Raanan Eichler, «Cherub: A History of Interpretation», Vol. 96 (2015) 26-38
The cherub is a type of creature mentioned some 90 times in the Hebrew Bible, where it is portrayed as a predominant motif in Israelite iconography. This paper surveys the attempts to determine the form of the cherub, in both textual and iconographic sources, from the fourth century to the twentyfirst. The cherub has been interpreted as a winged human (child or adult), a bird, a winged bovine, a griffin, a winged sphinx, and a composite creature in general. The last two identifications, which prevail in contemporary scholarship, are rejected, and a path to a correct identification is proposed.
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CHERUB: A HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION 31
The tosafist Samuel b. Meir (c. 1080-1174), while acknowledg-
ing the Talmudic description of the cherubim as having the face of
a child, stated that cherubim are simply birds. He was followed by
the thirteenth-century tosafist Hezekiah b. Manoah, who main-
tained that the cherub is “a kind of bird”. Both exegetes cited Ezek
28,14 but did not clearly explain whether or why this verse should
be seen as supporting their position 14.
This identification enjoys visual expression in a fifteenth-century
drawing by the prolific Jewish illuminator Joel b. Simeon Feibush
showing the biblical ark surmounted by two pigeon-like birds, ob-
viously meant to be the cherubim 15. The drawing is labeled “The
form of the Ark” and is included among other drawings of objects
from the tabernacle. But the object’s upright shape and paneled dou-
ble doors betray a conceptual fusion of the biblical ark with the arks
for holding Torah scrolls in synagogues.
This fusion raises the possibility that the interpretation of cheru-
bim as birds may in fact be far older. Depictions of inward-facing
birds surmounting the Torah ark on either side in a manner similar
to the tabernacle ark cherubim as described in Exodus and to the birds
in Feibush’s drawing can be found on items from as early as the
fourth century CE 16. An especially noteworthy example of this motif
occurs on the sixth-century mosaic of the Beth Alpha synagogue 17.
328-358 and 35 (1926) 481-495 at 484-486. Cf. H. GRESSMANN, Die Lade
Jahves und das Allerheiligste des Salomonischen Tempels (Berlin 1920) 6-
14, 47-67; COOKE, Ezekiel, 113; U. CASSUTO – R.D. BARNETT, “Cherub,
Cherubim”, Encyclopedia Miqra’it IV, 238-244 [Hebrew].
Samuel b. Meir: commentary on Exod 25,18, in COHEN, Exodus, 72;
Hezekiah b. Manoah: commentary ad loc., in C.D. CHAVEL (ed.), Hizkuni.
The Torah Commentaries of Hezekiah b. R. Manoah (Jerusalem 1981-1982)
[Hebrew] 280. Cf. Rashi on Ezek. 28,14, in M. COHEN (ed.), Mikra’ot
Gedolot ‘Haketer’. Ezekiel (Ramat-Gan 2000) [Hebrew] 190.
British Museum Additional 14759, f. 2v; online: http://www.bl.uk/cata-
[cited 15 June 2014].
REVEL-NEHER, Arche, 106, 114, 128-129, figs. 26 (cf. fig. 25), 42, 53.
E.L. SUKENIK, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (Jerusalem 1932) pl.
VIII (detail: pl. IX). Online photograph: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org
/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/jewish-worship-pagan-symbols/ [cited 15