The History of the Divine Service at Altars (VI) – The Covenant at the Foot of Mount Sinai (II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
            Over the course of the coming year, we will continue to survey the history of the Divine service at altars. We will then focus on the structure of the altar in the Mishkan and in the Mikdash, and we will discuss the significance of this vessel among the other Temple vessels.
In this shiur, we will discuss the relationship between the pillars built by Moshe at the foot of Mount Sinai and the burnt-offerings and peace-offerings that were sacrificed in the framework of the covenant that was established there.

The Building of the Altar and the Pillars at the Foot of the Mountain


A. The Location of the altar


The Ibn Ezra writes as follows in his long commentary (Shemot 24:4): "'And he built an altar under the mountain' – in the place where Israel stood at the time of the giving of the Torah." According to this explanation, the altar was built in the place where Israel stood when they received the Torah, and its purpose was to a certain degree to continue the direct service of God through the offering of sacrifices. This altar represented Israel's turning to God.

B. The Role of the altar and the Pillars


1. The Midrash Ha-Gadol and the Mekhilta De-Rashbi (ad loc.) explain: "'And he built an altar' – for service; 'and twelve pillars' – corresponding to the twelve tribes." The midrash clearly distinguishes between the altar and the pillars. The altar has a very practical purpose – the sacrificial service. The pillars were not intended for service, but rather to represent the twelve tribes who were to serve God at the altar through the sacrifices. According to the midrash, the pillars did not serve a ritual role.
2. The passage dealing with the covenant is the first place where mention is made of the twelve tribes of Israel after Yaakov's blessings (Bereishit 49:28). This alludes to the fact that one of the functions of the covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai was to complete the covenant made with the patriarchs and to continue the fulfillment of Yaakov's testament and blessings to his children.[1]
Scripture does not describe the relationship between the altar and the pillars, but it is possible that the altar represents the worship of God, while the pillars around the altar represent the tribes of Israel, who use the altar to worship God.
3. The Rashbam (Shemot 24:4) states that the pillars were meant "to testify that everyone agreed to fulfill the covenant." The very building of the pillars expressed the acceptance of the covenant on the part of all the tribes. According to the Rashbam's understanding as well, the pillars had no independent ritual function, but merely symbolized the tribes' agreement to fulfill the covenant.
4. R. Kasher writes in his commentary: "And similarly we find in a manuscript of one of the early commentators: 'And he built an altar on the sixth day and erected twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes, so that they should not cross the boundary." According to this explanation, the pillars were not connected to the sacrificial service, but rather served as boundary markers.
This discussion relates to the dispute regarding the order of these chapters – whether the events in this chapter took place before the Ten Commandments (on the fourth of Sivan), as argued by Rashi, or whether they took place after the Ten Commandments, so that the chapters are written in their proper chronological order, as argued by the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban.
According to the "early commentator" cited by R. Kasher, the pillars were erected around the mountain in order to prevent Israel from overstepping the boundary set by those pillars. If this took place after the Torah was given at Sinai, two questions arise regarding the need to establish a boundary: Did Mount Sinai retain its sanctity until the conclusion of Moshe's ascents of the mountain, so that it was necessary to set a boundary? Was there still concern that the people of Israel would want to go up the mountain, so that it was necessary to take steps to prevent them from doing so? The commentator cited by R. Kasher does not address these questions.
According to this view, it is interesting to note that although these pillars were not connected to the sacrificial service, they still had a symbolic dimension – namely, establishing a boundary in order to preserve the sanctity of the mountain. We already find a pillar serving as a boundary marker in the story of Yaakov and Lavan at Har Gil'ad: "And Lavan said to Yaakov, ‘Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have set between me and you; this heap be witness, and the pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and that you shall not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, for harm’" (Bereishit 31:51-52).

C. The Number and the Arrangement of the Pillars


According to the simple understanding, each of the "twelve pillars" represents a different tribe. According to this explanation, the Ibn Ezra writes in his short commentary (Shemot 24:4): "According to their number, as with the altar of Eliyahu." The Ibn Ezra refers us to Eliyahu's confrontation with the prophets of the Ba'al in the days of Achav and his rebuilding of the broken altar. It says in the book of I Melakhim (18:31): "And Eliyahu took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Yaakov, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Yisrael shall be your name.’" The Radak explains (ad loc.): "So that the virtue of the tribes should help in this matter and God should answer his prayer; or to show them that the twelve tribes of the sons of Yaakov must cleave and be connected to God and offer sacrifices at one altar."
There are clear differences between the two cases: Here we are dealing with pillars, whereas in the context of Eliyahu, we are dealing with twelve stones that comprised a single altar. Nevertheless, it would seem that in both cases, the intention was to give practical expression to the direct connection of the tribes to the event at hand, whether the making of the covenant in the wake of the giving of the Torah or the full participation in the service of God, as opposed to the service of the prophets of the Ba'al.
The Mekhilta on Parashat Yitro says as follows:
What did Moshe do on the fifth day? He rose up early in the morning and built an altar under the mountain, as it is stated: "And he rose up early in the morning and built an altar under the mountain." He [then] erected twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel; these are the words of R. Yehuda. And the Sages say: Twelve pillars for each and every tribe. (Massekhta De-Bachodesh 3)
The Tannaim disagree here whether in total there were twelve pillars, one pillar for each tribe, or whether there were a hundred and forty-four pillars, twelve pillars for each of the tribes.
R. Kasher explains the disagreement between the Sages and R. Yehuda (as did the commentators to the Mekhilta) based on a dispute between R. Yehuda and R. Nechemia in the gemara (Sanhedrin 43b) regarding whether God punished all of Israel for open transgressions before the crossing of the Jordan.[2]  He cites the Sefer Chassidim:
It is written: "And twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel." And it says: Twelve for each and every tribe. Why twelve? Because all of Israel are responsible for each other, for each tribe. And each tribe must bring for all of Israel. (Mekitzei Nirdamim ed., p. 58)
            The Bekhor Shor offers a different explanation of the verse:
And the twelve pillars that Moshe established for each and every tribe, as it is stated, "And you shall set bounds to the people round about" (Shemot 19:23), that there were three tribes to the east, three to the west, three to the south, and three to the north. And one should explain that the twelve stones were according to the tribes of the children of Yaakov.
The Chizkuni cites the words of the Bekhor Shor and expands on the matter of the tribes standing around the mountain:
As they were found in the wilderness around the Mishkan. Some say that [Moshe] set up the twelve stones to the east, to testify that they all agree to fulfill [the covenant]. An example of this we find in what Eliyahu did on Mount Carmel: "And they took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Yaakov" (I Melakhim 18:31)
            According to the Bekhor Shor and the Chizkuni, the arrangement according to which three tribes stood on each side of Mount Sinai (without specifying which three tribes stood on each side) corresponds to the arrangement of the tribes around the Mishkan, as the Torah spells out in detail at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar.
            This parallel joins many other parallels between Mount Sinai and the Mishkan.[3] These parallels indicate that in many senses, Mount Sinai was the beginning of the Mishkan and the Mishkan was a continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The difference between the two is that the revelation at Mount Sinai was a one-time event in the open sight of all of Israel, whereas the revelation in the Mishkan was concealed in the heart of the camp. The arrangement of the tribes expresses their centering around a single central focus – Mount Sinai or the Mishkan.

The Sacrifices that were Offered in the Framework of the Covenant

            The Torah states:
And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen to the Lord. (Shemot 24:5)
            We will now examine the sacrifices that were offered in greater detail.

A. Oxen

            The Ibn Ezra in his long commentary explains:
Oxen – this refers to the burnt-offerings and to the peace-offerings. In my opinion, there were twenty-four oxen. (Shemot 24:5)
            First, the Ibn Ezra asserts that both the burnt-offerings and the peace-offerings were oxen. The word "oxen" that appears at the end of the verse relates back to both the burnt-offerings and the peace-offerings.
            Second, he suggests that in total, twenty-four oxen were sacrificed –two oxen for each tribe, one burnt-offering and one peace-offering. The Ibn Ezra adds:
The meaning of: "And twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel" – on behalf of the twelve [tribes of Israel].
            The Ramban explains:
The meaning of "oxen to the Lord" is that the entire time that they were in the wilderness, Israel feared the attribute of justice. This was their error in the incident involving the golden calf. Now they offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings, all of them oxen, as with the ox of the anointed priest, and the ox for sinning through ignorance, and the ox for idolatry, and so too the red heifer…
            Rabbeinu Bachya adds:
Since they were in a place of ruin and desolation, therefore the sacrifice was oxen. Understand this.
            The Ramban connects the sacrifice of oxen to fear of the attribute of justice. He writes that this explains why certain sacrifices were specifically oxen, starting with the golden calf, through the ox of the anointed priest, the ox for sinning through ignorance, the ox for idolatry, and the red heifer. Like the Ibn Ezra, he too understands that both the burnt-offerings and the peace-offerings were oxen.

B. Burnt-offerings and Peace-offerings


We previously mentioned the gemara in Keritut (9a) regarding the acceptance of proselytes: "Just as your forefathers entered into the covenant only through circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of blood, so shall they enter the covenant only by circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of the blood." The proof that the generation of the wilderness underwent a sprinkling of blood is from our verse: "And he sent the young men of the children of Israel and they offered burnt-offerings."
The gemara in Zevachim (116a) says that until the Mishkan was erected, only burnt-offerings were sacrificed. The gemara then raises an objection based on our verse, which describes the offering of peace-offerings before the Mishkan was built:
The master said: "And all offered burnt-offerings." Only burnt-offerings, but not peace-offerings? Surely it is written: "And they sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen?” Say rather, all offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. But it was taught: But not peace-offerings, save only burnt-offerings? That is in accordance with the view that the descendants of Noach did not offer peace-offerings.
How can the gemara’s assumption be true, given the explicit statement that the young men of Israel sacrificed "peace-offerings of oxen to the Lord"?
            At this stage, the gemara understands that the word "all" refers to all the sacrifices offered before the building of the Mishkan. In its answer, the gemara understands that the phrase, "all offered burnt-offerings," does not refer to the sacrifices, but to people, whether of the people of Israel or of the descendants of Noach. In other words, prior to the building of the Mishkan, all people were equal with respect to their sacrifices in that they all brought burnt-offerings.
            Rashi (ad loc.) explains:
Burnt-offerings were offered both for Israel and the descendants of Noach, but peace-offerings were not offered for the descendants of Noach. But from the time of the giving of the Torah, when Israel was chosen, peace-offerings were offered for them. (Zevachim 116a, s.v. la-kol)
Taharat Ha-Kodesh on the commentary of Rashi explains that from the time that Israel said, "We will do and we will hear," thereby accepting the Torah, they were chosen as God's special people, and their status changed from that of the rest of the descendants of Noach. From then on, the people of Israel were permitted to offer peace-offerings even though the Mishkan had not yet been erected.
According to this, the covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai introduced an exceedingly important innovation. With Israel's readiness to accept and fulfill the Torah, they became God's people and were no longer treated like the rest of the descendants of Noach. The immediate ramification was the offering of peace-offerings, even before the Mishkan was built. This was solely by virtue of the covenant, as opposed to the burnt-offerings, which were offered even earlier.
The gemara later cites a disagreement between the Amoraim R. Elazar and R. Yosei bar Chanina regarding whether the descendants of Noach sacrificed peace-offerings based on differing interpretations of several verses, but we will not expand here upon the various proof-texts.
The Rambam rules:
From gentiles, by contrast, we accept only burnt-offerings… We do not, however, accept peace-offerings, meal-offerings, sin-offerings, or guilt-offerings from a gentile. (Hilkhot Ma'aseh Ha-Korbanot 3:2)

C. Why do the Descendants of Noach Bring only Burnt-offerings, while The People of Israel Bring also Peace-offerings?[4]

The Maharal in his Chiddushei Aggadot explains the difference:
The descendants of Noach can bring a burnt-offering to God, none of the meat of which is eaten, because they have no partnership with God in this world. But it is different regarding peace-offerings, the meat of which is eaten by the owners, and this involves partnership with God, and for this reason they are called "peace-offerings," as they bring peace to God, peace to the altar, and peace to the owner. The descendants of Noach do not have this, as they do not have a partnership [with God], and therefore they bring only burnt-offerings, which are sacrifices of the highest sanctity, but no peace-offerings which are sacrifices of lesser sanctity. (Chiddushei Aggadot, Zevachim 116a)
Gentiles are unable to enter into a partnership with God in this world, and peace-offerings in their very essence express such a partnership, as it were, with God.
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the connection between the people of Israel, the Jewish home, and peace-offerings:
The word olah expresses giving oneself up completely to God. Zevach in itself is a family meal to be eaten by the owners, and consecrates the family-house and the family table to a temple and altar. Zevachim, which as a rule are peace-offerings, express the higher thought that "God comes to us." They are, accordingly, brought from that happy consciousness that where a family circle lives united and faithful to duty and feels that God is caring for it, there God is present. That is why peace-offerings of family life blessed by God are so specifically Jewish.
The idea of being absorbed in God, devoted to God, dawns in non-Jewish feelings also. But that one's ordinary day-to-day life can be so penetrated by the idea of God that one "eats and drinks and sees God thereat," that all our ordinary living rooms become a temple, our dining table an altar, our sons and daughters priests and priestesses, that through and through spiritualizing of our ordinary private lives, that is a gift of Judaism. (Bereishit 46:1)
            The unique aspect of eating peace-offerings as a family meal lies in its turning the family house into a temple and the family table into an altar. God, as it were, comes to our houses. R. Hirsch brings an example from our parasha - "eats and drinks and sees God thereat" – to show that by way of a sacrifice that is eaten in sanctity, the family room becomes a Temple and the tables an altar.
            R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin explains that gentiles are unable to reveal God's sanctity in ordinary life. For them, connection to God can only be achieved through absolute abstention:
For the gentiles, who have no affiliation with the words of the Torah, the tactile sense is absolute disgrace, as stated by the Greek philosopher, and holiness can only be achieved through absolute abstention, for holiness cannot be achieved through corporeal matters, which are filled according to them with soil and lewdness. This is not the case with our patriarch Yaakov, who said, "Give me my wife," something that the basest person would not say. But Yaakov did not feel any disgrace with it, as his sole intention was to have children, and he had no other intention and no thought of physical desire. Rather, it was all in holiness. (Yisrael Kedoshim, letter vav, p. 73)
It is precisely Yaakov - about whom it is stated, "And he came to Be'er-Sheva, and offered sacrifices (zevachim) to the God of his father Yitzchak" (Bereishit 46:1) - who was fit to bring peace-offerings.
In his Peri Tzaddik, R. Tzadok says as follows:
The owner's eating of peace-offerings is eating in holiness. The patriarch Yaakov was the first to bring the attribute of holiness [into the world]… Yaakov in his essence was holiness, as he knew no physical pleasure… His entire interest was that his bed be perfect, i.e., that his children be righteous. And this is his reward: He inherited the world without measure… that holiness should spread to all corners… Peace-offerings indicate that even the body is holy and that eating in holiness is not subject to the evil impulse. This is the holiness of Yaakov, that his body was holy like that of Adam prior to the sin. And this is the holiness of Shabbat, when eating is in holiness, and one's reward is that he is given an inheritance without boundaries… that is, that holiness should spread among all his descendants, as his bed is perfect. (Vayikra, letter chet, p. 13)
Owing to his holiness, Yaakov was capable of offering peace-offerings and eating them in holiness. Yaakov unified the attributes of chesed (loving-kindness) and gevura (judgment) into the harmony of tiferet, which is capable of containing holiness in the material world. It is therefore Yaakov who referred to God as a house (see Pesachim 88a), and when David expresses his yearnings to build the Temple, he says: "Until I find a place for the Lord, a habitation for the mighty One of Yaakov" (Tehillim 132:5).
Yaakov was the patriarch who was capable of implementing the sacred in this world, and therefore he was the patriarch who received a unique revelation in Bet-El, the house of God, the site of the natural Temple of the patriarchs. And it was therefore Yaakov who offered peace-offerings and ate them in holiness, as this was his singular essence.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] So suggests Amos Chakham in his Da'at Mikra commentary (Shemot, p. 107).
[2] Torah Sheleima (supplements to Parashat Mishpatim 28), explanation of Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael based on Mekhilta De-Rashbi (p. 316).
[3] We will discuss these parallels in a future shiur.
[4] The sources in this section are taken from Moshe Ades, Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evneh, pp. 106-108.