The Lost Ark

Everyone knows about the lost ark of the covenant, but when did we lose the ark, and where has it been since? A Talmudic legend provides a clue.

An illustration of the erection of the tabernacle and the sacred vessels from the 1728 Figures de la Bible. (Image: Wikimedia Commons. Illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728.)


Special Shabbat Reading

Shabbat Shekalim: Special readings are applicable this Shabbat.

  • Shabbat Shekalim (שקלים | Shekels)
  • Torah: Exodus 30:11-16
  • Haftarah: 2 Kings 11:17-12:17
  • Gospel: Matthew 17:22-27

Shabbat Shekalim ("Sabbath [of] shekels" שבת שקלים) requests each adult male Jew contribute half of a Biblical shekel for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, or mishkan (משכן). The Torah portion Exodus 30:11-16 (the beginning of Parasha Ki Tisa) is read. This Shabbat takes place on the Shabbat before the 1st of the Hebrew calendar month of Adar, or on the 1st of Adar itself if it falls on Shabbat. In leap years on the Hebrew calendar, when there are two months of Adar, Shabbat Shekalim is on the Shabbat before the 1st of Adar II (or on the 1st of Adar II itself if it is Shabbat).

Regular Shabbat Readings

Read / Listen to these Portions

  • Vayakhel (ויקהל | He gathered)
  • Torah: Exodus 35:1-38:20
  • Haftarah: 1 Kings 7:40-50
  • Gospel: Matthew 12:1-13

Note: The regular readings are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the annual Torah Portion schedule for these special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Exodus 35:1 | Sabbath Regulations
    • Exodus 35:4 | Preparations for Making the Tabernacle
    • Exodus 35:20 | Offerings for the Tabernacle
    • Exodus 35:30 | Bezalel and Oholiab
    • Exodus 36:8 | Construction of the Tabernacle
    • Exodus 37:1 | Making the Ark of the Covenant
    • Exodus 37:10 | Making the Table for the Bread of the Presence
    • Exodus 37:17 | Making the Lampstand
    • Exodus 37:25 | Making the Altar of Incense
    • Exodus 37:29 | Making the Anointing Oil and the Incense
    • Exodus 38:1 | Making the Altar of Burnt Offering
    • Exodus 38:9 | Making the Court of the Tabernacle
  • Prophets
    • 1Ki 7:13 | Products of Hiram the Bronzeworker

Portion Summary

The twenty-second reading from the Torah and the second-to-last reading from the book of Exodus is called Vayakhel (ויקהל), which means "and he assembled." The name comes from the first words of the first verse of the reading, which could be literally translated to read, "And Moses assembled all the congregation of the sons of Israel ..." (Exodus 35:1). This portion from the Torah describes how the assembly of Israel worked together to build the Tabernacle. In most years, synagogues read Vayakhel together with the following portion, Pekudei.

The children of Israel constructed the ark of the covenant according to the specifications revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The ark of the covenant was lost during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BCE. No one knows what happened to it at that time.

When the Jewish people returned from captivity in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, they did not make a new ark. They built replicas of all the other Temple furnishings, just as Solomon had done, but they did not feel that they had the Almighty's permission to make a replica ark of the covenant. Therefore, the holy of holies was left ark-less throughout the entire second Temple period. The sages explain that inside the holy of holies was a foundation stone, a piece of bedrock, on which the ark used to sit during the days of first Temple.

Talmudic lore contains several traditions about the ark. Some of the sages insisted that the ark was carried away by the Babylonians and never seen again. Others held that Jeremiah the prophet or King Josiah had hidden the ark away prior to the Babylonian conquest.

One tradition has it that the ark was hidden in a secret cellar below the chamber of the woodshed where wood for the altar fires were kept. There it remained hidden through the Babylonian destruction, but its location was forgotten. According to this tradition, it once happened in the days of the second Temple that a priest whiling away his time in the chamber of the woodshed noticed that one of the floor pavers was different from the others. He was about to lift it to investigate when he was struck down dead. Later, two priests were gathering wood for the altar when one dropped his axe on that same paver. Fire leapt up from the floor and killed him. Though stories like this are entertaining, they are only apocryphal anecdotes with no real historical basis. They are no more reliable than the modern-day pseudo-archaeologists and sensationalist junk scholars who claim to have found the ark or to know where it is hidden.

The prophet Jeremiah says that in the Messianic era, when all nations are gathered to Jerusalem, the ark of the covenant will not even be missed. This implies that, though it will not be missed, it will still be missing:

"It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land," declares the LORD, "they will no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant of the LORD.' And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again. At that time they will call Jerusalem 'The Throne of the LORD,' and all the nations will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor will they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart." (Jeremiah 3:16-17)
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