Jews are forbidden to create any graven images of anything in the heavens yet Hashem commanded the ark be adorned with cherubim.
Is this an exception or a contradiction?
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It's a clear exception. I heard Rabbi Benjamin Blech suggest that Judaism values education so highly that God made an exception to allow that imagery -- note that the Cherubim had the faces of a young boy and girl.
Anything other than this exception, however, would be a problem. The Talmud says that even putting one extra Cherub on the Ark would be in violation of the law against images!
In short, the prohibition is against any images other than those specified.
(Similarly, we are told not to slaughter or burn on the Sabbath, but there are daily sacrifices mandated for the Sabbath. Thus, "don't slaughter or burn anything other than specified.")
It is known that the heathen in those days built temples to stars, and set up in those temples the image which they agreed upon to worship; because it was in some relation to a certain star or to a portion of one of the spheres. We were, therefore, commanded to build a temple to the name of God, and to place therein the ark with two tables of stone, on which there were written the commandments "I am the Lord," etc., and "Thou shalt have no other God before me," etc. Naturally the fundamental belief in prophecy precedes the belief in the Law, for without the belief in prophecy there can be no belief in the Law. But a prophet only receives divine inspiration through the agency of an angel. Comp. "The angel of the Lord called" (Gen. xxii. 15); "The angel of the Lord said unto her" (ibid. xvi. 11); and other innumerable instances. Even Moses our Teacher received his first prophecy through an angel. "And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flame of fire" (Exod. iii.). It is therefore clear that the belief in the existence of angels precedes the belief in prophecy, and the latter precedes the belief in the Law...From the preceding remarks it is clear that the belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the Existence of God; and the belief in God and angels leads to the belief in Prophecy and in the truth of the Law. In order to firmly establish this creed, God commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels. The belief in the existence of angels is thus inculcated into the minds of the people, and this belief is in importance next to the belief in God's Existence; it leads us to believe in Prophecy and in the Law, and opposes idolatry. If there had only been one figure of a cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God's image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity, and would thus have adopted a Dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring "the Lord is our God, the Lord is One," Moses clearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since [he declared that) God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one.
Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed 3:45
The TL;DR for this is that the belief in one G-d, and a multiplicity of angels is fundamental to the law. Without angels, there would be no prophecy, and therefore, there would be no Torah. Therefore, the image of angels were placed in the temple to solidify belief in angels. If only one image was in there, it would have been assumed that either the angel was hashem himself being worshiped, or it would have been believed that there was only one angel, which would be a form a dualism. Therefore, two images were placed in the temple to teach the unity of hashem and the multiplicity of angels.
Because this teaching is fundamental to Judaism, hashem established the images of the angels as a positive commandment. A positive commandment always overrides a negative commandment. The worship of graven images is a negative commandment that one should die before violating. However, as the purpose of these images is to establish the foundation of torah, the exact opposite of idolatry, it is not a concern that they will be worshiped.
The Ramchal (there is a sefer called Kisvei Kabbalah shel ha'Ramchal, this is towards the end of the sefer) explains that the cherubs on the ark correspond to the cherubs in Bereishis that guard the way to the Tree of Life together with the fiery revolving sword.
Essentially he explains that the cherubs are the simple childlike meaning of life which is always true. The fiery revolving sword represents conflict and complication that we experience embodying that simplicity in olam ha'zeh.
Once you enter the kodesh ha'kedashim you have passed from the realm of the fiery revolving sword and encounter the cherubs gaurding the luchos which are the Tree of Life.
Therefore at this point the prohibition of creating an image no longer applies because the image is one with its meaning that leads to God.
The Cherubim aren't a model of any particular heavenly entity. It is a depiction of peace and love.
Although it is true that we probably wouldn't have been allowed to create something like this has we not been commanded to do so, since the line is very narrow, it is not entirely the same as what was prohibited.
What is outlawed is images of objects from above. The idea of modeling heavenly images is to invite a deity or harness a power. The theme of the Mishkan is the opposite. It is a model of our world focusing heavenward. This is expressed in Yisro where it says, 'Gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make; an alter of earth you should make for Me.'
The innermost item, past abundance and light, is the ark containing the Torah. This ark is decorated with this design of reaching up. This is parallel to hand that can reach above the head. This highest level of what we attained is the closeness to Hashem we experience.
With all this, the Gemara relates that when the enemies sacked the Beis Hamikdash and found the Cherubim they got very excited and marched it around town, showing everyone how the Jews worship idols just like everyone else.
The apparent reason for the cherubim was to shield those who transported the ark and/or attended the ark in the Tabernacle/Temple. That is, the שְׁכִינָה glory rested inside the wings of the cherubim, and these cherubim therefore shielded those attending the ark from the overwhelming power of the glory. The Bablyonian Talmud indicates in Sanhedrin Folio 39A that this glory was more powerful in brightness than the sun.
b. Sanhedrin Folio 39A
'Then if the sun, which is but one of the countless myriads of the servants of the Holy One, blessed be He, shines on the whole world, how much more the Shechinah of the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself!' (emphasis added)
In this regard, the following verse suggests that the wings of the cherubim were extensive enough to cover the ark for this very purpose.
II Chronicles 5:8 (Mechon Mamre)
8 For the cherubim spread forth their wings over the place of the ark, and the cherubim covered the ark and the staves thereof above.
In summary, the cherubim were very necessary for the protection of those attending the ark from the power of the divine presence.
The problem is addressed in Mechilta Deberabbi Yishmael. It is an exception.
[כ, יט] לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב - ר' ישמעאל אומר: דמות שמש המשמשין לפני במרום, לא דמות מלאכים ולא דמות אופנים ולא דמות כרובים.
You shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.(Exodus 20.`9)
דמות שמשיַ המשמשין לפני במרום, לא דמות מלאכים ולא דמות אופנים ולא דמות כרובים.
representations of my skills with which they do their service before me in the firmaments, no representation of angels, no representation of Ofanim and no representation of cherubim
אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב - למה נאמר? לפי שהוא אומר: ועשית שנים כרובים זהב, אמר הריני עושה ארבע, ומה תלמוד לומר: אלהי כסף?! אם הוספת על שנים, הרי הם, כאלהי זהב.
אלהי כסף - למה נאמר? והלא כבר נאמר: אלהי זהב?!
Why is it written gods of silver and gods of gold? Given what is written in another passage "you will build two cherubim in gold", you might have thought you were allowed to make four. What do we take from the reference that is made to gods of silver? Is it not already written "gods of gold"?
ומה תלמוד לומר אלהי כסף? לפי שמצינו כל כלי בית עולמים, שאם אין להם של זהב עושים אותו של כסף. שומע אני אף כרובין כן?! תלמוד לומר: אלהי כסף. הא אם אינו נותן של זהב, הרי הם כאלהי כסף.
We take from the reference that is made to gods of gold. Since for the construction of the temple if you have no gold you can use silver, I would have thought that the same rule applies for cherubim. But if they are not made with gold they are considered as silver idols.
A substantial translation of the beginning of this Mechilta from the first reading is that it is prohibited to attempt to reproduce servants that serve G-d at the firmament.
The second passage prohibits to reproduce Cherubim (and other utensils that are not linked to your question). It's prohibited to reproduce things we ordered to do for the Mikdash.
Now we will read this Mechilta following the Lecture of the Sheiltoth (Ythro 57)
In the first passage of the Sheiltoth we read "דמות משומשי" the Girsa is a little different (but furthermore he discusses the girsa "שמשי"). "Meshumashay" are not the servants, but the skills (personal and real estate) of the service of G-d in Bet Hamikdash.
Look at the commentary Berurey Hamidoth 23 "כג"
At this point we see clearly an inversion of the exception. I.E. after that we know the permission of making Cherubim, we may believe that this permission may be extended, but the verse says that it is prohibited to make more than the cherubim.
1.- We ave a prohibition to build idols. 2.- after the prohibition to build Idols, it seems that it is a problem to build Cherubim, 3.- After the permission to build Cherubim, it seems that there is a clear difference between a representation that is not an Idol and one that is really an Idol. But finally, the Torah prohibits to build additional cherubim, because of the similitude to Idols.
The term malakh which is popularly translated to mean “angel,” literally means “messenger.” Even good people are called angels. But are there angels on top of the Ark?
Actually, Rabbi Asher Mesa told me over the phone that it is possible that cherubim atop the ark could represent birds. There is no prohibition against making images of birds (think of figurines, not idols). Thus, cherubim birds do not fall under the category of a graven image per se.