The Holy of Holies


The Holy of Holies

The Holy of Holies is the most sanctified place in the Mikdash. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Two Tablets of the law. Only the High Priest was permitted to enter here, and only on Yom Kippur. In the center of the Holy of Holies stood the foundation stone upon which the Ark rested. Next to the Ark the jar of anointing oil was placed, as well as the container of Manna and Aaron's staff that had blossomed. The Holy of Holies was also called "Dvir" - because it was from the area between the two Cherubim that Moses heard G-d's word.

The inner measurement of the Holy of Holies was twenty cubits squared. The Ark rested in the center of the Holy of Holies, and on both sides of the Ark were poles used for carrying. These poles were ten cubits long, and yet they protruded outwards towards the curtain. Regarding this phenomena, the Talmud states that the Ark was above the natural realm of space.

Entry to the Holy of Holies was only permitted to the High Priest while officiating during the service on Yom Kippur, when he was dressed in white garments. On this day, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies four times. The first time, he burnt the incense, (picture on right), the second time he sprinkled the blood of the bull once upward and seven times downward, on the third time he sprinkled the blood of the goat that was offered to G-d in the same manner. On the High Priest's fourth entry into the Holy of Holies he removed the incense vessel and coal shovel.

Picture on left shows the Kohen Gadol standing with the king of Israel before the Ark of the Covenant, and receiving an answer to the king's inquiry via the Urim and Tumim on the Kohen Gadol's breatsplate.

The Foundation Stone

In the center of the Holy of Holies stood the Foundation Stone that was placed there by David and Samuel. The Hebrew name Even Shetiya (Foundation Stone) refers to the tradition that the world was created and emanated from this place.

The measurement of the stone was three "fingers" high.

During the era of the Second Temple, when the Ark was hidden underground, the High Priest would offer the incense of Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies without the presence of the Ark, and rest the shovel holding the burning coals and incense upon the foundation stone, (middle, bottom picture).

According to Midrash, the Foundation Stone was formed from the transformation of the twelve stones that Yaakov gathered together to use as a pillow when, fleeing from Esau, he lay down to sleep in Beit El. He dreamed a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder which stretched from the earth to the heavens, and, upon wakening, declared, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven." Yaakov continued, "If G-d will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And if I return in peace to my father's house, and HaShem will be my G-d; Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of G-d, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You." Attesting to Yaakov's vow, G-d determined that the twelve stones upon which Yaakov laid his head, now fused into a single stone, will become the Foundation Stone of the Holy Temple.

The Ark of the Covenant

The Divine Presence that dwelled amongst Israel manifested itself through the Cherubim located on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark of the Covenant, the two tablets of the commandments were stored. There is a Talmudic discussion regarding the contents of the Ark, One opinion states that both the first Tablets (that were broken by Moses) as well as the second Tablets, and the Torah scroll written by Moses, were all housed in the Ark.

Thus the name of the Ark was the Ark of the Covenant or the Ark of the Testimony. Surrounding the Kaporet (the cover of the Ark) was a golden wreath representing the Crown of the Torah. Atop the Kaporet were two images of Cherubim that symbolized the relationship between the Children of Israel and their Father in Heaven.

The Talmud relates that Bezalel and Moses discussed the question of whether to build the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) first, or the Ark first, indicating the great importance of the Ark. The Ark was the only vessel about which the Torah specifically commands that its carrying poles are never to be removed. This signified that the Torah would accompany the Children of Israel wherever they went. (Our Sages have explained that the word Aron (the Ark) is related to the word Or, meaning light, for the Torah which is stored in the Ark is the source of light for the world.

The Ark consisted of three boxes that fit one inside the other. A wooden box was placed inside a slightly larger box made of gold and inside the wooden box was an additional golden box. In this way the Ark was covered in gold "on the inside and on the outside." The outer larger box was a bit more than one handbreadth higher than the wooden box and the inner box was a bit smaller so that they could be inserted into one another.

The dimensions of the Ark relate to the middle, wooden box - two and one half cubits long, one and one half cubits wide and one and one half cubits high. The Ark was covered by the Kaporet - a solid gold tablet with two Cherubim fashioned on top. The cherubim were an integral part of this cover, hewn from the same piece of gold. (Source: Exodus 25, 10-22).

The Tablets of the Covenant were placed in the Ark along with the Torah scroll written by Moses. The Ark of the Covenant symbolized the inspiration of the Divine Presence and prophecy in Israel.

Opinions vary regarding what exactly was placed inside the Ark: Some authorities maintain that the first set of tablets broken by Moses were inside the Ark, along with the second intact set, and the Torah Scroll which Moses wrote. Hence the name "the Ark of the Covenant" or "the Ark of the Testimony." The shape of the two tablets was square, and they were placed on the bottom of the Ark. However, a different opinion states that the broken tablets were kept in a separate Ark, that the Torah Scroll had its own special place on a shelf alongside the Ark. (Source: Baba Batra 14).

The painting on the bottom right portrays the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from the home of Avinadav to Jerusalem. The Ark was borne atop a new wagon, with King David and all of Israel dancing before it. Closest to the Ark we see Uzzah, who attempted to catch the Ark as it began to fall – and he himself was then stricken down. When King David began to prepare the building of the Temple, he arranged to bring the Ark from Kiryat Ye’arim in a grand procession: “David and all the house of Israel played before G-d on all types of instruments… They arrived at Nachon’s threshing-floor, and Uzzah cast out [his hand] to the Ark of God and took hold of it, because the oxen stumbled” (Samuel II 6:5–6).

The painting on the bottom left portrays the Ark of the Covenant arriving in Jerusalem! King David (in the center) joyously “jumped about with all his strength” (Samuel II 6:14) in honor of the occasion, while the members of the royal household look on from the palace [foreground].

The Ark of the Covenant: The Kaporet & Poles

The Kaporet was the covering for the Ark. The Kaporet was made entirely of one piece of pure gold - including the Cherubim on the top. The Kaporet was a rectangular tablet of gold, one and one half cubits by two and one half cubits, which was placed on top of the Ark.

Poles designed for carrying the Ark were affixed to its two sides. These poles were made of acacia wood overlaid in gold. All the vessels of the Mishkan had these carrying poles for traveling in the dessert, and when Israel camped they were removed. Only the poles of the Ark of the Covenant were never removed, by special commandment. These poles reached the curtain and protruded slightly outwards from the curtain in the Kodesh. (Source: Exodus 25, 12-15)

On the Kaporet were two golden Cherubs whose wings spread over the Ark. Various commentaries describe the appearance of the Cherubim. The Sages said that their faces were like the faces of a young boy and girl. The Cherubim faced each other and expressed the relationship and the affection shared between the Almighty and the People of Israel. (Sources: Yoma 54, Baba Batra 99)

At the Sides of the Ark of the Covenant

In the Holy of Holies, next to the Ark, a number of items were placed as testimony for future generations: a jar of Manna, a jar of anointing oil, Aharon's staff that blossomed with almond flowers, and the box that the Philistines sent when they returned the Ark to Israel. These things were hidden together with the Ark towards the end of the First Temple period.

The vessels on the side of the Ark were placed there as testimony for future generations. Aaron's staff that blossomed with buds and flowers following the controversy regarding Korach and his followers was testimony that the Almighty had chosen the descendants of Aaron for the priesthood, for all time. The jar which held some Manna from the time of the desert, was testimony to the continuous protection which the Almighty provides to the Nation of Israel. The jar which held the anointing oil made by Moshe, was used to anoint kings and High Priests.

The anointing oil was used to anoint the Mishkan and its vessels. In the Temple, it was used to anoint Kings from the House of David and High Priests. (Source: Rambam, Klei Hamikdash 1, 1-12)

A jar of Manna was placed in the Holy of Holies as a memorial and testimony to the Almighty's Divine protection over the Children of Israel. During the forty year period that Israel was in the desert, the Manna descended from the sky for them each day, with the exception of the Sabbath. (Source: Exodus 16, 11-36)

At the time of Korach's controversy, Aharon's staff blossomed and budded with flowers and almonds. This staff was placed in the Holy of Holies as a memorial and as testimony to the selection of Aharon's descendants for the priesthood for all time. (Source: Numbers 16, 16-26)



Solomon's Cherubim

In the First Temple, King Solomon built large Cherubim made of Shemen wood and overlaid them with gold. Their faces were turned toward the Heichal and their wing span covered over the Ark of the Covenant. (Source: Kings I 7,23-28)

The two Cherubim were made of shemen wood. Other opinions maintain that it was olive wood, and others, pine wood. With regard to the shape of the Cherubim, there are also different opinions. As for the wings, some say that they had two wings of five cubits in length spread to two opposite directions. In this way, the wing tip of one Cherub touched the northern wall of the Holy of Holies and the tip of the second wing touched the wing tip of the other Cherub. The tip of the wing of the second Cherub touched the southern wall of the Holy of Holies.