The Cherubim and Guide 3:32


Last week I wrote about the Ark of the Covenant that had two angle-like figures on its top and two poles protruding at its bottom. I showed that the ark, its top, and bottom remarkably resembled the ark used by the Egyptians before the Torah was revealed. It was an obvious copy. This raised several problems: (1) The top of the ark seems to be a violation of the Decalogue’s prohibition against making images. (2) The notion that angelic-type figures may have been placed upon the ark to protect it is pure superstition. (3) The poles used to carry the ark appear to be unnecessary since the ark was placed in the “holy of holies” in the temple.

After reading the essay, a wise reader, Tzvi Adams, wrote that the cherubim is a good example of Maimonides’ explanation in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 where he wrote that the relatively primitive ancient Hebrews needed to be weaned off old beliefs and customs such as sacrifices. God “allowed” sacrifices to continue in a restricted manner, although God did not want or need them, because the people needed them: they saw that other nations used sacrifices to show their love of their gods. Zvi Adams is right: there are many practices in Judaism today that are far from ideal, but are “allowed,” and the ark is a good example.


What was in the ark?

The outer parts of the ark, as I described previously, was a copy of the Egyptian religious article, but inside there was something important, a gift Judaism gave to humanity, the two tablets of stone containing the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, both the shattered and unshattered versions. This was what was important, not the box that held it.

But people, both ancient and modern are unable to deal with concepts such as the commandments; they need to see and feel something concrete.[1] This was especially so when the Israelites saw pagans acting “religiously,” showing their love to their gods by offering the gods sacrifices. It is true when Jews today see non-Jews venerating an object, such as wearing a cross around their neck, and they copy the practice by wearing a mezuzah. Thus, Maimonides explained that although God does not need or even want sacrifices, sacrifices were “allowed.”

We can understand Maimonides’ idea literally or figuratively. We can recognize that God is actually not involved. We can substitute the word “Judaism” or “Jews” or “Torah,” and understand his view as follows: True, copying the Egyptian container is not something Judaism at its highest level would consider proper, but since so many people need to look at a revered item, the Torah “allowed” it.

Another example of “allowance” is the practice of tashlich. I described this service in detail in my book Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind. Among much else, I wrote that:


The tashlich ceremony is a bribe to silence Satan

The tashlich ceremony preserves a superstitious belief held by Jewish masses of ancient times concerning water and the divine beings that dwell around it. The rite has been reinterpreted over time, modified slightly and rationalized, but its original superstitious and pagan origin is quite clear.

The name tashlich is derived from Micah 7:19 where the prophet states v’tashlich, “you will cast all your misdeeds into the depth of the sea.” Many Jews took this metaphorical statement literally and the practice of tashlich began in the Middle Ages.

The idea behind tashlich is the recitation of certain prayers near a body of water, preferably a river, stream, or any body of water that contains fish. Jews toss breadcrumbs or other foods to the fish as a bribe, confident that the fish would take the food and deliver it for them to Satan, and the bribe would stop Satan from accusing them of past misdeeds before God.


The ancient uneducated Jew believed that God consults demons

The idea is based on the primitive notion of Jews and non-Jews that God does not make decisions without first consulting with angels and demons and that the angels and demons can persuade God to act contrary to the interests of humanity. This notion was supported by misreadings and misunderstandings of many biblical and post-biblical sources.

For example, these people took the first chapter of Job literally. The chapter tells of a satan having a discussion with God about Job and trying to persuade God to punish him. The term satan in Job does not refer to the demon who was given the biblical name satan many years after the book was composed. In the book, satan means adversary. Nevertheless, the average Jew saw the Job story as a depiction of the very thing he feared and wanted to avoid: the demon Satan acting as a prosecutor in the heavenly court, seeking to persuade God to punish him.

Jews found reinforcement in Midrashim such as Genesis Rabbah 8:3, which comments upon Genesis 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man.” The Midrash disregards the Bible’s use of the “royal plural” and asks: “With whom did God take counsel? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: God took counsel with the works of heaven and earth, like a king who had two advisers without whose knowledge he did nothing whatsoever.” The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b, bolsters this view. It states: “God does not do anything without first consulting heavenly beings.” These beings, the masses were convinced, were angels and demons.


Attempts to rationalize tashlich

Some rabbis understood the pagan roots of tashlich but chose to allow the continuation of the custom because of the rabbinic principle minhag avoteinu Torah hi, “the customs of our ancestors is law [for us].” However, they set about disguising its origin, rationalizing it, and turning it into a symbolic ceremony with religious significance.

For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520–1572) argued that tashlich is a symbolic prayer for a good life, a blessing that Jews should multiply like fish in water, and an opportunity to observe the mighty wonders of God who made sand a boundary of the sea.

Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe (1530–1612) suggested that the ceremony reminds us of the trial of Abraham[2] who, when he went to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, was, according to a Midrash, hindered in his journey by a deep river. Abraham was able to overcome the obstacle and continue on his mission. Jaffe felt that Jews go to a place with fish to help them realize that, like fish, they can be caught in a net, and the ceremony reminds Jews to avoid obstacles but, if ensnared, make every effort to escape the difficulty and accomplish God’s wishes.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630) wrote in his Shney Luchot Habrit that Jews go to the water to see fish. This prompts them to think that just as fish have no eyelids and their eyes are always open, Jews should always keep their eyes open to God.


Opposition from many rabbis

Many rabbis opposed the tashlich rite. Despite the attempt of other rabbis to rationalize, ennoble, and spiritualize it, it was clear to them that the root and purpose of the practice lay in ancient pagan superstitions. Elijah Gaon (1720–1797) and his disciples did not practice tashlich because they saw it was superstition. Maimonides did not include this rite in his code of Jewish law for the same reason.


[1] This explains why so many zealots insist that the government should allow pictures and carvings of the two stones containing the Ten Commandments on government property.

[2] Narrated in Genesis 22.