Shabbos Frivolity: Cherubim

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So. This week’s parsha is teruma, which is pretty much about the detailed specs for the tabernacle. As it happens, my Perfect Non-Reader and her Hebrew School gang were leading the service last night, so YHB was there. Alas, attendance at services is uncommon these days, what with my working on Saturday morning, so it was a bit of a disappointment to make one of my few visits during this stretch of the liturgical year, the most boring stretch there is. People complain about the begats? Try Exodus 25. Make this thing out of that kind of wood, and put rings on it for the posts, and then make posts, and put the posts in the rings, and put gold on all the wood, and then make another thing out of wood, and put rings on that for posts, and then make posts, and then put the posts in the rings, and then put gold on all the wood. Whee!

Anyway, one of the dictates for decoration is that there be lots of cherubim. On the mercy seat, on the ark, on the curtains, two cherubim. To the point that later, in the writings, the Divine is described as the One that dwells between the cherubim. And I’m thinking, that’s not really an image to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies of the People Israel, is it? The one between the cherubs? His mighty throne sits on the cherubs?

Of course, our cherubs aren’t cherubim at all, but actually putti, little baby-faced toddler dudes with wings, signifying innocence rather than might. In the text, the cherubim are fierce—well, probably fierce, anyway. The first instance of a c’roov is the guardian of Eden, with some sort of flaming rotating sword to keep the banished humans out. Fierce enough. Ezekiel describes them as, well, Ezekiel has some issues. I don’t think we all need to accept that what Ezekiel says he saw is some sort of exact reporting. Ezekiel is in William Blake territory, and they can hang around together like that. Monsters. The cherubim, I mean. Monsters pulling the Chariot of Fire. Not very cherubic. Can you imagine the Chariot of Fire being pulled by putti? Not an impressive image, I’m afraid.

So, there are cherubim in the text, and there are cherubs in our language, and the two have very little in common except wings, and our cherubs usually only have two of those. What do we do with this? One excellent answer is to sneer at all the people who don’t know the difference between a cherub and a putto, declaring that everybody else is just wrong, wrong, wrong. It is, actually, an excellent answer—accurate research eventually convinced people that the singular in English should be cherub and not cherubin, after all, despite it having been wrong in ecclesiastical Latin, swallowed into Middle English and persisting up until Tyndale’s time. So if we maintain our standards for four or five hundred years, we may be able to bring back the language to our own purposes.

Or, alternately, we can think of parsha teruma as insisting on putti as symbols of the Divine majesty. It gives a person a whole new sense of the majestic, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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