LECTURE 165: THE HISTORY OF HOW THE ARK WAS USED (I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Introduction

 

            In the shiurim delivered over the course of the past year, we have tried to deal with issues relating to the ark, the kaporet, and the keruvim on several plains: their essence, their form, their location, the details of their components, their materials, the inner relationship between the ark and the kaporet and the keruvim, and what rested in them or alongside them. To complete the picture, I wish to present the history of how the ark was used from the time it was first fashioned until it was hidden away in the days of Yoshiyahu and of the ark's absence throughout the Second Temple period. This review will provide a comprehensive picture of this holy vessel and its significance across the time that it existed.

 

            It should be noted that part of the uniqueness of the ark is the fact that not only did it serve the people of Israel as a vessel in the Holy of Holies, but it had its own function as a separate and independent vessel during the journey in the wilderness during the period of the conquest of Eretz Yisrael and during various wars.[1]

 

            This comprehensive review will obviously touch upon a number of issues that have already been dealt with in previous shiurim. We will briefly refer to those issues in order to preserve chronological continuity.

 

THe prohibition of Bamot/The allowance of Bamot – As dependent on the location of the ark[2]

 

            As is well known, with the building of the Mishkan and over the course of its history, there were periods when it was forbidden to offer sacrifices on bamot (private altars) and periods when this was permitted. The mishnayot in Zevachim (14:4-8) make the following distinction:

 

·           In the wilderness and when the Mishkan was in Shiloand in Jerusalem, bamot were forbidden.

·           When the Mishkan was in Gilgal, Nov, and Giv'on, bamot were permitted.

 

An interesting explanation of this distinction is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:12): As long as the ark was inside, bamot were forbidden; when the ark went out, bamot were permitted. Therefore, in the wilderness, in Shilo, and in Jerusalem, where the ark rested in its place in the Holy of Holies, bamot were forbidden, while in Gilgal, Nov, and Giv'on, when the ark did not rest in its place in the Holy of Holies, bamot were permitted.[3]

 

The Meshekh Chokhma (Devarim 12:8) uses this distinction to explain the situations in which the people of Israel offered sacrifices outside the Mishkan even when the Mishkan was in Shilo. This applies to the time that Yehoshua assembled the people of Israel in Shechem (Yehoshua 24) and to Bokhim (Shoftim  2) and to the story of the concubine in Giv'a (Shoftim  20).

 

            What this means from a spiritual perspective is that the ark's location in its proper place is what establishes the Mishkan's exclusivity as God's chosen place. The ark bestows unique standing upon the Mishkan, owing to which it is different in its very essence from any place outside the Mishkan. This is because the ark, more than any other vessel, represents the resting of the Shekhina, and its absence from the Holy of Holies expresses a diminished presence of the Shekhina in the sanctuary. Accordingly, in such a situation it is permitted to offer sacrifices outside the Mishkan, because the Shekhina is not fully present inside.

 

            In addition, man's service of God must take place in the Temple courtyard and inside the Heikhal in relation to the ark that is located inside the Holy of Holies. In this way, there is an encounter between man's service and the resting of the Shekhina, which is expressed in the ark.

 

            According to what we have said, it turns out that the very fact that the ark rests in its place in the Holy of Holies turns the entire sanctuary into a unique place, so that no sacrifice may be offered outside of it. On the other hand, it bestows additional meaning to the sacrifices; every sacrifice relates to the presence of the Shekhina in the sanctuary.

 

The Ark during a time of war and the ark during a time of rest

 

            The ark's presence on Israel's battlefields clearly expresses the fact that the ark has an independent role that is not directly connected to its place in the Mishkan and that is to symbolize the Shekhina's presence in the war. This rests on the assumption that war is one of the supreme revelations of God's presence in the world, and therefore the ark is an integral part of that revelation.

 

            As stated, this was an independent role of the ark during Israel's wanderings and their wars before they reached the final rest and inheritance. It was only after Israel's journeys in the wilderness and their conquest of the land of Israel that the ark reached its place of rest in the Holy of Holies. I therefore wish to address in this section the relationship between the ark as an independent vessel during Israel's journeys and wars and the ark as an expression of God's finding rest in His house.

 

            In this context we must relate to two main points:

 

1)     Where do we find the ark in connection with war?

2)     What is the spiritual significance of this twofold role of the ark in war and at rest?

 

The ark that goes out to war

 

            After the people of Israel encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, the cloud rose from above the Mishkan and the people of Israel embarked on their journey in the direction of Eretz Yisrael, with the ark of the covenant of God going before them in a three-day journey to search out a resting place for them (Bamidbar 10:33): “When the ark set forward, Moshe said: ‘Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.’ And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.’"

 

            The Torah notes two situations – one of setting forward and one of resting – and the words spoken by Moshe in each situation. Rashi explains (ad loc.):

 

"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.

 

            In our shiurim last year, we saw that according to Rashi, there were two arks, and that the ark mentioned here is the ark that went out with Israel to war. According to the simple understanding (as Seforno explains, ad loc.), the ark went out before Israel to clear the way of snakes and scorpions and to find them a resting place.

 

            R. Saadya Gaon explains:

 

“And it came to pass, when the ark set forward” – It was customary that when the ark would set forward, Moshe would say: “May God assist us and bring us victory.” (Bamidbar 10:35)

 

It is clear from here that it was the ark's job to go out to war and scatter the enemies. We shall relate below to the story of the ma'apilim (Bamidbar 14:40-45), when the ark does not go out to war, and to the war waged against Midyan (Bamidbar 31), with respect to which the gemara in Sota speaks of the Divine name and all the subsidiary names that rested in the ark and went out with Israel to war.

 

The Ark at rest

 

            When the ark returned from battle, Moshe would say: "Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel." The Seforno explains:

 

"Return" – May Your rest be here with us, as in: "This is My resting place forever" (Tehillim 132:14). And even though you will reveal Your Shekhina before Israel to drive out their enemies, may the resting of Your Shekhina be among us.

 

In contrast, the Chizkuni explains:

"Return, Lord, to the ten thousand" – May it be Your will that the thousands and ten thousands return to their place in [full] number, not one man among them missing. Shuva (return) is [in this context] like hashiva (cause to return).

 

            The resting of the ark is described in a most interesting fashion in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim in the words of King David to all the officers of Israel:

 

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)

 

According to David, the house of God in its entirety is named after this situation of "rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and for the footstool of our God."

 

            Of course, we cannot detach the issue of the resting of the ark from the general picture painted in the book of Devarim:

 

For you are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance, which the Lord your God gives you. But when you traverse the Jordan, and dwell in the land which the Lord your God gives you to inherit, and then He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety. (Devarim 12:9)

 

In the past, we dealt at length with the various understandings of Chazal (Zevachim 119a) as to what the "rest" is and what the "inheritance" is and what the relationship between Shilo and Jerusalem is. In addition, the whole idea that there exists an order regarding the communal commandments (based on Sanhedrin 20b) – first the appointment of a king, then the wiping out of Amalek, and only then the building of the Temple – is connected to the understanding that in order to build the Temple, Israel must first attain rest from all its enemies.

 

            This idea is also mentioned in Scripture in connection with Shlomo being charged with building the Temple, as is explained in Divrei Ha-yamim:

 

And David said to Shlomo, “My son, as for me, it was in my mind to build a house to the name of the Lord my God; but the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘You have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars; you shall not build a house to My name, because you have shed much blood upon the earth in My sight. Behold, a son shall be born to you, who shall be a man of tranquility; and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Shlomo, and I will give peace and quietness to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for My name; and he shall be my son, and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever… Now, my son, the Lord be with you; and prosper you, and build the house of the Lord your God, as he has said of you.’” (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:7-10)

 

The contrast between Shlomo and David is presented here as a contrast between "you have shed blood abundantly, and have made great wars" and "a man of tranquility" – "and I will give him rest from all his enemies round about: for his name shall be Shlomo, and I will give peace and quietness to Israel in his days."

 

            Accordingly, the matter of the ark's rest, with all of its independent significance, is part of a broader whole that is connected to the building of the Temple, which requires rest as a condition for commencing construction.

 

            According to this understanding, rest is not only the absence of war, but rather a positive spiritual reality. This is true with respect to the ark as well as with respect to the entire Temple.

 

Mention of the ark in the Torah

 

            The ark is mentioned several times in the Torah after the building of the Mishkan in the books of Bamidbar and Devarim. Let us briefly examine the various instances in which the ark is mentioned and see what they teach us about the ark:

 

·           We shall discuss the manner in which the ark was carried from Mount Sinai after the Torah was given on its way to Eretz Yisrael.

·           We shall examine the significance of the ark's being left in the camp in the story of the ma'apilim.

·           We shall address the role played by the ark in the war waged against Midyan.

·           We shall consider God's command to Moshe to fashion an ark of wood as part of the repair of the sin involving the golden calf.

·           And finally, we shall touch upon the placement of the book of the Torah in the ark at the end of the book of Devarim.

 

The manner of the journey from the mountain of the lord

 

            In its account of Israel's journey from Mount Sinai as they headed to Eretz Yisrael, the Torah describes the manner in which the ark was borne before the camp as follows:

 

And they departed from the mountain of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day when they were out of the camp. And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, “Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered: and let those who hate You flee before You.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” (Bamidbar 10:33-36)

 

These verses give rise to a difficulty: the situation described here is vastly different from that described by the Torah at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar: "Then the Ohel Mo'ed shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps" (Bamidbar 2:17).

 

            Rashi and those who understand in his wake that there were two arks, explain that the ark made by Betzalel went with the Mishkan in the midst of the camps, while the ark fashioned by Moshe, which contained the broken tablets, went before the camp to search out a resting place for them.

 

            According to those who understand that there was only one ark, it may be suggested (as the Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary to Bamidbar 10:33), that the situation in which the ark went before the entire camp was exceptional, found exclusively in the first journey.

 

            What is the reason for this exceptional situation? Chazal explain that the sin that led to later punishment was that the people of Israel "fled from the mountain of the Lord like a child running away from school." In an earlier shiur,we brought R. Yoel Bin-Nun's suggested understanding that Israel's punishment was the war with the Amalekite tribes who once again waged an assault against the camp shortly before Israel set forward from Mount Sinai. Since the Amalekites attacked Israel, the order of the journey was reversed. Instead of leading the camp, the cloud protected the camp from above, whereas the ark went before the camp in a three days' journey. Therefore, the Torah says: "Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You."

 

            It is also possible that there are two aspects here: The first, a miraculous journey lead by the cloud, and the second, a natural journey in which the ark went before Israel to search out a resting place for them.

 

The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord did not leave the camp with the Ma'apilim

 

            Following the sin involving the spies, the Torah describes how the ma'apilim went up to the top of the hill:

 

But they presumed to go up to the hill top; nevertheless, the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moshe, departed not out of the camp. (Bamidbar 14:44)

 

The Torah emphasizes that the ark did not go out with the ma'apilim, but rather remained in the camp. The ma'apilim were clearly not acting on the order of God, and therefore Moshe admonishes them:

 

“Why now do you transgress the commandment of the Lord? It shall not prosper. Go not up, for the Lord is not among you: so that you may not be smitten before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Cana'anites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the Lord, therefore the Lord will not be with you. (Bamidbar 14:41-43)

 

            It is possible that the practical expression of the fact that God was not with them is that the ark of the covenant of the Lord and Moshe remained in the camp.  From here it may be derived that in general, the ark would go out before Israel in their wars and campaigns against their enemies, but this time, in exceptional manner, the ark did not go out with them.

 

            The Midrash Yalkut Me'or ha-Afela[4] explains as follows:

 

Since they went up in secrecy, as it is stated, "But they presumed to go up," and therefore it was impossible for them to take the ark out with them.

 

            Midrash Lekach Tov states:[5]

 

This teaches that the pegs of the Levite camp were not uprooted.

 

            It should be noted that it is in connection with this story that we find the different opinions as to whether there was only one ark or two arks. Thus it is stated in Sifrei:

 

"And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them" (Bamidbar 10:33). And it says: "Nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moshe, departed not out of the camp" (Bamidbar 14:44). Some say they had two arks, one ahead of the camp and one in the middle of the camp. That which was ahead of the camp contained the Torah, and that which was in the middle of the camp contained the broken tablets.[6] (Sifrei Zuta, Beha'alotekha 10:33)

 

The War waged Against Midyan

 

            In the framework of the war waged against Midyan, it says:


And Moshe sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest, to the war, with the holy vessels, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. (Bamidbar 31:6)

 

            There is no explicit mention of the ark here, but Chazal offered several expositions of the phrase "with the holy vessels":

 

"With the holy vessels" – This is the ark and the tablets inside.[7] (Sota 43a)

 

            The gemara there explains the words of the mishna according to which the High Priest anointed for war addresses the people before they go out to battle, saying: "For the Lord your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you" (Devarim 20:4). The gemara asks: "Why all this? Because the Name and all His substituted names were deposited in the ark." That is to say, when the priest says that God goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, he is referring to the Tetragrammaton which is written, but not uttered, and to all His substituted names, i.e., the seventy holy names found in the ark. The gemara expounds the verse dealing with the war waged against Midyan:

 

"And Moshe sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Pinchas" – "Them" refers to the Sanhedrin; "Pinchas" was the priest anointed for war; "with the holy vessels," the ark and the tablets [of the decalogue] which were in it; "and the trumpets for the alarm," the horns.

 

According to this understanding, Pinchas went out to battle against Midyan with the ark in which the Name of God and all His substituted names were deposited.

 

            This is the first war in which the ark went out to the battlefield, in accordance with the verse, "For the Lord your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you."

 

God's command to Moshe to fashion an ark of wood

 

            The Torah in the book of Devarim records God's command to Moshe to 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 shittim wood, and hewed two tablets of stone like the first, and went up to the mountain, having the two tablets in my hand… 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 10:1-2)

 

This issue is connected in its very essence to the main question of whether the ark of wood mentioned in Devarim is identical with ark of shittim wood overlaid with gold mentioned in Parashat Teruma, and from this question to the fundamental dispute as to whether there was only one ark or two arks. Rashi and the Ramban (ad loc.) disagree about this point.

 

As for the placement of the tablets in the ark, the Chizkuni (following the Bekhor Shor) writes:

 

You shall not carry them again in your hands, so that they not be easily available to you to break like the others.

 

According to this understanding, the placement of the tablets in the ark was a practical and technical matter, and less an essential issue; the purpose of the ark was to contain the tablets.

 

            Our fundamental understanding is that the ark's containment of the tablets was an essential matter. Its location in the Holy of Holies, where the tablets represented the covenant entered into at Mount Sinai between God and the people of Israel, expressed for later generations the remembrance of that covenant and its fulfillment in the heart of the Mishkan.

 

Placement of the book of the Torah in the Side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord

 

            Near the end of the Torah, it says:

Moshe commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, “Take this book of the Torah, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. For I know your rebellion, and your stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, you have been rebellious against the Lord, and how much more after my death?” (Devarim 31:25-27)

 

            In addition to the tablets found inside the ark, the book of the Torah must be placed in the side of the ark (the Tanna’im disagree whether it was placed in the ark itself or on a shelf that jutted out on the side of the ark).

 

The purpose of placing the Torah in the ark

 

            The Torah explains that the Torah was to be placed in the ark because Moshe knew the stiff neck of the people of Israel. For this reason, the original Torah was to be placed in the ark in order to remind the people of Israel in later generations of the original covenant that they had entered into with God.

 

            The Seforno writes:

 

And furthermore, I knew that you would forsake the Torah of God (blessed be He), and for this reason I had to place another book of the Torah in a place into which no man enters, except for the High Priest once a year. The purpose of this book is that whatever they find written in a book of the Torah found in the hands of the righteous of the generation are the very words uttered to Moshe at Sinai, with nothing added or taken away, and in this way no doubt will arise about them. (ibid., v. 26, s.v. vehaya sham bekha le-ed)

 

According to this explanation, the book of the Torah was deposited in the ark that was kept in the Holy of Holies in order to serve as testimony not only to the covenant itself between God and the people of Israel, but to the original text of the Torah, as the book would be kept in a place to which nobody has access. In this way, there would be evidence to prove when necessary the veracity of the text of the Torah found in the hands of the righteous of the generation, as it is identical with the book found in the ark. The Seforno adds:

 

The book found by Chilkiyahu [in the days of Yoshiyahu] appears to have been the book that Moshe gave the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of God, mentioned above, which included only the section dealing with the king, and in which Yehoshua recorded the covenant that he renewed with Israel in Shechem when they accepted upon themselves to serve God in truth and righteousness. And when Yoshiyahu read from this book and saw how far they had distanced themselves from all this, he trembled and sought out God about the matter.

 

The Seforno proposes that the book found by Chilkiyahu in the days of Yoshiyahu, as well as the book mentioned at the end of the book of Yehoshua in the covenant that he renewed with Israel in Shechem, contained only the section dealing with the king, and it is what brought Yoshiyahu to tremble and seek God out.

 

            The Ramban explains the matter as follows:

 

That it should rest in the ark in the side, for from now on, no one would touch it, to add to it or subtract from it. (ibid. v. 24, s.v. la-ko'ah et sefer ha-Torah)

 

In other words, placing the Torah in the ark made it possible to preserve the original text of the Torah so that it not undergo any changes whatsoever.

 

What was included in the Torah that was deposited in the ark

 

The Torah says:

 

And Moshe wrote this Torah and delivered it to the priests the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of the Israel. (Devarim 31:9)

 

This verse precedes the command regarding the Hakhel ceremony to be observed at the end of the Sabbatical year, at which the king is commanded to read the Torah before all of Israel. The Ramban (ad loc.) writes:

 

"And Moshe wrote this Torah" – From the beginning of Bereishit to "the eyes of all of Israel." And even though it is written here: "You shall read this Torah before all of Israel" (v. 11) and this alludes to this book of Devarim according to our Rabbis (Sota 41a), for this reason it repeats and explains: "And it came to pass, when Moshe had made an end of writing the words of this Torah in a book, until they were finished" (v. 24), and this includes all of the Torah.

 

            In contrast, the Seforno explains:

 

"This Torah" - The section dealing with the king, which He commanded now that it be read at the Hakhel assembly.

 

            The Ramban in the continuation writes:

 

For at first, he wrote the Torah and gave it to the priests, as is stated above (v. 9), but he did not tell them where to place it. And afterwards he was commanded about this song, and he wrote it and taught it to the children of Israel on that day, thus adding it to the Torah…

It is possible that after he wrote the song and taught it to the children of Israel, to each person according to their tribes, for he brought them before him to the study hall, he wrote it in the book of the Torah, and commanded the priests: "Take the book of the Torah," saying that the song as well should rest in the ark together with the Torah, as it is part of the Torah, as it is there as a witness. (ibid. vv. 21-23)

 

In other words, the song is also part of the Torah that was deposited in the ark.[8]

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 



[1] Many of the issues dealt with in this shiur were already discussed in previous shiurim. For each subject, please see the appropriate shiur for an expanded discussion. It is our intention here to provide a comprehensive perspective that reviews the various issues and situations.

[2] An expanded discussion of this issue can be found in the shiur dealing with the prohibition of bamot, its history, and significance (part II).

[3] In Gilgal, the ark goes out to battle with the people of Israel. As for Nov and Giv'on, the great bama is located in those places, but the ark is not adjacent to it, but rather found in Kiryat-Ye'arim, and afterwards in the city of David.

[4] See R. Kasher’s Torah Sheleima, section 305, on our parasha.

[5] See Torah Sheleima, section 300, on our parasha.

[6] We dealt at length with this issue in the shiur dealing with the question how many arks there were, and therefore we will not expand upon the matter here.

[7] R. Kasher, Torah Sheleima, notes to sec. 36, brings many additional sources in Chazal that explain "holy vessels" in this manner, including the Sifrei (ad loc.); Tosefta Sota, chap. 7; Tanchuma 3; Bamidbar Rabba 22:4.

[8] In this context note should be taken of the Tannaitic dispute brought in Bava Batra 14b, as to where the book of the Torah was kept: According to Rabbi Meir, the book of the Torah was placed on the side of the tablets inside the ark, whereas according to Rabbi Yehuda it rested on a shelf that jutted out from the ark. These conflicting views are based on a disagreement as to the length of a cubit. We dealt with this issue at length in our shiurim on what was deposited in the ark and alongside it.