecture 153: The Rings and the poles
their number and their location
The number of Rings
And they shall make an ark of shittim wood 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. (Shemot 25:10-12)
How should this verse be understood? Is the casting of the four rings and their placement in the four corners of the ark explained in further detail in the second half of the verse, which mentions two rings on each of the two sides of the ark? Or are there four rings and in addition there are also two rings on each of the two sides?
Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan says as follows:
Four golden rings were fixed on it, two to the north and two to the south, through which they placed the poles, which were never moved from there, as it says: "The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it" (Shemot 25:15). (Chapter 7, halakha 2)
According to the Baraita, the ark has four rings, two to the north and another two to the south. Since the ark rests in the Holy of Holies with its narrow dimension lying on a north-south axis, the sides mentioned here are the sides to the north and the south. (Rashi and the Ramban agree with this Baraita).
The Tosafot, on the other hand, understand that there were eight rings:
For when they were to set off on a journey, they placed the poles [in the rings]. This is difficult, for surely it is written: "They shall not be taken from it." Rabbeinu Ya'akov of Orleans explained that "And they shall place its poles" means [that they shall place them] on the shoulders of the bearers to take them It seems more likely to explain that this, "And they shall place its poles," means that they drew the poles outwards so that they should appear as if they were jutting against the parokhet like the two breasts of a woman Were I not in fear of my colleagues, I would say that the ark had eight rings. And so it is evident from the verse which writes: "And you shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four pa'amotav" i.e., its four corners, as the Targum renders it "corners." And then it writes: "And two rings shall be on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it." This implies that there were four rings on the two sides besides the four on the four corners. In four of these rings there were fixed poles that were never removed, and in four of them which were either above or below those [other] rings they would put poles when they were to set off on a journey, in order to carry the ark with them. These are the ones about which it says: "And they shall place its poles" You must not answer that they would carry [the ark] with all four poles, but two of them were long, and the other two were short. (Yoma 72, s.v. ketiv be-taba'ot)
The Tosafot understand from the verse that in addition to the four rings on the four corners of the ark, there were two more rings on each side. In this way, the Tosafot resolve the contradiction in the verses regarding whether or not the poles may be removed. (The Ibn Ezra and the Chizkuni agree with the Tosafot).
The location of the rings
The gemara asks how we know that the arks poles were along its width, and not along its length:
But from where do we know that the poles lay along the width of the ark? Perhaps they lay along the length of the ark? R. Yehuda answered: Because in the space of one cubit and a half two men could not stand. And from where do we know that four persons carried it? Because it is written: "And the Kehatites" (Bamidbar 10:21) [which are at least] two, "the bearers of the sanctuary" again two, "set forward." (Menachot 98b)
The gemara explains that a cubit and a half does not suffice for two people to carry the ark. Based on this, it concludes that the poles were placed along the width of the ark, so that the distance between the two people was two and a half cubits.
Clearly, the placement of the poles along the width of the ark affects the location of the rings. Let us see what the commentators say about the location of the rings.
According to those who maintain that there were four rings:
The rings were placed at the upper corners, near the kaporet two on one side of the ark and two on the other along the width of the ark, and the poles were put into them. (Shemot 25:12, s.v. pa'amotav)
The editor of the Torat Chayim edition of the Chumash, in a note on this passage, wishes to prove that the poles were set at the upper corners of the ark from the gemara in Yoma (54a): "One might have thought that they [the poles] tore the curtain and showed forth" from here we see that the poles were set at the top of the ark, and not at the bottom.
The Tur brings a proof for Rashi that the rings were set in the upper third of the ark, near the kaporet, from the gemara in Shabbat:
If one carries out a burden above ten handbreadths [from the street level], he is culpable, for thus was the carrying of the children of Kehat For the Master said: The Ark was nine [handbreadths high], and the kaporet was one handbreadth; hence, we have ten. And it is well known that any burden that is carried on poles, a third is above and two thirds are below. Thus, it is found that it was above ten [handbreadths]. (Shabbat 92a)
In other words, whenever a load is carried on poles, a third of it is above the shoulders or heads of the people carrying it and two thirds of it is below their heads or shoulders. From here, the gemara concludes that the ark was held more than ten handbreadths off the ground. Rashi explains as follows:
Thus, it is found that it was above ten [handbreadths] Much above, for even if the Levites were only three cubits, like us, they were eighteen handbreadths. And only six and two thirds handbreadths of the ark hung below their shoulders. It turns out that it was at a height of more than ten [handbreadths].
The Tur concludes from here that the rings were at the bottom of the top third of the ark. Had most of the ark's weight been borne above their shoulders, it would have rocked back and forth, but since the majority of the weight was borne below the shoulders, it remained well balanced.
The Minchat Chinukh comments:
The words of Rashi require refinement, for while Rashi explains that [the rings were located] at the upper corners near the kaporet, this does not mean that they were actually next to the kaporet. For according to the gemara, the rings were distanced two and a third handbreadths from the kaporet, and with the kaporet they were three and a third handbreadths [from the top]. So we must explain also according to Rashi. But nevertheless, they are called corners at the top of the ark, for they were closer to the upper side, and much further away from the bottom side. (Commandment 92)
The Moshav Zekeinim (Shemot 25:12) argues, in the wake of the gemara in Shabbat, that the rings began at a height of almost six and two thirds handbreadths of the ark, which is close to two thirds of the ark and the kaporet. In this way, while in transit, a third of the combined height of the ark and the kaporet would be borne above the shoulders of the ark's bearers and two thirds of it would be borne below their shoulders.
The Ramban disagrees with Rashi:
But I don't know why he said that the rings were placed at the upper corners near the kaporet, for the weight was very much greater. And furthermore, the respectful way is that the ark should be borne high above the priests' shoulders And this in fact was how it was, for the rings were placed at the bottom corners, and the ark was borne on high.
The Minchat Chinukh (Commandment 95) raises an objection to the Ramban's position from the passage in Shabbat and concludes that the majority of the ark was borne below the shoulders, against the Ramban.
According to those who maintain that there were eight rings:
According to this approach, there are several positions as to the location of the rings.
As we have seen, according to the Tosafot, there were four rings on the corners of the ark (Yoma 72a, s.v. ketiv be-taba'ot ha-aron) and four additional rings on the ark itself, not on the corners (lower or higher than the rings on the corners).
The Ibn Ezra explains that "pa'amotav" refers to the ark's feet:
Why say "and two rings" with the additional vav ("and")? Had this referred to the previously mentioned [rings], it would say, "two rings," thus indicating that these are the aforementioned four rings. One of the sages of our generation understood this to mean that the poles were placed on the ark through the rings that were located at the feet. And when they had to carry the ark, they were removed from the lower rings and placed through the upper rings. And so it is written: "And they shall place its poles." In my opinion, after the poles were placed in the upper rings, they were never removed from them, for so it is written: "They shall not be taken from it." "And they shall place its poles" refers to the priests who placed the poles of the ark on the shoulders of the Kehatites. And when the ark was placed in the Devir, it had to be near the wall so that the keruvim overspread the ark and its poles. They therefore drew out the ends of each of the poles. This is the meaning of "they drew out the poles." And the four lower rings were for beauty and embellishment, as is the way of arks. (Shemot 25:12, s.v. pa'amotav)
The Ibn Ezra maintains that the four rings were at the feet of the ark and they were for beauty and embellishment, as is common with arks. When it became necessary to carry the ark, the poles were removed from the lower rings and placed in the upper rings and never again removed from them.
According to the Malbim, there were four rings on each of the sides, all at the same level two at the corners and two in the middle.
The Chizkuni writes:
And two other large rings to house the poles. These rings were set on the smaller rings. And when they set the ark down, the large rings would descend with the poles and hang there. For God did not want them to touch the ark when they set the poles in the rings. (Shemot 25:12)
The large rings were fixed in smaller rings. When the ark was set down, the large rings would descend together with the poles laced through them, and they would hang there. The rings were arranged in this way so that no one would have to touch the ark when the poles were set into the rings.
According to the Rosh, there were four small rings at the corners that served for ornamental purposes, and beneath them were the four larger rings for carrying the ark.
The casting of the rings
As we have seen, the Torah commands that the rings be cast. How was this done? The Rashbam (ad loc.) explains: "They jutted out from the ark itself, rather than being connected [to it]." The Rashbam implies that the rings were not first cast and then connected to the ark; rather, the rings were cast together with the plating of the ark. Indeed when Betzalel executes the work, it says: "And he overlaid it with pure gold And he cast for it four rings of gold " (Shemot 37:2-3).
It is clear that according to those who maintain that in sum there were four rings, there were two poles, one pole on each side of the ark. But even according to most of the Rishonim who maintain that there were eight rings, there were only two poles. (So states the Ibn Ezra in his long commentary; Chizkuni and others).
The size of the Hole and the width of the rings
The Torah does not spell out the size of the holes in the rings or the width of the rings. It stands to reason that these have no required measurements. Rather, the rings were fashioned in a way that was suitable for carrying the ark and handling the width of the poles.
The width of the poles
The Minchat Chinukh (Commandment 95) notes that the width of the poles was also not spelled out, and he concludes that the poles were apparently made of a width that was suitable for carrying the ark.
The Panim Yafot (s.v. veyatzakta) explains that since we do not find among the vessels anything that was less than a handbreadth (the gemara in Sukka 25a learns this from the border), the poles also had to be at least a handbreadth in width. It is, however, reasonable to assume that those who maintain that the poles were thicker at their ends and thinner in the middle (Rashi and Meiri) understand that the poles were less than a handbreadth thick in the middle.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 The Maharal in his Gur Aryeh and the Netziv in his Ha'amek Davar agree with Rashi about the location of the rings.