Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ekev 5764/ August 7, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




How Many Arks were there?

Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig

School of Law


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.

  1. Why is the ark mentioned four times in such a short passage?
  2. Why the emphasis on the ark being made of wood?
  3. In verse 3 we are told that Moses made an ark of acacia wood; was this the same ark that was in the Tabernacle?

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 Judah ben Lakish, cited in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 8.3, and Shekalim 6.1), and that the fragments of the tablets lay in it. [1]

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. [2]

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 Temple to be taken out to battle.  It was taken out to battle once, in the days of Eli, and then it was captured (I Sam. 4).

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. [3]

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 Israel’s demand for a king to lead them in battle had been made by the common folk, and that this spoiled things because the battles belonged to G-d.

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. [4]

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.          


[1] Nahmanides raised the question, where this ark was kept, for there was only one ark in the Tabernacle and the Temple.   Possibly the fragments of the tablets were always kept in the ark that was in the Tabernacle, and only in time of war were they taken out and a wooden ark built to hold them and to take out to battle.  Tosefot Eruvin 63b and Rabbi Bahya’s commentary here (Parashat Ekev) explain that Moses’ ark described in our parasha was stored away when the Temple was built, and from then on the fragments of the tablets were kept in the ark made by Bezalel that was in the Temple.

[2] We shall cite several sources, without further discussion:   Num. 10:33 and Rashi loc. sit.;   Num. 14:44;   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.

[3] Several 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 Ark of G-d here’ – but the ark was in Beth Jearim, so how could the Rabbis use this verse?  It meant bring me the frontlet.”  This reference is either to the frontlet itself on which the Lord’s name was inscribed, or to the ark in which the frontlet was placed.   This fits in with the opinion mentioned in Sotah, loc. sit. above, on Deut. 20:4, “to bring you victory”:   “some say that this refers to the Name which was on the ark.”   Regarding the evidence from II Sam. 11:11, it says:  The Ark and Israel and Judah are located at Succoth – but the Ark was in Zion!   So how could the Rabbis use this verse?   [Read Succoth not as a place name, but from the verb] sakhakh, meaning that it was kept covered, since the Temple had not yet been built.”  As for the mishnah in Sotah ch. 8, this might be the view of a single individual (R. Judah), or perhaps it referred to the frontlet – see the Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah (loc. sit.) and the commentary korban haedah.

[4] 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.