Friday, February 19, 2010

The Keruvim as a Model for Relationships

Read this in the Jewish Star

Parshat Teruma

In the construction of the tabernacle, the Aron (Ark), which contains the Torah, is to be covered with a kaporet (cover), made of solid gold, out of which two keruvim (cherubs) are carved.

“The cherubs shall spread their wings upward so that their wings shield the kaporet (cover). The cherubs shall face ‘ish el achiv’ (loose translation: one another), but their faces shall [also be inclined downward] toward the cover.” (25:20)

The classic understanding is that the cherubs contain the faces of children, one boy and one girl. Yet, oddly enough, when the Torah describes how they face one another, the term employed is “ish el achiv,” which literally means “man to his brother.”

One can argue, as Rashi does in 26:3, that when the Torah is talking about objects which are feminine words (lashon nekeivah) —yeriot (curtains) in that verse — then the Torah describes pairing parts as “ishah el achotah” (woman to her sister). In our case, since the word “keruv” is masculine, it is described as “ish el achiv.”

Despite this, the term “ish el achiv” — which appears in five contexts in the Torah —still implies two males, which brings the male/female interpretation subject to scrutiny.

The first three times the phrase appears are different stages of Yosef’s brothers talking about their relationship with him. Of these three, the first is when they say to one another that “the dreamer is coming and we’d better kill him.”
The second is when Yosef, as viceroy, insists that they bring Binyamin to see him. They say to one another that this is happening because of their role in Yosef’s disappearance.

The third is when they become frightened at the discovery of their money in their bags, after they had paid for their food and stopped along their journey home. (37:19, 42:21, 42:28)

When the Manna falls, we find the people are scared, and “ish” says to “his brother,” “what is it?” because they have never seen and do not understand heavenly bread (Shmot 16:15)

The next two appearances of this phrase are in our parsha and when the mishkan is actually put together (25:20, 37:9) — both describing the cherubs facing each other on the kaporet.

The final appearance of this phrase in the Torah is Bamidbar 14:4, in the aftermath of the spy incident, when many suggest a return to Egypt rather than an attempt to conquer the seemingly dangerous and unwanted land of Canaan.

Aside from the keruvim, all of these cases are literally of men turning to one another and vocalizing their thoughts or opinions.

When it comes to the keruvim, while they are obviously not talking to one another (because they are inanimate), where would the idea of their being male and female come from?

The main source of the keruvim being directly identified as male and female is from the Zohar, inspired by the Gemara in Yoma 54 that depicts the keruvim as “joined together in an embrace” of a male and female.

Aside from Rashi’s interpretation in 26:3, how can we reconcile that the Torah describes each of the keruvim as masculine, when the face of one of them was female?

How can we interpret the phrase “ish el achiv” differently to better understand the role of the keruvim?

The term “ish el achiv” is used when people are discussing issues that have great repercussions. In the case of Yosef’s brothers, they went through stages: let us kill Yosef (they decided to sell him), we are being tormented because of selling Yosef (they eventually bring Binyamin), and our money is in our bags (they return to Canaan, and eventually try returning the money to Yosef).

People are scared of heavenly bread, they ask one another about it, and they learn to use it for their daily sustenance.

While I cannot reconcile the fact that the keruvim are referred to in the masculine while one of them has a feminine face, it is possible that the term “ish el achiv” is meant to suggest symbolism of the role the keruvim play in the human experience.

In all cases where the term appears, people learn a lesson and grow from the way they relate to one another in their shared experience.

On the simplest level, if the keruvim represent a male and female doing their best to live in harmony, who are always looking down to the box they cover and the contents therein, then the keruvim are a married couple who work hard, at all times, to make their marriage work, who look to the Torah for guidance as to how to achieve that goal.


  1. I'm new to Judaism, so if my comment seems a bit daft, thast why:

    Since the word for "he" in Hebrew can be read as "it", can't the possessive form be read as "it's"?

  2. Elliot
    Sorry I have not responded until now. I am not sure to what you were referring, so it is hard to address your actual concern.

    But as far as English grammar goes, "its" (without an apostrophe) is the possessive form, while "it's" (with the apostrophe) is the contraction for the words "it is."

    I don't know what this does to your question. Feel free to clarify - looking forward