Parashat Terumah: The Keruvim (Cherubs): Problems and Solutions

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Jan 14, 2009

Exodus 25:18-20 states the following:

    Make two cherubim of gold- make them of hammered work- at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of apiece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread our above, shielding the cover with their wings.

The problem with this command is obvious; how can this be reconciled with the prohibition “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves” (Exodus 34:17)? Can one find an answer that logically distinguishes between the cherubim and prohibited representations, an answer that differs from the Nitzahon Yashan’s answer of “the mouth which prohibited [images generally, like those used by Christians] is the same mouth that permitted [the particular image of the cherubim]”?

Rabbi Aaron ben Gershon Aboulrabi was a relatively unknown fifteenth- century Sicilian Rabbi, and the son-in-law of the Aragonese Rabbi R. Moses ibn Gabbai. The biblical interpretations of this figure can be found in an obscure book titled Perushim la-Rashi , published in Constantinople in the sixteenth century.

Scholars have generally neglected this figure as well. In 1890, Joseph Perles wrote an article on this figure, citing numerous interpretations. Most recently, however, in 2006, Eric Lawee published an important essay concerning this person (see immediately below), who exhibited a strong tendency to attack what he felt were “exegetically wobbly or theologically unsound midrashic interpretations.”

R. Aboulrabi claimed to have discussed the problems concerning the Keruvim with the Pope and his cardinals while near Rome. (Whether his published remarks truly depicted what occurred at an actual meeting, whether it was an embellishment of a meeting, or even if was an entirely fictitious portrayal is beyond the purview of our discussion here.) Remarkably, besides the issue of “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves,” R. Aboulrabi also addressed another objection: the potency of the cherubs might lead one to believe that they the real source of the miracles that Moses performed. That is, the cherubs were talismans. What differentiated Moses, them, from the hartumim, the magicians of Egypt? What follows is his presentation. (The material that I will be citing can be found at the end of the article by Eric Lawee, titled, “Graven images, Astronomical Cherubs, and Mosaic Miracles: “A Fifteenth-Century Curial-Rabbinic Exchange,” Speculum 81 (2006), pp. 754-95. I follow Lawee’s English translation of R. Aboulrabi’s Perushim le-Rashi [Constantinople, {1525?}, Fol. 91v.] Previously, Joseph Perles published the beginning of the corresponding Hebrew text [with a French translation] in Revue des Etudes Juives 21 [1890], on p. 250.)

When I was in the metropolis of Rome in the palace of the pope, with the cardinals surrounding him, I was asked this question. They said:

We are most amazed and astonished about the matter of the cherubs that Moses was commanded to make in the Holy of Holies in a manner that the potency of the voice and speech concerning all that he [Moses] wished to know would come forth from them. This is tantamount to the craft of talismans manufactured in accordance with the potencies of the constellations and the wisdom of aspects [i.e., the angular relationship between planets- conjunction, opposition and so forth]. There is no greater [violation of the prohibition against] “other gods” [Exod. 20:3] than this. He [God] had already enjoined as a root of the Decalogue at its beginning: “You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness, and so forth” [Exod. 20:3-4]. It [also] states: “You shall not make molten gods for yourself” [Exod. 34:17]. Such [prohibitions] are many, and there is no greater [example of] molten gods than the cherubs. It would [therefore] arise in the mind of any person that all of the miracles and wonders that Moses would perform [literally, “actualize”] were by means of the potency of the cherubs, as it states: “[When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with Him] he would hear the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the ark of the pact between the two cherubs, and so forth” [Num. 7:89]. Therefore we have queried you whether there is an answer to our question.

So, upon my hearing their words –[which are] “straightforward to the intelligent person” [Prov. 8:9]- I addressed that which they asked me, after taking leave [to speak] and expressing the requisite obeisance from me to them, each one according to his rank in stature and distinction. Following are the beginning of my words:

May “the one who gives the wise their wisdom and knowledge to those that know” [Dan. 2:21] supply an “answer of the tongue.” [Prov. 16:1]. It is known to all, and explicit in the Torah, that our master Moses, upon whom be peace, had, according to God’s will and command, performed many miracles and wonders before the manufacture of the cherubs. [What is more] Pharaoh’s wise men and astrologers tested him in a searching investigation [to determine] if his deeds occurred by means of the potency of the wisdom of the constellations and craft of talismans. They discerned and discovered that all his deeds and wonders occurred through the potency and will of God, who contravenes all [determinations of the] astral networks, and not through the governance of the stars. As Moses said to them: “You may have this triumph over me: for what time should I plead in behalf of you” [Exod. 8:5]. This was to inform Pharaoh that his deed from God, Who is powerful whenever He desires. Thus did he [Pharaoh] say: “I stand guilty this time. God is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong” [Exod. 9:27]. So did the magicians say to Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God” [Exod. 8:15]. They conceded that it [the plague of lice] was the work of the L-rd. Thus it is clear that every deed of our master Moses, upon whom be peace, was in accordance with the will of God, blessed be He.

Now, if you were to say, “If so, what is the rationale for the making of the cherubs in terms of what they accomplish?” I would first state a general proposition in order to open the eyes of the blind [cf. Isa. 42:7]. It is demonstrated in science that every act derives from a potency and that every potency is the potency to bring about some act, since potency and act are [from the category of the] correlatives and the existence of any correlative requires the existence of the other thing to which it is related. It follows that it is impossible for something that lacks potency to bring about any act. Now figures and talismans are made of inanimate minerals, trees, and stones that lack potency even with respect to [bringing about change in] themselves. How then can they bring about an act in another? Now the cherubs were from the mineral of gold reworked by human hands. They possess neither potency nor sentience nor act. If so, it is necessary to affirm and believe that all that our master Moses, upon whom be peace, would do was not through the instrumentality of any created thing but rather from God alone, L-RD of Hosts.

For the honor of the tablets and their glory God desired to make His presence dwell in the Ark of the Covenant “from above the cover, from between the two cherubs” [Exod. 25:22] and from there did He choose to make overflow His prophecy and all of His wonders. He is blessed above all creatures for to Him alone belong glory and might. The proof [that the cherubs did not draw down astral forces] lies in the verse, “There I will meet with you and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two cherubs […all that I will command you]” [Exod. 25:22]. It did not say “from the cherubs” [but from between them].

As Eric Lawee notes (p. 777), according to R. Aboulrabi, as it was for “the honor of the tablets [found in the ark] and their glory” that “God desired to make his presence dwell…, if anything, it is the tablets of the law, not the cherubs that adorned the ark containing them, that stand out as ancient Israel’s sacred artifacts par excellence. What the tablets attracted to the Mishkan, however, was not astral efflux, but divine presence. His point that divine communications did not issue “from” the cherubs but “from between them” was an “exegetical coup de grace.”


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