Parashat Truma

The Ark Bears its Bearers

Measurements , Contents and Weight of the Ark in Rabbinical Tradition

Dvorah Ushpizai

Department of Talmud


The Torah describes the measurements and construcition of the ark in great detail. The pertinent data is discussed and explained further in the Talmud
(Baba Batra 14a). The external measurements of the ark were:

"Two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide and a cubit and a half high" (Exodus 25,10). In keeping with the Talmudic computation that one cubit equals six handbreadths (Baba Batra 14a), the length of the Ark should have been fifteen handbreadth, its width - nine and its height - nine.

The Torah continues to describe the ark's construction, saying: "overlay it with pure gold - overlay it inside and out" (Exodus 25,11). From this the Sages conclude that the Ark was constructed from three arks one within the other, (in fact these were crates, as the Ark had no legs. The Ark stood on the ground and its opening was from its top). One ark was made of Acacia wood and the other two - the innermost and the external - were made of gold. The width of the wooden walls, according to this calculation, was one half a handbreadth and the golden arks were very thin, in fact no more than a thin internal and external covering. We can then compute the internal measurements of the ark as follows: Fourteen handbreadths in length, eight in width and eight in height. In addition there were thin strips of gold, one half handbreadth in width which covered the edges of the top of the Ark on all four sides in order to give the Ark an appearance of being made entirely of gold.

On the outer Ark there were gold rings on all four corners, one third of the way up from the bottom. Into these were placed the poles used for carrying the Ark. Inside the Ark were, according to the sages, the First Tablets (of the Ten Commandments, broken by Moses upon his descent from Mt. Sinai) , the Second Tablets and the Scroll of the Torah (Sefer Torah) written by Moses before his death in the Wilderness of Moab (see Exodus 25,21; Deuteronomy 10, 1-5; 1 Kings 8,9). Maimonides in his introduction to Mishneh Torah said: "Moses wrote the entire Torah in his own hand before his death, and he gave a Sefer Torah to each one of the tribes and placed one in the Ark for posterity ...". In addition, there were deposited in the Ark the flowered staff of Aaron and the Jar of Manna.

The measurements of the Tablets were, according to Rabbinical tradition: six handbreadths in length, six in width and three handbreadths in thickness (Baba Batra 14b). Moses placed the broken Tablets in the Ark as if they were whole. The Tablets, then, took up twelve handbreadths in length, six in width and six in thickness (height), leaving two handbreadths in the length and width of the Ark.

The measurements of the Sefer Torah written by Moses according to the same Talmudic tradition, were: six handbreadths in height and two in thickness. These are the preferred measurements of any Sefer Torah - the diameter being one third of the height. Moses placed the Sefer Torah in the corner of the Ark where there was an empty space of 6x2x2 handbreadths and this space allowed the Sefer Torah easy access when it was taken out of the Ark and returned there.

According to the measurements of the Ark, specified above, its weight must have been between one hundred fifty and two hundred kilograms (depending on the weight of the wood). (On the weight of the Ark see: Sefer Haparshiot, Eliyahu Kitov, Jerusalem, 1988, pp. 159-160).

The Tablets weighed, according to the Rabbinical tradition, described above, forty "Se'ah" - each, which is equivalent to approximately five hundred liters. If we translate volume into weight we are speaking about approximately five hundred kilograms (stone being heavier than water), so that in any case each pair of Tablets weighed around 1,000 kilograms and the two pairs together at least two thousand kilograms.

The curtain and the Cherubim were also very heavy: the volume of the Cherubim was fifteen hundredths of a cubic meter. The volume was not hollow since both Cherubim were solid gold. Their height was ten handbreadths and they also had long wings. This translates into thousands of kilograms of gold !

The above descriotion of the measurements and contents of the ark, raises several questions: How could it have been possible for four men to carry the Ark on their shoulders, could they have possibly borne such a heavy burden ?! Moreover, how could it have been possible to lift the Ark by means of the poles? They would have broken the moment an attempt was made to lift the Ark. The rings would also have broken, since they were attached to very thin walls of gold.

It could not have been done by natural means, and this is apparently the reason behind the Talmudic saying: "The Ark bore its bearers and passed" (Sota 35a). This also explains why G-d became angry at Uzzah (2 Samuel, chap. 6), when he reached out to grasp the Ark to prevent it from falling from the wagon: "The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: Uzzah, it bore its bearers - it can certainly carry itself".

According to the sages, then, it was only an optical allusion, when the four men seemed to have been carrying the Ark. In fact, "The Ark bore its bearers". However, in my opinion, this sentence expresses more than a simple, physical meaning. It means that the Torah upholds those who uphold it. There is also significance to the fact that the inner Ark was made of wood. The Torah is also referred to as: "A tree of life to those who uphold it" (Proverbs 3, 18). It is likened to a drowning man who happily finds a root of a tree and holds on to it. He holds on to the tree but in reality the tree holds him and saves him from the waters which threaten his life.... Exactly thus does the Torah hold man, carries him and lifts him up.

A man may believe that he dedicates his life to the Torah, not realizing that he receives much more from the Torah than he gives to it, he receives life itself. The Yalkut Shimoni on Proverbs, chap.3, says: "All those who devote themselves to the Torah - it becomes for them a life-giving medicine, for it says: Those who find Me find life", and on the Book of Psalms the Yalkut comments: "The Holy one Blessed Be He said to David - if you seek life, look at the Torah, for it is said : it is a tree of life to those who uphold it".