By: Rabbi Benjie Gruber, Rabbi at
Temple Har Zion
Toronto and Scholar in Residence for
The Cherubim – Were They Jewish?
As the building of the Tabernacle begins we have a chance to glance at the process of the building of the first Jewish Temple.
pretty much focus only on the building and assembling of the Tabernacle-Mishkan-Temple on poles, in the Desert.
I wish to focus not on the huge project which no doubt it was, but rather on one important piece in the puzzle of the Mishkan, the Ark. Actually, I wish to focus on only part of the Ark, not the inside and what is in it, but rather the cover.
We read in Chapter 37 about Bezalel making the Ark from Acacia wood and gold inside and out.
In verses 7-9 we read of the wonderful cherubim:
.ויעש שני כרובים זהב מקשה עשה אתם משני קצות הכפורת
.כרוב אחד מקצה מזה וכרוב אחד מקצה מזה מן הכפרת עשה את הכרובים משני קצותיו
.ויהיו הכרובים פרשי כנפיים למעלה סככים בכנפיהם על הכפרת ופניהם איש אל אחיו אל הכפרת היו פני הכרבים
“He made two cherubim of gold, he made them of hammered work, at the two ends of the cover.
“One cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end, he made the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at its two ends.
“The cherubim had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other, the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the cover.”
So, what are these cherubim and what are they all about?
Yes, lots has been written on this topic before I asked about it.
One of the wonderful parts of Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, is that we can all offer commentary even though it has been offered before us and will be offered long after we are gone. That is the study of Torah continuing from generation to generation. I am curious about the cherubim.
Earlier in the book of Exodus when the Tabernacle is being planned, following the description similar to the one in our portion regarding the Cherubim, we read in Chapter 25 verse 22 of a very special reason for the Cherubim:
.ונועדתי לך שם ודברתי אתך מעל הכפרת מבין שני הכרבים אשר על ארון העדת את כל אשר אצוה אותך אל בני ישראל
“And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the Ark-cover from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.”
Meeting God, hearing God between the two cherubim; that must have been a very special experience.
Cherubim appear much earlier in the Torah. In Genesis chapter 3 as Adam and Eve are being sent away from the Garden of Eden we read:
.ויגרש את האדם וישכן מקדם לגן עדן את הכרבים ואת להט החרב המתהפכת לשמר את דרך עץ החיים
“God drove out the man and placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way to the tree of life.”
and Talmud have some fascinating and strange stories regarding the cherubim. For example, in the Talmud tractate Yoma 54A, we learn that the cherubim in the Temple in Jerusalem were in the form of male and female. When people came to the Temple on holidays, the curtain in front of the ark was drawn and the cherubim were seen interlocked as if in a sexual act. This was a symbol that God’s love for the people of Israel was as powerful as the love of two partners.
These cherubim are something very far from our modern experience of Judaism. I have heard people say about the cherubim – ‘they do not feel so Jewish…’
Well, the whole tabernacle is a Judaism very different than what we are accustomed to in Judaism today, and of course in Progressive Judaism.
I do not think the question is whether we feel comfortable with the description of the cherubim or if we would want to be part of such a ceremony.
The question is, as long as we continue to read these portions and verses on Shabbat and weekdays, what can we learn from the idea of the cherubim?
Let us return again to chapter 37 verse 9 in our
The cherubim are shielding the cover of the Ark, shielding the Ark.
Why does the Ark need shielding?
What is in the Ark? The tablets, the Ten Commandments, and maybe some more parts of the Torah.
Why does the Torah need shielding? I feel it is very obvious. Many wish to speak in the name of the Torah and God. We are told God speaks to or meets Moses close to those cherubim, and that they later symbolize a connection between God and humans.
That connection can be wonderful, but it can also be dangerous. A careful balance is needed when assuming we know what God wants of us. We must remember to guard the Torah from ourselves and from others who wish to speak in the name of God.
I suggest that this week as we read of the cherubim, we in a certain sense try to become modern cherubim, guards of the Torah and the Jewish tradition.
We must guard it from fanatics who wish to claim that they, and only they, understand it and follow it, but we must also indeed be Progressive Jews and make sure we are not standing still, not doing today what we do simply because that is what we did yesterday.
Let the cherubim be a very Jewish idea and symbol of guarding our tradition from others and from ourselves.