The Ark’s Unique Design

And Bezalel made the Ark of acacia-wood: two cubits and a half was the length of it, and a cubit and a half the breadth of it, and a cubit and a half the height of it… And he cast for it four rings of gold, in the four feet thereof: even two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. And he made staves of acacia-wood, and overlaid them with gold. And he put the staves into the rings on the sides of the Ark, to bear the Ark. (Sefer Shemot 37:1-5)

And he made the Table of acacia-wood: two cubits was the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof…. And he cast for it four rings of gold, and put the rings in the four corners that were on the four feet thereof. Close by the border were the rings, the holders for the staves to bear the Table. (Sefer Shemot 37:10-14)

And he made the Altar of Incense of acacia-wood: a cubit was the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, four-square; and two cubits was the height thereof; the horns thereof were of one piece with it.… And he made for it two golden rings under the crown thereof, upon the two ribs thereof, upon the two sides of it, for holders for staves wherewith to bear it. (Sefer Shemot 37:25-27)

And he made the Altar of Burnt-offering of acacia-wood: five cubits was the length thereof, and five cubits the breadth thereof, four-square, and three cubits the height thereof…. And he made for the altar a grating of network of brass, under the ledge round it beneath, reaching halfway up. And he cast four rings for the four ends of the grating of brass, to be holders for the staves. (Sefer Shemot 38:1-5)

1. The staves and their holders
Parshat VaYakhel describes the actual fabrication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – and its components. The Mishcan accompanied Bnai Yisrael during their travels in the wilderness. The Mishcan was designed as a transportable structure. Each time Bnai Yisrael was instructed to embark upon the next stage of their journey, the Mishcan was disassembled. Upon reaching their destination, the Mishcan was reassembled. The function of the Mishcan as a transportable structure was reflected in its basic design and in the design of many of its internal components. The structure was composed of curtains draped over upright boards. Its courtyard was also composed of curtains. These were hung from poles. Many of the internal components included in their design integrated rings. Staves were inserted into these rings. These staves were used to carry the components when Bnai Yisrael traveled from one encampment to the next.

The above passages describe four of the Mishcan’s components that include in their design these integrated rings. These components are the Aron – the Ark, the Shulchan – the Table upon which the Shew Bread was displayed, theMizbe’ach HaKetoret – the Incense Altar, and the Mizbe’ach HeNechoshet – the Brass Alter – upon which sacrifices were offered. In describing the Shulchan, Mizbe’ach HaKetoret, and Mizbe’ach HaNechoset, these rings are consistently described as batim la’vadim – holders for the staves. However, in describing the rings that were included in the design of the Aron, this description is omitted. Instead, the Torah describes the placement of the rings at the four corners of the Aron and the insertion of the staves into the rings. These rings are not described as holders for the staves. Why does the Torah carefully describe the function of the rings of the Shulchan, Mizbe’ach HaKetoret, and Mizbe’ach HaNechoset as holders for the staves and not include this description in its discussion of the fabrication of the Aron?

And you should bring the staves into the rings on the sides of the Aron to carry the Aron with them. In the rings of the Aron should be the staves. They should not be removed from it. (Sefer Shemot 25:14-15)

2. The unusual design of the Aron’s staves
The above passages describe the staves that were inserted through rings of the Aron. Chizkuni suggests that the above passages seem to contain a contradiction. The Torah explains that the staves were inserted through the rings. This implies that the staves were fashioned so that they could be inserted through the rings but they were not fixed to the rings. However, the Torah then states: In the rings of the Aron should be the staves. This statement implies that they were permanently fixed to the rings and could not be removed. Based on the comments of the Talmud, Chizkuni explains that the two statements can be reconciled. The staves were fashioned with thick ends which tapered toward the center. The diameters of the staves at their ends were nearly the same as the inner diameters of the rings. The staves were forced through the rings. Once the thick ends of the staves were forced through the rings, the staves were able to move freely within the rings.[1] In short, the staves of the Aron were uniquely designed. They were fashioned so that once inserted into the rings of the Aron, they could not easily be removed. This design feature was not applied to the staves of any of the other components of the Mishcan. Why did the staves of the Aron require this unique design?

The answer to this question is provided by the above passages. The Torah explains that the staves are not to be removed from the Aron. Chinkuni explains that the simplest interpretation of this statement is that the Torah is telling us that the staves of the Aron need not be removed when the Mishcan is erected. In contrast, the staves of the other components should be removed. Chizkuni explains the reason for this distinction. The other objects that featured staves were located in parts of the Mishcan or its courtyard to which access was allowed. The nation offered its sacrifices upon the Mizbe’ach HaNechoset situated in the Mishcan’s courtyard. The Kohanim were allowed access and performed services in the outer compartment of the Mishcan. The Shulchan and the Mizbe’ach HaKetoret were located in this compartment. The staves were removed from the components located in these areas in order to facilitate the movement of the people who were provided with access to these areas. The Aron was located in the inner compartment of the Mishcan. This compartment was the Kodesh HaKadashim – the Most Sacred. Only the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – was allowed access to this area and only on Yom Kippur. Because access to the area containing the Aron was so limited, it was not necessary to remove the staves from the Aron.

3. The prohibition against removing the staves from the Aron
However, as Chizkuni acknowledges, the Sages provided a different interpretation of the passage. According to the Sages, the closing phrase in the above passages is an admonition. Hashem commands Bnai Yisrael to not remove the staves from the Aron. In other words, the removal of the staves is prohibited.[2]

This explains the unique design of the Aron’s staves. The staves of the other components were intended to be removed when the objects were set into their proper place in the Mishcan. Therefore, the staves of these objects were designed for easy removal. The staves of the Aron were not to be removed. Their removal was prohibited. Therefore, these staves had a unique design. Once inserted into their rings, the Aron’s staves could not be easily removed.

The commentaries offer a number of interesting explanations for the prohibition against removing the staves from the Aron. Many are related to another unique law of the Aron. Unlike the other components of the Mishcan which could be transported by wagon, the Aron was carried by the Leveyim.[3] In other words, whereas the staves attached to the other components of the Mishcan were used only to move and lift these objects onto wagons the Aron was transported through the wilderness by the Leveyim who carried it by its staves.

Maimonides explains that because the staves were essential to the Aron’s transport, they could not be removed. The Aron was designed to be transportable and the staves were essential to this function. If removed, the Aron would be incomplete.[4]

Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur offers a similar explanation. He explains that because of its sanctity, we are commanded to treat the Aron with extreme respect. We are not to handle it unnecessarily but only to the extent absolutely required. Therefore, in order to limit contact with the Aron – as is consistent with its sanctity – the Torah prohibits removal of its staves. The Torah is preventing the unnecessary contact that would occur if the staves were removed with each encampment and then reinserted with each new stage of the journey through the wilderness.[5]

Don Isaac Abravanel provides one of the most interesting explanations for the prohibition. He suggests that the staves of the Aron were not merely a feature included in the Aron’s design in order to facilitate its transport. Instead, the staves were included in the Aron’s design because it is prohibited to make direct contact with the Aron. The admonition against removing the staves reinforces the prohibition against making direct contact with the Aron.

4. The relationship of the Aron to its staves
Each of these Sages is explaining the prohibition against removal of the staves from the Aron. However, they do not share the same perspective on the relationship between the staves and the Aron. According to Maimonides, the staves are an integral component of the Aron. Their removal renders the Aron incomplete. Bechor Shur and Abravanel do not agree with this position. According to both, the prohibition against removal of the staves is predicated upon the staves separate identity from the Aron. Abravanel argues that the staves may not be removed because the Aron may not be touched. The staves – which are not part of the Aron – make it possible to move and transport the Aron. Bechor Shur’s position is similar. He seems to agree that the staves are not an integral component of the Aron. He does not contend that their removal would render the Aron incomplete. Instead, he argues that the staves may not be removed because their removal would result in unnecessary contact with the Aron.

Now, the Torah’s description of the rings holding the staves of each component can be explained. In discussion the Shulchan, Mizbe’ach HaKetoret, and the Mizbe’ach HaNechoset, the Torah refers to the rings as holders for the staves. This description is appropriate because the staves were not intended to be a permanent component of these objects. In other words, this description implies that the rings are designed to hold the staves which are not themselves part of the component. The staves are inserted into their rings – which act as their holders – and then removed.

This description is not appropriate for the rings of the Aron. The Aron’s staves are a permanent element of its design. They are never removed. Therefore, the Torah does not describe the rings as holders for the staves. Instead, the Torah describes the Aron, its rings, and staves as a single integrate whole.

It is notable that Maimonides’ position, described above, most accords with this description of the rings. According to Maimonides, the Aron, its rings, and staves are quite literally a single integrated entity. According to Maimonides, removal of the staves actually renders the Aron incomplete. However, According to Bechor Shur and Abravanel, the staves are technically not a part of the Aron. They may not be removed and there exists a very high degree of integration between the staves and the Aron. However, the staves are not an actual component of the Aron.

1. Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 25:15.
2. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Klai HaMikdash 2:12.
3. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Klai HaMikdash 2:12.
4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 45.
5. Rabbaynu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 25:15.
6. Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 25:15.