<I>Vayak'hel-Pekudei</I>: Cherubic Love, Marriage and Sex

What was the symbolism behind the cherubs? The sages of the Talmud gave an interpretation fraught with significance regarding the rabbinic attitude towards marriage and sex, an attitude which is especially crucial for our Age of the Internet.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
"The cherubs were with wings spread upwards, sheltering the Ark Cover (Kaporet)... with their faces toward one another." (Exodus 37:9)

What was the symbolism behind these cherubs? The sages of the Talmud gave an interpretation fraught with significance regarding the rabbinic attitude towards marriage and sex, an attitude which is especially crucial for our Age of the Internet:
Rabbi Katina said, "When the Israelites would ascend (to the Holy Temple) on the Festival, (the priest) would roll up the curtain (parochet) for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were joined together (in an embrace)." The priest would then tell them, "Behold, the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omnipresent are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female." (Yoma 54a)
The Talmud queries as to which Holy Temple is under discussion; after all, the First Temple built by King Solomon did not have a curtain (parochet) between the Holy of Holies and the Sanctuary, only a stone wall, and the golden cherubs of the Holy Ark Cover (Kapporet) never made it to the Second Temple. Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov explained that Rabbi Katina is indeed discussing the Second Temple, which had a parochet in front of the Holy of Holies, and this curtain was indeed rolled up during the Pilgrim Festivals; the cherubs on display were actually painted engravings upon the wooden panels that covered the stone walls of the Holy of Holies, engravings of cherubs that harked back to the First Temple and that decorated the Second Temple, as well.

As the Bible records, "All the walls of the Temple were surrounded by designs, (an engraved network of figures of) cherubs, palm trees and blossoming flowers... and he overlaid (them) with gold; (the cherubs)... were as the joining of a man, accompanied." (I Kings 6:29, 35 and 7:36)

And what is meant by these last words, "as the joining of a man, accompanied"? Rabbah bar Rabbi Shila explained, in the very discussion in the Talmud of our question at hand, "(The cherubs appeared in the engravings) as a man who is joined in an embrace with his female companion."(Yoma 54b)

The Talmud then records how the Roman conquerors who destroyed the Second Temple had no understanding of, or appreciation for, this pictorial representation of the cherubs on the wall of the Holy of Holies:
Said Resh Lakish, "When the Gentiles entered the Sanctuary, they saw (the engravings of) the cherubs joined together in an embrace. They took (the engravings) out to the marketplace, and they said, 'Should these Israelites - whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse (so they are so close to G-d) - be involved in such (erotic) matters?' Immediately, (the Romans) debased (the Israelites), as it is said (Lamentations 1:8), 'All who once respected her (Israel), debased her, for they saw her nakedness.'" (Ibid.)
The Gentiles totally misunderstood the sacred symbolic message of the cherubs: G-d's love for Israel, and Israel's love for G-d, can only be compared to the love of a lover and beloved, a bride and her groom. Maimonides (Rambam) - the arch-rationalist, legalist theologian of the twelfth century - puts it very well:
What is the proper love that we must have for G-d? It is to love G-d with an exceedingly great and intensely powerful love until the individual is constantly enraptured by it; he must be stricken like a lovesick person, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular woman, with the thought of her filling his heart at all times, whether he be sitting down or rising up, whether he be eating or drinking. Even more intense should the love of G-d be in the hearts of those who love Him, and this love should constantly absorb him, as we are commanded to love the Lord "with all your heart and with all your soul." Solomon expressed this allegorically in the verse, "for I am sick with love." (Song of Songs, 2:5) Indeed, the entire Song of Songs is an allegorical description of this love. (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, "Laws of Repentance", 10,3)
It is fascinating to note that it was the great Rabbi Akiba who taught - concerning the love song which is the Song of Songs - that if each book of the 24 books of the Bible is holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. This is the same Holy of Holies that featured the engraving of the embracing cherubs. And Rabbi Akiba did not merely mean to say that the lover in the Song of Songs is the Almighty and the beloved is the Israelite nation; after all, the rabbinical sages have already taught us that "no verse is to be completely detached from its literal meaning." Therefore, what Rabbi Akiba is teaching is a most lofty truth: every proper and passionate love relationship between man and woman is reflective of the one greatest cosmic love relationship between G-d and Israel. Love is a sacred feeling, union is a sacred expression, and marriage is a sacred ritual.

Hence, it is tragic when our youth receive their sex education from the street, or from impure relationships depicted by movies, or from internet porn. Our schools must be equipped, our educators must be trained, to teach about the sexual relationship from the stories and commandments of our Bible, from the engravings of the cherubs of the Holy of Holies. And parents must explain to their children not only the evils of immoral sexuality, and not only the legitimate joys of marital sex, but also the sanctity of the sexual union from the perspective of Judaic teachings. Sex must once again be joined to love and marriage, and must be seen as one of the great miracles and wonders of a fulfilled family life. And such education has to begin no later than the sixth grade of elementary school.

For me, as a rabbi who has been privileged to participate in thousands of weddings, the most meaningful blessing I know is the blessing of Sanctification: "Blessed are thou, O Lord our G-d, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has exhorted us against sexual immorality... Blessed art Thou who has sanctified us through the nuptial canopy and the sanctity of betrothal." (Ketubot 7b; according to the most accepted text of normative practice)





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