Where the Holy Ark is Located Today

The Rambam begins the fourth chapter of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah 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 constructed the Beis [HaMikdash], knowing that it would ultimately be destroyed, he con­structed a place for the ark to be entombed below [the Holy of Holies] in deep mazelike vaults.

King Yoshiyahu commanded that the ark be entombed in the chamber which Shlomo had built; as it is written:2 “And he told the Levites3 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].

Similarly, the urim vetumim which were present in the Second Beis [HaMikdash] did not reply with Divine in­spiration, and questions were not addressed to them...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 the 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 Rabbis6 have attempted to resolve this difficulty by explaining that the 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 the Rambam in our halachah. Were this the Rambam’s intent, he could have written merely, “The ark was entombed in its place.”

Moreover, the 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, the 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 the 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, the 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 the 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

The 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:

a) a revealed place, atop “the foundation stone” in the Holy of Holies, and

b) a hidden place, in the “deep mazelike vaults” below the Holy of Holies.11

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, the 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 the 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 the Rambam states in the beginning of the halachah. Ac­cordingly, when the ark was brought to its second location in the mazelike vaults, these sacred articles were taken to that place as well.12

The Urim VeTumim, a Parallel to the Ark

Based on the above, we can also appreciate why the Ram­bam also mentions the urim vetumim in this halachah. It would appear that the reference to them is entirely extraneous, for they were not part of the Holy of Holies, nor were they placed there. The Rambam, however, mentions them in this context because of a parallel which they shared with the ark.

What was this common factor? The urim vetumim were pre­sent in the Second Beis HaMikdash, but in contrast to their function in the First Beis HaMikdash, they did not serve as or­acles. Although they existed — and by virtue of their exis­tence, the High Priest’s garments were complete — their existence did not have a direct effect on the lives of the people as it did previ­ously. This reflects on the role of the ark in the Second Beis HaMikdash. It was present, and its presence com­pleted the structure of the Beis HaMikdash. Nevertheless, it was not seen by the people as it had been before.

The Presence of the Ark on Mount Moriah, 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 mazelike 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.

Our Sages teach13 that reward and punishment are given “measure for measure.” Within every Jew, there is a “sanctuary in microcosm,” an indwelling of G‑d’s presence.14 At times, this spiritual potential is hidden, lying untouched in “deep mazelike vaults.” By probing within our hearts and bringing this inner potential to outward expression, we can hasten the coming of the time when the ark will emerge from its hidden place. And then it will be placed in the Holy of Holies in the Third Beis HaMikdash, an eternal structure which will never be destroyed. May this take place in the immediate future.