In describing the gold-plated ark which was placed in the inner chamber of the Mishkan, the Torah commands affixing golden rings to the ark through which the transport poles would be inserted: “You shall cast four golden rings, and place [them] on its four corners; and two rings [shall be placed] on one side, and two rings on the other side” (25:12). Rashi explains this verse to mean that the ark had four rings on its four edges, near the top, and the transport poles were inserted through the rings along the width of the ark on both sides. According to Rashi, the phrase “and two rings on one side, and two rings on the other side” is added to explain the previous phrase, which introduces the requirement to produce four rings. It clarifies that two of these four rings should be placed on one side, and two on the other.
Several later commentators disagreed with Rashi’s reading, noting that the verse seems to imply that they were actually eight rings, and not just four. The verse begins by commanding that four rings be affixed to the four corners of the ark, and then adds, “and two rings on one side, and two rings on the other side.” The conjunctive “and” (“u-shtei”) in this verse suggests that the Torah speaks of four additional rings, besides the four that were already mentioned.
We find three different versions of this view, that eight rings were affixed to the ark.
Tosefot in Masekhet Yoma (72a) suggest that eight rings were needed because there were two sets of poles. Two poles were permanently affixed alongside the ark through four rings, and were never removed from those rings. These are the poles of which the Torah speaks here in Parashat Teruma, where it commands, “The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it” (25:15). Later, in Sefer Bamidbar (4:6), the Torah presents the instructions for how the kohanim would prepare the aron for transport, and commands that “they shall place its poles.” According to Tosefot, this command refers to the second set of poles, which were placed alongside the ark only when the nation journeyed, and were used by the Leviyim who transported the ark. This is in contrast to the first set of poles, which permanently remained in place alongside the ark and served no practical function.
Ibn Ezra (Peirush Ha-arokh) claimed that four of the ark’s eight rings were purely decorative. Whereas Tosefot maintained that the eight rings were used for two sets of poles, Ibn Ezra writes that there was only a single set of poles – as we would have intuitively assumed – but the Torah commanded affixing an additional four rings along the bottom of the ark for decoration.
A third opinion is presented by Chizkuni, Rabbenu Yosef Bekhor Shor, and others. In their view, the four rings used for the two poles were not affixed directly onto the corners of the ark, but were rather interlocked with other rings which were attached directly to the ark. In order words, there were four rings attached to the surface of the ark, at its corners, and each of those rings had a ring interlocking with it. The four outer rings were the rings used for the transport poles, such that when the Leviyim carried the ark by holding the poles on their shoulders, the ark drooped somewhat, since the rings through which the poles ran were not directly attached to the ark.