The Keruvim

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






The Keruvim


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





In our parasha, Hashem commands Moshe about the monumental project that awaits Bnei Yisrael - the building the Mishkan (Tabernacle).[1]  In the Ramban’s opinion, this act of construction constitutes the climax and purpose of Sefer Shemot and the exodus from slavery:


... Sefer Shemot discusses the exile [i.e., the slavery in Egypt] ... and Bnei Yisrael's redemption from that exile... For the descent of the children of Yaakov to Egypt marked the beginning of that exile... and that exile does not end until they return to the spiritual level of their forefathers... Even though Bnei Yisrael had left Egypt [i.e., the physical redemption of the Exodus], they are not yet considered redeemed... [However,] when they reach Har Sinai and build the Mishkan and Hashem returns His Shekhina to dwell among them, then they have returned to the spiritual level of their forefathers [spiritual redemption]... Therefore, Sefer Shemot concludes with the topic of the Mishkan and the constant dwelling of Hashem's Glory upon it [for this marks the completion of the redemption process]. (Ramban, introduction to Sefer Shemot


Our parasha describes the building of the utensils of the Mishkan.  Central to the Mishkan, of course, was the aron kodesh, which contained the two luchot and was adorned with two keruvim.  Most people have seen drawings of a nicely trimmed golden box with poles at the sides and two angelic figures on top, wings often joined at the tips.  But what were the keruvim really?  Why did they raise more concern and critique among the commentators then any other utensil, and what symbolic meaning do they convey?




The earliest source that attempts to explain the keruvim is the Talmud (Chagiga 13a):


What is a Keruv? R. Avahu said: Ke-ravia, since in Babylon, a child is called ravia. R. Papa said to Abaye: It is stated, “The first was the face of a cherub, and the second was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion…” – is not the face of a cherub the face of a man?! (Rashi: What does it mean, “what is the face of a man and what that of a cherub” - are they not the same?) … One is the face of an adult and the other that of a child.


This approach was adopted by Rashi in his commentary on Chumash, where he states that the keruvim had children’s faces (25:18).  According to this interpretation, the letter kaf has a comparative function here – ke-ravia means “like a child.” This is true in spite of the use of the word “ha-keruvim (in which the kaf appears as part of the root), since over time, the kaf became part the word ruv (from ravia – child).


According to the Rashbam and the Chizkuni, however, the keruvim were "large winged birds."  Clearly, they understood these birds as symbolic of the heavenly nature of the Torah contained within the aron. 


Rabbeinu Bachayei brings an interpretation similar to that of Rashi, with one glaring difference:


“And make two keruvim of gold:” … One of the keruvim may have been in the shape of a man and the other of a small child, as Yechezkel saw, “The first face was that of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a man” (Yechezkel 10:14). Our Sages comment (Sukka 5b), “Keruv and man are identical, only one had the face of an adult and the other of a child.” This testifies to God’s love for Israel, like the intense love of a father for his child. (Commentary to 25:18)


For Rabbeinu Bachayei, the keruvim represent the manner of the transmission of the Torah and the nature of the connection between Hashem and the Jewish People.


For many commentators, however, the following image is most representative of that connection:


R. Katina said: Whenever Israel came up [to the Temple] for the festival, the curtain [of the sanctuary] would be removed for them and the keruvim, whose bodies were intertwined, were shown to them.  Then [the onlookers] would be thus addressed: Look!  You are beloved before Hashem as the love between man and woman!" (Yoma 54a) 


Based on the prophetic imagery of Hoshea and Shir Ha-shirim (among other places), R. Katina argues that the male and female keruvim, located at the point of juncture between heaven and earth, the place from which Hashem’s voice speaks to His beloved people,  symbolize the fervent love between them. 




An obvious problem pervades our discussion:  Didn’t Hashem explicitly command us, “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves” (Shemot 34:17)?   One of the Torah’s most fundamental principles is its unwavering and relentless opposition to idolatry!  The Ten Commandments strongly proclaimed, "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below..." (Shemot 20:4).  Yet, in Hashem’s very own dwelling, we find the sculptured golden images of  two keruvim, spreading their wings over Hashem’s word! 


The midrashic literature reflects the incongruity this poses.  The Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael suggests the following answer: 


“You shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold” (Shemot 20:20) - Why was this verse stated?  Since it is written, “You shall make two keruvim of gold” (25:18), one might say, “I will make four keruvim.” The Torah [therefore] states, “[You shall not make...] gods of gold” - if you make more than two [keruvim], they are like gods of gold... “Nor shall you make for yourselves” - so that one not think that since the Torah permitted to [make the keruvim] in the Temple, he will also make [sculptured images] in synagogues and in houses of study; the Torah states “nor shall you make FOR YOURSELVES." (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, ch. 10) 


According to this response, the keruvim are an exception to the rule, and one can not learn from the keruvim that golden imagery is permissible.  From the verse's specification of "nor shall you make FOR YOURSELVES," we learn that adding a keruv in the Mishkan is forbidden, and they are prohibited completely anywhere outside of the MishkanHashem basically states: While I permit it in My temple, I prohibit you from making it for yourselves. 


Another answer can be found in an obscure work titled Perushim La-Rashi, published in Constantinople in the sixteenth century by R. Aaron ben Gershon Aboulrabi.  A relatively unknown fifteenth-century Sicilian rabbi, he was the son-in-law of the Aragonese rabbi R. Moses ibn Gabbai. In this work, R. Aboulrabi claims that he discussed the problems concerning the keruvim with the Pope and his cardinals while visiting Rome. (Whether this is a factual recollection or an embellishment of an actual occurrence, or even an entirely fictitious portrayal, is not relevant for us at present.) In addition to the issue of “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves,” R. Aboulrabi also addressed another objection. Wouldn’t people begin to believe that the keruvim were the real source of the miracles that Moshe performed?  Here is his account:


When I was in the metropolis of Rome in the palace of the Pope, with the cardinals surrounding him, I was asked this question… “We are most amazed and astonished about the matter of the cherubs that Moshe was commanded to make in the Holy of Holies in a manner that the potency of the voice and speech concerning all that he [Moshe] wished to know would come forth from them. This is tantamount to the craft of talismans manufactured in accordance with the potencies of the constellations and the wisdom of aspects [i.e., the angular relationship between planets - conjunction, opposition, etc.]. There is no greater [violation of the prohibition against] “other gods” [Shemot 20:3] than this! He [Hashem] had already enjoined as a root of the Decalogue at its beginning: “You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness, etc.” [Shemot 20:3-4]. It [also] states: “You shall not make molten gods for yourself” [Shemot 34:17]. Such [prohibitions] are many, and there is no greater [example of] molten gods than the cherubs. It would [therefore] arise in the mind of any person that all of the miracles and wonders that Moshe would perform [lit., “actualize”] were by means of the potency of the cherubs, as it states: “[When Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him,] he would hear the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the ark of the pact between the two cherubs, etc.” [Bamidbar 7:89]. Therefore, we have queried you whether there is an answer to our question.

[I responded as follows]…It is known to all and explicit in the Torah that our master Moshe, peace be upon him, had, according to Hashem’s will and command, performed many miracles and wonders before the manufacture of the cherubs. [Moreover,] Pharaoh’s wise men and astrologers tested him in a searching investigation [to determine] if his deeds occurred by means of the potency of the wisdom of the constellations and craft of talismans. They discerned and discovered that all his deeds and wonders occurred through the potency and will of Hashem… It is clear that every deed of our master Moshe, peace be upon him, was in accordance with the will of Hashem, blessed be He.

Now, if you were to say, “If so, what is the rationale for the making of the cherubs in terms of what they accomplish?” I would first state a general proposition… In science, every act derives from a potency, and that every potency is the potency to bring about some act… and the existence of any correlative requires the existence of the other thing to which it is related. It follows that it is impossible for something that lacks potency to bring about any act. Now, figures and talismans are made of inanimate minerals, trees, and stones that lack potency even with respect to [bringing about change in] themselves. How, then, can they bring about an act in another? The cherubs were from the mineral of gold reworked by human hands. They possess neither potency nor sentience nor act. If so, it is necessary to affirm and believe that all that our master Moshe, peace be upon him, would do was not through the instrumentality of any created thing but rather from Hashem alone, Lord of Hosts.

For the honor of the tablets and their glory, Hashem desired to make His presence dwell in the Ark of the Covenant, “from above the cover, from between the two cherubs” [Shemot 25:22], and from there did He choose to make overflow His prophecy and all of His wonders… The proof [that the cherubs did not draw down astral forces] lies in the verse, “There I will meet with you and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two cherubs […all that I will command you]” [Shemot 25:22]. It did not say “from the cherubs” [but from between them].[2]


According to R. Aboulrabi, it was for “the honor of the tablets [found in the ark] and their glory” that “Hashem desired to make his presence dwell…” If anything, it is the tablets of the law, not the cherubs, that adorned the ark containing them. They stand out as ancient Israel’s sacred artifacts par excellence. What the tablets attracted to the Mishkan, however, was not astral efflux, but Divine presence. His point that Divine communications did not issue “from” the cherubs but “from between them” is an “exegetical coup de grace.”[3]




If they are not the source of God’s presence, what symbolic meaning do the keruvim convey?  Let us study three post-medieval commentators and analyze how they differ in their understanding. 


In the Keli Yakar, R. Efraim of Lonshitz writes:


“And make upon it a rim of gold round about:” … Two keruvim in the shape of cherubic angels and in the form of small children, to teach that if the master is like an angel, free from all sin as a one year-old child, then people will want to learn Torah from him. One must be guiltless before Hashem and before Israel. Before Hashem was symbolized by stretching out their wings on high; [to symbolize being guiltless] before people, their faces shall look one to another. This symbolizes also the peace that is given to those who love the Torah. And they shall be coupled together in peace and friendship… “Towards the covering shall the faces of the keruvim be:” Their sole purpose shall be the Torah in the Ark, and not like those who consider themselves wise and seek their own prestige and not that of the Torah. (Commentary to 25:11, 20)


According to the Keli Yakar, the keruvim symbolize the ideal transmitters of the Torah by their pleasing qualities and worthy actions towards their community.  R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, however, saw their value as symbolizing the spiritual elevation and evolution of the bearers of the Torah on the personal level, towards themselves:


[They] appear in the Bible in two different meanings: guards and protectors on the one hand, and carriers of the Divine Presence on the other. In Bereishit (3:24) we read, “And he placed the keruvim… to guard the way to the tree of life.” In Yechezkel (28:14, 16) the King of Tyre is told, “You were the far covering cherubO covering cherub,” since from the moment he had been anointed king he was appointed to guard. So also in regard to their function as carriers of the Divine Presence, as in, “and He rode upon a cherub and flew” (Tehillim 18:11) when He hastened to David’s aid. In Yechezkel 9 and 10, too, the keruvim are referred to as carriers of the Divine Presence. The standard expression, “Enthroned upon the keruvim” (Tehillim 80:2, Shmuel I 4:4 and several other places)… In our case also, the keruvim appear in a dual role – they cover and protect the Holy Ark and are carriers of the Divine Presence…

On the other hand, however, the keruvim are part of the cover (kaporet); they were not joined to it but (25:18), “of beaten work (i.e., cover and keruvim in one piece) shall you make them at the two ends of the covering,” rising above itself and blending into its keruvim that protect it and carry the Divine Presence.

The following idea is thereby expressed: By keeping God’s Torah (symbolized by the Holy Ark), the protector becomes its own and God’s Glory’s carrier. Guarding God’s Torah, one guards himself, and at the same time he becomes the carrier of God’s Glory on Earth… Through the observance of the commandments, Israel is saved by Hashem with everlasting salvation and prepares himself to become a place for Hashem to dwell in on earth (v. 8: “That I may dwell among them”).


In a more modern approach, R. Menachem Leitbag suggests understanding the purpose of the keruvim based on the textual parallel with Sefer Bereishit.  He notes that originally, the Garden of Eden reflected the ideal spiritual environment in which Man cultivates his relationship with Hashem.  After Adam sinned and was consequently banished from the Garden, Hashem placed keruvim to guard the path of return to the Tree of Life (Bereishit 3:24).  The keruvim woven into the parochet remind man that his entry into the kodesh ha-kodashim, although desired, remains limited and requires spiritual readiness.  Building the Mishkan becomes a replacement (or a tikkun) for the Garden of Eden.  Should man wish to return to the Tree of Life, he must keep Hashem's covenant - the laws of the Torah - as symbolized by the luchot ha-eidut in the aron, protected by the keruvim.[4]

[1] When this command was issued is a subject of disagreement among the commentators.  One opinion suggests that both the command to build the Mishkan and the Jews’ donations for it occurred soon after the Torah was given and prior to the sin of the Golden Calf.  A second opinion suggests that both the command and the bringing of gifts took place after Hashem forgave the Jewish People on Yom Kippur for the sin of the Golden Calf, “so that all the nations would know that they [the Jewish People] were forgiven for the sin of the Calf” (Tanchuma, Teruma 8; see also Rashi’s commentary to Shemot 31:18, 33:11).  A final opinion suggests that while Hashem’s command was made to Moshe before the sin of the Golden Calf, he passed it on to the people only after Yom Kippur (Ramban, opening comment to Parashat Vayakel).

[2] This exchange can be found at the end of an article by Eric Lawee entitled, “Graven images, Astronomical Cherubs, and Mosaic Miracles: A Fifteenth-Century Curial-Rabbinic Exchange,” Speculum 81 (2006), pp. 754-95. Previously, Joseph Perles published the beginning of the corresponding Hebrew text [with a French translation] in Revue des Etudes Juives 21 [1890], p. 250.

[4] From www.tanach.orgshiur on Parashat Vayakhel.