The Bronze Altar, Part 2

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Bronze Altar, Part 2


By Rav Michael Hattin





            Last week, we began to consider the unique features of the bronze altar that was prominently positioned in the exterior courtyard space that surrounded the building proper of the Mishkan.  Recall that the bronze altar, alone among all of the vessels of the Tabernacle, was mentioned in a preceding context to the lengthy Mishkan narratives, namely in Parashat Yitro in the immediate aftermath of the Decalogue:


God said to Moshe: Thus shall you say to the people of Israel – you saw that I addressed you from the heavens.  You shall not fashion besides Me gods of silver or gods of gold, do not make them for yourselves.  YOU SHALL FASHION FOR ME AN ALTAR OF EARTH, and you shall sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle, for at whatever place that I shall cause My name to be mentioned, there shall I come to you and bless you.  And if you fashion for Me an altar of stones, then you shall not build it out of hewn stones, for by lifting up your sword upon it you have defiled it.  You shall not ascend to My altar by stairs, so that your nakedness not be uncovered upon it (Shemot 20:18-22).


Recall also that the bronze altar, a large and imposing object fashioned out of boards of acacia wood overlaid with bronze sheeting and approached from the southern side by a long and gently sloping ramp, stood sentinel-like in the vast space of the courtyard almost alone.  No other vessel, save for the small and brightly polished laver from which the ministering priests would wash their hands and feet prior to undertaking the Divine service, occupied the space, thus highlighting the altar's central place in the scheme of things.  When the Mishkan was finally completed after some six months of intense work and the diurnal ritual of Mishkan service began, no vessel was in greater or more constant use than the bronze altar.  Upon its fiery top, the daily communal sacrifice smoldered morning and evening on behalf of all of the people of Israel, while during the time in between, the personal sacrifices of individuals – burnt offerings, guilt offerings, sin offerings, and thanksgiving offerings – would be presented. 


            But most unusual of all, and with this we concluded our discussion last week, the so-called bronze altar was really more like a bronzed casing, for it emerged from last week's discussion that it had no top at all.  Instead, the boards would be joined to form an uncovered and open cubic frame and then earth would be poured into the mold until it was completely filled.  Thus it was that the bronze altar was in reality an earthen mound encased with bronzed boards, for the sacrificial fire actually burned directly upon the dust that was heaped up in their midst.


            Why is it, that alone among all of the vessels of the Mishkan, only the bronze altar was organically attached to the earth, emerging out of it as naturally as a hillock or a knoll?  And what could be the significance of a sacrificial service that was performed upon a summit of dust, so that no expression of human contrivance intervened between the consuming fire and the hallowed ground of the Tabernacle's courtyard?




            In past years, I advanced the bold theory that the strict hierarchy underlying the entire organization and structure of the Mishkan, expressed in terms of its spaces, materials and utility, argued for a secondary status for the sacrificial service performed upon the bronze altar.  That is to say that the most sanctified volumes of the Mishkan complex were those associated with the building proper – the Holy of Holies and the Holy – and not the space of the exterior courtyard.  The most precious materials – the gold and silver, the sky blue, purple and crimson – were utilized in the fashioning of the vessels and curtains that occupied and partitioned off the interior spaces of the building, while the more prosaic and mundane bronze and simple white linen were reserved for this external altar and for the curtains that surrounded the courtyard.  Correspondingly (and here we introduced an implication), the most noble and exalted services – the offering of the incense, the kindling of the lights and the presentation of the loaves – were performed in the Tabernacle itself, while the exterior courtyard was reserved for the more coarse and vulgar service of the animal sacrifices. 


            It almost seemed as if we had found circumstantial evidence for the Rambam's controversial claim that animal sacrifice at the Mishkan was but a Divine concession to the primitive and prevalent conventions that attended human worship of the gods, conventions that were familiar and dear to the ancient Israelites as well and not easily surrendered by them in favor of more "advanced" expressions of devotion such as prayer or meditation.  So sacrifices would be tolerated, albeit under the watchful eyes of the stern priests, while the real service that spoke of worshipping God with the heart and with the mind would be performed in the enclosed space of the Mishkan proper where the ignorant masses dared not tread.  The pageant of the sweet-smelling incense that ascended from the miniature golden altar like a wispy and delicate prayer, the kindling of the bright and steady flames upon the menora's seven branches that proclaimed God as the source of all wisdom, and the placement of the twelve sturdy loaves that weighed down the golden table and asserted that "not by bread alone doth man live but by all of the words of God…" (Devarim 8:3), were rituals that were all celebrated by the ministering priests within the sheltered and hushed inner space of the Mishkan proper.  The loud and loutish ceremonies of the animal sacrifices, in contrast, were daily carried out under the plebeian gaze of the Israelite throngs that noisily milled beyond the richly embroidered entrance curtain, filling the outer courtyard with their excited chatter.




            There is, of course, another way to approach the matter and here we return to the earth that filled the bronze altar.  Rather than regarding the service of the bronze altar as being somehow inferior to the services performed within the building proper and viewing the former as a concession to the immature masses while the latter spoke to the more refined and select devotees, perhaps we might regard both services as necessary, intertwined and part and parcel of the very same spiritual progression.  The matter of serving God might more accurately be regarded as a process rather than an event, as a series of incremental steps of approach that were meant to culminate in an authentic encounter with the Divine.  And while the ultimate objective of the recipient might in fact be intimate and unfiltered communion (i.e. the entrance of the High Priest to the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement), the architectural ordering of the Mishkan's spaces implies that there is much work to be done along the way and that there is no more direct approach that can sidestep the critical preliminary steps.  In other words, the service of sacrifices performed upon the bronze altar may very well relate to the initial stages of the service of God, the internalization of which are absolutely needed for any and all subsequent progress.  It is as if the Mishkan was organized conceptually like a series of concentric circles, each one of which represented an additional level of spiritual advancement.  The service of the bronze altar was therefore the critical first step in the process, and the prerequisite for everything that followed.


We turn now to the remarkable commentary of the Ibn Ezra, as amplified and expanded upon by the Ramban:


…It is preferable to accept the reason for the sacrifices that is advanced by those that say that the matter relates to the fact that all human deeds are accomplished through the exercise of thought, speech and action.  Thus, God commands that when a person transgresses and offers a sacrifice to atone, that he must place his hands upon it as an expression of the action, confess with words as an expression of the speech and burn in the fire the innards and the kidneys that are the vehicles of one's thoughts and desires.  The limbs of the animal are expressions of the person's arms and legs that do all of his bidding, and the blood sprinkled upon the altar is an expression of the supplicant's own lifeblood.  Thus, a person should ponder, having performed this service, that he transgressed the will of his God with his body and with his soul and ought to accordingly suffer a similar fate, if not for the compassion of the Creator that accepted a substitute in his place – a soul for a soul and sacrificial limbs of the animal in place of his own!  The portions for the priests are so that these teachers of the Torah are preserved through his efforts so that they might pray on his behalf… (commentary to Vayikra 1:9, middle section).     


In the passage above, the Ramban suggests the provocative and startling idea of substitution to explain the matter of the sacrificial service.  Acknowledging the obvious argument (at least from the standpoint of Jewish tradition) that an absolute and incorporeal God has no need for physical sustenance, the Ramban avers that the purpose of sacrifice relates more to the needs of the devotee rather than to those of the Divine.  Slaughtering the animal, dismembering its limbs, sprinkling its blood upon the altar and offering the flesh upon the fire, the supplicant is supposed to feel the gravity of his misdeeds, as if he were deserving of a similar, sorry end were it not for Divine compassion.  While the Ramban's explanation might strike us as uncomfortably grotesque and gratuitous, his main point is well taken: the sacrificial cult is calculated to elicit a powerful spiritual response from the supplicant and not simply to assuage his guilty conscience.




            Perhaps we ought to tastefully modify the Ramban's theory by suggesting that rather than sacrifices starkly and literally speaking of substitution, they more meaningfully and symbolically speak of personification.  In other words, it is not the hapless devotee that is being metaphorically consumed by the flames for his gross misdeeds but rather HIS ANIMAL NATURE.  The sacrifice of the animal upon the altar is really a way of indicating that connection with God can be accomplished only if a person is willing to restrain his animalistic passions and submit his coarser character traits to the refining flames.  The baser instincts – the selfishness and self-centeredness, the greed, the lust and the hubris – that we gleefully exercise to our great detriment and subsequently to our dismay, must be overcome if we are to spiritually mature so that we might meaningfully acknowledge and revere God.  A man who is enslaved to his base passions so that he is deliberately and uncontrollably inconsiderate of his fellow's body or things, cannot be ushered into His awesome presence.  And so these strivings must be harnessed and directed, their baser matter consigned to the proverbial and purifying flames so that the supplicant might yet advance. 


            In this context, an altar of earth is eminently reasonable, for the earth is symbolic of our material selves, the material bodies that we inhabit and animate.  But here, the earth is heaped up high, not as some artificial mountain but rather as a powerful embodiment of our desire to escape its desirous grip and soar heavenwards to God.  While we are undoubtedly creatures of the earth, fashioned by the Creator out of "dust of the earth" (Bereishit 2:7), still we seek to transcend, to rise above stifling physicality and the coarser desires that hold us back.  And thus it is that the bronze altar is open topped, so that the animal sacrifices that so powerfully speak of overcoming coarse and base desire might take place upon the very earth that vigorously proclaims our terrestrial origins while simultaneously pointing us towards higher accomplishment.  While we are, like all other creatures, of this world, we are also, unlike all of them, capable of surpassing its limitations. 


            So it is that the ritual of the animal sacrifices takes place upon the earth that is heaped up high inside the frame of the bronze altar.  The effect of the whole is to at once declare our humble connection with the lower creatures – by dint of our common physiological functions and needs – while yet intimating that we might succeed in rising above that base state by directing our gaze to God.  The animal self is offered to Him, the base passions are overcome, and the lowly earth from which we were fashioned is exalted.  Surely this was the intent of the Sages when they proclaimed, according to Rambam's immortal formulation, that:


The location of the altar must be very precise, and can never be moved.  As the verse states: 'This shall be the altar of burnt offering for Israel' (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:1).  At the very location of the Temple, the binding of Yitzchak had taken place (centuries before), for God had commanded Avraham to 'go to the land of Moriah, to offer Yitzchak upon one of the mountains that I will show you' (Bereishit 22:2). and in the Book of Divrei Ha-yamim (2:3:1) it states that 'Shelomo commenced the building of God's House at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah where God had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had prepared…'


It is a well-established tradition that the place where David and Shelomo erected the altar at the threshing floor of Ornah the Yevusi was the very place where Avraham had prepared his altar upon which to sacrifice Yitzchak.  It is the same place where Noach had built an altar when he disembarked from the ark, and the same location where Kayin and Hevel had sacrificed to God.  The first man, Adam, there offered sacrifice after he had been created, and in fact was created from earth drawn from that very place.  As the Sages put it: 'MAN WAS FASHIONED FROM THE PLACE OF HIS ATONEMENT' (Book of Service, Laws of the Temple, Chapter 2:1-2).


Shabbat Shalom