Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Parshat Teruma

The Keruvim

The Keruvim (Cherubs) were two images that sat on the kapporet, the cover, on the Ark of the Covenant.

The Torah tells Moshe to: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another" (Shemot 25:20).

Essentially, the keruvim faced each other with their wings held over their heads,

Surprisingly, when Shlomo built the Temple, he placed the keruvim slightly differently.

"He (Shlomo) set the cherubim within the inner house; and they stretched forth the wings of the cherubim, and the wing of the one touched the wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings in the midst of the house touched one another" (I Melachim 6:27).

Shlomo's Keruvim did not face each other – they stood side by side. One wing of each keruv touched a wall, while the second touched the wing of the other. They, therefore looked out of the Holy of Holies.

What is the significance of this difference?

I have heard in the name of Rabbi Menachem Liebtag that this difference epitomizes the difference between the Mishkan and the Temple and symbolizes a change in the relationship of God and the Jewish people.

When Israel built the Mishkan, it was a young nation, discovering its identity and beginning to figure out its relationship with God. It was insecure and needed God's reassurance and guidance. Hence, the Keruvim looked at each other, like a newly wed married couple – they only had eyes for each other. With the Mishkan and this relationship with God, Israel became a "holy nation" (See Shemot 19:6).

However, Israel had a second mission; to become a "kingdom of priests" (ibid). Israel could only begin fulfilling that mission once it was secure in its own identity. At the time of Shlomo, Israel became an empire. It had no wars and no troubles with its neighbors. On the contrary, it began to develop a healthy relationship with its surrounding nations and trade flourished.

It was a kind of messianic era. It was time for Israel to stop looking inwards and to begin looking outwards. It was time for a Temple.

Symbolic of this new stage in Israel's development, the keruvim no longer needed to look at each other. They still need each other; indeed, they held hands. However, they no longer needed to look at each other – they needed to start looking out for others and to begin their destiny of being a "kingdom of priests".

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Teruma, entitled: "Living With God" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Teruma, entitled: "A Home for God" appears at

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Blogger smoo said...

I don't know if there is a distinction as you described. The cherubs of the Iron Age where griffin-like. They had the body of a lion, wings and a human head. It is quite possible to have two standing side by side, wings up and arched to cover the ark and yet have the heads turned to face on and other. I have to check Richard Elliot Friedman has a drawing that may be of use here. I'll get back to you when I can.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Moshe Abelesz said...

Thanks for your comments - I read Friedman's book about a year ago -I don't recall him talking about the direction of the face of the keruvim - but whatever they looked like, I am not aware of any evidence to suggest they had their heads turned sidewards. If you have any, I would be very excited to see it.

10:45 AM  
Blogger smoo said...

My initial comment was based on my recollection that Richard E. Frieman equated the mishkan to the first temple. I reread that part to clarify. He shows that beneath the wingspan of the two side-by-side cherubim of the first temple there was actually the exact space (in cubits) to fit the mishkan. He demonstrates from pesukim and other sources that the mishkan was actually housed within the first temple (whether in the space beneath the wings or stored somewhere but with the space between the wings delineating the proper holy dimensions). {Apparently there is an Israelite temple in Arad that also uses these holy dimensions so there must be something special about those specific dimensions}.

The Encyclopedia Judaica describes cherubim as having "wings [that]come together constituting the throne on which the glory of YHWH appeared."

William Dever in 'Did God have a Wife' p.165 describes how "lion thrones" were "very common in Ancient Near Eastern art and iconography...always associated with deities...often represented as cherubs-potent symbols of the divine presence and power...with wings."

Now considering the fact that winged lions (cherubim) were so commonly used to represent thrones of deities and the Israelites obviously were exposed to this and even incorporated it into their practice, I have been drawn to a unique conclusion. While many translate Shemot 25:20 as implying that the cherubim faced each other thus being directly opposite, I have found a translation by Rabbi A.M. Silbermann as follows: "...and their faces turned (italics in original) towards on and other..." It does not say they stood opposite ('mool' or K'neget or No'chach) one and other but rather that their faces were turned towards each other.

The Artscroll chumash shows the cherubim (incorrectly as humans with wings) with the wings extending upward, over their heads and forward towards its mirror image facing it, wingtips touching. I guess even a griffin-like creature can be imagined to lift its wings up, over its head and forward in front of itself towards it own mirror image. Those wings then become the throne on which the glory of God 'sits' (Kah v'yachol). But that is a very odd way to set up a throne especially in light of the familiar manner where the griffins are side by side and their wings are to the side. Why deviate from that? Solomon didn't. It is our reading/interpreting of the pasuk that leads to this odd image and awkward throne. It makes for a more realistic throne in the manner described by Solomon's temple, 2 small griffins on opposite sides of the lid in parallel with each other, wings up and out to the side thus covering the lid and looking like the throne of God. Their face turned towards each other and inclined downward towards the lid (as per the end of the pasuk-perhaps it is a gesture of bowing before the king) (I think that possibly their eyes looked at each other while the heads were turned towards each other and inclined downward). I can't know this for a fact and certainly later sources may be unduly influenced as well. I don't know that we can ever know but there certainly is room within the interpretation of the pasuk and in light of the archaeological representations to at least seriously consider this possibility. As far as I know this is a novel interpretation that I thank you for generating within me by your interesting post. This does not change your d'var torah about why they face each other on the ark but not in the temple. But it does offer an interesting way to imagine the iconography of the mishkan's ark.

One afterthought, the way Artscroll depicts the cherubim on the ark reminds me a lot of the birckat cohanim.

A friend looking at it thought it made a great handle to lift the lid.

1:06 AM  
Blogger smoo said...

I laid it out a little nicer with photos at:

11:46 PM  

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