Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
How Many Arks were there?
Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig
The passage in Deuteronomy 10:1-5, on the second set of tablets, raises many questions, including the subject of the ark, on which we shall focus here.
Several approaches have been taken to these questions:
Nahmanides (in his commentary on these verses) said that this ark was the one mentioned in the commandment to build the Tabernacle and that the Tabernacle was commanded prior to the episode of the golden calf. The commandment to build the Tabernacle was primarily for the sake of the ark that it housed, and Moses was commanded in this regard before receiving the first set of tablets, and again commanded to prepare the same ark for the second tablets. Moses deduced from this that the commandment of the Tabernacle remained in force.
This view answers the questions posed above: the ark plays a central role because it is essentially a repetition of the commandment of the Tabernacle, and it is the same ark of acacia wood that was mentioned in the passage on the Tabernacle ( Parashat Terumah).
The difficulty with this interpretation is that if we have before us a repetition of the commandment to build the ark of the Tabernacle, it is here repeated in a rather oblique or offhand manner. Moreover, verse 4 says that Moses placed the tablets in the ark, but actually he would have first placed them in the Tent of Meeting, where they lay until the ark was constructed, after the Day of Atonement. A further difficulty is that here Moses is mentioned as the one who build the ark, whereas in Parashat Va-Yakhel (Ex. 27:1) Bezalel built the ark.
Rashi held that this ark
had no connection with the Tabernacle, which had not yet been commanded;
rather, it was a temporary ark intended to serve until the ark of the
Tabernacle was made. Why was it
necessary to tell about this ark, if it did not have a function for all
time? Because this was
the ark that was to be taken out to battle with them.
Nahmanides claimed that this was the view of
only one person, Rabbi
In any event, we learn something new from this interpretation, namely that the ark used to go out with them to battle. There exist other sources as well that support this view, but we cannot go into further detail here. 
Nahmanides (relating to the remarks of the Sages) explained
the majority view of the Sages in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah
and Shekalim (loc. sit.), asserting
that there was only one ark, which contained the tablets and fragments of
tablets, and that this ark was not generally removed from the Tabernacle or the
In his critique of Maimonides’ Sefer ha-Mitzvot (shoresh shlishi) Nahmanides added that the ark might possibly be carried forth in “future battles before the Messiah King, as Phinehas did in the battle against Midian, for it says that he was ‘equipped with the sacred utensils’ (Num. 31:6), and this was interpreted in Sifre as referring to the ark.”
If so, the wooden ark mentioned in this week’s reading was a temporary ark, in use until it was stored away when the Tabernacle and its ark were built. Hence the emphasis that this was a wooden ark, not covered with gold; for it was not the ark built by Bezalel. Be that as it may, according to this approach there was not a general rule that the ark would be taken out to battle, and each reference to the contrary requires individual explanation. 
Perhaps there is
an ideological aspect to the disagreement here.
According to Rashi, all the battles fought by
Israel were sacred and were won with the aid of the ark, as he explained in his
commentary on Deut. 20:4: “For it is the Lord your G-d who marches with
you to do battle for you – this
refers to the camp of the ark.” Also see
Rashi on Tractate Sanhedrin 20b, where he says that
According to Nahmanides, battles followed the course of nature, and therefore the request of the Israelites to dispatch scouts was not a sin (Nahmanides on the beginning of Parashat Shelah). Only in specific battles did they have need of the ark. 
It is also worth studying Maimonides’ approach on this, as well as the views of other rishonim, but we shall leave that for another time.
Nahmanides raised the question, where this ark was kept, for there was only one
ark in the Tabernacle and the
 We shall cite several sources, without further discussion: Num. and Rashi loc. sit.; Num. ; Deut. 20:4 and Rashi, loc. sit.; Josh.6:2; I Sam. Ch. 4; I Sam. 14:18; II Sam 11:11; and mishnah Sotah 8.1.
of the sources are explained in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah
(loc. sit.): “A verse from
Scripture supporting the Sages’ argument:
Woe to us!
Who will save us from the power of this mighty G-d? (I Sam. 4:8)
– this was something
they had never seen in their entire lives.”
In other words, the ark was not generally taken out of the camp to
battle. Regarding the argument based
on I Sam. 14:18, it
says: “Thereupon Saul said to Ahijah, ‘Bring the
 This explanation is more appropriate to the option presented by the Sages’ view that the ark was not obliged to go out to war. But this is far-fetched if one assumes that the ark always had to be taken out with its adornments and certainly with the Name of the Lord which was on it. Accordingly, one would have to explain that “Torah” (meaning the tablets and fragments of tablets, and according to some, also the scroll of the Torah – see Tosefta Sotah ch. 7) did not budge from its place; see Eruvin 63b, where it is explained that taking the ark out of its place reduced natural increase. According to Rabbenu Bahya (loc. sit., Parashat Ekev), the “Torah” going forth from its place hinted at the Exile.