What was the symbolism behind these cherubs? The Sages of the Talmud gave an interpretation fraught with significance regarding the Rabbinic attitude toward marriage and sex, an attitude which is especially crucial for our Age of the Internet: "Rav Katina said, 'When the Israelites would ascend [to the Holy Temple] on the Festival, [the Kohanim] would roll up the curtain (parochet) for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were joined together [in an embrace].' The Kohanim would then tell them, 'Behold, the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omni Present. Are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female.'" (BT Yoma 54a).
The Talmud queries as to which Holy Temple is under discussion; after all, the First Temple built by King Solomon did not have a curtain (parochet) between the Holy of Holies and the Sanctuary, only a stone wall, and the golden cherubs of the Holy Ark Cover (kaporet) never made it to the Second Temple!
R. Aha Bar Ya'acov explained that R. Katina is indeed discussing the Second Temple, which had a parochet in front of the Holy of Holies, and this curtain was indeed rolled up during the Pilgrim Festivals; the cherubs which were on display were actually painted engravings upon the wooden panels which covered the stone walls of the Holy of Holies, engravings of cherubs which harked back to the First Temple and which decorated the Second Temple as well.
As the Bible records, "All the walls of the Temple were surrounded by designs, [an engraved network of figures of] cherubs, palm trees and blossoming flowers... and he overlaid [them] with gold; [the cherubs]... were as the joining of a man, accompanied" (1 Kings 6:29, 35 and 7:36).
And what is meant by these last words, "as the joining of a man, accompanied?" Rabba bar Rav Shila explained, in the very discussion of the Talmud of our question at hand, "[The cherubs appeared in the engravings] as a man who is joined in an embrace with his female companion" (BT Yoma 54b).
The Talmud then records how the Roman conquerors, who destroyed the Second Temple, had no understanding of, or appreciation for, this pictorial representation of the cherubs on the wall of the Holy of Holies: "Said Resh Lakish, 'When the Gentiles entered the Sanctuary, they saw ([the engravings of] the cherubs joined together in an embrace. They took [the engravings] out to the marketplace, and they said, "Should these Israelites - whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse [so they are so close to God] - be involved in such [erotic] matters?"
Immediately, [the Romans] debased [the Israelites], as it is said: (Lamentations 1:8) All who once respected her (Israel), debased her, for they saw her nakedness.'"(Ibid).
The Gentiles totally misunderstood the sacred symbolic message of the cherubs: God's love for Israel, and Israel's love for God, can only be compared to the love of a lover and beloved, a bride and her groom.
Maimonides (Rambam) - the arch rationalist - legalist - theologian of the 12th century - puts it very well: "What is the proper love that we must have for God? It is to love God with an exceedingly great and intensely powerful love until the individual is constantly enraptured by it; he must be stricken like a lovesick person, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular woman, with the thought of her filling his heart at all times, whether he be sitting down or rising up, whether he be eating or drinking. Even more intense should the love of God be in the hearts of those who love Him, and this love should constantly absorb him, as we are commanded to love the Lord 'with all your heart and with all your soul.' Solomon expressed this allegorically in the verse, 'for I am sick with love' (song of songs, 2:5). Indeed, the entire Song of Songs is an allegorical description of this love." (Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Laws of Repentance, 10,3).
It is fascinating to note that it was the great Rabbi Akiba who taught - concerning the love song which is the Song of Songs - that if each book of the 24 books of the Bible is holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. This is the same Holy of Holies which featured the engraving of the embracing cherubs. And Rabbi Akiba did not merely mean to say that the lover in the Song of Songs is the Almighty and the beloved is the Israelite nation; after all, the Rabbinical Sages have already taught us that "no verse is to be completely detached from its literal meaning." Therefore, what R. Akiba is teaching is a most lofty truth: every proper and passionate love relationship between man and woman is reflective of the one greatest cosmic love relationship between God and Israel. Love is a sacred feeling, union is a sacred expression and marriage is a sacred ritual.
Hence, it is tragic when our youth receive their sex education from the street, or from immoral and impure relationships depicted by movies or from Internet porn. Our schools must be equipped and our educators must be trained to teach about the sexual relationship from within the context of Sanctity, from the stories and commandments of our Bible, from the engravings of the cherubs of the Holy of Holies - and such education must begin no later than the sixth grade.
Parents must explain to their children not only the evils of immoral sexuality, and not only the legitimate joys of marital sex but also the sanctity of the sexual union from the perspective of Judaic teachings. Sex must once again be joined to love and marriage, and must be seen as one of the great miracles and wonders of a fulfilled family life. It is from this perspective that Maimonides ruled that any sexual relationship outside of the realm of the ritual marriage sacrament is a transgression of the negative commandment against harlotry (Laws of Marriage 1,4), and that the disciples of Nahmanides prohibited single women from immersing in the mikva. The Biblical desire is that "an individual leave his/her parents, cleave to his/her life's partner, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen 2:24).
For me, as a rabbi who has been privileged to participate in thousands of weddings, the most meaningful blessing I know is the blessing of Sanctification under the nuptial canopy: "Blessed are thou, O Lord our God, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has exhorted us against sexual immorality... Blessed art Thou who has sanctified us through the nuptial canopy and the sanctity of betrothal." (BT Ketubot 7b - according to the most accepted text of normative practice).
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.