Cherubs–those sweet little babies with wings–have become a symbol of valentines and love. But they’re actually mystical creatures with a biblical basis, sometimes depicted as children and other times as animals, or a sphinx-like combination of the two.

The word cherub is of uncertain origin. One midrash claims that the Hebrew word comes from ke-ravya, or “like a young child,” which is why cherubs are often depicted as babies. Throughout the Torah, they fill the role of God‘s servants or guards. When Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden, cherubs are assigned to guard the Tree of Life, armed with a flaming sword (Genesis 3:24). Statues of cherubs were part of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25 and 37), and they’re also mentioned in the books of Kings and Chronicles, during the construction of the Temple.

These cherubs weren’t necessarily rated PG. According to one midrash, the pair of cherubs in the inner chambers of Solomon’s Temple always faced away from each other. During the siege that destroyed the Temple, however, they miraculously faced each other, entwined in sexual congress…a sign, according to the midrash, that even in the darkest times, God loves the Jewish people just as two people love each other.

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