LECTURE 163: THE PROHIBITION TO TOUCH THE ARK

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Keepers of the charge of the Sanctuary

 

            In addition to the prohibition to see the ark, which we discussed in the previous two shiurim, there is also a prohibition to touch the ark. These two prohibitions emphasize the extent to which it was necessary to maintain a special watch over the ark so that people would not come to sin and suffer harm.

 

            The first who needed to practice caution were, of course, the Kehatites, who bore the ark while it journeyed through the wilderness:

 

And their charge: the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen, and all that pertains to its service. (Bamidbar 3:31)

 

            This obligation to practice caution is evident in the words of the midrash, which attempts to explain why the Kehatites, unlike the others, were counted from the age of a month and upward:

 

"From a month old and upward… keepers of the charge of the sanctuary." Why does Scripture spell out the number of the Kehatites, keepers of the charge of the sanctuary, which was not the case with the number of the Gershonites or with the number of the Merarites? Did the Kehatites from the age of a month and upward keep the charge of the sanctuary? Surely until one was thirty years old, he was not fit for the service! Why did he do this? Because the ark would consume the Kehatites and diminish their numbers, as it would shorten their days. But nevertheless, owing to their love for the sanctuary, the Kehatites would run after it. Therefore, they were given reward as if they had entered into service from the age of a month. (Bamidbar Rabba 3:11)

 

According to this midrash, the special treatment given to the Kehatites stemmed from the great danger that their work involved. Scripture emphasizes that they were the “keepers of the charge of the sanctuary” and credits them as if they kept the charge from the age of a month and upward.

 

            R. Shear Yashuv Cohen proposes that the Torah's words following the mention of the Kehatites and their prince Elitzafan ben Uziel – "Elazar the son of Aharon the priest being prince of the princes of the Levites, and having the oversight of those who keep the charge of the sanctuary" – are meant to emphasize the special role that Elazar played with respect to the Kehatites. This special charge imposed upon the Kehatites was the bearing of the ark, and for this there was a special appointment of Elazar the priest, in addition to his role as prince of the princes of the Levites. This role required coordination between the priests and the Levites. In practice, the watch over the ark involved covering it with the parokhet before the Levites came to carry it.[1]

 

The source of the prohibition to touch the ark

 

            The prohibition to touch the ark seems to be explicitly stated in the Torah:

 

And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture and all the holy vessels, as the camp is to set forward, after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear them; but they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehat in the Ohel Mo'ed. (Bamidbar 4:15)

 

Targum Onkelos renders the verse: "But they shall not come close to the holy and not die."      Rashi explains:

 

For if they touch [it], they will be liable for death at the hand of Heaven. (ad loc., s.v. u-metu)

 

            The Maharal explains in his Gur Aryeh (ad loc.):

 

For if they touch [it], they will be liable for death at the hand of Heaven. This means that "they shall die" is not connected to "they shall not touch," for why should they be liable for death? Rather it means that if they touch, they shall die. And that which he writes "at the hand of Heaven," I have already explained in Parashat Emor that wherever it is written, "They shall not touch, lest they die," it refers to death at the hand of heaven and not death at the hand of man… For if it is death at the hand of man, it is possible that one would touch and not die, e.g., where [witnesses] did not testify against him in court… But here, "They shall not touch, lest they die," for the death that is mentioned relates to "they shall not touch," for He warned them not to touch, because if they touch, they will certainly die. That is to say, touching will certainly bring about death at the hand of God, but not at the hand of man.

 

            The Ibn Ezra writes:

 

There are two prohibitions – that they should not touch the holy, but rather carry it with the poles, and that they should not see the holy. He puts together the two prohibitions, the touching and the seeing, and the explanation, that they should bear it with the poles. (Bamidbar 4:20)

 

In previous shiurim, we saw the role played by the poles of the ark, the spiritual significance of which is different than that of the poles of the other vessels. In the wake of the words of the Ibn Ezra, it may be added that in addition to the spiritual significance of the poles, and in addition to the fact that the poles assisted in the proper transport of the ark from place to place, the poles were designed to make it possible to carry the ark without having to touch it.

 

            Another verse expounded by Chazal in our context is that which the Torah says about the tribe of Levi:

 

And they shall keep your charge and the charge of all the Tent; only they shall not come near to the holy furniture and to the altar, that they die not, neither they nor you. (Bamidbar 18:3)

 

The midrash makes a clear distinction regarding this matter between the priests and the Levites:

 

"And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture… after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear them." Therefore, Aharon is mentioned in the words addressed to the sons of Kehat, for the entire burden of the sons of Kehat and all their service was given to them by Aharon and his sons, as they themselves were not permitted to touch the ark or any of the vessels until Aharon and his sons covered them, as it says: "And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the holy furniture." (Bamidbar Rabba 6:5)

 

And elsewhere:

 

"After that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear them; but they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die." Moshe said to God: Master of the universe, is the blood of the sons of Kehat forbidden and the blood of the sons of Aharon permitted? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: No, only that Aharon is the Holy of Holies, as it is stated: "And Aaron was separated, that he should be sanctified as most holy" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 23:13). But the sons of Kehat are not the Holy of Holies, and the ark and all the vessels that are placed inside are the Holy of Holies, and they cause them harm. Therefore, the sons of Aharon should make sure that the sons of Kehat do not die. (Bamidbar Rabba 4:19)

 

The midrash distinguishes between the Holy and the Holy of Holies; Aharon and the ark are the Holy of Holies, while the Kehatites the sons of Levi are the Holy, but not the Holy of Holies.

 

            Several midrashim (Yalkut Me'or Ha-Afela; Sifrei Zuta Korach 18:3; and Midrash Ha-Gadol, there) comment:

 

"But they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die." You might say that if they touched, they are liable. Therefore, the verse states (Bamidbar 18:3): "Only" (akh) – for service they are liable, but they are not liable for touching.

 

According to these midrashim, the Levites are liable if they perform the service, but they are not liable if they merely touch the ark. Based on this source, most of the authorities who drew up lists of the 613 commandments omitted this commandment from the count of prohibitions, as it is does apply in all generations.

 

R. Saadya Gaon counts the prohibition of touching as a separate negative commandment (negative command 212). R. Yerucham Perlow explains that R. Saadya Gaon maintains that there is no liability for death for touching, but it is nevertheless forbidden.

 

The commentators disagree as to whether this prohibition applies for all generations or whether it was in effect only during the generation of the wilderness. Thus, for example, the Rambam writes:

 

All of the Levites are warned [not to participate in] the service of the altar, as it is stated: "But they shall not touch the holy things, lest they die." [This prohibition implies] that they should not draw close to the service [of the Sanctuary], but they may touch [the holy vessels]. (Hilkhot Klei Ha-Mikdash 3:9)

 

According to this, the prohibition was in effect only in the wilderness, but not in later generations. R. Perlow, on the other hands, understands that according to R. Saadya the mitzva applies in all generations. The midrashim cited earlier indicate that touching the ark does not lead to the penalty of death, but it is nonetheless prohibited by way of an ordinary prohibition.

 

Peretz Uzza

 

            The preceding discussion must be examined in light of the story of David's transport of the ark from Kiryat Ye'arim to Jerusalem:

 

And when they came to Nakhon's threshing floor, Uzza put out to the ark of God, and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzza, and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God. And David was displeased, because the Lord had burst out against Uzza; and he called the name of the place Peretz-Uzza to this day. (II Shmuel 6:6-8)

 

According to the plain sense of this passage, Uzza died because he tried to prevent the ark from falling by taking hold of it. But what precisely was his sin? The gemara discusses this issue after first addressing the ark's crossing of the Jordan:

 

When the last of the Israelites ascended from the Jordan, the waters returned to their place, as it is stated: "And it came to pass, when the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord came up out of the midst of the Jordan and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up unto the dry ground, that the waters of Jordan returned unto their place and went over all its banks, as before." Consequently, the ark and its bearers and the priests were on one side [of the Jordan] and the Israelites on the other! The ark carried its bearers and passed over [the river], as it is stated: "And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over, that the ark of the Lord passed over, and the priests, in the presence of the people. (Sota 35a)

 

Without going into the details as to the order of the journey and who went out before whom,[2] the principle that emerges from this gemara is that the ark carried its bearers above the water.

 

            The Maharal in his Chiddushei Aggadot notes that the wording of Scripture alludes to the fact that the ark carried its bearers, for in verse 11 it says: "And the ark of the Lord passed over, and the priests," whereas in the other verses it says: "And the priests, the bearers of the ark of the Lord, passed over" (Yehoshua 3:15; 4:18). This implies that the ark passed over the Jordon by its own power, and that it carried with it its bearers, the priests.

 

            In light of this, the Maharal asserts that the ark did not carry its bearers all the time, but only on special occasions. Others maintain, however, that the ark carried its bearers all the time (e.g., Da'at Zekeinim on Shemot 25:11).

 

            Let us see what the Maharal says:

 

Know that the words of the Sages are very evident to one who understands words of wisdom. For the truth is that the soul carries the body, and therefore it is also fitting that the ark should carry its bearers. And if this is not so in all the other places, this is because the power of the ark was not completely revealed. For the body also carries the soul in a certain sense, for the soul rests in the body. This is because the soul is not completely separate, and therefore it rests in the body. And similarly with the priests who carried the ark. But when there was a miracle, and this is because the power of the ark was revealed in this place, for it is because of the power of the ark that the Jordan was split, the ark certainly carried its bearers, for it is appropriate that the ark should carry its bearers. These words are words of wisdom. And similarly with Uzza, because there the sanctity of the ark was revealed when it was in the field of the Pelishtim. And when the ark slipped and he touched it, He smote him. Nevertheless, because of this sin, he did not deserve to die, as he had acted unintentionally. But his taking hold of it prepared him for death, as he should have known that the ark carries its bearers.

 

            The Maharal draws a comparison between the ark and the people of Israel, on the one hand, and the soul and a person's body, on the other. He explains that essentially it is the soul that carries the body. According to him, in those places where the ark did not carry its bearers, this is because the power of the ark was not completely revealed, but in those places where the power of the ark was revealed, as at the splitting of the Jordan, the ark did carry its bearers.

 

            The gemara in Sota continues:

 

On that account was Uzza punished, as it is said: "And when they came unto the threshing-floor of Chidon, Uzza put forth his hand to hold the ark.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Uzza, [the ark] carried its bearers; must it not all the more [be able to carry] itself!

 

According to this explanation, Uzza's act stemmed from insensitivity to the sanctity of the ark. Had he properly felt the sanctity of the ark, he would not have tried to prevent its falling to the ground, for he would have thought that it was in the power of the ark to carry itself.

 

            The Da'at Zekenim (Shemot 25:11) asks the following question: If the ark always carried its bearers, we can understand the expectation from Uzza. But if, as the Maharal suggests, the ark carried its bearers only on special occasions, what claim can be made against Uzza? From his perspective, he tried to prevent the ark from falling, and there was no reason for him to assume that the ark would carry its bearers. The Da'at Zekenim leaves this question unanswered.

 

            The Maharal explains why even at the time of Uzza it was appropriate for the ark to carry its bearers. In addition, the Maharal notes that Uzza did not deserve to die for this sin, as it was committed unintentionally. His holding on to the ark sentenced him for death because he should have known that the ark carries its bearers.

 

            The gemara in the continuation deals directly with Uzza's action:

 

"And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzza; and God smote him there for his error [shal]." R. Yochanan and R. Elazar [differ on the interpretation of the word "shal"]. One said [that it means] on account of the act of error [shalu]; the other said [that it means] he relieved himself in its presence.[3] "And there he died by the ark of God." R. Yochanan said: Uzzah entered the World to Come, as it is stated: "With the ark of God" — as the ark endures forever, so Uzza entered the World to Come.

 

            Let us now return to the verses themselves in the books of Shmuel and Divrei Ha-Yamim and see how Scripture describes Uzza's act:

 

Uzza put out to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. (II Shmuel 6:6)

 

And when they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzza, and He smote him, because he put his hand to the ark; and there he died before God. (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 13:9-10)

 

In Shmuel,use is made of the terms "putting out" and "taking hold," whereas in Divrei Ha-yamim we find the term "putting out a hand." Let us examine the words of the commentators and see how they related to Uzza's sin.

 

            The Radak writes:

 

Even though the ark came from the field of the Pelishtim in this manner, and the oxen did not shake, this is because the Pelishtim did not know how the ark was to be carried, and they tried to carry it as best as they could, for they took a new cart and oxen upon which there had never been a yoke. But Israel, who knew how to carry the ark – as it is stated: "But to the sons of Kehat he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders" (Bamidbar 7:9) – sinned in this matter. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, showed them the sanctity of the ark in two ways: through the shaking of the oxen and through the death of Uzza. As to the fact that David erred in this matter, despite the fact that it is an explicit verse, he thought that there would be no sin here if they carried it by way of a cart, even though it says, "They bore it on their shoulders," because he said that it was for that time in the wilderness that God commanded them about that. Since the Mishkan was carried in carts, He commanded that the ark be carried on the shoulders to demonstrate that the sanctity of the ark is greater than the sanctity of the Mishkan. But at a time when there was no Mishkan there, he thought that it would not be a sin if they carried it by cart when the ark came from the field of the Pelishtim. And in this he erred. (II Shmuel 6:6, s.v. shamtu)

 

The Radak emphasizes that which is stated explicitly in the Torah about the Kehatites, "Because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders" – on their shoulders and not in a cart. According to him, the Pelishtim did the best that they could do when they took a new cart and oxen upon which there had never been a yoke. But the Israelites, who knew what they were obligated to do, sinned in this matter, and God demonstrated to them the sanctity of the ark through the shaking of the oxen and the death of Uzza.

 

            In his commentary to Divrei Ha-yamim, the Radak writes:

 

"Because he put his hand to the ark" – and he was not a Levite, and in this David erred, because he should have brought it by way of the Levites, and not on a cart, as it is written: "But to the sons of Kehat he gave none; because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders." He also confessed his sin, saying that the ark of God should only have been carried by the Levites, and he said that God broke out because they did not carry [the ark] in the proper manner. (Divrei Ha-Yamim 13:10)

 

He later brings the same explanation as he had brought in his commentary to Shmuel. According to this view, the Levites are supposed to carry the ark on their shoulders, and Uzza, who was not a Levite, walked alongside the cart. As a result, he put out his hand to hold on to the ark when the oxen shook, and he was therefore punished (see also Rashi, I Divrei Ha-yamim 13:7, s.v. nohagim ba-agala).

 

            To summarize the various understandings of the sin that led to Uzza's death:

 

·           According to the gemara (Sota 35), Uzza sinned in that he did not understand that the ark carried its bearers; holding on to the ark so that it would not fall demonstrated his lack of faith.

·           The Radak, in his commentary to Shmuel and Divrei Ha-yamim, relates to the sin of carrying the ark in a cart rather than on the shoulders and that of Israelites carrying the ark rather than Levites.[4]

 

R. Yigal Ariel explains that this event reminds us of the dedication of the Mishkan and the sin of Nadav and Avihu.[5] In both cases, we are dealing with a climactic moment of communion with God, at which time a severe punishment is meted out: "I will be sanctified in them that come near Me, and before all the people I will be glorified" (Vayikra 10:3).

 

The punishment imposes limits on man, qualifies the closeness to the holy, and teaches man about modesty and humility – "And rejoice with trembling" (Tehillim 2:11). It is precisely at a time when the Shekhina reveals itself that man must know his limitations, as we were commanded already at Mount Sinai: "And you shall set bounds to the people… Go down, and you shall come up, you and Aharon with you; but let not the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break forth upon them" (Shemot 19:12, 21-22).

 

Uzza's rationale was that he was defending the ark and holding tight to it. However, "the ark carries its bearers." The priests and the Levites carry the ark not in order to help in the transport of the ark, but owing to the greatness and elevated status of the ark. They are bound by the holy service and they must accept it and serve the will of God.

 

It is possible that the repair of David's sin at Peretz Uzza is alluded to in David's battle against the Pelishtim in Emek Refa'im:

 

So they came up to Ba'al Peratzim; and David smote them there. Then David said, “God has broken through my enemies to my hand like a bursting flood of waters.” (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 14:11)           

 

In this battle, David was tested for his fidelity to God, and in the most difficult circumstances of the battle between Israel and the Pelishtim, he nullified himself absolutely before God, waited for God's answer, and then acted in accordance with His will. David surrendered the fate of this battle to God, and this lead to victory over the Pelishtim and served to a certain degree as a repair of his sin at the time that he was transporting the ark.

 

            The prohibition to touch the ark clearly emphasizes the caution, fear, and dignity which must be shown with respect to the ark, the vessel that gives fullest expression to the presence of the Shekhina. It was precisely at special moments in Israel's history that gave expression to the revelation of the Shekhina before Israel - e.g., at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the dedication of the Mishkan, and the transfer of the ark to Jerusalem in anticipation of the building of the first Temple – that special fear and caution regarding the holy were necessary.

 

            It might have been possible to adduce proof from the incident involving Uzza that the prohibition is for all generations,[6] as it is clear that Uzza's holding on to the ark is what brought to his death. The term “shalach yad,” "putting out one's hand," appears frequently in contexts that describe the inappropriate objective of the person extending his hand. (See I Shmuel 22:17; 24:6; and 26:23; David is not willing to put out his hand against Shaul, the Lord's anointed one, when the intention is to harm Shaul. See also II Shmuel 1:14; Ester 2:21; 5:6; 6:3; 9:2; Shemot 22:10; 24:11.)

 

            These and other verses prove not only Scripture's judgment of Uzza, but also the direct connection between his holding on to the ark and his death.

 

(Translated by David Strauss) 

 



[1] See his article, "Ha-Aron Nosei et Nos'av," Shema'atin 107-108 (5752), pp. 102-109.

[2] The Rishonim deal at length with the issue of whether the ark and the priests passed over only after the waters of the Jordan returned to their regular stream or before that. Moreover, Scripture implies that the ark and the priests passed the people who had crossed to the west side of the Jordan and then stood to their west.

[3] Shelu denotes inadvertance and forgetting, the meaning here being that he forgot about the ark's sanctity and inadvertently took hold of it. The second understanding is that he relieved himself in the presence of the ark. This need not be understood to mean that he relieved himself directly in front of the ark, as this would be wickedness. Rather, he distanced himself from the ark as required by the law, but did not take pay attention to the fact that he was still in direct line with the ark.

[4] There is still room to discuss the responsibility for the sin: Is the primary sin that of David, who not only initiated the entire process, but determined the manner in which the ark would be carried – by way of Israelites and by cart rather than on the shoulders? Or does the primary culpability fall upon Uzza owing to his little faith? Both in Shmuel and in Divrei Ha-Yamim, God's anger is directed towards Uzza, as he is the person who actually took hold of the ark. Perhaps we can distinguish between the overall responsibility of David and the practical responsibility of Uzza with respect to the ark.

[5] In his book, Oz Melekh: Iyyunim Be-Sefer Shmuel, p. 150.

[6] We have not discussed here the parameters and scope of the mitzva to carry the ark on the shoulders.