The Prohibition of Removing the Poles from the Ark(II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

Lecture 149: The Prohibition of removing the poles from the ark (II)

 

 

            In the previous shiur, we saw several reasons for the prohibition to remove the poles from the ark. In this shiur, I wish to add another important reason for the prohibition of removing the poles and to resolve the apparent contradiction between this prohibition and the Scriptural verses that indicate that in practice, the poles were removed from the ark on a number of occasions.

 

The need for the Ark to be ready to be moved

 

            Some of the explanations for the prohibition to remove the poles that were brought in the previous shiur assume that the poles of the ark are fundamentally different from the poles of the other vessels. We saw that the prohibition to remove the poles teaches that the poles are integrally connected to the ark, beyond the fact that the poles are the fitting means of transporting the ark from one place to another.

 

            I wish to propose that this essential connection between the ark and its poles stems from the fact that the ark must be in such a state that at any given moment, it can be removed from the Mikdash should that be necessary. The ark must not be fixed in its place; by definition, it is a movable vessel. This quality of the ark expresses the idea that the Shekhina is not permanently fixed, but that its very appearance is rather conditioned on the deeds of the people of Israel. This portability may come to remind the people of Israel that their very existence is conditioned on God's will and Israel's walking in His ways. The ark cannot be fixed in place; by its very essence, it must remain portable so that it can be removed from the Holy of Holies at any moment.

 

            A similar explanation may be offered with respect to the keruvim. According to some understandings, the keruvim are bird-like creatures. Thus, they too symbolize the possibility that at any given moment, the ark can be removed from the Mikdash (as actually happened at the end of the First Temple period, as is explained in chapters 8-11 in Yechezkel).

 

            As proof, let us examine the verses that describe the dedication of the First Temple in the period of Shelomo:

 

And they drew out the poles, so that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place, before the sanctuary, though they were not seen outside, and there they are to this day.[1] (I Melakhim 8:8)

 

            These verses describe the change that was made in the ark in the First Temple as compared to the Mishkan – namely, the drawing out of the poles. It is possible that the fact that the poles jutted out against the parokhet was meant to serve as a constant reminder that there are poles on the sides of the ark that are ready at all times to carry the ark out of the Holy of Holies. Their very protrusion reminds us of the existence of the poles on the sides of the ark.[2]

 

            It is reasonable to assume that this change was meant to negate Shlomo's understanding that the Temple that he had built was permanent and would never be destroyed. This notion clearly rises from his prayer at the Temple's dedication, in which he describes the possibility of Israel being routed in war and subsequently going into exile, while prayer would continue to be directed toward the house that Shelomo built (I Melakhim 8:44-50).[3]

 

            In this context, it is important to note the words of the prophet Yirmiyahu at the end of the First Temple period. Yirmiyahu pronounces an exceedingly harsh prophecy, in which he argues that the people of Israel relate to the very existence of God's Temple as a sure thing that would stand forever: "The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these" (Yirmiyahu 7:4). These words give Israel the feeling that they possess an insurance policy on the very existence of the Temple. In the wake of these words, Yirmiyahu reminds them of the destruction of Shilo, saying:

 

But go now to My place which was in Shilo, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of My people Israel. (ibid. v. 12)

 

            The prophet turns the people's attention to the circumstances that brought to the destruction of Shilo in the days of Eli. Beyond the insult to the sacrifices and to people on the part of the sons of Eli, the destruction of Shilo is connected in its essence to the mistaken idea of the people that the ark would protect them at all times and in all situations, regardless of the people's conduct. It was for this reason that following their first rout, their conclusion was to take the ark out with them, with the expectation that it would lead to their deliverance.

 

            According to Yirmiyahu, this attitude towards the ark as a sort of amulet or insurance policy was repeating itself now at the end of the First Temple period. Yirmiyahu warns about this danger – similar in its essentials to the sin that brought to the destruction of Shilo - that was now threatening to destroy the Temple.

 

            To summarize, we have noted the general understanding that views the Temple and the ark as permanent and unchanging, something eternal, so that there is no connection whatsoever between the people's conduct and the continued standing or destruction of the Temple.           This idea is antithetical to the understanding that the very existence of the Temple and resting of the Shekhina therein is conditioned on Israel's conduct. I have suggested that this may be the primary meaning of the prohibition to remove the poles from the ark.

 

            In this context, the ark's poles symbolize absolute dependence on God and the immediate readiness to depart at any given moment. According to our understanding, this is the reason that the poles are an integral part of the ark and not simply a means of carrying the ark from place to place, like the poles of the other vessels.

 

The contradiction regarding the removal of the poles[4]

 

            As we have seen, the Torah commands:

 

And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried therewith. The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. (Shemot 25:14-15)

 

            On the other hand, in its description of how the vessels of the Mishkan were to be covered in preparation for a journey, the Torah states:

 

And when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of testimony with it; and they shall put on it the covering of tachash skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in its poles. (Bamidbar 4:5-6)

 

            In addition, in its account of how Betzalel fashioned the ark, the Torah says:

And he made poles of shittim wood, and overlaid them with gold. And he put the poles into the rings by the sides of the ark, to bear the ark. (Shemot 37:4-5)

 

            When, however, Moshe actually brings the ark into the Mishkan, the Torah states:

And he took and put the testimony into the ark, and set the poles on the ark, and put the covering above upon the ark. And he brought the ark into the Mishkan, and set up the veil of the screen, and screened the ark of the testimony, as the Lord commanded. (Shemot 40:20-21)

 

            It would appear from here that after the poles had already been put into the rings by Betzalel, they were once again inserted into the rings by Moshe, which suggests that the poles had in the meantime been removed from the rings - even though this is forbidden.

 

            How are we to resolve the contradiction between the Torah's prohibition to remove the poles and these verses? Several resolutions to this contradiction are found in the words of Chazal, and especially in the words of the Rishonim.

 

            1. Let us first examine a passage in Yoma that addresses the contradiction and offers a resolution:

 

R. Elazar said: One who removes the choshen from the efod or who removes the poles of the ark receives the punishment of lashes, as it says: "That it be not loosed from the efod" (Shemot 28:28); "and [the poles] shall not be removed from it" (ibid. 25:15).

To this, R. Acha bar Yaakov objected: But perhaps this is what the Torah says: Fasten them and arrange them properly [by forcing the cords through the ring], so that they "be not loosed," or that they "be not removed"? Is it written: "that they be not loosed" or "that they be not removed"?

R. Yose bar Chanina pointed out a contradiction: It is written: "The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it," and it is also written: "And the poles shall be put into the rings" (ibid. 27:7). How is that possible? They were movable, but could not slip off.

Thus. also was it taught: "The poles shall be in the rings of the ark.” One might have thought that they could not be moved from their place. Therefore, the verse states: “And the poles shall be put into the rings.” If I had this verse [alone to follow], one might have assumed that they could be taken out and put in again. Therefore, the verse states: “The poles shall be in the rings of the ark.” How is that? They were movable, but could not slip off. (Yoma 72a)

 

            In other words, the poles could move around within the rings, but they could not slip out altogether from the rings. One way to understand this is that the poles were thicker at the ends and thinner in the middle. After being forced into the rings, the poles could therefore be made to move back and forth within the rings, but they could not slip out from the rings because of the thickness of the two ends of the poles. This is Rashi's understanding (s.v. mitparkin ve-einan nishmatim).

 

            2. A different understanding is found in the Tosafot:

 

When the camp would set out, they would put the poles in. But this is difficult, for surely it is written: "They shall not be removed from it." Rabbeinu Yaakov of Orleans answers: This "and they shall put its poles" – means on the shoulders of those carrying it, so that it may be transported… It seems more likely to explain that this "and they shall put its poles" means that they draw the poles outwards so that they should appear as if they were protruding from the parokhet, like the two breasts of a woman. (s.v. ketiv be-taba'ot ha-aron)

 

            Rabbeinu Yaakov of Orleans' first explanation is that when the verse speaks of putting in the poles, it does mean putting them into the rings of the ark, but rather putting them on to the shoulders of those carrying the ark. According to his second explanation, this means that the poles would be drawn outwards so that they appear as if protruding from the parokhet, like a woman's two breasts.

 

            3. The Malbim distinguishes between when the Mishkan was in transit and when it was in the camp. When it was in transit, the poles had to be pulled through all four rings, as it is stated: "And they shall put its poles." But when it was in the camp, they only had to be inserted into two of the rings, as it is stated: "The poles shall be in the rings of the ark."

 

            4. The Netziv (Shemot 25:12) understands that the poles and the rings were meant as a means of carrying, as well as for the glory of Israel. Therefore, when in transit, the poles protruded equally from both sides, but when in the camp, the poles were pulled outwards so that they would look like the two breasts of a woman. When the verse says that Betzalel put the poles in, it means that Betzalel arranged the poles in such a way that they could be used to carry the ark (as is explicit in Shemot 37:5: "And he put the poles into the rings… to bear the ark"). On the other hand, when Moshe put the poles it, he arranged them in such a way that they looked like the two breasts of a woman, and therefore it says: "And he set the poles on the ark," i.e., he arranged them in the way that they should be. According to this, we understand the command at the time of the journey, "and they shall put its poles." The priests would arrange the poles so that they be fit for carrying.

 

            5. The Chizkuni (Shemot 25:15) argues that God commanded that after Moshe put the poles in the rings, the priests were to remove them and then place them again in the rings, as is written in Bamidbar, and so they were to remain thereafter. According to this understanding, when the Torah says, "And they put its poles," it refers exclusively to the first journey, but not to subsequent journeys.

 

            6. The Ibn Ezra (short commentary to Shemot 25:14-15) understands that before covering the ark with the tachash skins and the cloth of blue prior to a journey, it was permitted to remove the poles and put them back in order to properly protect the ark while it was in transit.

 

            7. The Tosafot (Yoma 72a, s.v. ketiv) first note that the verse cited in the gemara, "And the poles shall be put into the rings" (Shemot 27:7), relates to the brass altar, and that the gemara cites this verse in order to prove that the verse, "And you shall put the poles into the rings" (ibid. 25:14), which relates to the ark, refers to poles that are not fixed in place.

 

            As for the contradiction between the verses, Tosafot argue that there were four poles in eight rings, two poles above and two poles below. Two of the poles were fixed in place, and about them it says: "And they shall not be removed from it." The other two poles were only inserted into the rings in preparation for a journey. It is possible that the extra poles were for good measure to ensure that if need be, additional priests would be able to participate in the transport of the ark.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] We will deal with the drawing out of the poles in one of the upcoming shiurim. We cite this source here only for what it adds to our present discussion.

[2] There is also the somewhat opposite possibility, which accords with what will be suggested below, that the drawing out of the poles means having them protrude sufficiently so that the ark should no longer be considered a portable vessel. In other words, the protrusion expresses the idea that the ark is fixed permanently in its place and will not be removed again.

[3] From where did Shelomo learn this idea? Why did he assume that the Temple would never be destroyed? It is possible that Shelomo saw the keruvim which he built in the Holy of Holies, the instructions concerning which he had received from God through David ("All this, said he, is put in writing by the hand of the Lord who instructed me, all the works of this pattern"; I Divrei ha-Yamim 28:19), as something permanent and eternal that would never be destroyed. Furthermore, this might serve as proof that Israel reached its spiritual climax during the days of Shelomo, and for this reason he could not even imagine the possibility of destruction.

[4] This issue is explained well in Sha'arei Heikhal on tractate Yoma, 184.