Last year we talked about the משכן as a whole. This year I want to look at one little part of it: the כפורת, the cover of the ארון. The text says:
First, some technical issues. How big was the כפורת? The Torah says 2.5 אמות by 1.5 אמות. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in The Living Torah uses a value of 18 inches, which sounds right if we assume an אמה means a “cubit”, the length of an average forearm (remember a yard,36 inches, was originally the length of the whole arm). But the halachic אמה is clearly larger than that; the gemara says a normal person is 3 אמות tall, and if he stretches out he can reach 4 אמות:
Now a 3 אמה person would be 4.5 feet tall; that’s too short to be normal (and if we say people really were shorter in those days, then their arms would have to be shorter as well). Tosfot on יומא לא,א proposes that גופו שלש אמות means up to the shoulders, which would be OK (say 9-12 inches for the head and neck), but then פשוט ידיו ורגליו would imply that the person could only stretch their arms from the shoulders 18 inches. That doesn’t make sense.
The Artscroll Beit Hamikdash takes a different approach, based on archeological evidence (unusual enough for an Artscroll sefer) on the Temple Mount, concludes that the אמה is 22.6 inches long, which would make an average person 67.8 inches (that’s my height!), and a full reach of 90.4 inches, which is what I measured for myself.
But that does not fit with the meaning of the word אמה: no one has a forearm one third their own height! There’s a possible explanation from the gemara in Eruvin:
So there is clearly a distinction between an “אמה של קדש”, a standard אמה of the מקדש, and a personal אמה. And this is hinted in יחזקאל, in his description of the future בית המקדש:
A טפח (handsbreath) is generally assumed to be 1/6 of an אמה, so יחזקאל's אמה של קדש would be 21 inches, which works out perfectly. So somewhere in Tanach history an “אמה” went from a literal אמה (forearm) to a standardized measurement that I suspect was calibrated not to the arm but to the concept of ארבע אמות, ones personal space, which is much more relevant halachically.
There’s some proof for this idea (that the אמה's length changed from בית ראשון to בית שני), in דברי הימים (which was written in the times of בית שני, describing the construction of בית ראשון):
And Ibn Ezra mentions this in this week’s parasha:
So we will assume 18 inches for the ארון's אמה. How thick was it?
That’s a lot of gold. 45 x 27 x 3 = 3645 cubic inches weighs 40,459.5 ounces (the density is 11.1 ounces per cubic inch), or about 2500 pounds! (For comparison, King Tut’s coffin weighed 240 pounds, also made of solid gold). Even if you want to say that the ארון was carried miraculously, we know the total amount of gold used in the משכן was 87,730 shekels (שמות לח:כד). Archeologically, a shekel was about 10 grams, so the total gold used was 87,730 ✕ 10 ✕ 0.00220462 pounds per gram = 1934 pounds. That’s for everything!
So I would assume that the כפורת was hollow: an inverted box with some sort of internal baffling to keep it from collapsing. The Ibn Ezra has an interesting comment:
Which would be a weight of 30 kilos, or 66 pounds. Rabbi Kaplan estimates that, if that includes the כרבים, the כפורת would be 1/8 inch thick.
But that’s the easy question. The hard one is the things on top of the כפורת: the כרבים. Rashi explains דמות פרצוף תינוק להם, from the gemara:
And they had wings from the text itself, which is where we get the iconic image of “cherubic” angels. Rashi in בראשית gives a different explanation:
Rabbi Meir Goldwicht asks in Mitokh Ha-Ohel on the Parasha, ”How can the keruvim have “double faces“, on the one hand appearing as children, and on the other hand being like angels of destruction?” At one level, that’s a joke: anyone who’s had children knows they are little angels of destruction. On a deeper level, the question is, what are these כרבים supposed to symbolize?
There are many explanations given for the symbolism of the משכן (Rabbi Gil Student has an overview). The Ramban famously takes it as a reconstruction of the Sinai experience:
And the כרבים were part of that experience:
Seforno’s comment that the כרבים were נראים לנביאים is based on the Rambam’s idea that “angels” as manifestations of G-d’s will have no real form:
And the Rambam has an interesting comment in his “Treatise on Resurrection” about the incorporeality of angels:
But then actually making a physical form is incredibly dangerous. The Torah itself realizes this, and warns against over-reading the command to fashion כרבים:
And in fact, we see in Jewish history that the כרבים were taken as Jewish idols. The Philistines clearly saw it that way:
As did the Romans, thousands of years later:
So why have these statues in the Holy of Holies? Seforno hints at the answer: they represent part of the Heavenly host, what is called in Kabbalah the Merkava:
The מרכבה is that which holds the כבוד ה, the manifestation of the Divine in the physical world. Which means that, whatever the esoteric symbolism of יחזקאל's vision, in this world, it is human beings who have the ability to be the מרכבה:
And at Sinai it was the Jewish people as whole who were the מרכבה:
We could mention the symbolism of the four-faced כרבים in יחזקאל's vision, that corresponded to the symbols on the four flags of the camp of Israel (man, lion, ox and eagle).
So what does it mean, to “be the merkava”? It is to be a קידוש ה׳, as Seforno said ראוי שיהיו בישראל כל קדושיו מחוברים אל ההמון להבין ולהורות. And we need to be reminded of our role, and our history as part of the experience of Sinai. The symbolism of the כרבים is not meant to be a representation of angels per se; that would be a violation of לא תעשון אתי. They are meant to be a representation of us, and the level that we once attained and still strive toward.
In the times of the בית המקדש, the people had the opportunity to see how close we could come to הקב״ה:
And this lesson is important enough to warrant the risk of misinterpreting the statues. Rav Soloveitchik explains:
So the כרבים are there to let us relive our role at Sinai as the carriers of ה׳'s presence in the world, to inspire us to continue in that role and to remind us of the relationship that we have with הקב״ה. No wonder they can be seen both as רביא, innocent children full of potential, and as מלאכי חבלה, forces of destruction, if we get that wrong.