DAYS OF DELIVERANCE: ESSAYS ON PURIM AND HANUKKAH
by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
SPECIAL VBM 20% DISCOUNT $20.00
Lecture 128: Ark or Arks
Rav Yitzchak Levi
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
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
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
It is interesting that when David wishes to build the Temple, the verses
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
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
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
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.
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