Parashat Vaykahel / In Search of the Lost Ark

What happened to the holy ark, its covering (kaporet) and the cherubs? And, most important, where had the tablets gone?

God grants the two Tablets of the Covenant to Moses on Mount Sinai. Seeing Israel worshiping the golden calf, Moses shatters the tablets; new ones are created and placed, with the shattered fragments, in the Ark of the Covenant, whose construction by Bezalel, son of Uri, is described in this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20). After King Solomon completes construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the ark is transferred to its Holy of Holies, remaining there until the Temple’s destruction.

The ark and tablets were not placed in the Second Temple. When the high priest entered it once yearly on the Day of Atonement, he had to manage with what remained instead of them: “When the ark was removed, a stone was there from the days of the early prophets. It was called the foundation stone [even hashetiya]; it was three finger-breadths high and the high priest would hurl the blood [of the sacrifices] on it” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 5:2).

What happened to the holy ark, its covering (kaporet) and the cherubs? And, most important, where had the tablets gone? Three possible answers are given in the Talmud: “We learn from Rabbi Eliezer that the ark was exiled from the Holy Land together with the Jews to Babylon. How do we know this? Because it is written, ‘nothing shall be left, saith the Lord.’ The word davar [thing, or words] in this verse obviously refers to the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written and which had been placed in the ark. Furthermore, it is written, ‘... And King Nebuchadnezzar ... and brought him to Babylon, with the goodly vessels of the house of the Lord [2 Chronicles 36:10].’

“What were these goodly vessels? Obviously, the term refers to the ark. Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish, says: The ark remained there but was concealed, as it is written, ‘And the staves were so long that the ends of the staves were seen from the holy place, even before the Sanctuary; but they could not be seen without’ [1 Kings 8:8].’ Rabbanan say: The ark was concealed in the room where the wood was stored. One day, a deformed priest who was chopping wood in that storeroom noticed that one of the floor tiles was different from the others. He summoned his colleague, saying, ‘See that tile; it looks different from the others.’ The moment he uttered those words, his soul departed and everyone now knew that this was where the ark was concealed” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shekalim 6:1).

Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion – that the ark was exiled to Babylon with the Kingdom of Judah’s inhabitants – is based on the prophecy Isaiah gave in the presence of Hezekiah, king of Judah: “Behold, the days come, that all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 39:6).

By linking “davar,” which appears in the latter part of the verse, and the Ten Commandments, “asseret hadibrot,” Rabbi Eliezer interprets this verse as referring to the ark and the tablets it contains. He cites a verse from 2 Chronicles relating that King Nebuchadnezzar brought to Babylon the “goodly vessels of the house of the Lord”; in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, this term refers to the ark, its kaporet and the cherubs.

Reish Lakish – Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish – bases his interpretation on a verse from 1 Kings describing the ark when it was placed in the First Temple’s Holy of Holies.

His interpretation rests on the final words of 1 Kings 8:8, which are not cited in the Jerusalem Talmud: “and there they are unto this day.” In a literal reading, this term refers to the time when the Book of Kings was written; however, Reish Lakish believes it relates to his own era. If the ark is still in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, it must be concealed beneath the floor tiles.

Both Rabbi Eliezer’s and Reish Lakish’s explanations of the ark’s location are political statements with important ideological implications for the Jewish people’s continued survival, not during the period immediately following the First Temple’s destruction but rather during their own era – 250 years after the Second Temple’s destruction.

The ark with the tablets that God gave Moses is metonymic of the Jews’ liberty. The metonymy is derived from the Jews’ reputation as the so-called people of the book, embodied by the tablets found in Jewish territory.

If the ark containing the tablets is in Babylon, as Rabbi Eliezer suggests, Babylon can be seen as a legitimate territory for reconsolidation of a splendid Jewish community; this process lasted from the era of the Amoraim until that of the last Geonim in Babylon. If, however, the ark is concealed beneath the floor of the destroyed Temple, then everything must be done to restore Jewish life amid the ruins of the Kingdom of Judah. The myth of the people of the book is given meaning by dint of regional continuity, not because of the new center of the Oral Law in Babylon.

However, the most interesting interpretation is the third one, introduced by Rabbanan, a group of nameless Talmudic scholars, and quoted by the Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Shekalim. This interpretation is not a virtuoso exegesis that focuses on a specific biblical verse, but actually the expression of a political position. It is rather a short, cryptic tale dating from the Temple period, phrased in Mishnaic Hebrew.

The room where the wood was stored in the Temple to stoke the fire needed for animal sacrifices lacks any particular religious standing. Nor is the hero of this tale a prominent priest. He has a physical deformity that renders him ineligible to present sacrifices together with able-bodied priests, as it is written, “Whosoever he be of thy [Aaron’s] seed throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God” (Leviticus 21:17). That is why he must engage in the Sisyphean task of chopping wood for the altar.

Here is a marginal figure in a marginal place, who studies the architecture of the room where he works and notices something strange about the floor. The Jerusalem Talmud does not specify the anomaly’s nature, thereby preventing the tale from becoming a map for a treasure hunt. Excited by his discovery, the priest tells his colleague, who may be another disfigured priest or perhaps an able-bodied one; however, before the two can do anything about it, the first priest dies.

The narrative then shifts into the plural case, with the words yadu (“everyone knew”) – implying that the priest’s death quickly becomes public knowledge  – requiring an explanation. Although the explanation is not the result of an ordinary deductive process, the priest’s death indicates to everyone that the ark is concealed beneath the storeroom floor.

The ark is neither in its original place nor in a foreign land; instead, it is close to its initial location. However, its concealment is not a one-time act that will be transcended the moment the ark’s location is revealed. The ark has a will of its own and is determined to remain concealed; it punishes in a magical manner anyone who discovers its hiding place.

Rabbi Eliezer and Reish Lakish look for signs in the Bible reveal the Torah’s hiding place. The tale presented by Rabbanan, however, argues that the Bible cannot reveal this because the Torah does not wish to be discovered. Rabbi Eliezer and Reish Lakish create interpretations that place the ark in a site where the remnants of the Torah granted at Mount Sinai can serve as the basis for continued study. However, in the third interpretation, the physical remnants of the event at Mount Sinai do not seek to be part of history; they want to keep their hiding place a mystery, perhaps in order to pave the way for a new Torah from Mount Sinai.