The Mystery of the Ark & Menorah
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Unlike all other Temple vessels, the Menorah and the Ark’s cover, the “Kapores” (designed with the two angels), neither could be assembled from parts. Both objects must be created through a process of hammering — “miksha” — formed from a single block of gold. The centrality of this process is evidenced in the Torah’s repetition of the term miksha in both Torah portions discussing the Menorah. Additionally, and unlike any other vessel, the Torah commands they both be formed of pure gold. What consideration demands this unique treatment? Ibn Ezra provides clues:
There is a medrash, “The menorah was made by itself,” but the explanation is that anybody who saw the menorah would be astonished at how a man can make it (Exod. 25:32).
A wise craftsman could not create the menorah, had God not revealed it to Moses in a prophetic vision (Num. 8:4).
Let us be clear: the astonishment is not regarding the finished form of the Menorah. For many buildings and sculptures embody far greater detail and magnitude; Petra is one example. The astonishment was, as Ibn Ezra states, regarding the process: how could any person plan out exactly where to start hammering from, so that the precise amount of gold is separated to allow for the final form to emerge? Meaning, Betzalel (who formed both) did not commence by forming the Menorah’s ornate designs, its goblets, flowers and spheres onto the massive chunk of gold. His first step must have been to determine how much gold was needed to form the Menorah’s lower branches, which were longer, and how much for the upper smaller branches. How much gold would the base need, and how much for the center stem which was longer than the longest branches? What amount of gold would each of the basins require, which held the oil? And how much more gold was required for the goblets, flowers and spheres that would be shaped onto each branch? From where would he start hammering in order to commence the form: the top, the side? And how far down the block of gold would he start hammering? All this had to be determined before he made his first hammer blow. And once he started hammering the chunk, separating it into seven separate branches and the base, there was no turning back if he miscalculated, for he could not melt off some gold from here and reattach it there. Hammering was the only process allowed in creating this Menorah.
As Ibn Ezra expresses, we are in disbelief that the greatest human ingenuity could accomplish this feat, had God not directed its construction. The obvious question then presents itself: what was Betzalel’s role in this? As the Menorah was created following a prophetic instruction, why was a “wise” carpenter required? However, despite God’s direction, humans vary greatly in their degree of intelligence, creativity and labor. Even with the identical blueprint, we will find two carpenters producing non-identical houses. The translation between the plan on paper, then what each carpenter grasps in his mind, to their application to raw materials, precision in measurements, and each one’s satisfaction in a component of the job completed…all determine the final structure. Betzalel was necessary, and the Torah makes this clear:
And Moses said unto the children of Israel, “See, the Lord hath called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship. And to devise skillful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of skillful workmanship. And He hath put in his heart that he may teach, both he, and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. Them hath He filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of workmanship, of the craftsman, and of the skillful workman, and of the weaver in colors, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver, even of them that do any workmanship, and of those that devise skillful works (Exod. 35:30-35).”
Had God created the Menorah (and other vessels) miraculously, Betzalel would not have earned the admiration of the Jews. Thereby, we refine our question: what consideration in God’s plan demanded the Jews recognize “human ingenuity,” and why to such a degree in connection with the Menorah and the Kapores, and no other items?
Had human genius not been realized, what would be missing from the Temple? The answer: “identification.” It is through our comparison between the ingenious artisan and ourselves, where we can’t fathom producing such craftsmanship, that we arrive at a sense of marvel over another person’s amazing capabilities. God’s universe contains phenomena to which we have grown accustom; we appreciate, but don’t marvel at the sunrise, a tree, or other natural phenomenon, as the repeated appearance numbs us to anything novel. Of course, the wisdom uncovered through the study of nature greatly impresses man regarding God’s wisdom. But what motivates man towards study?
Appreciating God’s magnificence cannot always be approached head-on. As mentioned, what is familiar in nature loses impact. We need a first step. That being our observation of something novel: the human ingenuity of transforming a block of gold — through hammering alone — where man produces a perfectly planned and ornately-designed Menorah…this astonishes us! Our mindset is one where we are awed by that craftsman’s ingenuity, because by comparison to ourselves — “identification” — we see ourselves as nowhere near the caliber of this artisan. Like watching a master painter, through our identification with him, we sense amazement in his abilities. But the purpose of this intended amazement is to step us towards grasping the Creator’s amazing world. How does this work?
The menorah is a map to the universe. In a previous essay I explained the seven branches refer to the first seven days: six days of Creation and the seventh, the Sabbath. The six Menorah branches emerge from the seventh center branch; the six days of Creation emerged from the Creator who rested on the Sabbath. More subtle is the lesson that the six branches are “suspended” through their attachment to the center seventh spine of the Menorah, the Yereicha; the six days of creation and all creations depend (are “suspended”) on God’s will, who rested on the seventh day. Meaning, creation does not simply endure, just because it was created. No. All creations require God’s enduring will that they remain in existence, for nothing exists of its own, even though already created. This explains why the six branches’ wicks “face” the center spine, to pay homage towards that which they depend upon; creation depends on God who rested on the seventh day. This is why God did not design the Menorah with all seven branches equally emerging vertically and parallel from a horizontal floor base. The six must emanate suspended by the center spine.
We come to the three unique Menorah designs; goblets, flowers and spheres. These appear on all seven branches, but goblets are most numerous. I explained that creation offers man objects through which man realizes God’s wisdom. The study of creation leads us to the love of God. And there are three areas of study: 1) properties of substances like iron and carbon, 2) study of natural design like a spider’s web, and 3) study of the harmony between all forces and objects, like gravity, the food chain and the human body. All three offer us great appreciation for the Creator, but the last offers us the most. While the properties of the elements and natural designs are impressive, when we witness all corners of the universe complimenting each other, we behold a “plan” — a greater Mind. The “function” of the universe is most impressive. The Menorah’s spheres (unformed mass) correlate to simple material substance; flowers (beauty) correlate to the design of creation; but goblets are “functional” things, correlating to the function or systems of the universe. Thus, to stress that the universe’s functions reveal most of God’s wisdom, the Menorah has more goblets than flowers or spheres.
This explains why the Menorah required a process of formation through hammering: the marvel we experience regarding human artisan genius, is intended to be transferred to God’s wisdom, evidenced in Creation. The Temple’s other vessels do not recount wisdom, but share other ideas. So the law to create those items from hammering a single block of gold do not apply. It is only regarding vessels that focus on wisdom, that God commands its formation to embody an ingenious (wise) process.
Why then must the Kapores too must be created by hammering…why was it too made of pure gold? This is because the Kapores teaches of the “method” wherein man gains wisdom. The Menorah reflects wisdom in creation. But how does man “attain” knowledge? What is this process? At one moment, man is ignorant of an idea or an answer to a question he ponders. Then, he suddenly arrives at an answer. A wise Rabbi once taught, quoting Maimonides, that the Ark’s angels forming the Kapores cover, refer to the vehicle through which man taps God’s knowledge. God is the source of all wisdom, but how does man acquire His knowledge? Maimonides teaches that angels are the conduit between man and God. Unlike other religions believing them to be winged human forms, angels are in fact not physical. They are a species of metaphysical intelligences God employs to govern the world and share His wisdom with mankind.
Thus, the Kapores and the Menorah, in order to indicate that their designs relate to wisdom, must be formed through a process requiring great wisdom. And as the pursuit of wisdom is the most prized of all mitzvos, God indicates thus by commanding the Menorah and Kapores are to be constructed of pure gold, a most prized and valued element.
In summary, God commands man to employ great wisdom in forming vessels that focus on His wisdom. Through our amazement of an artisan’s abilities as compared to ourselves, we are awakened to realize that even greater amazement is awaiting us as we study God’s universe and His Torah. We marvel at man’s formation of a single Menorah. We will be even more astonished at God’s wisdom revealed in His universe.
 Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah, 2:2