Terumah 5768 /
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
The Molding and Crown on the Holy Ark
Dr. Ilya Rodov
Jewish Art Section,
Combined Program in Jewish Studies
Parashat Terumah describes in great detail the making of the Tabernacle. Inter alia it mentions a “gold molding (Heb. zer, also used to denote a wreath) round about” over the ark and on the rim of the table for the bread of display (Ex. 25:11, 24). The well-known midrash in Tractate Menahot (29b) adds that the decorations on the rim, which appear superfluous, might have rich symbolic significance: “When Moses ascended to Heaven, the Holy One, blessed be He, found him sitting and binding crowns on the letters,” and within “each and every stroke” of these crowns are hidden “heaps upon heaps of rules of halakhah.”
Scripture describes the shape of the ark of the covenant – a rectangular wooden box, covered with gold inside and out (Ex. 25:10-11). It would follow, therefore, that the “gold molding round about” was some sort of strip of gold, either cast or hammered, attached to the upper edge of the sides of the box. Rashi interprets verse 11 in this general vein, saying that the gold molding was “some sort of crown that surrounded it, above the rim” of the ark. The artist who built the ark of the synagogue in Modena, Italy, in 1472 followed this interpretation, designing it as a wooden box with a carved and gilt molding encompassing its upper end.  The gemara (Tractate Yoma 72b) compares the molding on the ark with other moldings in the Tabernacle:
Rabbi Johanan said: There were three moldings; on the altar, on the ark and on the table. The one on the altar, Aaron deserved and received; the one on the table, David deserved and received; the one on the ark is still there, and whoever wishes may come and take it. Lest you say it is of lesser value, remember that we are taught, “Through me kings reign” (Prov. 8:15).
The amora, Rabbi Johanan, adds the molding on the altar to the two moldings mentioned in this week’s reading, and assigns relative levels of importance to the moldings, with that of the ark of the covenant exceeding the other two. The moldings of the Tabernacle’s furnishings, according to his remarks, are symbolic of specific qualities. The molding on the altar represents the priesthood, the molding on the table represents kingship, while the Torah [represented by the molding on the ark] graces with its fine qualities any who would study it, not only those from the House of Aaron or the House of David. Such an approach transforms the molding on the ark from being a decoration around the edge of the ark to a jewel marking the status of the wearer, like the biblical wreaths and crowns, or, to bring an example from another culture, the wreaths of laurel or olive branches which served as status signs of Roman rulers. The Christians adopted the wreath as a symbol of being chosen and of eternal life (I Corinthians 9:24-25).
The symbolism of the
three moldings in the Tabernacle, as presented in Tractate Yoma, is very
close to the symbolism of the crowns of the Torah, Priesthood and Kingship in
the Mishnah, Avot 4.13.
Unlike the ark molding, which was the
most important of the moldings, the Torah crown in Tractate Avot is on
the same level as the other two crowns, but the fourth crown, that of a good
reputation, exceeds the others. The
relief of a large crown, representing a good reputation, over a row of three
smaller crowns, as seen on a Torah ark from the 16th century, and a
later version from the 18th century, in the
Rashi views the biblical word zer a synonymous with keter = crown, and interprets the golden zer on the ark as a “sign of the Torah crown” (see his commentary on the verse in Exodus, as well as on Yoma 72b). Also Maimonides writes about the three crowns in the Tabernacle and teaches us that, like the Torah itself, so too the crown of the Torah “stands ready for any Jew,” and that this crown is larger than the other two (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3.1). According to these interpretations, the crown of the Torah is given to whoever studies Torah.
The “golden molding” of the Ark of the Covenant reemerged in the form of a crown in synagogue art of the Middle Ages. An early example which has survived from that period is the Torah crown engraved in the stone gable of a mid-15th-century ark of a synagogue in Nuremberg, Germany (pl. 1).  Bas-reliefs or drawings of a royal crown on top of Torah arks, often above a depiction of the tablets of the covenant, first appeared in synagogues in Italy in the 16th century and from there spread to other Jewish communities. Another form, a crown-shaped dome above the Torah ark, is known from several illustrations of Ashkenazi manuscripts  as well as from Torah arks from Italy, from a far later period.  Placing a Torah crown over the ark or over tablets of the covenant challenges Christian allegorical depictions of Judaism as a blind woman with a crown falling off her head, facing the figure representing the Church, on whom sits a royal crown. Not only does the Torah crown allude to the symbolic connection between the synagogue ark and the ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle, but it also expresses faith in the constant vitality and victory of the Torah.
The verse, “Through me
kings reign” (Prov. 8:15), said in the name of Wisdom, is cited in Yoma
72b to support the superiority of the Torah over the authority of earthly
rulers. This verse is engraved over
the relief of a Torah crown above a Torah ark (pl. 2) built circa 1558,
in the synagogue of Israel Isserles and his son, the well-known Rabbi Moses ben
Israel Isserles (Rema), in Kazimierz near
A different hierarchy of three crowns developed in the design of arks in synagogues in Eastern Europe, beginning with the early 18th century. In these Torah arks the Torah crown stands over a niche for the Torah scrolls, and above it is a priestly crown. The royal crown above the Torah ark does not represent the kingly crown of the House of David, rather, the crown of the kingdom of Heaven, of the King of Kings. 
Like the crowns on the letters of the Torah, from which heaps upon heaps of rules of halakhah were deduced, the evolution of the motif of the “golden wreath” in Scriptures to what we find in art work is instructive about the concepts of Torah, sanctity, and the sources of authority in government, as perceived by the Jewish people throughout the generations.
Plate 1. The gable over a Torah ark from the Nuremberg Synagogue, mid-15th century.
The Torah ark in the Rema’s synagogue, Kazimierz (near
A. Klagsbald, Jewish Treasures from
 On the origins of the phrase “Torah crown,” apparently from the tannaitic period, see M. Behr, “Ha-Munah ‘Keter Torah’ be-Sifrut Haza”l u-Mashma’uto ha-Hevratit (al ma’avakam shel Haza”l le-hanhig et ha-am),” Zion 58 (1990), pp. 397-408.
 Otto Böcher, “Die Alte Synagoge zu Worms,” in Ernst Róth, Die Alte Synagogue zu Worms, Frankfurt am Main 1961, pp. 73-78.
 R. Krautheimer, Batei-Knesset bi-Ymei ha-Beinayim, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 182-184.
17b and 73b in an Ashkenazi mahzor from
 An impressive example is the Torah ark from 1635 (enlarged in 1749), from Mantua, Italy, currently in the Ponivezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Also see U. Nahon, Aronot Kodesh ve-Tashmishei Kedushah me-Italia be-Yisrael, Tel Aviv 1970, pp. 52-55.
 B. Yaniv, “Motiv Shloshet ha-Ketarim be-Aronot ha-Kodesh shel Mizrah Europa,” Kenishta 2 (2003), pp. 67-87.