CHERUB (Heb. כְּרוּב, keruv, pl. כְּרוּבִים, keruvim), a winged celestial being which appears in the Bible in several different guises:
(1) In the story of the *Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, God stationed cherubim at the entrance of the garden to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24).
(2) The prophet Ezekiel relates a parable about a cherub, referring to the downfall of the king of Tyre (28:13ff.). The cherub who dwelt in Eden, the garden – or mountain – of God, sinned in his overwhelming pride against God and, as a punishment for his transgression, was hurled down from the mountain of God. In the Genesis version, the story of the Garden of Eden was demythologized, and the sin and punishment of man were substituted for that of the cherub.
(3) Two wooden images of cherubim overlaid with gold, facing one another on the two ends of the covering above the *Ark in the Tabernacle, form the throne of God with their outstretched wings (Ex. 25:18–20; 37:7–9). They are the counterparts of the two huge cherubim (10 cubits high and 10 cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other) found in the Holy of Holies (devir) of Solomon's Temple. This role of the cherubim is alluded to in several biblical passages where God is spoken of as "He who sits [enthroned] upon the cherubim" (i Sam. 4:4; ii Sam. 6:2; ii Kings 19:15; Isa. 37:16; Ps. 80:2; 99:1). See also *Merkabah Mysticism.
(4) In ii Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:11 a cherub, perhaps a personified wind, serves the Lord as a Pegasus: "He mounted a cherub and flew." In Ezekiel's vision of the chariot throne (ch. 1), the expanse on which the throne reposes appears to be supported by four strange composite creatures which chapter 10 identifies as cherubim (cf. i Chron. 28:18).
(5) The figures of the cherubim were also appropriated for cultic symbolism. They were used for decorative purposes: (a) embroidered on the veil separating the "holy place" from the "most Holy" (Ex. 26:31; 36:35) and on the curtains of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:1; 36:8); (b) carved on all the inner and outer walls (i Kings 6:29), the doors of the inner and outer sanctuary (i Kings 6:32, 35), and the panels of Solomon's Temple (i Kings 7:29, 36); and (c) carved on the walls and doors of the Temple envisioned by Ezekiel (41:18–20, 25).
The Bible itself contains variant descriptions of the cherubim. The two cherubim in the Tabernacle and in Solomon's Temple have two wings apiece (Ex. 25:20; i Kings 6:24, 27) and one face (Ex. 25:20). However, in the chariot vision of Ezekiel the symmetry of four predominates: Each of the four cherubim has four wings and four faces (1:6). Two of their wings, spread out above, touch one another, and the other two cover their bodies (cf. the description of the seraphim in Isa. 6:2: "Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet [i.e., lower extremities] and with two he flew."). Their four faces included one of a man, probably in front, a lion on the right side, an ox on the left side, and an eagle (Ezek. 1:10). Later, however, Ezekiel includes the face of a cherub among the four faces and omits that of the ox (10:14). The cherubim, moreover, have legs and "each one's feet were like a calf 's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands" (Ezek. 1:7–8). In the Temple vision of Ezekiel, the cherubim engraved on the walls and doors are said to have only two faces, a man's face and a lion's face (41:18–19). This apparent contradiction may be explained as a result of Ezekiel's borrowing the motif of a "two-faced" cherub from the paradigm of the Tabernacle in Exodus or from Solomon's Temple, or it may be the result of his describing a two-dimensional picture on a flat surface rather than the three-dimensional one of his chariot vision.
Etymology and Ancient Near Eastern Prototypes
The etymology of the Hebrew word for cherub, keruv, has been subject to several different explanations, e.g., as a metathesis, or inversion of letters, of rekhuv, "chariot" (cf. Ps. 104:3 with ii Sam. 22:11 and Ps. 18:11); or as a derivation from the Aramaic karov, "to plow," which is based on Ezekiel's substitution of the face of a cherub (10:14) for that of an ox (1:10), whose main function is to plow (Tur-Sinai). The most plausible derivation is from the Akkadian kāribu/kurību (from Akk. karābu; "to pray," "to bless"), an intercessor who brings the prayers of humans to the gods. Figures of winged creatures are well-known from the art and religious symbolism of the ancient Near East. Two winged beings flank the throne of Hiram, king of Byblos, and winged bulls were placed at the entrance of Babylonian and Assyrian palaces and temples. They appear on the pottery incense altars from Taanach and Megiddo. Winged sphinxes, griffins, and human creatures are represented in the art and iconography of Carchemish, Calah, Nimrud, the Samarian ivories, Aleppo, and Tell Halaf.
[Shalom M. Paul]
In the Aggadah
The Talmud enumerates the cherub among the five things which were in the First Temple, but not in the Second (Yoma 21a), though according to one opinion the Second Temple did possess pictorial reproductions of the cherubim (ibid. 54a). Consequently the only references to the cherubim in the Talmud are aggadic ones, referring to the cherubim in the First Temple. The word is interpreted as meaning "like a child" (rabia in Aramaic=a child – Sukkah 5b). The well-known picture of the cherub as a winged child popularized by Renaissance artists is probably influenced by this interpretation, but it can also be traced back to the pictures of Greco-Roman "loves" or Erotes. Nevertheless, in the time of Josephus this description appears to have been unknown, since he says, "No one can tell what they were like" (Ant., 8:3, 3).
The passage from ii Chronicles 3:13, "their faces were inward," is regarded as meaning that the cherubim faced away from one another, whereas Exodus 25: 20 states "with their faces to one another." It is explained that since the cherubim represented the relationship of love between God and His people, when Israel failed to fulfill the Divine will the cherubim were turned one from the other. When Israel fulfilled the will of God, however, not only did they face one another, but they were intertwined in the embrace of love. "When the Israelites came up on the Pilgrim Festivals the curtain would be removed for them and the cherubim shown to them, their bodies interlocked with one another, and they would say to them, 'Look, you are beloved before God as the love between man and woman'" (bb 99a; Yoma 54a). When the heathens entered the Temple they were shocked at this sight, and carrying the intertwined cherubim out, they scornfully exhibited them, disgusted that the Israelites "whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse a curse, should occupy themselves with such matters" (Yoma 54b). God's throne of glory is situated opposite the cherubim (Tanḥ. Va-Yakhel 7) and the Shekhinah hovered over it (Num. R. 4:13). Of the four-faced cherubim of Ezekiel (see above) Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 4 explains "When He spoke facing the east the voice came from between the two cherubs with human faces, and when He spoke facing the south the voice emerged from between the two cherubs having the face of a lion."
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
Cherubim and Seraphim in the Arts
Cherubim and seraphim have not given rise directly to any independent literary works, but their name and image have nevertheless influenced writers in several ways. In the English language, the words "Cherub(im)" and "Seraph(im)" are variously spelled – cherubin (plural, cherubins); cherubim (regarded as plural or with s added); and cherub (plural, cherubim or cherubs). Seraphim followed a similar development. English writers mentioned cherubim when referring to the gates of Paradise or the throne of God. Thus, John Lydgate (c. 1370–c. 1451) speaks of "Cherubyn, my dere brother, to whom is commited the naked swerde for to kepe the entre of Paradys" (Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, 1426); and *Milton of "Cherub and Seraph, Potentates and Thrones and Vertues, winged Spirits" (Paradise Lost, 1667). Seraphim tended to remain in the ethereal heights. William Langland speaks of the "Cherubim and Seraphim and al the foure ordres" (Piers Plowman, 1362); Richard Crashaw (1613?–1649) has "We will pledge this Seraphin [i.e., Santa Teresa] Bowls full of richer blood"; and in 1897 the poet Francis Thompson mentions the "fledge-foot seraphim." The loving seraphim thus remain angelic, while the knowing cherubim become humanized (cf. Byron, in Cain, 1821: "I have heard it said, The seraphs love most, cherubim know most"). In French literature a similar process may be detected. Racine writes of "les chérubins" in the Miltonic sense, while Beaumarchais in Le Mariage de Figaro (1784) gives the name Chérubin to the enchanting young page who as Cherubino received equally preferential treatment from Mozart (Le Nozze di Figaro, 1786). In art, treatment of the motif has had an entirely different emphasis. The iconography of the four-winged cherubim and the six-winged seraphim derives respectively from Ezekiel 1:1–18; 10; and from Isaiah 6:2. Representations take the form of figures with multifaced heads – human, ox, lion, or eagle. Cherubim are painted blue (denoting sky) and seraphim red (denoting fire), and they originate from Babylonian depictions of multiple-winged creatures lighting up the heavens with brilliant flashes. The six-winged goddesses found on Hittite steles in the Tell Halaf site bear a close resemblance to the description of Isaiah. In Christian iconographic development the two types were often confused, cherubim being given six wings and seraphim having eyes on their wings, both frequently receiving only one face. They are found in Byzantine art and decorate liturgical fans, such as the one from the 14th-century Stuma treasure in the museum of Istanbul. A cherub appears in the Vienna Genesis (sixth century), a seraph in Kosmas Indikopleustes (Vatican, Greek Ms. 699, ninth century), neither being pure types. They recur with some regularity on the voussures (keytones) and tympanums (panels in arches) of Romanesque churches, e.g., Notre-Dame-du-Port, Clermont-Ferrand. In the Gothic cathedral of Bourges they appear on a decoration – Door of the Last Judgment. They may figure as attendants of Jesus enthroned (Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, fifth century) and with Christian symbols. In the Renaissance, a shift in meaning occurred, and the rosy-lipped child-angels of later painting have no connection with the biblical cherubim and seraphim. Family names based on the words cherub and seraphim are fairly common among non-Jews (Luigi Cherubini) but unknown among Jews.
For Cherubim and Seraphim in Music, see *Isaiah, Book of, In Music.
W.F. Albright, in: ba, 1 (1938), 1–3; N.H. Tur-Sinai, Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Sefer, 3 (1956), 25–28; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 1 (1961), 81ff., 174–6; M. Haran, in: iej, 9 (1959), 30–38, 89–94; Ginzberg, Legends, index; I. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2 pt. 1 (1956), 40–41.
cher·ub / ˈcherəb/ • n. (pl. cher·u·bim) / ˈcher(y)əbim/ a winged angelic being described in biblical tradition as attending on God. It is regarded in traditional Christian angelology as an angel of the second highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy. ∎ (pl. cher·u·bim / ˈcher(y)əˌbim/ or cher·ubs ) a representation of a cherub in art, depicted as a chubby, healthy-looking child with wings. ∎ (pl. cher·ubs) a beautiful or innocent-looking child. ORIGIN: Old English cherubin, ultimately (via Latin and Greek) from Hebrew kĕrūb, plural kĕrūbīm. A rabbinic folk etymology, which explains the Hebrew singular form as representing Aramaic kĕ-rabyā ‘like a child,’ led to the representation of the cherub as a child.
In art, the word denotes a representation of a cherub, depicted as a chubby, healthy-looking child with wings; the plural form is cherubim or cherubs.
Recorded from Old English (in form cherubin), the word comes ultimately, via Latin and Greek, from Hebrew kĕrūḇ, plural kĕrūḇīm. A rabbinic folk etymology, which explains the Hebrew singular form as representing Aramaic kĕ-raḇyā ‘like a child’, led to the representation of the cherub as a child.