Mordechai Silverstein

What’s in the box?

The Torah gives an exhaustive description of how the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, was to be made. After completing its description of the “box”, the Torah commands its purpose:

And you shall set in the ark the testimony (edut) that I gave to you. (Exodus 25:16 and again in verse 21)

What exactly is the “edut” which was to be contained in the children of Israel’s most sacred implement?

Two sages stand out as the Jewish tradition’s medieval masters of the pshat or plain sense understanding of the Torah. Both Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashi’s grandson, 12th France) and Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (11th century Spain) conclude that the “testimony” refers to the tablets given to Moshe after the sin of the golden calf (i.e the second set of tablets).

Rashi, on this question, however, has a different agenda:

[This refers to] the Torah which is the testimony between Me (God) and you that I have commanded you [to observe] the commandments written in it. (See Lekakh Tov Shmot 25:16; Tanhuma Pekudei 8)

This seemingly anachronistic interpretation is likely, in part, a polemic against those who declared that the Ten Commandments were the exclusive content of God’s revelation. As a result, Rashi gives the Torah top billing by asserting that it is the sacred testimony.

Finally, in a midrash collection, Lekakh Tov, which is contemporary with Rashi, the “testimony” is identified with the “broken tablets”, namely, those broken by Moshe upon confronting the sins of the golden calf. (See Lekakh Tov Shmot 25:21, Buber ed.)

This medieval dispute is adumbrated in a little-known collection of Baraitot (teaching from the period of the Mishnah) regarding the construction of the Mishkan (the Sanctuary):

Rabbi Meir said: The width of the ark was nine handbreadths. Subtract six handbreadths fot the length of the tablets, two handbreadths for space to rest the scroll of the Law and half a handbreadth for the thickness of the ark. Rabbi Yehuda says: The ark measured five handbreadths; thus [the length of the ark was twelve and a half handbreadths; There were four tablets in [the ark], two whole ones and two broken ones…  the scroll of the Law was placed at the side of the ark, as it is said: ‘Take this book of Teaching [and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God]’ (Deut. 31:26) (Baraita de-Melekhet Ha-Mishkan ch. 6, Kirchner ed. pp. 231-2; See also Bava Batra 14b; Shekalim 16b)

The Tanna, Rabbi Yehuda, in true rabbinic form, harmonized the above three positions, by making room in the Ark for all three items: the Second Tablets, the Broken Tablets, and the Torah, perhaps, because all three play an integral role in both Jewish reality and imagination. To my mind, if we view the inclusion of these three items in the ark metaphorically, we find a significant religious message. The broken tablets, both hewn, inscribed by God and given with great fanfare to all of Israel, represent the divine ideal, which proved beyond the human capacity to fulfill; the second tablets, hewn by Moshe, divinely engraved and given to Moshe after much supplication were a sign of God’s reconciliation with Israel; while the Torah, offered God’s blueprint for how to maintain God’s covenant with Israel on a normative basis.

Life is all about recognizing and trying to live with an ideal, knowing how to contend with falling short of it and making things work day to day basis. This is the challenge of being a Jew and trying to live the right kind of life.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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