LECTURE 170: HIDING AWAY THE ARK

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Introduction

 

            What happened to the ark of the covenant after the destruction of the Temple? Was it taken into captivity to Babylonia?

 

            II Melakhim 25 contains a list of vessels that Nevuchadnetzar's general, Nevuzaradan, took to Babylonia, but the ark is not mentioned among them. It is reasonable to assume that had the ark been taken to Babylonia, it would surely have been recorded at the top of the list of booty. It may therefore be presumed that the ark was no longer in its place when the Temple was destroyed, but rather had been removed beforehand.

 

            When was the ark removed, by whom, and for what reason? We will try to answer these questions over the course of this shiur.

 

Yoshiyahu's Hiding away of the ark

 

            The gemara in Yoma (52b) states:

 

Who hid it [the ark]? Yoshiyahu hid it. What was his reason for hiding it? He saw the Scriptural passage: "The Lord will bring you and your King whom you shall set over you" (Devarim 28:36). Therefore, he hid it, as it is stated: "And he said to the Levites, who taught all Israel, that were holy unto the Lord: ‘Put the holy ark into the house which Shlomo, the son of David, King of Israel did build. There shall no more be a burden upon your shoulders now. Serve now the Lord your God and His people Israel’" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 35:3).

 

According to this gemara, Yoshiyahu feared that Israel would go into exile, and he therefore hid the ark.[1]

 

            What led the gemara to expound these verses as referring to the hiding away of the ark? The answer to this question seems be connected to a difficulty in understanding the plain sense of the verse. Yoshiyahu told the Levites, "Put the holy ark into the house which Shlomo, the son of David, King of Israel did build." But that was the ark's location ever since King Shlomo brought the ark there![2] Moreover, is it not clear to all that it was Shlomo who built the Temple?

 

            The Tosafot Rosh (Horayot 12a) explains that when King Shlomo built the Temple, he knew by way of the holy spirit that it would eventually be destroyed and that Israel would be exiled from their land. He therefore prepared a space under the Temple to entomb the ark there so that it should not fall into the hands of any other nation. When Yoshiyahu found the Torah scroll and understood that the time of Israel's exile was approaching, he ordered that the ark be hidden away in that place, together with the other holy articles that were with it. This is what Yoshiyahu meant when he said: "Put the holy ark – i.e., hide it away – into the house which Shlomo, the son of David, King of Israel did build – i.e., in the hiding place which he had prepared.” According to this understanding, the location of the hiding place was not known to all; only the pious among the priests and the Levites were familiar with it by way of a tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, Yoshiyahu assigned the mission of hiding the ark to the Levites, who knew the hiding place's location and were holy to God.

 

In similar fashion, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira (4:1):

 

The ark was placed on a stone in the western portion of the Holy of Holies. The vial of manna and Aharon's staffwere placed before it. When Shlomo built the Temple, he was aware that it would ultimately be destroyed. [Therefore,] he constructed a chamber in which the ark could be hidden below [the Temple building], in deep, maze-like vaults. King Yoshiyahu commanded that [the ark] be hidden in the chamber built by Shlomo, as it is stated: "And he said to the Levites, who taught all Israel, who were holy unto the Lord: ‘Put the holy ark into the house which Shlomo, the son of David, King of Israel did build. There shall no more be a burden upon your shoulders now. Serve now the Lord your God’" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 35:3). When it was hidden away, Aharon's staff, the vial of manna, and the oil used for anointing were hidden away with it. All these [sacred articles] did not return in the Second Temple…[3]

 

            It appears from the Rambam that already at the time that the Temple was built, Shlomo knew that it would eventually be destroyed, and he therefore prepared a special chamber in which to hide away the ark in the depths of the Temple Mount.[4]

 

            Parallel to the gemara in Yoma and Horayot, there is a Tosefta in tractate Yoma (13:1) that adds as follows:

 

When Yoshiyahu came, he hid away the ark, along with the vial of manna, the vial of oil used for anointing, and the staff of Aharon… He said to them: Hide it away, so that it not go out into exile to Babylonia like the rest of the vessels.

 

            According to all these sources, after King Yoshiyahu found the Torah scroll and understood that the exile to Babylonia was quickly approaching, he commanded that the ark should be hidden away so that it not go out into exile together with the people.

 

Menashe's Removal of the ark

 

            In his commentary to II Divrei Ha-yamim (38:3), Yehuda Kil states as follows:

 

We surmise that the ark, together with the book of the Torah that was deposited alongside it, was removed by a few God-fearing (as they are called here "holy unto the Lord") priests and Levites after Menashe brought a graven image into the Sanctuary, and it was hidden away where it was hidden away. According to this, it may be suggested that after King Yoshiyahu heard Chulda's prophecy that the decree involving the destruction of the Temple could no longer be cancelled, he consulted with the wise men, the Levites, who taught all of Israel, about what to do with the ark, and agreement was reached that it should be hidden away. (note 81b)

 

According to this proposal, the removal of the ark from its permanent place in the Holy of Holies began not in the days of Yoshiyahu, but already in the time of Menashe, and it was done in response to Menashe's bringing a graven image into the Sanctuary. Yoshiyahu, who understood from the prophetess Chulda that the decree of the Temple's destruction was final, consulted with the Levites and final agreement was reached that the ark should be hidden away.

 

            Prof. Menachem Haran[5] argues that the ark was hidden away during the days of Menashe. The verses in II Divrei Ha-yamim describe at length Menashe's actions in general and those concerning the house of God in particular:

For he built again the high places which Yechezkiyahu his father had broken down, and he reared up altars for the Be'alim, and made asheterot, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them. Also he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem shall my name be forever.” And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord… And he set up a carved idol, the image which he had made, in the house of God, of which God had said to David and to Shlomo his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen before all the tribes of Israel, will I put My name forever.” (II Divrei Ha-yamim 33:3-7)

 

Scripture does not spell out the precise location at which Menashe set up an idol, but suffices with the general description – "In the house of God."

 

Regarding this, Chazal say in Sanhedrin (103b):

 

Achaz set it in an upper chamber, as it is stated: "And the altars that were on the top of the upper chamber of Achaz" (II Melakhim 23:13). Menashe placed it in the Temple, as it is stated: "And he set up the carved idol of the ashetera that he had made, in that house, of which the Lord said to David and to Shlomo his son, ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, will I put My name for ever’" (II Melakhim 21:7). Amon introduced it into the Holy of Holies, as it is stated: “For the bed is too short for a man to stretch himself, and the cover too narrow for him to wrap himself up" (Yeshayahu 28:20). Now, what is meant by "For the bed is too short for a man to stretch himself"? R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: For this bed is too short that two neighbors may rule therein together.[6]

 

The gemara, based on the verses, describes a process which began with Achaz in the upper chamber, continued with Menashe in the Temple, and finished in the days of Amon in the Holy of Holies. However, many verses indicate that the decree concerning the destruction of the Temple was issued because of the sins of Menashe:

 

Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn back from the fierceness of that great anger with which His anger burned against Yehuda, on account of all the provocations with which Menashe had provoked Him. (II Melakhim 23:26)

 

Surely at the commandment of the Lord came this upon Yehuda, to remove them out of His sight, for the sins of Menashe, according to all that he did. And also for the innocent blood that he shed, for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon. (II Melakhim 24:3-4)

 

And I will make them into a horror for all the kingdoms of the earth, on account of Menashe the son of Yechizkiyahu king of Yehuda, for that which he did in Jerusalem. (Yirmeyahu 15:4)

 

            Chazal understood that it was on account of Menashe's setting up a graven image in the Sanctuary that the decree was sealed that the Temple would be destroyed and the people would be exiled from their land. The gemara in Zevachim (61b) says as follows:

 

The fire which descended from heaven in the days of Moshe did not depart from the copper altar until the days of Shlomo. And the fire which descended in the days of Shlomo did not depart until Menashe came and removed it.

 

            All of these verses imply that the days of King Menashe constituted the gravest period with respect to the removal of the Shekhina. The mention of David and Shlomo in the continuation – "Of which God had said to David and to Shlomo his son, ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen before all the tribes of Israel, will I put My name for ever’” – comes to teach that the days of Menashe were the very opposite of the days of David and Shlomo. In the time of David and Shlomo, Jerusalem was selected as the place that God chose to put His name there, and the Temple was built, whereas the actions of Menashe caused God to despise his earlier choice and decide to destroy Jerusalem and the house of God.

 

            M. Haran argues that in the temples of the ancient Near East, the innermost and holiest room of the temple was reserved for the idol. That was the place where the presence of the god was most actualized. In Israel's Temple, this role was filled by the ark and the keruvim, which were understood as symbolizing God's throne and footrest. In light of this, Haran suggests that the idol that Menashe set up was in the Holy of Holies, in placeof the ark and the keruvim.          As proof, he cites the words of Yirmeyahu:

 

And it shall come to pass, when you multiply and increase in the land, in those days, say the Lord, they shall say no more, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord;” nor shall it come to mind; nor shall they remember it; nor shall they miss it; nor shall that be done any more. (Yirmeyahu 3:16)

 

            According to Haran, these words were said at a time when there was no longer an ark. Were the ark resting at that time in the Holy of Holies, no prophet in Israel would have imagined to sound such consolations.

 

            According to this explanation, however, the question arises as to how we are to reconcile the verses cited at the beginning of this shiur, which record Yoshiyahu's instructions to the Levites to hide the ark. One possible explanation is that Yoshiyahu ordered the Levites to return the ark to its place after it had been removed by Menashe, and that from now on it was no longer necessary to carry the ark on the shoulders. This is what Rashi says in his commentary (ad loc.):

 

"Put the holy ark" – According to the plain sense, Menashe and Amon had removed the ark and put their idols in its place, as is evident above with respect to Menashe: "And he set up a carved idol." Therefore, Yoshiyahu instructed that the ark be returned to its place that had built by Shlomo. And our Rabbis said that he told the Levites to hide it away there.

 

Rashi offers two explanations, first the plain meaning and afterwards the Rabbinic exposition. According to the plain understanding, Menashe and Amon had removed the ark and set their idols in its place. Rashi implies that the idols were set in the Holy of Holies.

 

            In his commentary to Divrei Ha-yamim (35:3), Radak writes similarly:

 

"Put the holy ark"" – Perhaps Menashe removed it from there when he put the idol in the house of God. But it is astonishing that he did not return it there after he submitted and repented and removed the idol from the house of God. And Chazal have explained that he ordered that the ark be hidden away so that it not go out into exile with the people.

 

Radak also offers two explanations. According to the first explanation, Menashe removed the ark from the Holy of Holies when he set up the idol in the house of God. The Radak challenges this explanation in light of the verses (II Divrei Ha-yamim 33:15) describing Menashe's great repentance. How could it be that Menashe himself did not return the ark to its place when he removed the idol?

 

            To summarize, thus far we have seen that the events and the relevant verses can be understood in the following ways:

 

1) Menashe removed the ark and the keruvim because it would have been inappropriate that at one and the same time there should be both the ark and the keruvim as well as the idol (especially if Menashe's idol was set up inside the Holy of Holies), and Yoshiyahu returned the ark to where it had permanently rested up until the time of Menashe. This explanation accords well with the plain meaning of the verses – Menashe removed and Yoshiyahu returned the ark to its place. This explanation is brought by both Rashi and Radak, but Radak notes that it does not explain why Menashe himself did not return the ark to its place as part of his great repentance.

 

2) According to Chazal, Yoshiyahu removed the ark in the hope that it would not go out into exile to Babylonia. This understanding accords less well with the plain sense of Scripture.

 

Menashe's Hiding away of the Ark

 

            Prof. Elitzur[7] analyzes the general situation in the days of Menashe and Yoshiyahu and proposes a different explanation. The prophet Yirmeyahu says:

And it shall come to pass, when you multiply and increase in the land, in those days, says the Lord, they shall say no more, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord;” nor shall it come to mind; nor shall they remember it; nor shall they miss it; nor shall that be done any more. At that time, they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord; and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem; nor shall they walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil heart. (Yirmeyahu 3:16-17)

 

            Some wish to connect this prophecy to the words of Yirmeyahu in chapter 7, where he reproaches the people of Israel for being thieves, murderers, and adulterers, and thus turning the Temple into a den of robbers, while at the same time they continue to offer sacrifices there. The prophet condemns the people for their exaggerated sense of trust in the Temple and in the ark, and argues that everything depends on their walking in the path of God and the actions of the people of Israel.

 

The ark, according to Elitzur, was hidden away in the days of Menashe; that is, it was hidden away and not removed. Elitzur argues that it may be understood from the verses in II Melakhim that Menashe is subject to absolute condemnation, but the matter is not so clear-cut.

 

A deeper examination of the history of the kings of Yehuda demonstrates that from Achaz to Tzidkiyahu there was no king, wicked or righteous, who obeyed the prophets who demanded of the rulers of Yehuda to refrain from political adventures. Menashe was the only king who obeyed the prophets on this matter. He was indeed an idolater, but he followed the political line of the prophets.

 

The verse that completes the history of Menashe states: "And Menashe slept with his fathers, and was buried in the garden of his own house, in the garden of Uzza…" (II Melakhim 21:18). From here we see that Menashe dug a royal grave in the garden of his house, in the garden of Uzza, and apparently transferred to that place all the treasures found in the royal house. It is reasonable to conclude that he also dug there a chamber to store the ark. Menashe did this not for religious purposes, but as a pragmatic ruler, he understand that he must protect the most precious and magnificent vessel in the history of Israel.

 

It is possible that in the days of Yoshiyahu, a disagreement arose concerning this issue, with part of the nation saying that the safest place for the ark was inside God's Temple, and Yirmeyahu countering that the safest place for it was outside the Temple and that the ark had rightfully been removed so that it not fall into the hands of gentile looters. His position on this matter was the same as that of Yoshiyahu. According to the verses in Divrei Ha-yamim, Yoshiyahu instructs the Levites to bring the ark to the Temple in honor of the especially festive Pesach that he would be arranging for all of Israel. Yoshiyahu says to the Levites: "There shall no more be a burden upon your shoulders now." Chazal understood (Yoma 76b; Horayot 12a) this to mean that when they will return the ark to its place of storage, they will no longer have to carry it on their shoulders, because it will be permanently kept in its storage place, and it was Yoshiyahu who stored it away.

 

It is reasonable to assume that the secret location of the ark was made known to the wise men, the Levites, and this information was passed down from generation to generation to a select group of people who were fit to receive it. It seems, therefore, that the ark was hidden away for two reasons: Menashe wished to save the historic treasure (and once he brought the idol into the Holy of Holies, it was no longer fitting that the ark and the keruvim should be found there), whereas Yoshiyahu and Yirmeyahu maintained that the nation must preserve the ark of Testimony containing the two tablets of the covenant that attest to God's revelation and to the covenant entered into between God and His people.

 

Neither of these parties accepted the popular belief that the Temple and the ark, by their very sanctity, would protect themselves and the people. The words of Yirmeyahu close a circle that began with "And in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Bereishit 12:3) and will close with "And all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem" (Yirmeyahu 3:17), with the tablets of the covenant attesting to the central event of Israel's history, which lights up the path that leads from Avraham to the end of days.

 

Prof. Elitzur notes that the period of Menashe was a period of entombing things, as has become clear from the mounds discovered in west Jerusalem. About twenty man-made mounds have been discovered in the area between Ir Ganim, Givat Masua, Aminadav, and Beit Zayit. From the mounds that have been excavated it has become clear that under the huge piles of earth that became heaped up there, there is a small area surrounded by 17 ribs in the middle of which there is a pit containing soot, ashes, and vessels from the end of the First Temple period, quite possibly the period of Yoshiyahu and Menashe. These mounds are 3-10 meters in height, with diameters of 10-40 meters. No idolatrous paraphernalia have been found there, and from this Elitzur has concluded that these are bamot constructed in honor of the God of Israel.

 

It is possible that these bamot were built by priests who were loyal to the God of Israel during the days of King Menashe, because it was no longer possible to reach the Temple. For the benefit of the pilgrims who wished to offer sacrifices in the Temple, they constructed bamot for the service of God outside the city.

 

When Yoshiyahu rose to the throne, wiped out idolatry, and removed the bamot, the priests who had served at the bamot argued that they should not be destroyed, as they had been used for the worship of the God of Israel. For this reason, Yoshiyahu did not destroy them, but merely hid them away under mounds of earth.

 

This phenomenon of a temple dedicated to the worship of the God of Israel that was later entombed is found also in the Israelite temple in Arad. It was precisely in the days of Yoshiyahu that a wall was built over it, effectively putting it out of use, with care taken not to harm the temple itself. This ensured that a temple built not in the place chosen by God would cease to function, but at the same time, no harm would come to a temple and altars that had been constructed from the outset for the worship of the God of Israel.

 

In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the ark of the covenant of God was hidden away by Menashe – and perhaps, as suggested by Prof. Elitzur, in the area of the garden of Uzza, where the new royal palace stood.

 

According to Elitzur's suggestion, it turns out that two different kings, Menashe and Yoshiyahu, were both interested in the ark being hidden away, each for his own reason. In any event, it is clear that from their time on, we hear nothing more about the ark which had been hidden away. During the latter part of the monarchy, from the days of Yoshiyahu and on until the destruction of the Temple, and then throughout the Second Temple period, the ark was hidden away, and the people of Israel did not merit to find it.

 

Where was the ark hidden?[8]

 

            The gemara in Yoma cites several opinions regarding the question of where was the ark hidden:

 

R. Shimon ben Yochai said: The ark went into exile to Babylonia… R. Yehuda ben Lakish said: The ark was hidden in its own place… It was taught: And the Sages say: The ark was hidden away in the Chamber of the wood-shed. R. Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Thus were we also taught: It happened to a certain priest who was whiling away his time that he saw a block of pavement that was different from the others. He came and informed his fellow, but before he could complete his account, his soul departed. Thus, they knew definitely that the ark was hidden there. What had he been doing? R. Chelbo said: He was playing with his axe. The school of R. Yishmael taught: Two priests, afflicted with a blemish, were sorting the wood when the axe of one of them slipped from his hand and fell on that place, whereupon a flame burst forth and consumed him. (Yoma 53b-54a)

 

            R. Yehuda ben Lakish maintains that the ark was hidden in its place. He adduces support from the verse: "The staves were seen from the holy place… and there they are to this day" (I Melakhim 8:8). There are different opinions as to the meaning of the words "to this day" – does this mean forever or until the day of the writing of this book.

 

            "In its place" means in the Holy of Holies. It is reasonable to assume that it was near the even ha-shetiya, the foundation stone, as there is no indication anywhere that a place was dug out for the ark. Therefore, it must have been hidden away in the filling between the bedrock and the floor of the Holy of Holies.

 

            The Sages in Yoma 53b agree with the mishna in tractate Shekalim (6:1):

 

There were thirteen prostrations in the Temple. [Members] of the household of Rabban Gamliel and of R. Chanina, chief of the priests, used to prostrate themselves fourteen [times]. And where was the additional [prostration]? In front of the Chamber of the wood-shed, for thus they had a tradition from their forefathers that the ark was hidden there.

 

            R. Eliezer and R. Shimon bar Yochai maintain that the ark was exiled to Babylonia. In support of their position, they adduce the verse in II Divrei Ha-yamim (36:10) dealing with Yehoyakhin:

 

And he had him brought to Babylonia together with the precious vessels of the house of the Lord.

 

            The Rambam (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 4:1) and the Meiri (commentary to the gemara in Yoma)maintain that the ark was hidden away in its place. The Semag (positive mitzva 163) and the Kaftor va-Perach (chap. 6) are of the opinion that the ark was hidden away in the Chamber of the wood-shed.

 

            The Ya'avetz on Hilkhot Beit ha-Bechira 4:1 understands that there is a connection between the Rambam's position that the first sanctification was for its own time and for the future (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 6:14-15) and the fact that the ark was hidden away in the depths of the earth on Mount Moriya, whereas according to R. Eliezer and R. Shimon bar Yochai, who say that the ark was exiled to Babylonia, the resting of God's Shekhina was cancelled, and a new sanctification during the Second Temple period was necessary.

 

            It is possible, according to the Yerushalmi in Megilla (1:12), that there is proof to the view of the Ya'avetz from the fact that prior to the building of the Temple, the prohibition against bamot depended on the ark being in the Mishkan.

 

            On the other hand, the Rambam's wording that "the Shekhina is not cancelled" seems to relate to some fundamental definition that does not depend at all on the reality whether the Temple is in existence. There are also additional proofs that lead to the conclusion that there is no necessary connection between the ark being hidden away in the Temple and the issue of the sanctification of the Temple being for its time and for the future.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] A parallel discussion is found in Horayot 12a.

[2] If the ark was removed from its fixed place in the Holy of Holies to enable repairs, there would be no need to command that it be returned to its place, as this would be obvious. Furthermore, Scripture does not describe the ark's fixed place in precise terms, but rather speaks of the “house that Shlomo built,” and so it must be that Scripture speaks not of the ark's removal for the sake of repair work in the Holy of Holies and its return there, but rather of its being hidden away in the house that Shlomo had built specifically for this purpose. This is the way that Yehuda Kil explains the verse in his Da'at Mikra commentary to II Divrei Ha-Yamim 35:3.

[3] At this time, we will not deal with the place where the ark was hidden away. The gemara in Yoma 53b-54a discusses several opinions on this matter.

[4] This point in itself requires examination. Shlomo's whole outlook as well as his actions indicate that he was very confident that this house was permanent and would stand forever. This being the case, preparation of a hiding place for the ark does not accord with the plain sense of the verses in the book of Melakhim.

[5] M. Haran, "Siluk Aron Ha-Berit," Yedi'ot Ha-Chevra Le-Chakirat Eretz Israel 25 (1961), pp. 211-233.

[6] The Maharsha (ad loc.) explains: "The Holy of Holies is likened to a bed where the Shekhina rests on the kaporet." We have already mentioned that the connection between God and Israel is likened to the connection between a man and his wife, and idolatry is likened to adultery on the part of the wife with another man. Here the verse uses the metaphor of a bed that is too narrow, as the midrash states (Vayikra Rabba 17:7): "'For the bed is too short for a man to stretch himself' – the bed cannot hold the woman, her husband, and her lover at once." The deeper inside the Temple that the idol was brought, the further away the Shekhina removed itself, until it was completely gone, as explained in detail in Rosh Hashana 31a. (See Sanhedrin 103b, Schottenstein edition, note 25.)

[7] Yehuda Elitzur, Pulmus Aron ha-Berit be-Yemei Yoshiyahu, Proceedings of the World Congress for Jewish Studies XII, pp. 109ff.

[8] For a fuller discussion, see Sha'arei Heikhal on Yoma, ma'arekhet 154, Genizat aron ha-berit, pp. 268-269.