The Talmud is the comprehensive written version of the Jewish oral law with subsequent commentaries. It originated in the 2nd century CE, and most of the Babylonian Talmud existed by the year 500.
One of the most evocative passages of the Babylonian Talmud describes the legendary Ark of the Covenant – a holy chest constructed according to Divine instructions. It contained various sacred relics. Reportedly, in the first Temple, the Ark was housed amid images or engravings depicting a cherub couple embracing. Did this symbolise sacred union?
The William Davidson translation is available in full online.
[Yoma 54a] אמר רב קטינא בשעה שהיו ישראל עולין לרגל מגללין להם את הפרוכת ומראין להם את הכרובים שהיו מעורים זה בזה ואומרים להן ראו חבתכם לפני המקום כחבת זכר ונקבה
Continuing the previous discussion, Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the Jewish people.
Rav Ḥisda raised an objection: How could the priests allow the people to see this? After all, it is stated with regard to the Tabernacle: “But they shall not go in to see the sacred objects as they are being covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20), and Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: When the vessels were put into their containers for transport, it was prohibited even for the Levites to look at them. The prohibition against viewing the vessels should be even more severe when they are fixed in their sacred place within the Temple. How could they be publicly displayed?
אמר רב נחמן משל לכלה כל זמן שהיא בבית אביה צנועה מבעלה כיון שבאתה לבית חמיה אינה צנועה מבעלה
Rav Naḥman said in answer: This is analogous to a bride; as long as she is engaged but still in her father’s house, she is modest in the presence of her husband. However, once she is married and comes to her father-in-law’s house to live with her husband, she is no longer modest in the presence of her husband. Likewise, in the wilderness, when the Divine Presence did not dwell in a permanent place, it was prohibited to see the sacred objects. By contrast, all were allowed to see the sacred objects in their permanent place in the Temple.
מתיב רב חנא בר רב קטינא מעשה בכהן אחד שהיה מתעסק וכו’ אמר ליה נתגרשה קא אמרת נתגרשה חזרו לחיבתה הראשונה
Rav Ḥana bar Rav Ketina raised an objection from the aforementioned mishna: There was an incident involving a certain priest who was occupied and discovered the place where the Ark was hidden, and he subsequently died before he could reveal its location. Since he was prevented from seeing the Ark, it was evidently prohibited to see the sacred objects even after the Temple was built. Rav Naḥman said to him: This is not difficult, as you are speaking of when she was divorced. Since the Jewish people were exiled after the destruction of the First Temple, they are compared to a woman divorced from her husband, and when a woman is divorced she returns to her original beloved but reserved state. She is once again modest and does not reveal herself. Likewise, the Divine Presence will remain hidden until the glory of the First Temple is restored.
במאי עסקינן אי נימא במקדש ראשון מי הואי פרוכת אלא במקדש שני מי הוו כרובים לעולם במקדש ראשון ומאי פרוכת פרוכת דבבי
The Gemara poses a question concerning Rav Ketina’s statement: With what are we dealing here; in what circumstance did the priests roll up the curtain to show everyone the cherubs? If we say this is referring to the First Temple, was there a curtain between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies? In the First Temple, there was a wall there. Rather, we will say this is referring to the Second Temple; but were there cherubs there? Since there was no Ark, it follows that there were no cherubs on it. The Gemara answers: Actually, Rav Ketina is referring to the First Temple, and what is the curtain that he mentioned? It is the curtain of the gates. For all of the Jewish people to be able to see, they had to raise the curtains hanging on all the gates.
דאמר רבי זירא אמר רב שלשה עשר פרוכות היו במקדש שבעה כנגד שבעה שערים שתים אחת לפתחו של היכל ואחת לפתחו של אולם שתים בדביר ושתים כנגדן בעליה
As Rabbi Zeira said that Rav said: There were thirteen curtains in the Second Temple: Seven opposite, i.e., on the inside of, seven gates; two additional ones within the Temple, one of which was at the entrance to the Sanctuary and the other one of which was at the entrance to the Entrance Hall. Two additional curtains were within the partition, in the Holy of Holies in place of the one-cubit partition, and two corresponding to them were above in the upper chamber. Above the Holy of Holies, there was another level in the same layout as the one below, and a curtain was affixed there, too, as no one climbed up to the higher chamber above the Holy of Holies without a pressing need. These curtains were most likely hanging in the First Temple as well.
רב אחא בר יעקב אמר לעולם במקדש שני וכרובים דצורתא הוו קיימי דכתיב (מלכים א ו, כט) ואת כל קירות הבית מסב קלע (מלכים א ו, לה) כרובים ותמרות ופטורי ציצים וצפה זהב מישר על המחוקה
Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: Actually, Rav Ketina’s statement is referring to the Second Temple: There was a curtain at the entrance of the Holy of Holies, and indeed there were images of cherubs there, i.e., drawn or engraved pictures of the cherubs on the walls. As it is written: “And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubs and palm trees and open flowers, within and without” (I Kings 6:29), and it is further stated: “And he overlaid them with gold fitted upon the graven work” (I Kings 6:35), which teaches that in addition to the cherubs within the sacred place, other cherubs were drawn on the walls.
וכתיב (מלכים א ז, לו) כמער איש ולויות מאי כמער איש ולויות אמר רבה בר רב שילא
And it is written: “According to the space of each with loyot” (I Kings 7:36). The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of: “According to the space of each with loyot”? Rabba bar Rav Sheila said:
כאיש המעורה בלוייה שלו אמר ריש לקיש בשעה שנכנסו נכרים להיכל ראו כרובים המעורין זה בזה הוציאון לשוק ואמרו ישראל הללו שברכתן ברכה וקללתן קללה יעסקו בדברים הללו מיד הזילום שנאמר (איכה א, ח) כל מכבדיה הזילוה כי ראו ערותה
It means like a man joined and clinging to his livaya, his partner, i.e., his wife. In other words, the cherubs appeared to be embracing one another. Reish Lakish said: When gentiles destroyed the Second Temple and entered the Sanctuary, they saw these drawings of cherubs clinging to one another. They peeled them from the wall, took them out to the market, and said: These Jews, whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse, due to their great fear of God, should they be occupied with such matters, making images of this kind? They immediately debased and destroyed them, as it is stated: “All who honored her debase her because they have seen her nakedness” (Lamentations 1:8).