What Rests Alongside the Ark and Inside it? The Tablets of the Covenant (3)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 
*********************************************************
Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi
*********************************************************

 

Lecture 156: What rests inside the ark and alongside it?

The tablets of the covenant (3)

 

 

            Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan (chap. 6) presents the divergent views of the Tanna’im regarding the relationship between the tablets, the book of the Torah, and the thickness of the ark:[1]

 

The ark that Moshe made in the wilderness was two and a half cubits in length, a cubit and a half in width, and a cubit and a half in height. As it is stated: "And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height."

R. Meir says: With a cubit of six handbreadths. We have here fifteen handbreadths. Deduct twelve handbreadths for the width of the tablets, and two handbreadths for the space in which the book of the Torah rested, and a half of a handbreadth on the one side and a half of a handbreadth on the other side for the thickness of the ark. And the ark was nine handbreadths in width. Deduct six handbreadths for the length of the tablets, and two handbreadths for the space in which the book of the Torah rested, so as to allow it to be put in and taken out without squeezing, and a half of a handbreadth on the one side and a half of a handbreadth on the other side for the thickness of the ark.

R. Yehuda says: With a cubit of five handbreadths. We have here twelve and a half handbreadths. Four tablets rested in it, two whole ones and two broken ones. Each of the tablets was six handbreadths long, six [handbreadths] wide, and three [handbreadths] thick. Deduct twelve handbreadths for the width of the tablets and a finger on the one side and a finger on the other side for the thickness of the ark. And the width of the ark was seven and a half handbreadths. Deduct six handbreadths for the length of the tablets and one handbreadth for the space in which rested the pillars. And about this it is stated explicitly: "King Shlomo made himself a palanquin of the timbers of the Lebanon; he made its pillars of silver" (Shir ha-Shirim 3:9). And a finger on the one side and a finger on the other side for the thickness of the ark. But the book of the Torah was put on the side, as it is stated: "And put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord" (Devarim 31:26). And similarly regarding the Pelishtim it says: "And put the golden devices which you are restoring to him for a guilt offering in a box by the side of it" (I Shemuel 6:8).

 

            According to R. Meir, the dimensions were given using a cubit of six handbreadths. The ark was thus fifteen handbreadths long and nine handbreadths wide and high. The length of the ark was comprised of twelve handbreadths for the two tablets (each of the two tablets, which rested side by side, was six handbreadths long), two handbreadths for the book of the Torah, and a handbreadth for the thickness of the ark (a half of a handbreadth on each side), for a total of fifteen handbreadths. (According to the gemara in Bava Batra 14a, each of the tablets was six by six handbreadths).

 

            As for the width, the two handbreadths of empty space allowed for the easy removal of the book of the Torah from the ark.[2] Of the nine handbreadths of the width of the ark, the tablets took up six handbreadths, the walls of the ark took up a handbreadth (a half a handbreadth on each side), and two handbreadths were left empty in order to make it easy to remove the book of the Torah and put it back without squeezing.

 

            According to R. Yehuda, the dimensions were given using a cubit of five handbreadths. The ark was thus twelve and a half handbreadths long and seven and a half handbreadths wide and high. According to R. Yehuda, both the whole tablets and the broken tablets rested in the ark. (According to Rashi, the two broken tablets rested below the whole tablets.) The tablets were six handbreadths in length, six handbreadths in width, and three handbreadths thick. The length of the ark was comprised of twelve handbreadths for the two tablets, and two fingers for the width of the thickness of the walls of the ark, one finger on each side. According to this view, therefore, there was no room along the length of the ark to put the book of the Torah, which requires two handbreadths.

 

As for the width, six of the seven and a half handbreadths were needed for the tablets, one handbreadth was needed for the place to put the pillars of silver, and two fingers were needed for the thickness of the wall, one finger on each side.

 

To summarize the essential differences between the viewpoints of R. Meir and R. Yehuda that stem from their different measures:[3]

 

The location of the book of the Torah: According to R. Meir, the book of the Torah rested inside the ark alongside the tablets, whereas according to R. Yehuda, the book of the Torah rested on a shelf outside the ark, above the box of the Pelishtim.

 

The location of the pillars of silver: According to R. Meir, the pillars rested outside the ark, whereas according to R. Yehuda, the pillars were inside the ark alongside the tablets.

 

The broken tablets: R. Meir does not mention them; according to R. Yehuda, they were found inside the ark under the whole tablets (according to Rashi).

 

Which commandments were written on the Tablets?

 

R. Chanina ban Agil asked R. Chiyya bar Abba: Why in the first Ten Commandments is there no mention of "good" [i.e., some form of the word "tov"], whereas in the second Ten Commandments, there is a mention of "good"? … Because the [first tablets containing the] Commandments were destined to be broken. (Bava Kama 54b-55a)

 

            This question rests on the assumption that the version of the commandments in Parashat Yitro was written on the first tablets, while the version of the commandments in Parashat Va-etchanan was written on the second tablets.

 

            Indeed, the Ibn Ezra brings this as the view of R. Sa'adya Gaon:

 

On the first tablets were written the Ten Commandments as they are written in Parashat Yitro, while in the second tablets they were written as they were written in Parashat Va-etchanan. (Shemot 34:1)

 

            And similarly we find in the midrash:

 

"Two tablets of stone like the first ones" – What is meant by "like the first ones" (Devarim 10:1)? That they should be identical to the first ones in size and in appearance. The second tablets were superior to the first tablets in four ways: No ark was made from the outset for the first tablets, whereas an ark was made for the second tablets. As it is stated: "And I made an ark of shittim wood, and hewed [two tablets]" (ibid. v. 3). And they were like a bride entering into her bridal chamber. In the first tablets, there is no mention of "good," whereas in the second tablets, there is mention of "good." As it is stated: "That it may be good for you" (ibid. 5:16). In the first tablets, the features of Moshe's face did not shine. The first tablets came down and found Israel involved in that act [the golden calf], whereas the second tablets came down on Yom Kippur, and Israel received them with fasting and supplication. (Midrash ha-Gadol, Shemot 34:1)

 

            The midrash states that the second set of tablets contained "good," the reference being to the Ten Commandments found in Parashat Va-etchanan.

 

            The Maharal clarifies the meaning of the difference between the two sets of tablets:

 

This means, as we said, that the first tablets were not worthy according to this world, and therefore there is no mention of good in them. For the word "good" is used for a reality that is worthy and good. And therefore you find in all the work of creation, on each day, "And God saw that it was good," saying that the reality was worthy and good. And the first tablets, owing to their level, were not worthy, according to the reality of this world, and therefore it would not be fitting for "good" to be written in them. And you can only say that the tablets are in accordance with the level of this world if you can say that the recipients are worthy of the tablets. For were the recipients at the level of the angels, then they would be worthy of the tablets. Therefore, if "good" were written in the first tablets, which would indicate that the tablets were in accordance with the level of this world based on the recipients, and then the tablets were broken because of sin, then good would end, God forbid, in Israel. For the fact that the tablets were broken would indicate that Israel no longer has the level that they once had, and it would indicate that Israel no longer has after the sin the reality worthy of the term "good." But now that "good" was not mentioned in them, indicating that the tablets were not in accordance with the reality of this world, but only because Israel was at the level of the angels when they received the Torah, a level that is not fitting according to the reality of this world, and Israel was also at the level of the angels – when the tablets were broken because of the sin, the reality worthy of this world did not cease from Israel. Rather, what ceased was the level that is not worthy of the reality of this world, that Israel was at the level of angels. Israel was not similar to the first man, Adam. For truly before Adam sinned and he was in the Garden of Eden, that level that was in the Garden of Eden was not fit for this world, and it is not part of the reality of this world. To the point that he sinned and was banished from the Garden of Eden and his lofty level that is not fit for this world was removed, and he remained at the level that is fit for this world. Similarly, Israel before they sinned were at a level not fit for this world, and in this way God gave Israel the tablets when they were at the level of angels, until after they sinned and Israel was at the level fitting for them according to the reality fit for this world. And therefore it is only in the second tablets, which were the work of Moshe, fitting according to the level of this world, and something that is fitting according to the reality, that "good" is mentioned in connection with them. This is what it says: "I had said, You are angels, all of you sons of the most High; Nevertheless, you shall die like a man." And this is what R. Ashi said that for this reason "good" is not mentioned in the first tablets, lest they say, God forbid, that good has ceased from Israel.

 

            According to the Maharal, the first set of tablets were broken because they were not at the level of this world. While they were given at first to Israel, it was only because at the time of the giving of the Torah, Israel was at the level of the angels, above the level of this world. Following the sin of the golden calf, when Israel returned to the level of the material world, they were no longer worthy of the tablets, which are the work of God.

 

            In this way, the Maharal explains the difference between the two sets of tablets. Had the first tablets mentioned the word "good," this would indicate that the tablets were in accordance with the reality fit for this world, because the word "good" is used in connection with worthy reality. This would imply that worthy reality for this world is only when the people of Israel are at the level that they had been before the sin of the golden calf, and that when the tablets were broken, this indicated that Israel lost the status of worthy and good reality, just as the tablets no longer existed. Now that the word "good" was only written in the second tablets, this indicates that Israel's level after the sin was fit for this world, and that as long as Israel clings to the Torah and the service of God, this is a reality that is worthy of the level of this world and it is called "good."

 

            It turns out that there is a profound connection between the level of the people of Israel and the tablets. The first tablets were at the level of Israel when they were at the level of the angels. They did not endure because Israel did not remain at that level when they sinned with the golden calf. In contrast, the second tablets accorded with the level of Israel after the sinned; they included the word "good," and this could endure.

 

with what script were the tablets written?

 

Mar Zutra, or some say Mar Ukba, said: Originally, the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew script and in the sacred [Hebrew] language. Later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashurit script…

Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-nasi] said: The Torah was originally given to Israel in this [Ashurit] script. When they sinned, it was changed into Ro'atz. But when they repented, the [Assyrian characters] were re-introduced, as it is written: "Turn you to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope"…

R. Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of R. Elazar ben Parta, who said in the name of R. Elazar Ha-moda’i: This writing [of the law] was never changed, for it is written: "The 'vavim' [hooks] of the pillars" - as the word "pillars" had not changed, neither had the word "vavim" [hooks]. Again, it is written: "And unto the Jews, according to their writing and language" - as their language had not changed, neither had their writing. (Sanhedrin 21b-22a)

 

            According to R. Yehuda Ha-nasi and R. Elazar ha-Mod'ai, the Torah was given to Israel in the Ashurit script, whereas according to Mar Zutra, the Torah was originally given in the Hebrew script, and later in the time of Ezra it was given again in the Ashurit script.

 

            A Geonic responsum adduces support for the position that the Torah was given in the Ashurit script from a gemara in Shabbat (104a) that states that the letters mem and samekh stood in the tablets by way of a miracle. In Teshuvat ha-Geonim (no. 358) and in the commentaries of Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ran, the law is decided in accordance with the position of R. Elazar Ha-moda’i and R. Yehuda Ha-nasi, and they bring proof from this gemara, as a miracle is necessary in this case only if the words were written in Ashurit script.[4]

 

How was the writing written on the Tablets?

 

            With respect to the first tablets, the Torah writes:

 

And Moshe turned and went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand, tablets written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. (Shemot 32:15)

 

            The Rishonim (ad loc.) write as follows:

 

Rashi:

 

"On both their sides" – Could the letters be read, and constituted a miraculous piece of work.

 

Rabbeinu Sa'adya Gaon apparently alludes to the words of Chazal:

 

"On the one side and on the other" – From within and from without.

 

            The Ibn Ezra cites the words of Chazal, and then says:

 

In my opinion, there is no need for a miracle, for the stones of the tablets were not like the milu'im stones. Rather, they were thick. For the verse states that they were written on both their sides, and not from one side, as the letters were seen reversed on the other side.

 

            The gemara in Shabbat 104a states:

 

R. Chisda said: The mem and the samekh which were in the tablets stood [there] by a miracle. R. Hisda also said: The writing of the tablets could be read from within and without, e.g., nebub [hollow] would be read buban; behar [in the mountain] [as] rahav; saru [they departed] [as] varas.

 

            The author of the Roke'ach (commentary to Shemot 32:16) writes that the second set of tablets were also written from both sides, and that the letters mem and samekh in the second tablets also stood by way of a miracle. This is also the position of the Meshekh Chokhma.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] This issue is also addressed by the gemara in Bava Batra.

[2] The gemara in Bava Batra 14b notes that the High Priest would read from this book of the Torah on Yom Kippur, and the king would read from it at the Hakhel ceremony.

[3] It would seem to me that we should not draw any spiritual conclusions from the relationship between the tablets and the book of the Torah according to these two positions, as the difference between them stems from different calculations of the length of a cubit.

[4] Is the discussion regarding the tablets identical to the issue regarding the book of the Torah or not? Asher Myers (in his book, Melekhet ha-Mishkan ve-Keilav, p. 47) wishes to prove from the Geonic responsum, Rabbeinu Chananel, and the Ran that the Tannaim disagreed even with respect to whether the tablets were written in Ashurit script or in Hebrew script. On the other hand, the Ritva (Megilla 2b, s.v. ve-tistabra) and the Maharal (as cited in Tif'eret Yisrael) write that all agree that the tablets were written in Ashurit script.