INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley
In our parasha, Hashem commands Moshe about the monumental project that awaits Bnei Yisrael - the building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In the Rambans opinion, this act of construction constitutes the climax and purpose of Sefer Shemot and the exodus from slavery:
Sefer Shemot discusses the exile [i.e., the slavery in Egypt] ... and
Bnei Yisrael's redemption from that exile... For the descent of
the children of Yaakov to
Our parasha describes the building of the utensils of the Mishkan. Central to the Mishkan, of course, was the aron kodesh, which contained the two luchot and was adorned with two keruvim. Most people have seen drawings of a nicely trimmed golden box with poles at the sides and two angelic figures on top, wings often joined at the tips. But what were the keruvim really? Why did they raise more concern and critique among the commentators then any other utensil, and what symbolic meaning do they convey?
WHAT ARE THE KERUVIM?
The earliest source that attempts to explain the keruvim is the Talmud (Chagiga 13a):
is a Keruv? R. Avahu said: Ke-ravia, since in
This approach was adopted by Rashi in his commentary on Chumash, where he states that the keruvim had childrens faces (25:18). According to this interpretation, the letter kaf has a comparative function here ke-ravia means like a child. This is true in spite of the use of the word ha-keruvim (in which the kaf appears as part of the root), since over time, the kaf became part the word ruv (from ravia child).
According to the Rashbam and the Chizkuni, however, the keruvim were "large winged birds." Clearly, they understood these birds as symbolic of the heavenly nature of the Torah contained within the aron.
Rabbeinu Bachayei brings an interpretation similar to that of Rashi, with one glaring difference:
make two keruvim of gold:
One of the keruvim may have been in
the shape of a man and the other of a small child, as Yechezkel saw, The first
face was that of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a
man (Yechezkel 10:14). Our Sages comment (Sukka 5b), Keruv
and man are identical, only one had the face of an adult and the other of a
child. This testifies to Gods love for
For Rabbeinu Bachayei, the keruvim represent the manner of the transmission of the Torah and the nature of the connection between Hashem and the Jewish People.
For many commentators, however, the following image is most representative of that connection:
Katina said: Whenever Israel came up [to the
Based on the prophetic imagery of Hoshea and Shir Ha-shirim (among other places), R. Katina argues that the male and female keruvim, located at the point of juncture between heaven and earth, the place from which Hashems voice speaks to His beloved people, symbolize the fervent love between them.
HOW COULD HASHEM DEMAND IMAGES?
An obvious problem pervades our discussion: Didnt Hashem explicitly command us, You shall not make molten gods for yourselves (Shemot 34:17)? One of the Torahs most fundamental principles is its unwavering and relentless opposition to idolatry! The Ten Commandments strongly proclaimed, "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below..." (Shemot 20:4). Yet, in Hashems very own dwelling, we find the sculptured golden images of two keruvim, spreading their wings over Hashems word!
The midrashic literature reflects the incongruity this poses. The Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael suggests the following answer:
shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of
gold (Shemot 20:20) - Why was this verse stated? Since it is
written, You shall make two keruvim of gold (25:18), one might say, I
will make four keruvim. The Torah [therefore] states, [You shall not
make...] gods of gold - if you make more than two [keruvim], they are
like gods of gold... Nor shall you make for yourselves - so that one
not think that since the Torah permitted to [make the keruvim] in the
According to this response, the keruvim are an exception to the rule, and one can not learn from the keruvim that golden imagery is permissible. From the verse's specification of "nor shall you make FOR YOURSELVES," we learn that adding a keruv in the Mishkan is forbidden, and they are prohibited completely anywhere outside of the Mishkan. Hashem basically states: While I permit it in My temple, I prohibit you from making it for yourselves.
answer can be found in an obscure work titled Perushim La-Rashi,
I was in the metropolis of
[I responded as follows] It is known to all and explicit in the Torah that our master Moshe, peace be upon him, had, according to Hashems will and command, performed many miracles and wonders before the manufacture of the cherubs. [Moreover,] Pharaohs wise men and astrologers tested him in a searching investigation [to determine] if his deeds occurred by means of the potency of the wisdom of the constellations and craft of talismans. They discerned and discovered that all his deeds and wonders occurred through the potency and will of Hashem It is clear that every deed of our master Moshe, peace be upon him, was in accordance with the will of Hashem, blessed be He.
Now, if you were to say, If so, what is the rationale for the making of the cherubs in terms of what they accomplish? I would first state a general proposition In science, every act derives from a potency, and that every potency is the potency to bring about some act and the existence of any correlative requires the existence of the other thing to which it is related. It follows that it is impossible for something that lacks potency to bring about any act. Now, figures and talismans are made of inanimate minerals, trees, and stones that lack potency even with respect to [bringing about change in] themselves. How, then, can they bring about an act in another? The cherubs were from the mineral of gold reworked by human hands. They possess neither potency nor sentience nor act. If so, it is necessary to affirm and believe that all that our master Moshe, peace be upon him, would do was not through the instrumentality of any created thing but rather from Hashem alone, Lord of Hosts.
For the honor of the tablets and their glory, Hashem desired to make His presence dwell in the Ark of the Covenant, from above the cover, from between the two cherubs [Shemot 25:22], and from there did He choose to make overflow His prophecy and all of His wonders The proof [that the cherubs did not draw down astral forces] lies in the verse, There I will meet with you and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two cherubs [ all that I will command you] [Shemot 25:22]. It did not say from the cherubs [but from between them].
to R. Aboulrabi, it was for the honor of the tablets [found in the ark] and
their glory that Hashem desired to
make his presence dwell
If anything, it is the tablets of the law, not
the cherubs, that adorned the ark containing them. They stand out as ancient
If they are not the source of Gods presence, what symbolic meaning do the keruvim convey? Let us study three post-medieval commentators and analyze how they differ in their understanding.
In the Keli Yakar, R. Efraim of Lonshitz writes:
make upon it a rim of gold round about:
Two keruvim in the shape of
cherubic angels and in the form of small children, to teach that if the master
is like an angel, free from all sin as a one year-old child, then people will
want to learn Torah from him. One must be guiltless before Hashem and
According to the Keli Yakar, the keruvim symbolize the ideal transmitters of the Torah by their pleasing qualities and worthy actions towards their community. R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, however, saw their value as symbolizing the spiritual elevation and evolution of the bearers of the Torah on the personal level, towards themselves:
[They] appear in the Bible in two different meanings: guards and protectors on the one hand, and carriers of the Divine Presence on the other. In Bereishit (3:24) we read, And he placed the keruvim to guard the way to the tree of life. In Yechezkel (28:14, 16) the King of Tyre is told, You were the far covering cherub O covering cherub, since from the moment he had been anointed king he was appointed to guard. So also in regard to their function as carriers of the Divine Presence, as in, and He rode upon a cherub and flew (Tehillim 18:11) when He hastened to Davids aid. In Yechezkel 9 and 10, too, the keruvim are referred to as carriers of the Divine Presence. The standard expression, Enthroned upon the keruvim (Tehillim 80:2, Shmuel I 4:4 and several other places) In our case also, the keruvim appear in a dual role they cover and protect the Holy Ark and are carriers of the Divine Presence
On the other hand, however, the keruvim are part of the cover (kaporet); they were not joined to it but (25:18), of beaten work (i.e., cover and keruvim in one piece) shall you make them at the two ends of the covering, rising above itself and blending into its keruvim that protect it and carry the Divine Presence.
following idea is thereby expressed: By keeping Gods Torah (symbolized by the
Holy Ark), the protector becomes its own and Gods Glorys carrier. Guarding
Gods Torah, one guards himself, and at the same time he becomes the carrier of
Gods Glory on Earth
Through the observance of the commandments,
In a more modern approach, R. Menachem Leitbag suggests understanding the purpose of the keruvim based on the textual parallel with Sefer Bereishit. He notes that originally, the Garden of Eden reflected the ideal spiritual environment in which Man cultivates his relationship with Hashem. After Adam sinned and was consequently banished from the Garden, Hashem placed keruvim to guard the path of return to the Tree of Life (Bereishit 3:24). The keruvim woven into the parochet remind man that his entry into the kodesh ha-kodashim, although desired, remains limited and requires spiritual readiness. Building the Mishkan becomes a replacement (or a tikkun) for the Garden of Eden. Should man wish to return to the Tree of Life, he must keep Hashem's covenant - the laws of the Torah - as symbolized by the luchot ha-eidut in the aron, protected by the keruvim.
 When this command was issued is a subject of disagreement among the commentators. One opinion suggests that both the command to build the Mishkan and the Jews donations for it occurred soon after the Torah was given and prior to the sin of the Golden Calf. A second opinion suggests that both the command and the bringing of gifts took place after Hashem forgave the Jewish People on Yom Kippur for the sin of the Golden Calf, so that all the nations would know that they [the Jewish People] were forgiven for the sin of the Calf (Tanchuma, Teruma 8; see also Rashis commentary to Shemot 31:18, 33:11). A final opinion suggests that while Hashems command was made to Moshe before the sin of the Golden Calf, he passed it on to the people only after Yom Kippur (Ramban, opening comment to Parashat Vayakel).
 This exchange can be found at the end of an article by Eric Lawee entitled, Graven images, Astronomical Cherubs, and Mosaic Miracles: A Fifteenth-Century Curial-Rabbinic Exchange, Speculum 81 (2006), pp. 754-95. Previously, Joseph Perles published the beginning of the corresponding Hebrew text [with a French translation] in Revue des Etudes Juives 21 , p. 250.