The “Aron Haberit,”1 the holy ark of the covenant, is the most sacred artifact in all of Judaism. A golden box containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments, the ark stood in the Holy of Holies, the Temple’s innermost sanctum. Today, its location is unknown, hidden until the day Moshiach comes.
Design of the Ark
The ark, which represents G‑d’s love for his people, was built by the chief architect of the Tabernacle, Betzalel. G‑d instructed that the ark be built from acacia wood, and gave very specific dimensions: 2.5 cubits in length and 1.5 cubits in height and width.2 There were an additional two boxes, both made from gold, that encased the wooden box. In all, the ark comprised three layers: gold, wood, gold. The top of the outer box was lined with a gold decorative rim called the “zeir.”
The ark had no feet; it rested directly on the ground. Rings were fastened to each of its four corners, through which gold-plated wooden poles were threaded. The poles, which were never to be removed, were used by the priests from the Kehot house to carry the ark, for it was forbidden to transport it by wagon.
The “kaporet,” a golden cover one handbreadth thick, covered the outer box. Atop the cover, fashioned from the same piece of metal, sat the “keruvim,” cherubs—two childlike sculptures that faced each other, their wings towering above the ark.
Placement of the Ark
In the Holy Temple, the ark’s home was the most sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest was allowed inside, and only once a year, on the awesome day of Yom Kippur, when he would enter the Holy of Holies and perform the annual service before the ark.
When King Solomon constructed the first Temple, he built an alcove deep within the Temple Mount for concealing the ark. Toward the end of the first Temple period, King Josiah, divining the Temple’s destruction, had the ark hidden there.3 4 It remains hidden until today, and when Moshiach comes and rebuilds the third, everlasting Temple, he will uncover the ark and bring it home.
In the Temple, the ark rested directly on the “Even Hashetiyah”—the Shetiya stone, which is the foundation point of the entire world.5 In the second Temple there was no ark, only the Shetiya stone.
The ark housed the tablets (engraved with the Ten Commandments) that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, the broken pieces of the first set of tablets,6 and a Torah scroll.7 A pitcher of manna and Aaron’s miraculous staff8 were placed right in front of it.
Additionally, when Joshua led the Jewish people into the Promised Land after Moses’ death, they camped alongside the Jordan river. At G‑d’s command, Joshua sent the ark toward the river. When the feet of the ark- bearers entered the water, the river split, allowing the Jews to cross. When the last Jew had crossed, the ark crossed the river, and the water began to flow again.
And when the Tabernacle stood in Shiloh, the priests mistreated the ark and removed it from the Temple, taking it into battle with them in the hope that it would provide protection. When the Philistines defeated the Jews, they captured the ark and brought it back with them to their lands. The ark wrought havoc on the Philistine cities, bringing terrible plagues and afflictions, even causing their god, the idol Dagon, to be destroyed. Frightened and fed up, they ultimately sent the ark back to the Jews.
Heaven on Earth
According to the Talmud, the space occupied by the ark did not take up space. What does that mean? The Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle was 10 cubits wide, and the ark, which stood in the center, had a length of 2.5 cubits. Yet, when measuring from the sides of the ark to the wall, one would find five cubits on each side.10 This paradox was entirely miraculous, something we cannot even wrap our heads around; the ark both taking up space and not taking up space at the same time.
Chassidic teachings explain its significance. In general, G‑d has two opposite modes with which He operates: revealed (the natural) or concealed (the supernatural). Nature, with its seeming lack of Divinity, is a result of G‑d’s power to conceal Himself. Miracles, on the other hand, when the laws of nature are broken, are the very expression of G‑dliness, His power openly revealed. In truth, however, G‑d is beyond both of those, He is neither entirely concealed, nor revealed. Neither locked into operating in a hidden, limited manner, nor bound by his infinitude. He is beyond both, and can unite the two modalities if He so desires.
It was in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred spot on earth, that this exact reality was revealed. The ark did occupy space—the natural, and at the same time it did not—the supernatural. It was the perfect kiss between Heaven and earth.
1.Joshua 3. Other names for the holy ark include “ark of testimony,” “ark of the covenant of G‑d,” and “ark of G‑d.”
2. There are two measures for a cubit: six handbreadths and five handbreadths. Bava Batra 14a records a dispute as to how big the cubits measuring the ark were. Rabbi Meir maintains they were the six handbreadth cubits, whereas Rabbi Yehudah holds they were the five handbreadth cubits.
3. II Chronicles 35.
4. See Yoma 53b for a dissenting opinion that the ark was in fact exiled to Babylon.
5. Yoma 54b. Se also Zohar vol. 1 pg. 231a.
6. Baba Batra 14a. See Sifri Beha’alotcha 24 who writes that in fact the broken tablets were placed in a different ark, the one which traveled at the front of the Jews in the desert, and which they took with them into battle.
7. Some say the Torah scroll was not placed inside the ark, but rather alongside it. See Bava Batra 14a-b.
8. When there was contention over which tribe should have the honor of serving in G‑d’s sanctuary, the leaders of the tribes placed their staffs in the Holy of Holies. Overnight, Aaron’s dry stick miraculously blossomed and grew almonds, a clear sign that his tribe, Levi, was truly chosen by G‑d.
9. Yalkut Shimoni Shmuel II 5:142.
10. Yoma 21a; Megillah 10b; Bava Batra 99a.