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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36 RAANAN EICHLER
VII. Composite Creature in General
A final possibility, first proposed by the tenth-century Jewish gram-
marian Menahem ibn Saruq, is that bwrk simply means “figure” 39.
Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) later elaborated on this idea, stressing
that in different contexts the word can refer to different types of crea-
tures. Thus he described the cherubim east of Eden alternately as “the
well-known angels” or “figures that scare those who see them”, while
also maintaining that the cherub of Ezek 10,14 refers to the figure
of an ox, and that the ark cherubim of the tabernacle resembled “two
boys” as in the Talmudic view 40. Ibn Saruq and ibn Ezra may be
seen as following an older tradition expressed by Tg. Neofiti and
Saadia b. Joseph Gaon, both of whom rendered the word ~ybrk in
the descriptions of the tabernacle tapestries as “figures” 41.
An entirely different view etymologically, but one which leads to a
similar, generalized identification of the cherub, was expressed by the
thirteenth-century tosafist Isaac b. Judah Halevi in his work Panah
Raza. He adduced the occurrence of the Aramaic root brk in b. B. Bat.
12a, already discussed by Bekhor Shor et al., but understood it as
carrying the meaning “mix”. Thus he characterized the cherubim of
Eden in Genesis as “angels in the form of demons” and argued that
their name is a reflection of the fact that they contain a mixture of two
species 42. This identification seems essentially the same as what today
would be called a composite or hybrid creature (German: Mischwesen).
Like the previously cited views, the understanding of bwrk as
referring to composite creatures generally, or to a class thereof, has
been revived in modern times. Contemporary scholars advocating
H. FILIPOWSKI (ed.), Hebraicae et Chaldaicae Lexicon (London –
Edinburgh 1854) [Hebrew] 110. The crucial phrase is absent in some
manuscripts of ibn Saruq’s book, for which see the critical edition: A. SÁENZ-
BADILLOS (ed.), Mĕnaḥem ben Saruq. Maḥberet (Granada 1986) 223*.
Commentary and Shita Aheret on Gen 3,24, in COHEN, Genesis, 56; long
commentary on Exod 25,18, in COHEN, Exodus, 73 (cf. short commentary in ibid.,
72). Also cited by David Kimhi in his Book of Roots: H.R. BIESENTHAL – F. LE-
BRECHT (eds.), Rabbi Davidis Kimchi. Radicum Liber (Berlin 1847) [Hebrew] 170.
Saadia in N. ALLONY (ed.), Ha’Egron. Kitāb ’uṣūl al-shi‘r al-‘ibrānī by
Rav Sĕ‘adya Ga’on (Jerusalem 1969) [Arabic/Hebrew] 250. Joined also by
Rashi (on Exod 26,31), in COHEN, Exodus, 88. Judah ibn Bal‘am translates
the word “cherub” in Ezek 28,14 in this way: see M. PEREZ (ed.) R. Judah ibn
Bal‘am’s Commentary on Ezekiel (Ramat Gan 2000) [Arabic/Hebrew] 109.
GELLIS, Tosafot, I, 148-149 par. 8.