The Structure of the Ark - The Relationship Between the Ark of Shittim Wood and the Golden Overlay

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



Rav Yitzchak Levi


Lecture 145:
The structure of the ark – THe relationship between the ark of shittim wood and the golden overlay





            After presenting the dimensions of the ark, the Torah states:


And they shall make an ark of shittim wood… And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it. (Shemot 25:10-11)


            According to the simple understanding, the verse teaches that the ark made of shittim wood must be plated with pure gold inside and outside. I wish to relate to two questions:


1.     How was this gold plating executed in actual practice?


2.     Is there special significance to this combination of wood and gold?


The goldplating of the ark


            How was the plating done? The Yerushalmi records an Amoraic disagreement on the matter:


How did Betzalel make the ark? R. Hananya said: He made three arks, two of gold and one of wood. He put that of gold inside that of wood and that of wood inside that of gold and covered it. As it is written: "And you shall cover it with pure gold, inside and outside." What is taught by: "You shall cover it." To include the upper edge.

R. Shimon ben Lakish said: He made one ark and plated it. As it is written: "And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside." What is taught by: "You shall overlay it." R. Pinchas said: To include between one board and the next. (Shekalim 6:1)


            In this Amoraic disagreement, R. Chananya maintains that there were three arks, two of gold and one of wood, whereas R. Shimon ben Lakish says that there was only one ark of wood that was overlaid with gold inside and outside.[1]


            R. Chananya's viewpoint is cited in the gemara that we considered in the previous shiur:


Rechava said in the name of R. Yehuda: Betzalel made three arks: the middle one of wood, nine [handbreadths] high; the inner one of gold, eight [handbreadths] high; and the outer one of gold, a little more than ten [handbreadths] high. (Yoma 72b)


            This is also brought in Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan:


How did Betzalel make the ark? He made three arks, two of gold and one of wood. He put that of wood inside that of gold, and that of gold inside that of wood, and he covered the upper edge with gold. As it is written: "And you shall cover it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you cover it." That is to say, he covers its upper edge with gold. (Chapter 7)


            The Rishonim continue this disagreement about the nature of the ark's covering:


            Rashi (Shemot 25:11), the Ibn Ezra (there), the Maharal (Gur Aryeh ad loc.) and the Tosafot (Chagiga 20a and Menachot 96b) conclude that there were three separate arks, like three boxes, one inside the other.


            In contrast, Rabbeinu Chananel maintains that the arks of gold did not stand on their own, but rather were thin, flexible plates of gold that were made to stick to the wooden ark and could even be molded. In his view, a handbreadth of the wooden ark was exposed on the inside and covered by the outer plate, and this strengthened the outer plate.[2] The novelty in this position is that it does not concur with the two main viewpoints that we saw in the previous shiur regarding the thickness of the walls – half a handbreadth or a finger (depending on the views of R. Meir and R. Yehuda regarding the length of a cubit). According to this understanding, the thickness of the walls was a full handbreadth.[3]


            According to the viewpoint of most of the Rishonim that there were three separate arks, the question still remains whether or not the arks of gold were connected to the wooden ark. Rabbeinu Abraham son of the Rambam understands that the arks were connected by way of some adhesive or by nails, whereas according to the Maharal in his Gur Aryeh, the arks were not connected to each other and it was possible to separate between them. He writes as follows:


"Three arks." It seems that the reason that they were forced to say (Yoma 72b) that there were three arks – against the plain sense that the ark was covered with pieces that were made to stick to the wood – is that if the overlay adhered to [the ark] so that it could not be separated [from it], this would have been an addition to the ark. For anything that adheres to something is nullified to it. And the Torah gave dimensions to the ark, two and a half cubits in length, and similarly for its height. And it would not have had this dimension, because gold was added to it. But now that each ark stood separately, there was no addition. And furthermore, had the gold adhered to the wood, it would have been necessary to hammer a golden nail into the wood, and the Torah said that [the ark] should be of wood and not of gold. But now that he made three arks, each one standing separately, it was not necessary to hammer anything into the ark of wood. (Shemot 25:11)


            It should be noted that according to the view that the inner ark of gold was a separate ark, the inner ark had a lip of gold at the top facing outward in order to cover the wooden ark on top, and the outer ark of gold  was a little more than a handbreadth higher than the middle ark of wood. When the kaporet was placed on the middle ark, the outer ark of gold jutted up corresponding to the thickness of the kaporet.


            The Levush suggests that the reason that there were three arks, one inside the other, is the principle of "This is my God and I will beautify Him," for there is no more beautiful cover than having three arks, one inside the other. For had they covered the wooden ark with gold plating, it would have been necessary to join the plates with nails either to the ark or to each other. But the three arks were smooth and even from the outside and from the inside with pure gold, and the ark would thus shine. Furthermore, had the plates been joined with nails, the nails might come out; the plates would then fall and the ark would be disgraced, God forbid, before one and all.


Wood and Gold


            The Bekhor Shor makes a very interesting comment explaining why the Torah commands that the ark be made of wood overlaid with gold:


The ark should have been made entirely of gold, but it would have been too heavy to carry, and the law is that it be carried on the shoulder, as it is written: "Because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders" (Bamidbar 7:9). Similarly, we find regarding the altar that it was "hollow with boards" (Shemot 27:8), so that it not be [excessively] heavy.[4] (Shemot 25:11, s.v. ve-tzipita)


            This explanation should be examined in light of the overall weight of the ark. The kaporet and the keruvim were made of pure gold, and it stands to reason that when the ark was taken out, the kaporet and the keruvim rested upon it. Why, then, is there a difference between the ark, on the one hand, and the kaporet and the keruvim, on the other? It is reasonable to assume that beyond the practical matter of weight and carrying the ark, there is a more essential dimension to the relationship between the wood and the gold.[5]


            The various commentators address the significance of the different materials and the relationship between them.


            R. S.R. Hirsch relates both to the tablets of stone and to the shittim wood that was overlaid with gold. He writes as follows:


An ark of shittim wood – Israel receives the Torah with its, Israel's, eternally fresh ability for development and progress and for this progressive development. The Torah is given complete, concluded; the tablets are stone ones. The two together form a complete cube of stone. Each tablet is six handbreadths long, six handbreadths wide, and three handbreadths thick, so that together they form a solid cube of six handbreadths cubed, a cubic ell (amma), the largest unit in length. Not the Torah, but rather we are the tree; we can, and we should, develop and ennoble ourselves in unending progress through the Torah. Israel receives the Torah to become thereupon "a tree planted by streams of water" (Tehillim 1:3).

And you shall overlay – With the qualities of susceptibility and living ability of development, must at the same time be associated firmness, stubborn persistence, and immutability for all that is noble and good, true, and genuine – to the wood, metal; to the tree, gold. The Divine Torah demands both the ability to develop and at the same time firmness in those that receive it, and this noble firmness has to hold good both internally towards itself and externally to outside influences, "inside and outside shall you overlay it." The ark consisted of three containers, an inner and an outer one of gold, and between these, the one of shittim wood. In inner and outer life, sterling and firm, noble and genuine, free from all dross, resisting all alteration and deterioration, these are the conditions, these are the golden limits within which life from the Torah is to progressively develop like a tree. Inaccessible to all evil, ready for all good, gold and tree, negative commandments and positive commandments, such is the dual nature of the character which makes Israel fit and able to be the container of the Divine Torah. (Shemot 25:10)


            R. Hirsch attributes various characteristics to the different materials:


1.        The stone tablets that rest inside the ark symbolize permanence and perfection.

2.        The wood symbolizes the ability for development and constant progress and freshness. He notes that it we who are likened to a tree, and not the Torah. Through the Torah, we are obligated to advance, to refresh ourselves, and to develop, and through the Torah we become like a tree planted by streams of water.

3.        Metal bestows stability, firmness, and persistence to all that is good.


Accordingly, the relationship between wood and gold is that between development, freshness and progress, on the one hand, and stability and persistence, on the other. This applies inwards and outwards - a life of purity and stability within and a life of nobility and truth without.


Gold symbolizes resistance to all that is evil – negative commandments. Wood symbolizes readiness for all that is good – positive commandments. This combination makes Israel fit to serve as a container for God's Torah. The role of the keruvim whose wings overspread the kaporet is to protect the entire system.


The Maharal also relates to this issue:


The Ibn Ezra asks (end of v. 10): Since in any event he had to make three arks, two of gold and one of wood, let him make one of gold. Chazal already gave an explanation in the Midrash (Tanchuma Vayakhel 7): Since the Torah is called "a tree of life" (Mishlei 3:18), therefore the ark was of wood. This is a profound idea - that since the Torah is called "a tree of life to those who lay hold on her" (ibid.), therefore the ark was of wood. For a tree is a permanent planting. So too the words of the Torah are planted, cleaving to God, blessed be He. And it remains forever. Gold, on the other hand, even though it is important, is not a planting. But the overlay is of gold. It is a wonderful idea that the visible component should be of gold, based on: "Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand are riches and honor" (Mishlei 3:16). And it is known that "length of days" alludes to the world-to-come, which is not seen – "no eye has seen, other than You, O God" (Yeshayahu 64:3). Therefore, the wood, which alludes to eternal planting, was covered and hidden. But honor exists in this world, and it is seen. Therefore, it was of wood on the inside, but what was visible was the riches and honor. (Shemot 25:11)


            According to the Maharal, the Torah is called the tree of life. A tree is a permanent planting. Planting denotes taking root and transformation into something strong and solid. The words of the Torah are planted, cleaving to God, and they exist eternally.


            Through the Torah, man cleaves to his Creator. There is nothing closer to God than the Torah that emanates from Him:


Therefore, the Torah is called a tree, for a tree issues forth from the source and emanates from the source. Thus, the Torah emanates from God. And a tree which is planted in the source receives from the source, and so too the Torah receives life from the source which is God. Accordingly, when one seizes and takes hold of the Torah, it is a tree of life for him. And through it, life will be bestowed upon him from God. (Maharal, Derekh Chayyim 6:8)


            The Torah bestows life upon those who take hold of it - those who study it. The ark is plated with gold because the words of the Torah are more desired than gold, as the verse states: "More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold" (Tehillim 19:11). One who occupies himself with Torah elevates himself, and therefore becomes fit for length of days - the world-to-come.


            Therefore, notes the Maharal, the wood that alludes to eternal planting was covered, whereas the honor was visible. The wood was internal and covered, whereas the gold that represents honor and riches was visible from the outside.


            It is interesting that the Maharal likens the wood to the Torah, whose place is inside the ark, and the gold to the honor and riches that are visible from the outside.[6]


Did the ark have feet?


            The Ibn Ezra discusses the meaning of the term "pa'amotav," writing as follows:


I searched all of Scripture, and nowhere did I find the word "pa'am" in the sense of corner, but only in the sense of foot. "The feet of the poor and the steps (pa'am) of the needy" (Yeshayahu 26:6), "And walk in the way of his steps (pa'amav)" (Tehillim 85:14), "How beautiful are your feet (pe'amayikh)" (Shir ha-Shirim 7:2), and many others. I was therefore forced to explain that the ark had feet, for it would have been disgraceful for the ark to rest on the ground. (Shemot 25:12)


            The Ibn Ezra suggests that the ark had feet, and that this is the meaning of the term "pa'amotav." He explains that feet were necessary because it would be a disgrace for the ark to rest directly on the ground.


            This is also the position of the Abravanel:


It says, "And you shall cast for it" (Shemot 25:12), that is, for its sake, as it will be necessary to carry it with them, that he should melt the gold and make four rings from it that will be on its four pa'amot, i.e., its four feet. The ark had then four feet at its four corners, and above them were four rings. Scripture explains how they were placed, as it says: "And two rings shall be on one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it" (ibid.). Thus, there were two rings on one side on the two feet on that side, and two on the other side on the two feet. (Shemot 25:10).


            In contrast, Rashi understands that the ark did not have feet:


And they shall make an ark – It had the appearance of boxes, which people make without feet, in the shape of a chest which is called escrin in Old French, which rests on its bottom. (Shemot 25:10)


            The Ramban agrees with Rashi that the ark did not have feet, and he disagrees with the Ibn Ezra about the meaning of the term "pa'amotav." (He disagrees with several positions of the Ibn Ezra - that there were eight rings on the ark, that the poles were placed in the upper rings, and that the ark had feet.) According to him, the word "pa'am" does not mean foot, but rather step. "How beautiful are pa'amayikh" – your steps, as it says in the Talmud (Avoda Zara 18): "How beautiful are the steps of this young girl." And similarly: "Why are the hoof beats (pa'amei) of his steeds to tardy" (Shoftim 5:28). And the verse says "pa'amotav" in reference to the steps of the priests who carry it.


            Rashi (Shemot 28:12) comments on the word "pa'amotav" – "Understand this as the Targum renders it: on its corners." The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, ad loc.) explains that the word pa'am is used here in the sense of "that smote the anvil (pa'am)" (Yeshayahu 41:7) and "His spirit was troubled (va-tipa'em)" (Bereishit 41:8), which indicate striking. This is the meaning of the word "pa'amon" (bell), the body of which is struck by the clapper. This word is used for corners, because it is at its corner that an object makes initial contact with another object.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] It should be noted that these two understandings impact upon the way we understand the function and precise location of the rim. We shall deal with this issue when we discuss the rim.

[2] The different positions are clearly explained in the book "Sha'arei Heikhal" on tractate Yoma, 184, pp. 403-405.

[3] What was the thickness of the walls of the golden arks – the inner one and the outer one? This question may be raised whether we understand that there were three separate arks or we understand that we are dealing with a thin gold plating that covered the ark of shittim wood from the inside and the outside. The commentators disagreed on this qustion, and we find several different opinions (a thin plate, a dinar of gold, or half a handbreadth).

[4] This is also brought by the Chizkuni.

[5] The Ralbag (Shemot 25:11) concludes that the walls of the golden arks were especially thin (much thinner than those of the wooden ark), but thick enough to allow stability. Nevertheless, it would appear from all calculations that the weight of the ark was exceedingly great, such that it is not clear who carried whom – did the bearers carry the ark, or did the ark carry its bearers?

[6] Beyond the question discussed thus far – the relationship between the gold and the wood in the ark – there is room to ask whether there is any common denominator between the various vessels in the Mishkan that were made of shittim wood and covered with gold: the ark in the Holy of Holies and the golden ark and the table in the Holy. The parallels between the ark and the table are clear, but what are the parallels between them and the incense altar?