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The Subterranean Temple

The Subterranean Temple


I am asleep, but my heart is awake

Song of Songs 5:2

Our sages tell us that “when King Solomon built the Holy Temple, knowing that it was destined to be destroyed, he built a place in which to hide the Ark, [at the end of] hidden, deep, winding passageways.”1 It was there that King Josiah placed the Ark twenty-two years before the Temple’s destruction, as related in the Book of Chronicles.2

The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon in the year 2928 from creation (833 BCE), and was destroyed 410 years later, on the ninth day of the month of Av, by the armies of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar. Seventy years later it was rebuilt; the second Temple stood for 420 years, until its destruction by the Romans, also on the ninth of Av, in 3829 (69 CE). Ever since, 9 Av has been a day of fasting and repentance—a day on which we mourn the destruction, and pray for the coming of Moshiach, when the third and final Temple will be restored to its place as the divine epicenter of the universe.

The Holy Temple was G‑d’s home, the place in which He chose to manifest His all-pervading truth. How, then, could it have been destroyed by human hands? Only because the very structure of the Temple allowed for this possibility. This is the deeper significance of the fact that King Solomon built the Holy Temple “knowing that it was destined to be destroyed” and incorporated into it a hiding place for the Ark for that eventuality. Had the Temple not been initially constructed with the knowledge of, and the provision for, what was to happen on the ninth of Av, no mortal could have moved a single stone from its place.

The Places of the Ark

The fact that the Ark’s hiding place was built into the Holy Temple from the very beginning also carries another implication: it means that the first, second and third Temples are not three different structures, but the continuum of a single edifice.

The Ark contained the two tablets of stone, inscribed with the Ten Commandments by the hand of G‑d, which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. It was the holiest object in the Temple, kept in the Temple’s innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies. Indeed, our sages define the primary function of the Holy Temple as the housing of the Ark, for the Ark constituted “the resting place of the Shechinah (divine presence).”3

Thus, the underground chamber built by Solomon is much more than another “part” of the Holy Temple. The fact that it was constructed for the express purpose of containing the Ark means that it is of a piece with the Holy of Holies—the very heart of the Temple and its raison d’être.4

This is further underscored by the fact that the Ark has remained in this chamber from the time that it was placed there by Josiah, twenty-two years before the destruction of the First Temple, to this very day. This means that for the 420 years of the Second Temple, the Ark was not in the Holy of Holies, but in its underground chamber. But if the most fundamental function of the Temple is to house the Ark, how can there be a Holy Temple without an Ark? Also, at the time that Josiah hid the Ark, there was not yet any threat to the Holy Temple or to the Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, only the prophetic knowledge that the Temple was destined to be destroyed. If the essence of the Holy Temple would have been negated by the removal of the Ark below ground, this would certainly not have been done until there was actual danger that the Ark might fall into enemy hands. Obviously, then, the underground hiding place of the Ark is no less part of the Holy Temple, and no less valid a place for the Ark, than the (aboveground) Holy of Holies.

In other words, the Holy Temple was initially designed and built to exist in two states: a revealed state and a concealed state. Accordingly, there were two designated places for the Ark in the Holy Temple—the aboveground portion of the Holy of Holies, and the chamber hidden at the end of “deep, winding passageways.” In its revealed state, the Holy Temple was a beacon of divine light, a place where man openly perceived and experienced the divine presence.5 In its concealed state, the divine revelation in the Holy Temple is muted, or almost completely obscured. But as long as the Temple houses the Ark, it continues to serve as the dwelling of G‑d.

In the twenty-eight centuries since it was first built, the Holy Temple has never ceased to fulfill its fundamental function as the seat of the divine presence in the world. There were times in which the entire structure stood in all its glory atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, times in which it existed in a diminished form (as in the Second Temple era), and times in which it was almost entirely destroyed. But a certain part of the Holy Temple has never been disturbed, and there its heart has never ceased to beat. When the “Third” Temple will be built, speedily in our days, and the Ark restored to its aboveground chamber, it will not be a new edifice, or even a “rebuilding,” but a revelation and reasserting of what has been present all along.

Deep and Winding

“Because we have sinned before You . . . our city was destroyed, our Sanctuary laid waste; our grandeur was banished, and the glory departed from our House of Life; no longer are we able to fulfill our duties in Your chosen home, in the great and holy house upon which Your name is proclaimed . . .”6

As these lines express, the Temple’s susceptibility to destruction is, on the most basic level, a negative thing. Because G‑d knew that we might prove unworthy of His manifest presence in our lives, He instructed that the Holy Temple be built in such a way as to allow for periods of diminution and concealment.

But our vulnerability to sin is but G‑d’s “awesome plot on the sons of man.”7 G‑d created us with the capacity to do wrong only to enable us to uncover “the greater light that comes from darkness”8—to enable us to exploit the momentum of our lowest descents to drive our highest achievements. There is much to be achieved through the virtuous development of our positive potential; but nothing compares with the fervor of the repentant sinner, with the passion of one who has confronted his darkest self to recoil in search of light. No man can pursue life with the intensity of one who is fleeing death.

For centuries the Holy Temple has lain desolate, its essence contracted in a subterranean chamber deep beneath its ruined glory. But this terrible descent is, in truth, but the impetus for even higher ascent, even greater good, even more universal perfection, than what shone forth from the Temple in its first and second incarnations.

The paths to this chamber are hidden, deep and winding. This is not the straight and true path of the righteous, but the furtive, convoluted path of the “returnee” (baal teshuvah)—a path that plunges to the depths of his soul to unleash the most potent forces buried therein.9

Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple 4:1, from Talmud, Yoma 53b.
II Chronicles 35:3; Mishneh Torah, loc. cit.
Nachmanides’ commentary on Torah, introduction to Exodus 25. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4, p. 1346, note 24.
Thus the Talmud says that “the Ark was concealed in its place” (Yoma, ibid.).
See Exodus 23:17 (as interpreted by the Talmud, Chagigah 2a), 25:8 and 40:34–35; I Kings ch. 8; Ethics of the Fathers 5:5; et al.
From the Mussaf prayer for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh.
Ecclesiastes 2:13 (as interpreted by chassidic teaching).
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Chazon 5741/1981 (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 21, pp. 156–163).
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Esther Lakewood August 2, 2017

This is truly an amazing and inspiring article and I just love it! It touched me in a very deep, mystical way! Thank you! Reply

Luke Francis Bronx, NY July 28, 2017

I love mysteries. The location of the ark is one of those mysteries.. Awesome story. =) Reply

Sarah K. Europe July 27, 2017

Wonderful article. Thank you so much ! It made me cry. I think it tells much more than the words. Can you comment about the "I am asleep but my heart is awake "? (and how to wake up ?) Reply

Rabbi USA July 23, 2017

In answer to curios question - some commentaries explain that knowing that the enemies would come the Jews created decoy copies. Reply

Shani July 23, 2017

Really love this part. "not the straight and true path of the righteous, but the furtive, convoluted path of the “returnee” "
Huge help is dialoging. Thank you. Reply

donald July 23, 2017

Interestingly it's technically the fourth temple as herod destroyed the second temple and built a new one over it...but it's interesting this detail is always omitted from stories and such but seems to be a not insignificant detail. Reply

Curious Panama, Panama via August 7, 2011

about the ark.. If you look at the arc de Triomphe in Paris, you can see on the top, a picture that shows the victorious carrying the Ark. It is said that they took it to the Vatican and there it is hidden until today, and when Rabbis visit the Pope, they are instructed by the "protocol " not to mention that subject, never mind its return. Are they talking about the same Ark that's supposed to be hidden under the temple mount? Or is it something else that they stole at the time? Reply

Yosef H. Brooklyn, NY July 19, 2017
in response to Curious:

The battles on the Arc de Triomphe depict French battles in the 1700s and 1800s. You may be thinking of the Titus Arch on Via Sacra in Rome... Reply

Anonymous July 23, 2017
in response to Curious:

Anyone with an imagination can come along and depict the Ark in a stone, or write a book, or make a film like "The Raiders of the Lost Ark". That's just fantasy, of course. I've never heard of that said ark in the Vatican. But maybe those people in the Vatican are convinced that some old box they keep there is the Ark, which of course it isn't. And maybe when some Rabbis visit the place, they are told about it and asked not to claim it. I can only guess they promptly agree, with a smile under their beards, to have no claim over the old box, if such suits the gentlemen in the Vatican. Reply

Frank July 23, 2017
in response to Curious:

There were decoy arks made for this precise purpose Reply

Hannah New Jersey July 27, 2017
in response to Curious:

I don't know what the truth actually is, but this (wonderful) article says the original Ark was deeply buried. What the Romans stole probably was a replica, as I don't believe any of the faithful would have given up knowledge of the real resting place. I have also heard the Vatican has many stolen Jewish treasures from that time, but I wouldn't think the holy Ark was among them. Reply

Anonymous Portsmouth July 28, 2017
in response to Curious:

I'm not so sure about this. I don't see how this squares with Ezekiel, and the terrifying vision of the Spirit of the Lord leaving the temple. I'd be interested to hear how it does.

And if you read the story of Josiah calling for the return of the ark, you read many descriptions of what happened, but no mention that the ark was actually returned. And indeed, the ark had left the Temple under Manassah.

Then in Maccabees (though only apocryphal), again you read of what was recovered from the pit, but I don't think it was the ark. It was the holy fire, naptha.

So I'm not so sure the ark was there, and indeed I don't think Rome ever had the ark. The word I have heard is that the Jews who went down to Egypt continued down to Ethiopia; and it is in an Ethiopian orthodox church there, Tewahedo church, that an Ethiopian Orthodox priest takes care of the ark, a chain around his foot, until the day he dies.

Whether true or not, I do not know. I do know that it is published. Reply

Moshe Meir California via August 1, 2017
in response to Curious:

The arch with the depiction you mention is not in Paris. It is the Arch of Titus in Rome; I have been there and seen it. You can see the Romans carrying away the Menorah and other vessels from the Temple, but not the Holy Ark. As the article mentions, the Ark was not brought up when the second Temple was built. It is possible that the Vatican has some of the Temple's vessels, but definitely not the Holy Ark. Reply

Shani August 1, 2017
in response to Curious:

Hope something else. What ever they have hidden in the vatican, just super thankful won't be standing near it when HaShem takes it back. :/ Reply

Anonymous Olympia, WA July 31, 2009

Thank you. Thank you for your wonderful article. Reply

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