Where is the Holy Ark?

Where the Holy Ark is Located Today*

Rambam [Maimonides] begins the fourth chapter of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah [Laws of the Chosen House in Mishneh Torah] with the following statements:

There was a stone in the western portion of the Holy of Holies on which the ark was placed.[1] Before it, [were placed] the vial of manna and Aharon’s staff. When Shlomo [Solomon] constructed the Beis [HaMikdash] [the Holy Temple], knowing that it would ultimately be destroyed, he constructed a place for the ark to be entombed below [the Holy of Holies] in deep maze-like vaults.

King Yoshiyahu [Josiah] commanded that the ark be entombed in the chamber which Shlomo had built; as it is written:[2] “And he told the Levites[3] who were granted understanding above all of Israel and who were consecrated unto G-d; ‘Place the holy ark in the chamber built by Solomon, son of David, King of Israel. You will no [longer] carry it upon your shoulders. Now, go and serve G-d, your L-rd….’ ”

Together with [the ark], were entombed Aharon’s staff, the vial [of manna], and the anointing oil. All of these [sacred articles] did not return in the Second Beis [HaMikdash]….[4]

The commentaries have raised questions concerning this passage, because this lengthy historical explanation is out of context for the Mishneh Torah. Moreover, the fundamental point mentioned by Rambam, that the ark was entombed, is a matter of dispute among the Sages,[5] some maintaining that it was not entombed, but rather taken to Babylonia together with the other sacred articles from the Beis HaMikdash.

Maintaining the Sanctity of the Beis HaMikdash

Several of our Rabbis[6] have attempted to resolve this difficulty by explaining that Rambam’s statements concerning the entombment of the ark are intended to complement the position he states at the conclusion of Ch. 6 of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah:

Why do I say that the original consecration sanctified the [Beis Ha]Mikdash and Jerusalem until the future era, while in relation to the consecration of the remainder of Eretz Yisrael, as regards the Sabbatical year, the tithes, and other similar [agricultural] laws, [the original consecration] did not sanctify it for eternity?[7] Because the sanctity of the [Beis Ha]Mikdash and of Jerusalem stems from the Divine Presence, and the Divine Presence can never be nullified.

These commentaries explain that the Divine Presence rests on the ark. Accordingly, the eternal sanctification of the site of the Beis HaMikdash and of Jerusalem is dependent on the constant presence of the ark on that site. There are, however, several difficulties with this resolution. Firstly, it does not explain all the particular details mentioned by Rambam in our halachah. Were this the Rambam’s intent, he could have written merely, “The ark was entombed in its place.”

Moreover, Rambam’s conception of the sanctification of the site of the Beis HaMikdash is not necessarily dependent on the presence of the ark. On the contrary, Rambam states that the consecration was brought about by Shlomo at the time of the dedication of the First Beis HaMikdash without mentioning the need for the constant presence of the ark. It would appear that Rambam’s intent is that the consecration of the Beis HaMikdash came about at the moment the ark was brought into the Holy of Holies. At that time, this became the resting place for the Divine Presence and remained so for all time, for “the Divine Presence can never be nullified.”[8]

Thus our original difficulty remains unresolved. In addition, there is a further question which results from considering the order of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah. In chapter 1, Rambam explains the basic principles associated with the construction of the Beis HaMikdash. Chapter 2 concerns the altar and chapter 3 focuses on the other sacred utensils including the menorah, the table for the showbread, the incense altar, and the like. Chapter 4, by contrast, dwells on the structure of the building, its dimensions, and the different elements of its design. Seemingly, the mention of the ark should have been included in chapters 2 or 3 with the other sacred articles. Why was it included in chapter 4?

Not Merely a Sacred Article, but Part of the Beis HaMikdash

The above questions force us to view the ark in a different light. It was not merely one of the sacred utensils of the Beis HaMikdash, nor even the most important of those utensils.[9] Rather, it was a part of the structure of the Beis HaMikdash itself. For it is the ark which assures that the Beis HaMikdash will be “a house for G-d,”[10] the place where the Divine Presence rests.

If so, a question arises: How could the Second Beis HaMikdash be complete without the ark? How could the Holy of Holies be complete without this fundamental element of its structure? To reinforce these questions: The site of the Beis HaMikdash was consecrated as the resting place for the Divine Presence previously – and that sanctity remains for all time. Nevertheless, since Rambam considers the ark as an element of the structure of the Beis HaMikdash, it would appear that the building as a whole cannot be complete without it.

This is the difficulty which the Rambam seeks to resolve in this halachah with his description of the entombment of the ark. Every one of the particular details he mentions contributes to the explanation.

Two Places for the Ark

Rambam emphasizes that the chamber in which the ark is hidden was constructed by King Shlomo as part of the original conception of the Beis HaMikdash. The entombment of the ark was not a decision adopted at the last moment because of an emergency. Instead, at the outset, in the prophetic conception of the Beis HaMikdash, there were two places for the ark:

  1. a revealed place, atop “the foundation stone” in the Holy of Holies, and
  2. a hidden place, in the “deep maze-like vaults” below the Holy of Holies.**

The latter place was also consecrated as a place for the ark by King Shlomo and thus was considered as a part of the Holy of Holies. The construction of this chamber was not an afterthought to protect the ark at a time of need, but rather part of the structure which G-d intended for the Beis HaMikdash at the outset. Accordingly, as long as the ark was in this chamber, the structure of the Holy of Holies – and the Beis HaMikdash in its entirety – was complete. In regard to the structure of the Beis HaMikdash, it did not matter whether the ark was revealed in the Holy of Holies or hidden in this chamber.

King Yoshiyahu’s Command

This explanation also enables us to understand why the Rambam mentions that it was King Yoshiyahu who ordered that the ark be entombed. At the time of King Yoshiyahu, there was no immediate danger that the Beis HaMikdash would be destroyed. Quite the contrary, at that time, the Jews lived in relative security. Thus, it is clear that the entombment of the ark was not merely an expediency adopted for its protection, but rather was part of the initial intent in the construction of the Beis HaMikdash.

To further emphasize this concept, Rambam quotes the instructions given by King Yoshiyahu: “Place the holy ark in the chamber built by Solomon, son of David, King of Israel. You will no [longer] carry it upon your shoulders. Now, go and serve G-d, your L-rd….”

Yoshiyahu did not say, “Remove the ark from its place,” for the emphasis was not that the ark was being taken from its place of resting in the Holy of Holies, but rather that it was being brought to a place appropriate for it. By saying “Now, go and serve G-d,” Yoshiyahu was emphasizing that the fact that the ark would no longer be in the Holy of Holies (“you will no [longer] carry it on your shoulders”) did not detract at all from the sanctity of the Beis HaMikdash. The sacrificial service could continue without interruption.

The conception of the ark having two places is further accentuated by Rambam’s following sentence: “Together with [the ark], were entombed Aharon’s staff, the vial [of manna], and the anointing oil.” When the ark was located in the Holy of Holies, these sacred articles were required to be placed before it, as Rambam states in the beginning of the halachah. Accordingly, when the ark was brought to its second location in the maze-like vaults, these sacred articles were taken to that place as well…

The Presence of the Ark, an Eternal Truth

On this basis, we can appreciate a unique bond of oneness shared by all the structures within which G-d’s Presence dwelt, beginning from the Sanctuary in the desert. For each of these structures contained, in a revealed or hidden manner, the same ark, the receptacle for G-d’s presence. More particularly, each of the three Batei HaMikdash – the First and Second Batei HaMikdash, and the Third Beis HaMikdash which will be built in the near future – share a unique bond, for the same ark will complete these structures.

Indeed, this connection is shared with the site of the Beis HaMikdash at present, for the ark is contained there now as well, lying hidden in the “deep maze-like vaults” which Shlomo constructed. With the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash in the Era of the Redemption, however, the presence of the ark will be openly revealed. For it will emerge from these hidden depths and be placed in the Holy of Holies once more … in the Third Beis HaMikdash, an eternal structure which will never be destroyed. May this take place in the immediate future.

*Adapted from a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, published in Yiddish in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXI, Parshas Terumah. English text presented with permission from Sichos in English, as published in the book Seek Out the Welfare of Jerusalem, p. 75-82.:

http://www.sie.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2346843/jewish/Seek-Out-the-Welfare-of-Jerusalem.htm

**[Director's Note: It appears that this explanation would still be valid if the maze-like tunnels leading from the place of the Holy of Holies extended beyond the area of the Temple Mount, with the ark being hidden in a connected underground chamber, some distance away from the Temple Mount.]

Footnotes:

1. The Even HaShtiah, the Foundation Stone, was given that name because, as stated in Tractate Yoma 53b, it served as the foundation upon which G-d fashioned the world.
2. II Chronicles 35:3.
3. Although the verse mentions Levites, the intent is that the ark would be carried by the priests (Kohanim). Surely, this is Rambam’s view, for he maintains (Sefer HaMitzvos, positive commandment 34) that the ark was always carried by the priests. Even Ramban who differs with the Rambam in regard to the observance of that mitzvah, would agree in this instance, because the ark had to be removed from the Holy of Holies, a place where the Levites were not allowed to enter. See also I Kings 8:6 and commentaries.
4. [The intent is to explain that those items were not returned to the location of the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple.]
5. Tractate Yoma, loc. cit. There is also a third opinion which states that the ark was entombed, but not under the Holy of Holies, but rather under the Chamber of Wood in the Women’s Courtyard.
6. Rav Yaakov Emden on Hilchos Beis HaBechirah.
7. See the essay, “Eretz Yisrael, Our People’s Eternal Heritage,” which discusses this concept.
8. See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1346. Although the Divine Presence also rested within the Sanctuary in the desert and within the Sanctuary at Shiloh, in contrast to Jerusalem, these locations were not chosen by G-d as His eternal resting place. Therefore, when the Jewish people broke camp, and when Shiloh was destroyed, the sanctity invested in these places did not remain. See the essay entitled, “G-d’s Chosen House.”
This explanation enables us to resolve another issue. The commentaries question why Rambam does not consider the fashioning of the ark as one of the 613 mitzvos. Based on the above concept, however, an answer can be suggested. In his calculation of the 613 mitzvos, Rambam includes only those commandments which exist for all time. Divine commandments that were given at a specific time in history which were not applicable to later generations, were not included in this sum (Sefer HaMitzvos, General Principle 3).
Accordingly, the fashioning of the ark is not considered a mitzvah. For the ark built by Moshe was the ark taken into the Holy of Holies by King Shlomo, and immediately brought about the sanctification of the Beis HaMikdash as G-d’s eternal home. From that time onward, there was no need for the ark, since the purpose for which it was constructed had been completed. Hence, there was no mitzvah to build an ark for the Second Beis HaMikdash.
9. Therefore, when Rambam mentions the sacred utensils in the Beis HaMikdash (halachah 1:6), he does not mention the ark.
10. The wording used by Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah describing the purpose of the construction of the Beis HaMikdash.

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