This week’s Torah portion is “Behaalotcha” (Numbers 8:1–12:16), and in it we read about many of the utensils of the Temple, including the “Aron Habrit,” the Ark of the Covenant.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
The Ark was the holiest item of the Temple compound. It housed the Ten Commandments, including the broken pieces of the first set of the Ten Commandments, and a Torah scroll.
A container of manna and Aaron’s staff were placed in front of it.
The Ark was always kept in the “Holy of Holies” room. Only the High Priest was permitted, on Yom Kippur, to enter the Holy of Holies making for a triple header: the holiest man in the world would enter the holiest place in the world on the holiest day of the year.
The Ark was built by the lesser-known but very beloved Betzalel and his staff. It measured 2.5 cubits in length and 1.5 cubits in height and width. (approximately 131×79×79 cm or 52×31×31).
Although it appears as if the Ark was a single gold-plated wood box, it was actually made up of three layers of boxes: a gold box, a wood box and then a gold box. On top of the outer box was a decorative rim or crown, not to mention the famous “Cherubim” – two winged, childlike images – that faced each other.
Rings were fastened to each of its four corners, through which gold-plated wooden poles were put through for carrying the Ark.
The ark had no legs. When it was put down, it was put directly on the ground.
Many miracles were associated with the ark. For example, we are told that when the Levites lifted the ark by its poles to transport it, it was actually the Ark that was lifting and carrying the Levites!
So too, when Joshua led the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, the Jordan River split into two when the feet of the ark-bearers entered the water, thereby allowing the Jews to cross on dry land (sound familiar?).
When the Ark was stolen by the Philistines and taken back to their city, many plagues and misfortune fell upon the inhabitants. The Philistines were so fed up with the Ark’s “bad luck” that they happily returned it to the Jews!
And here’s one more: According to the Talmud, the Ark took up no space on earth! What does that mean? The Holy of Holies room 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 5 cubits on each side!
The Ark was stationed in a number of places from the time the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel until the Temple was built. Among these places were Gilgal, Shiloh, Beit Shemesh (my home!) and Kiryat Ye’arim. The latter two happen to be communities with huge numbers of American ex pats!
The question of where the holy Ark may be today is a question that has intrigued people of all religions, not to mention that it was the subject of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that starred Harrison Ford. There are a number of theories as to where it may be.
One theory has the Ark buried somewhere on Mt. Nebo, the place where Moses is also buried. Mount Nebo is approximately 50 km east of Jerusalem, near the east bank of the Jordan River. The book of 2 Maccabees 2:4-10, says that the prophet Jeremiah took the Ark, the Tabernacle, and the Altar of Incense, and buried them in a cave on Mount Nebo, telling people that the place should remain a secret until the Messiah comes.
A more celebrated and investigated theory is that the Ark is being housed in the St. Mary of Zion Church in Ethiopia. The keepers of the Church claim to have the original Ark, housed in a room that is guarded 24 hours a day. No one is allowed to see the Ark. They claim that the Ark was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I.
Archaeologist John Holladay of the University of Toronto called the theory “garbage and hogwash.“ Edward Ullendorff, a former Professor of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London, said that he personally examined the ark in 1941 while serving as a British army officer. Describing the ark there, he says, “They have a wooden box, but it’s empty. Middle- o late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”
In December 2020, it was reported that the Eritrean army attacked the Church allegedly in the hopes of seizing the Ark. It is unclear what the fate of the “Ark” was.
Other theories suggest that the Ark is in the possession of the Lemba tribe in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In the book The Lost Ark of the Covenant (2008), it is suggested that the Ark was taken to Arabia and Yemen. And the best one, also from Lemba folklore, is that the Ark self-destructed. There are other, even sillier theories as well. Really.
In case you’re wondering what my thoughts on the matter are, I’ll tell you: It makes no difference whether the Ark is here or there or whether it was destroyed. All that is not important. The only thing that is important is that we follow the Torah, which was housed in the Ark, just as the Ark would want us to. Let’s leave the location and future construction of the Ark to the Messiah
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