The Secret of the Ark


Moshe Ben-Chaim




A number of weeks ago, we read Parshas Bamidbar. God commanded Aaron and his sons regarding the unique treatment of the Tabernacle’s vessels. The Tabernacle housed the Ark[1], the Table of showbread, the Menora and the Gold Altar used for incense. Outside of the Tabernacle’s walls rested the Copper Altar used in animal sacrifice. God commanded Aaron and his sons – when preparing for journey – to cover these vessels. They should not be transported on the wagons in an uncovered state.

All but the Table had two coverings: a garment of dyed cloth, and an animal skin. (The Table had two dyed garments and an animal skin.) We wondered why the Torah alters the terms “garments” of cloth, and “coverings” of skin. Are they not both “coverings”? The Rabbis teach the purpose of the skins was to protect the vessels from the elements. This is sensible. But we are curious as to the purpose of these colored garments, and why they are called “garments”.

All vessels excluding the Copper Altar were covered with a blue garment, while the Copper Altar was covered with a purple garment. Why this change? Additionally, all vessels had a single colored garment, while the Table alone was covered in both blue and red garments. Of unique distinction was the Ark, for it was covered with the skin first, and then covered by its blue garment[2]. In contrast, all other vessels were first covered with their respective colored garments, and then covered externally with skins…the reverse order. We also wished to learn of these specific colors…had they unique meaning? Ramban cites the blue garments reflected the heavens, as he quotes from Exodus 24:10, “k’etzem hashamyim latohar”, “as the essence of the heavens in purity”. So what did the purple – not blue – garment on the Copper Altar represent, and what did the extra red garment on the Table indicate? We will come back to this.


The laws and specifics I cite may be somewhat technical, but I ask your indulgence. My objective is that you come to appreciate how many laws and formulations that seem arbitrary and unrelated, actually create a beautiful harmony.


These questions led us to investigate more details pertaining to the Tabernacle. We were specifically interested in the Ark, as its blue garment was to be external to its skin covering, while all other vessels were to have the skins external to the garment.


What was the purpose of the Ark? It is most unique, in that its covering comprised two gold winged cherub figurines. The Ark contained the Tablets and the Torah. We learn that when God spoke to Moses, He created a voice that emanated from between these two cherubs and then penetrated Moses’ ears. What consideration demanded this unique means of prophecy? (Exod. 25:22)

As such, the Ark may rightfully be viewed as the centerpiece of the Tabernacle. But here’s the strange part: Maimonides omits the Ark in his list of the Tabernacle’s vessels! (Hilchos Beis Habechira, 1:6)  Every other item is listed, except the Ark. And when he does finally mention the Ark in chapter 4 (ibid) he does not offer any details of its measurements or design, as he does when describing the other vessels. He discusses what seems as extraneous material…the stone upon which the Ark rested (the Evven Shessiyah[3]), the wall that separated the Ark from the other room, and other matters. But not a word of the Cherubim, or the Ark’s design! Astonishing. It is also curious that Maimonides, when formulating these laws of Temple, includes this history of Solomon creating caverns to hide the Ark. These caverns have nothing to do with Temple law! We are also puzzled as to why King Solomon did not care to hide the other vessels. Does this teach that the Ark – and no other item – required complete secrecy? If so, what’s the secret?

We do find Maimonides discussing the Ark later. (Laws 2:12 and 2:13 if Hilchos Klay Hamikdash.) There, Maimonides teaches three laws: that the Ark must be carried directly on man’s shoulders and no other means; the carriers must face each other’s faces; not facing a uniform direction (face to back); and the Ark’s poles must never be removed. Now, alone these laws deserve explanation, but what is so intriguing is where Maimonides places these three laws: together in his formulation of the incense! He could have equally placed these laws in the previous chapter addressing the oil. We are at a loss as to Maimonides’ juxtaposing of the Ark to the incense. There must be a connection, but what is Maimonides’ lesson? And we must ask what is the purpose of the incense.



The Vessels Coverings

Although inactive while in transport, the vessels required man’s honor. These objects possess the God-given status of “objects of mitzvah”. We must treat objects used in mitzvah with greater care than mundane objects. Certainly, we must have a higher regard for items used in Temple service, for they are Kodesh (sanctified). Additionally, anything dedicated to Temple has an even greater status.

Now, although each vessel had a skin covering to protect it from the elements, God also commanded that each vessel have a “garment”. What is a garment? A garment is not always intended to ‘cover’, but at times, to highlight a distinction or delineate honor. Thus, a king wears unique garments and a crown. The High Priest also is made unique through his garments. The same concept applies to the Tabernacle’s vessels.

The vessels must be treated with honor. To do so, all vessels except the Copper Altar were dressed with a blue garment. Blue represents the created heavens and thereby we recall the Creator. This was to teach that each vessel contributed to some aspect of our knowledge of God. The Menora’s seven branches related the idea of seven days in Creation. For our definition of God is the Creator. The Table contained twelve loaves of showbread, teaching God’s omnipotence, and the incense Altar teaches that God is omniscient, for He is aware of man’s acts (offerings). So the blue garment is to highlight a vessel’s contribution to our knowledge of God.

The Table had an additional red garment. Red is the color of blood, or human life. God feeds us by sustaining nature and thereby, all plant and animal life. The Table housed the 12 loaves of bread, which represents this sustenance. So it is reasonable that a red and blue garment be associated with the Table. For the Table teaches us about God (blue – pointing to knowledge of God, He is omnipotent to supply our needs) while also teaching that this sustenance preserves our very lives (red garment).

However, the Copper Altar was clothed with a purple garment alone. It had no blue garment. And there is an interesting idea here. Purple, is the combination of blue and red. It is also significant that the Copper Altar was not inside the Tabernacle. I believe this was because the Altar does not contribute to knowledge of God, as do the other three vessels found inside the Tabernacle clothed in blue. The Copper Altar is used to sacrifice animals. Why do we kill animals? The definition of sacrifice traces back to the very first sacrifice. Adam, as soon as he was created, offered a sacrifice. He did so, as Ibn Ezra teaches, he was a great intellectual. Thus, he immediately realized that he was ‘created’, and that his existence is not mandatory. Only God’s existence is necessary. Realizing this truth, Adam wished to express this truth by proxy: he killed an animal to be in his place, demonstrating to God and to himself that this lifeless beast represents man’s real state. Man does not have to exist. It is only through God’s kindness that each of us lives.

In essence, sacrifice is the combination of two ideas: human life is unnecessary, and man’s realization of the Creator and his reach towards a relationship with God. We must use sacrifice to constantly remind ourselves of our mortality, and that we are created beings. Human life (blood), God/Creator of heavens (blue), red and blue create purple. The Copper Altar was clothed in a purple garment, representing this combination. And again, the Altar’s placement outside the Tabernacle alludes to its different role: it is man’s approach to God, which is of a lesser level than pure knowledge of God conveyed through the inner vessels. This lesser status is also conveyed through a lesser metal: copper is not as precious a metal as is gold.


Now, above the dyed garments, the skins were placed to protect the vessels from the elements. However, the Ark was first covered with the skin, and then the blue garment was placed over that skin. Why in the reverse order of all other vessels?



Torah: No Objective Outside Itself

The Ark required no service – “avodah”: its mere existence is the objective. Torah is not given with intent that it serves any ‘purpose’. Torah exists to display God’s wisdom. Thus, the Ark was not a vessel or utilitarian. To convey this idea, the blue garment was placed on the outside of the Ark. This was done to teach that the Ark was never compromised in its purpose, even while in transport…unlike the other vessels. The Ark, i.e., Torah, is always ‘active’. We are to be in a state of contemplating God and His laws all day, as we read in the Shima. We must always see the blue covering on the Ark to remind ourselves that Torah is to always be engaged.

In contrast, the other vessels were ‘utilized’ objects: their varied purposes were only realized when functioning in the Tabernacle and serviced by the priests. But when not in service, they were to be stored. They were to be covered with skins on the exterior to signify these vessels were inactive.

This also explains why Maimonides excluded the Ark from his list of “kaylim”, vessels. (Hilchos Bais Habechira 1:6) A vessel is something utilized. The Ark is not utilitarian in nature; it contained God’s Torah. For this reason, the Ark’s poles were never removed. For the Ark did not find a greater purpose while inside the Tabernacle or the Temple. The Ark is synonymous with Torah: God’s wisdom. It needs nothing. It functions for itself.

This could very well explain why Maimonides groups the laws of the Ark together with the incense, and not the oil. For the incense was made for itself too…it was to be fragrant, as Maimonides teaches. That is, existing simply for itself. But the oil was “used” to anoint. It was utilitarian, unlike the incense and the Ark. And Maimonides’ very formulation bears out this idea:

“It is a mitzvah to make the anointing oil that is should be prepared for matters requiring anointing with it”[4]. Whereas Maimonides’ formulation of the incense reads:

“The incense was made yearly, and its making is a positive command”[5].

No mention of a “usage” in connection with incense, but the oil was “prepared for matters requiring anointing”.




The Secret

Why did King Solomon create deep subterranean, winding caverns to hide the Ark?

Why did he not seek to hide any other vessel?

Why did Maimonides include this history in his laws?

Why did God command His Torah to be placed inside an Ark? This was actually a command even prior to the Temple, when Moses received the second Tablets. (Deut. 10:1)


Let’s recount the facts…

The Holy of Holies was off limits by punishment of death to all who approached, as witnessed in the death of Nadav and Avihu. Man must accept ignorance of God’s nature, as a fundamental in our approach to God. No one was permitted to ascend Mount Sinai for this very reason, lest man feel he can draw “near” to God. Of course, God was not “on” the mountain…God cannot be localized, as He exists outside time and space. It is heretical to suggest otherwise. And we learn that 57,000 people were killed for looking into the ark upon its return from the Philistines. Why did they open the Ark? It is because they felt they could “see” something concerning God. A heretical notion.


We must know: God is unknowable. “For man cannot know Me while alive”. (Exod. 33:20)  This fundamental is beyond the scope of Temple. It is for this reason that King Solomon treated the Ark with such secrecy even though he knew the Temple would be destroyed. This fundamental of man’s ignorance of God surpasses the walls – and times – of the Temple. And since God’s knowledge (the Torah) is the very identity of the Ark, Maimonides includes this history in his chapter addressing the laws of the Ark. This is not a historical record for history’s sake, but to illustrate the nature of the Ark’s uniqueness. Thus, this history belongs in the discussion of the Ark’s very distinction and its laws.

Additionally, an Ark – by definition – is something that conceals. So it is not a mere container, but the Ark embodies this idea that God is concealed from man’s intellect.


Why did Maimonides not discuss the Ark’s measurements? I am not sure, but this is an interesting quote:

“Rabbi Levi said, ‘We received a transmission from our forefathers that the Ark was not capable of being measured’.” (Talmud Megilla 10b) Rashi explains that the room where the Ark was housed (the Holy of Holies) measured 20 cubits square. The Ark was 2 cubits wide, so if it was centered in that room, there should be 9 cubits distance from the Ark to the walls, on both sides. The Ark measuring 2 cubits, plus the remaining 18 cubits of space would give the proper total of 20 cubits. However, when measuring the distance, there was found to be 10 cubits of space between any side of the Ark, and the wall. Meaning, the Ark occupied no space! I am less concerned with how this occurred, than “why” such a miracle was necessary.

But we may answer that in line with the purpose of a room that is off limits, teaching that God is off limits to our minds, a miracle was created to embellish this very concept. Man’s mind cannot explain the existence of a 3-dimensional Ark that does not detract from the space of that Holy of Holies room. This inexplicable miracle enables man to then admit he cannot explain all, and thereby apply this acceptance of ignorance in his appreciation of God. Just as one matter is inexplicable, man can then accept God as inexplicable.


This then, is the “Secret of the Ark”…a secret that is never revealed.  It is the unknowable nature of God. As man is sensual, requiring his ideas be connected to the physical world, it is impossible that we might know anything about God. Just as we cannot “see” sound, also true is we cannot perceive God’s nature. Even Moses’ knowledge must first emanate between two physical cherub forms before it penetrated his ears. Human knowledge must be tied to something physical. This is the purpose of Creation: that man have a physical universe through which we may all witness God’s wisdom, but never God Himself. 

And as this is a truth independent of the Tabernacle and Temple, and predates both…Maimonides recorded the history of the caverns that Solomon built to hide the Ark. I believe Maimonides recorded this history in his law book, as he wished to highlight the true essence of the Ark. The unapproachable Holy of Holies and Ark is to teach our inability to approach knowledge of God. This is independent of God commanding man in building a Temple. It startles us at first, that a law book contains historical data. But now we understand, that this very history of hiding the Ark highlights the very nature of the Ark. Hiding the Ark was meant to teach that God is unknowable, even when the Temple is in ruins. Thus, Solomon did not seek to hide away any other vessel. For it is the Ark alone that teaches man of certain knowledge that is “out of reach” and hidden.

We now understand why in that chapter[6] Maimonides also discusses the separating wall, for this too contributes to the “separation” between man and knowledge of God.

An interesting last point is that this chapter starts with another historical fact cited in a few sources[7]. The Ark rested on a stone in the Holy of Holies. This stone is called the “Even Hashessiyah”, the stone from which the Earth was established. The idea of a relationship between the Ark and the Earth’s foundation stone implies that the Earth’s creation is realized in the objective of the Ark.







[1] Not a “vessel” according to Maimonides’ classification: Laws of the Chosen House 1:6

[2] The Ark was first covered by the Parochess: the curtain that divided between the Holies and the Holy of Holies. Above the Parochess was placed the animal skin, and then the blue garment last, on the exterior.

[3] Yoma 27b (Jerusalem Talmud) and Tosefta Yoma 2:12 cite the Even Hashessiyah, the stone from which the Earth was established.

[4] Klay Hamikdash 1:1

[5] Klay Hamikdash 2:1

[6] Hil. Beis Habechira 4

[7] Yoma 27b, Jerusalem Talmud and Tosefta Yoma 2:12