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The Half Measurements of the Ark

Trumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Shemot: 25:10: "They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and half cubits its length; a cubit and a half its width; and a cubit and a half its height."

Beneath the seemingly mundane description of the vessels of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the commentaries find great symbolism and depth in the details of its construction. One striking example of this pertains to the Aron HaKodesh (Ark): Of all the vessels in the Mishkan, only the measurements of the Aron Hakodesh are incomplete numbers - two and a half, or one and a half cubits. We know that all the vessels represent various aspects of Divine Service and that the Aron represents the Torah, and Torah learning in particular. A number of commentators write that the half measurements teach us the correct attitude for someone learning Torah: He should feel that he is incomplete in his Torah knowledge and never feel satisfied that he knows 'enough' Torah.[1]

There are a number of applications to this principle: Rav Aryeh Yehuda Leib Shteinman writes that everyone needs help from his fellow to help him grow in his Torah learning, even from people on the same or lower level than oneself, as is taught in the Talmud, 'I have learned a lot from my teachers, and more from my friends, and the most from my students.'[2] This teaches us that a person cannot learn in isolation, relying on books alone. Rather, the give-and-take with others enables a person to see other ways of looking at a Torah topic from his own, and enables him to attain a far wider perspective.

A second aspect of the idea that a person is incomplete in his Torah learning is that, no matter how learned a person thinks he is (even in one particular area), he must maintain a feeling that there is so much more to know, and even if he does think that he has a complete grasp of a topic, reviewing it one extra time can take him to a whole new level of understanding. This is perhaps one understanding of the Talmud that says there is no comparison between a person who reviewed a topic one hundred times and one who reviewed it one hundred and one times. In that vein, every time, the great Vilna Gaon reviewed a Tractate of Talmud, he derived numerous new insights.

This is also why a Torah scholar is described as a Talmid Chacham, which literally means that he is a wise student.[3] This demonstrates that no matter how much Torah a person has learnt, he should still view himself as a student who has more to learn. This approach is alien to an outlook that is not grounded in Torah - one Talmid Chacham became the Rabbi of a shul of unlearned men, and they noticed that he was continually learning when not involved in his Rabbinic responsibilities. This concerned them, because they thought that he was a learned man, but the fact that he kept on learning, proved to them that he couldn't be so knowledgeable, because if he was, then why did he need to keep learning so much!

One great Torah scholar who epitomized the attitude of feeling lacking in Torah, despite his all-encompassing knowledge of all aspects of Torah was Rav Ovadia Yosef. It is well-known that he learnt at every available moment even throughout his life. On one occasion, he was requested to stop learning for a certain matter that he did not consider to be sufficiently important to close his book. He asked, rhetorically in all seriousness something to the gist of; 'Do you want me to remain an unlearned person all my life?!" If Rav Yosef had that attitude, then all the more so, the rest of us, need to develop the same mind-set.

One final application of this idea is that a person should never feel that he is completely correct in his view on a certain topic to the extent that he is unwilling to hear contradictory opinions or questions on his approach. Rather, one should be ready to consider that he may be incorrect and to admit this if the evidence backs up the opposing opinion. This is extremely difficult as it requires a great deal of humility to consider a way of viewing a topic in a conflicting manner, and even more so to actually admit the error of one's thought out approach. Yet the obligation to do this is clearly demonstrated in the following Talmud:

To end with a final example of a Torah Scholar who epitomized these teachings, Rav Elazar Menachem Shach was known on more than one occasion to stop a Torah lecture in the middle if he was asked a question that repudiated the whole basis of his teaching. May we emulate our great leaders in recognizing our incompletion in our Torah learning, and in that way, we can come to grow exponentially in our Torah knowledge.


1. See Rabbeinu Bechaye, Baal HaTurim, Kli Yakar, and Ayeles Haschachar for approaches that are related to this idea.
2. Taanit, 7a, Makkot, 10a.
3. This meaning is lost in the English translation of 'Torah Scholar'.


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