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What exactly were the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant? It seems strange to me that they were part of the Tabernacle and Temple. Aren’t they basically a form of idol?
A Cherub (pl. Cherubim) is a type of angel. It is mentioned very often in the Torah, especially in Ezekiel’s vision of God’s Chariot. According to Maimonides, it was the second-lowest of the ten types of angels (Hil’ Yesodei HaTorah 2:7). The earliest mention of Cherubim is in Genesis 3:24, when God placed Cherubim with gleaming swords to guard the path to the Tree of Life.
Cherubim have childlike faces (Talmud Sukkah 5b). The Cherubim described by Ezekiel (chapters 1 and 10) were complex creatures with multiple faces and wings. However, the ones in the Tabernacle were small, simple winged creatures with childlike faces. One was male and one was female (Rashi, I Chronicles 3:10). They extended from the top of the golden board (kaporet) which covered the Ark. At each end of the board was a Cherub, and the two Cherubim faced one another with their wings extending frontwards, over the top of the Ark (see Exodus 25:17-22). (In the First Temple the Cherubim stood on the floor next to the Ark and were much larger (I Kings 6:23-28). The Second Temple did not have the Ark or the Cherubim.)
You are right that the Cherubim of the Temple appear to us as graven images, the type the Torah forbids in all other circumstances. However, they were permitted – in fact required – in this precise manner. In fact, the Midrash understands Exodus 20:20 – “Do not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold; do not make them for you” – as a specific injunction against making Cherubim anywhere else – or making them differently even in the Temple (Mechilta 10 brought in Rashi there). The Cherubim had to be exactly the way they were – or the Torah considered it idolatry.
The Sages teach us that the Cherubim of the Ark symbolized God’s relationship with Israel. One Cherub represented God and the other Israel. When the nation was serving God devotedly, the two Cherubim would face each other. When they were rebellious, they would turn away from one another (Talmud Bava Batra 99a). In fact, when the nation used to ascend to the Temple for the holidays in ancient times, the priests would display the Cherubim hugging each other – to show the people how much God loved them (Talmud Yoma 54a).