In this week’s Torah reading (Exod. 25:18-12), we find a precept instructing Moses to make two cherubim of gold:
“You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”
Western art since the time of the Renaissance traditionally depicts the cherubim as chubby-faced angel-children with wings, but such a description hardly seems to fit the contextual meaning of the of the earlier Genesis reference (Gen. 3:24) which indicates they appeared to Adam and Eve as frightening creatures!
Where did this notion come from? Actually, it derives from the Babylonian Talmud. The Sages ask, “What is the derivation of a cherub? “R. Abbahu construes כְּרוּב, as כְּרָבְיָא, a contraction of כּ “like” and רוֹבֶה, “like a child,” for in Babylon they call a child רָבְיָא, rabia, i.e., thus, a cherub is an angelic being that had a face resembling a child (Rashi). This rabbinic conjecture gave rise to the medieval imagery of chubby little angels, which appealed to Christian artists.
The actual origin of the cherubim remains controversial. It has been proposed that the cherubim may possibly be related to the Akkadian kurabu, denoting celestial interceding beings. Later in Israelite history, the cherubim guard the sacred objects housed in the Ark of the Covenant. A representation of the cherubim was fastened to the mercy seat of the ark in the Holy of Holies and functioned as the bearers of God’s heavenly throne.
During the time of The First Temple, Solomon placed two enormous and elaborately carved images of winged cherubim, inside the innermost sanctuary of the Temple. When placed together, they covered one entire wall; their outstretched wings providing a visible pedestal for the invisible throne, serving as a heavenly chariot from which the Divine ascends. Continue reading “Locked in an Eternal Embrace”