If you have ever visited the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, you have probably been amazed by the beautiful reproductions of all the vessels used in the Temple. Perhaps more amazing is that these items: the menorah, the incense altar, the Levites’ instruments and much more – are not made to be replicas, to be used only for educational purposes. Rather, they are made to the proper specifications in terms of size, material, shape so that should the Temple be rebuilt tomorrow, these vessels can immediately be used there. However, there is one item that, although it has been built for educational reasons, will never be taken to the Third Temple. That item is the Ark of the Covenant. It won’t be used, not because we don’t know how to make it, but because it is the only item where we must have the original. The Ark today is merely a box, albeit a very nice box. What makes it holy and worthy of its place in the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies is its contents, the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. Once the original disappeared, the tablets were lost and until they are found, there is no replacement for the Ark.
Replica of the ark in the Augusta Victoria church in Jerusalem (Wikipedia)
All that is clear from the pages we are learning this week. The Mishnah on daf 53b tells us:
“After the Ark was taken into exile, there was a rock in the Holy of Holies from the days of the early prophets, and this stone was called the foundation rock.”
We will discuss this “foundation stone” later but meanwhile, let’s follow in the footsteps of the Ark. Indiana Jones is the most famous recent seeker of the Ark but the story goes back much further. The Gemara on daf 52b informs us that the Ark disappeared in late First Temple times. One opinion ascribes this disappearance to King Josiah, the last righteous king of Judah. As he knew that the Temple would be destroyed, he had the Ark hidden away so it would not be taken into exile. The Gemara here and in parallel texts learns this from a rather odd verse connected to Josiah’s religious reform and the Passover he celebrates:
“He said to the Levites, consecrated to the LORD, who taught all Israel, “Put the Holy Ark in the House that Solomon son of David, king of Israel, built; as you no longer carry it on your shoulders, see now to the service of the LORD your God and His people Israel,” (Chronicles II 35:3)
Why would Josiah need to instruct the Levites to return the Ark to the Temple? Wouldn’t they know that already? The rabbis took this verse to mean that the Ark should go not to the Temple, its natural place, but rather to a special place built by King Solomon for this very purpose – to hide it in times of danger. Yehuda Kil, in his Daat Mikra commentary, connects this tale to the catalyst that precedes Josiah’s religious reform. The priests find a Torah scroll hidden in the Temple and they are shocked by what it contains. They bring it to Hulda the prophetess to interpret it and she tells them of the future destruction of Jerusalem. Josiah decides that he must now follow the Torah’s laws. Some Bible critics see this story as proof that at least parts of the Torah were not written until Josiah’s time. But Kil, as well as other traditional scholars, says that of course the Torah was known earlier. However, Josiah followed a long period of evil rulers (Menashe and Amon) and in the decades of their rule, the priests hid the Torah scroll away so that the king would not harm it. Subsequently, the Torah was forgotten and its hiding place was lost as well. If this story seems farfetched to you, talk to any Jew who came out of Communist Russia to understand how quickly Torah knowledge can disappear under persecution. In any case, Kil suggests that the hiding place for the Torah was then used as the hiding place/geniza of the Ark, somewhere underneath the Temple Mount.
But the Gemara also records another opinion, on daf 53b: the Ark was not hidden but taken. Where was it taken? To Babylonia, along with all the other Temple treasures:
“At the turn of the year, King Nebuchadnezzar sent to have him brought to Babylon with the precious vessels of the House of the LORD, and he made his kinsman Zedekiah king over Judah and Jerusalem.“ (Chronicles II 36:10)
Is the Ark in Babylonia or is it somewhere under the Temple Mount? The Gemara continues with stories that suggest it is under the Temple Mount but other traditions go in different directions. The second book of Maccabees opens with a curious tale, enclosed within a letter to the Jews of Egypt about the new festival of Chanukah. It tells how Jeremiah went into exile with the Jews and they brought with them the holy fire from the altar, the Torah, the Tent of Meeting and the Ark. Jeremiah went to Mount Nebo, Moses’ resting place, and sealed these objects in a cave, telling the Jews that they can only be returned when the entire nation returns to the land. Where did the author of Maccabees II find this story? That we do not know, nor do we know the location of Jeremiah’s cave.
Mount Nebo (Wikipedia)
Ethiopian Christians, who share the most traditions with Jews of any Christian group, and whose origins seem to be closely connected to the origins of Ethiopian Jews, have a tradition that the Ark is nowhere else but . . . Ethiopia. They believe that it is in the church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in a city called Axom. Copies of the Ark are in all the Ethiopian Orthodox churches but this is the true one according to the church. Their story of how it got there predates Josiah by quite a few years. They claim that Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba according to Ethiopian belief, brought the Ark back from Jerusalem. In its place, he left a forgery and the true Ark has been in Ethiopia for almost three thousand years!
Axum church (Wikipedia)
Other theories place the Ark in Rome (not very likely since it was gone by Second Temple times, long before the Romans became a power in our area, although it could have made its way there from other places), among the treasures of Tutankhamen of Egypt, in France, Ireland and even the United States. Maybe Indy did find it after all?
Ark found in King Tut’s tomb (Wikipedia)
And what of the אבן השתיה, the Foundation Stone? This large outcropping of bedrock can still be seen inside the Dome of the Rock today (the Rock = the Foundation Stone) and it is how we know where the Holy of Holies was. According to the rabbis, this stone is the place from which the world began. According to legend, there is a flowing spring below the stone that will emerge in the end of days. The Muslims see the rock differently. They believe it was the launching point for Mohammed on his journey to the heavens. Underneath the stone is a cave, known as the Well of Souls. According to Muslim tradition, here is where souls await their final judgment. But some suggest that this cave is none other than the hiding place of the Ark, bringing us full circle back to our daf.
Foundation stone (Wikipedia)