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  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



            Thus far, we have dealt with the ark, the kaporet, and the keruvim, and in this framework we have considered their location, the relationship between them, the materials from which they were made, the items deposited in them or alongside them, and their history.


            We shall continue with our examination of the vessels of the Temple, starting with the burnt-offering altar, which was located in the Temple courtyard and which comprised the second focus of the Temple – the sacrificial service. While the vessels in the Holy of Holies express the idea of the Temple as the site of the resting of the Shekhina, the outer altar, more than any other vessel, expresses the notion of the Temple as the site of man's service of God in His own house.[1]


            The area between the outer altar in the Temple courtyard and the Holy of Holies – the Holy or the Heikhal – is an area that includes both the resting of the Shekhina and the more delicate aspects of man's service inside the house of the King in His outer chamber. This may be the reason that the area of the Holy is twice as large as that of the Holy of Holies.


In addition, like the ark, there are times when the altar fulfills an independent role unconnected to the Temple. In this sense, it is a special vessel that requires particular consideration.[2]


            We shall begin by examining the names of the altar. While it is clear that altars existed before the Mishkan – from the time of Noach, through that of the Patriarchs, and to the time of Moshe – at this initial stage, we will relate exclusively to the altar in the Mishkan, and not to the altars that were built at an earlier time in independent fashion and with no connection to the Mishkan.[3]


The Names of the outer altar


            The names assigned to the altar in the Torah relate to the materials from which the altar was constructed (earthen altar, stone altar, brazen alter); the main sacrifice that was offered on it (the burnt-offering altar); and the direct connection that it has to God (God's altar). We also find the general term “the altar.”


The Altar


            In the Torah's first command regarding the altar, given in the framework of God's command to Moshe concerning the construction of the Mishkan, we read:


And you shall make the altar of shittim wood five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be foursquare: and the height of shall be three cubits. (Shemot 27:1)


            The Torah speaks of thealtar without describing its essential nature or function. (In the command relating to the actual erection of the Mishna, where Moshe is instructed about the altar's location, it says: "And you shall set the altar of the burnt-offering before the door of the Mishkan of the Ohel Mo'ed" [Shemot 40:6]).


            R. Saadya Gaon explains: "‘The altar’" – the altar of the sacrifices” (Shemot 27:1). The Rashbam, on the other hand, comments:


"And you shall make the altar" – the outer altar in the Temple courtyard.[4]


            The Or ha-Chayyim writes:


"And you shall make the altar" – It says "the altar" and not "an altar." Perhaps this refers back to what was stated regarding the general mitzva, as it is written: "The pattern of the Mishkan, and the pattern of all its vessels" (Shemot 25:9), and there He showed him the altar, and therefore it says: "And you shall build the altar" whose pattern I showed you; it must be inside of shittim wood. (Shemot 27:1)


According to this explanation, since God had already shown Moshe the altar, it is referred to as the altar with the definite article (the letter heh).


            The Netziv understands the matter differently:


It should have said: "And you shall build an altar." But since it is already written: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me" (Shemot 20:21), therefore the verse comes to explain here about that altar. This explains why the verse does not explain here that the altar should be filled with earth, because it is already written: "An altar of earth."


The Netziv identifies this altar with the altar of earth, about whose construction Moshe was commanded at the end of Parashat Yitro, after the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments.


This seems to also be the understanding of Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael:


"An altar of earth you shall make to Me" – R. Natan says: A hollow altar that is filled with earth you shall make to Me, as it is stated: "Hollow with boards shall you make it" (Shemot 27:8). Isi ben Akiva says: A brass altar that is filled with earth you shall make to Me. (Yitro, Massekhta De-Ba-Chodesh, sec. 11)


The two Tanna’im identify the altar of earth mentioned in Parashat Yitro with the altar about which Moshe is commanded in Parashat Teruma. One emphasizes that it is a hollow altar filled with earth, while the second emphasizes that this is the brass altar filled with earth. But neither of them explain why a separate command regarding the fashioning of the altar of earth was given after the giving of the Torah, if it is identical with the altar in the Mishkan.


            It might be suggested that the term "the altar"teaches us the centrality of the altar in the Temple. Regarding the seven days of milu'im, the Torah describes in great detail how Aharon and his sons were inaugurated into the service through service at "the altar." So too, the section dealing with the daily sacrifice (Shemot 29:38 and on) speaks of "the altar," and likewise the section dealing with the sanctification of the Mishkan says: "And I will sanctify the Ohel Mo'ed and the altar" (Shemot 29:44).The same is true of the description of the site of the laver; the Torah states that it should be put between the Ohel Mo'ed and the altar (Shemot 30:18).


THe altar as Part of the structure of the Mishkan and the Altar in Parashat Yitro


            If we identify this altar with the altar mentioned in Parashat Yitro, as argued by the Netziv, a question may be raised. Why did the Torah, after commanding about the altar after the Sinaitic revelation, once again command about the altar in the framework of the detailed command to build the Mishkan?[5]


The altar in Parashat Yitro – the allowance of Bamot


            The Rambam relates to this issue in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot:


That which is stated concerning the altar, "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," which is considered in this verse as an independent mitzva, separate from the mitzva [to build] the Mishkan – the idea is as follows. According to the plain meaning of the verse, it is dealing with the period during which bamot are permitted, that we were permitted at that time to build an altar of earth in any place and sacrifice upon it. The Sages of blessed memory already said that the idea is that God commanded us to build an altar that would be connected to the ground, and that it would not be uprooted and moved as was the case in the wilderness. This is what they said in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael in explanation of this verse: "When you enter the land, make for Me an altar that is connected to the ground." (Commandment no. 20)


            The Rambam distinguishes between two situations: A period during which bamot are permitted, when it is permissible to offer sacrifices on an altar everywhere, as is discussed in Yitro, as opposed to a period during which bamot are forbidden, when it is forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere else but on the altar in the Mishkan, as is discussed in Teruma.


            According to the mishnayot in Zevachim (13:4-8), bamot were permitted prior to the building of the Mishkan, in Gilgal, in Nov and in Givon, and they were forbidden in the wilderness after the Mishkan was erected in Shilo and in Jerusalem. Once the altar reached Jerusalem, bamot were never again permitted.


The Altar in Yitro – a description of the ideal situation prior to the sin of the golden calf


            The Seforno offers a different answer to the question raised above:


And during the middle period [of forty days, from the 18th of Tamuz to the 29th of Av], according to tradition (Seder Olam Rabba, chap. 6], they were subject to [God's] anger, and they did not merit the rays of splendor. But this [the rays of splendor] was attained during the last period of forty days, and during that time they were commanded about the building of the Mishkan, as is explained in that which it says: "And in the ark you shall put the testimony that I will give you" (Shemot 25:21). This was not fulfilled with the first set of tablets, as they did not reach any ark, but only their broken pieces without the testimony, as the Sages said (Pesachim 87b): "The tablets were broken, but the letters flew up." This itself is explained in the verse: "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). This is not as was stated earlier: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me… in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you." But now they will need priests, and this itself is explained in the verse: "And take to you Aharon your brother" (Shemot 28:1). The tribe of Levi was not chosen to minister until after the incident of the calf, as is attested in the verse: "At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi… to minister to Him, and to bless in His name" (Devarim 10:8). (Shemot 24:8)


After relating the good that had been achieved at the end of all the times that Moshe spent forty days on the mountain, it explains the reason why the objective that had been set by God at the giving of the Torah was not reached, as it says: "And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:6), and as it says: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me… in all places… I will come to you" (Shemot 20:21). To the point that it became necessary to build a Mishkan. And it says that this happened because of the evil choice of Israel. For at the end of the first forty days, He gave the tablets, the handiwork of God, to sanctify them all as priests and a holy nation, and they rebelled and corrupted their ways and fell from their high standing. As the verse testifies: "And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by Mount Chorev" (Shemot 33:6).


            The Seforno understands that the command concerning the altar of earth in Parashat Yitro relates to the ideal situation, which is: "In all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you." The revelation of the Shekhina is more complete when it is in all places and through all families – not in one place or through a single priestly family, but rather in all places and through all of Israel, the priestly nation. According to the Seforno, the Mishkan as a whole was God's response to the sin of the golden calf, which constricted the Divine appearance.[6]


The burnt-offering altar


            When the Torah describes God's command to Moshe to anoint the Mishkan, it refers to “the burnt-offering altar with all its vessels” (Shemot 30:28). Here, the altar is named after one of the primary sacrifices offered on it, the whole-burnt-offering.


            Baraita de-Melekhet ha-Mishkan states as follows:


"And you shall make the altar" – This altar has three names: The burnt-offering altar, the brass altar, and the outer altar. (chap. 11)


            It is clear that referring to the altar after one of the offerings sacrificed on it is meant to emphasize the importance of the burnt-offering within the world of the sacrifices. The unique aspect of the burnt-offering is that it is entirely burnt on the altar, and therefore its connection to the altar is especially great. Furthermore, the sacrifices that are offered daily on the altar are the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices, which are burnt-offerings. It is clear that the addition of the word "burnt-offering," which defines the central altar based on the sacrifice offered on it, stands in contrast to the incense altar – the inner altar located in the Heikhal on which the incense is burned.


            An interesting point in this context is the fact that in the command, it is called "the altar" (Shemot 27:1 and on), whereas in the execution it is called "the burnt-offering altar" (Shemot 38:1).


            The Netziv explains (ad loc., s.v. mizbe'ach ha-ola):


Since the incense altar was mentioned earlier, therefore the verse specifies "the burnt-offering altar." This was not the case in the command, where this was not necessary.


            In many places in the book of Shemot, the altar is called "the burnt-offering altar" because of the burnt-offering that was offered there. This is the case in Shemot 40 in the account of the actual building of the Mishkan, where the altar is called "the burnt-offering altar." Verse 29 explicitly states: "And he put the burnt-offering altar by the door of the Mishkan of the Ohel Mo'ed, and offered upon it the burnt-offering and the meal-offering, as the Lord commanded Moshe."


The Brass altar


            Even though the primary designation of the altar in the book of Shemot is the burnt-offering altar, when the Torah accounts for the various materials used in the Mishkan, it calls the burnt-offering altar "the brass altar" (Shemot 38:30).


            It should be noted at the outset that there is a gradation of the construction materials used in the Mishkan from the inside to the outside, both in terms of their splendor and dearness – from gold, to silver, to bronze – and in terms of their use in the various parts of the Mishkan. Gold is found primarily in the Holy of Holies, and as one proceeds from there eastward, more use is made of silver and brass.[7]


            From this it follows that the vessels found in the Temple courtyard (outside the structure of the Mishkan) were made of brass, and so too the brass altar (and also the laver, the sockets of the courtyard, the sockets of the gate of the courtyard, the pegs of the Mishkan, and the pegs of the courtyard).[8]


            Is there any special spiritual meaning to the use of brass in general, and to its use in the altar in particular? Chazal relate to this question and offer several answers:


"And you shall overlay it with brass" (Shemot 27:2). Why was it overlaid with brass? To atone for the brazen forehead, as it is stated: "And your neck is an iron sinew, and your forehead brass" (Yeshaya 48:4). (Tanchuma, Teruma 11)


"And you shall overlay it with brass" (Shemot 27:2). Why brass? To teach you: Just as brass, even though it rusts, it can be cleaned, so too Israel, even though they sin, if they repent, they can achieve atonement. (Midrash ha-Gadol, Shemot 27:2)


            The purpose of the burnt-offering altar is to achieve atonement, this being accomplished through the offering of sacrifices.


            These two midrashim, each in its own way and in its own style, emphasize the atonement connected to brass – the first with respect to a brazen forehead, and the second with respect to the cleansing of sins.


            The verse in Yeshaya states:


Because I know you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew, and your forehead brass. (48:4)


            The prophet relates to Israel and says that the people of Israel have refused to listen to the rebuke of the prophets, they being a stiff-necked people whose neck is an iron sinew, which is difficult to bend and turn, and an impudent nation, whose forehead always shines like brass and is not likely to turn pale from shame over their evil actions.[9]


            Brass also appears in the story of Korach. In the wake of the fire that issues forth from God and consumes the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense, Elazar the priest is commanded to take up the brass censers out of the destruction and use them to overlay the altar:


To be a memorial to the children of Israel, that no stranger who is not of the seed of Aharon will come near to offer incense before the Lord; that he be not like Korach and his company; as the Lord said to him by the hand of Moshe. (Bamidbar 17:5)


            The Chizkuni comments:


"To be a memorial to the children of Israel, that no stranger who is not of the seed of Aharon will come near." The person who sees it should ask: Surely it is written: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me" (Shemot 20:21), that they should fill it with earth. If so why should it be of brass? The person being asked should answer that this was made from the censers of Korach and his company, who challenged the priesthood. And all the people shall hear and fear to raise further challenges.


            The brass overlay and the beating of the brass censers to cover the altar were meant to serve as a reminder of those who challenged the priesthood so that the people who see it should take care not to raise further challenges. Here too, the brass overlay serves as a means to remind the people of a sin and thereby correct it.


THe Golden Altar, as opposed to the Brass altar


            The Midrash Ha-Gadol draws a comparison between the golden altar and the brass altar:


Our Sages taught: There were two altars, one of gold and one of brass.

The golden altar is likened to a person's soul; the brass altar to his body.

The golden altar rested inside the Holy; the brass altar rested in the Holy's courtyard.

The golden altar was not seen by the people; the brass altar was seen.

The golden altar was more precious than the brass altar.

Just as gold is more precious than brass, so the soul is more precious than the body.

Just as they would every day offer a sacrifice to God on the brass altar, so must a person every day confess and examine his actions before the Lord of the Universe always and serve Him with his body and soul. (Midrash Ha-Gadol, Shemot 27:2)


            The midrash sets the brass altar against the golden altar. The basic difference between them is that the golden altar is likened to a person's soul, whereas the brass altar is likened to his body. Just as gold is more precious than brass, so the soul is more precious than the body.


            The midrash distinguishes between the two altars as follows:


The golden altar

The brass altar

Inside the Sanctuary

In the Temple courtyard

Being inside, it was not seen by the people

Being outside, it was seen by the people

Used for the burning of the incense

Used for the burning of the flesh of the sacrifices


            What follows from this comparison is that the two altars complement each other. The inner altar – the incense altar, the golden altar – atones for man's soul, while the outer altar – the brass altar – atones for his body. The fact that incense was burned every day on the golden altar, whereas the daily morning and afternoon offerings were burned on the brass altar, provided the possibility of daily atonement and service of God with both man's soul and his body.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] When we dealt in the past with the purpose and functions of the Mikdash, we cited the disagreement between the Ramban and the Rambam regarding whether the primary purpose of the Mikdash is the resting of the Shekhina and God's meeting with Israel (Ramban) – in which case the primary vessel is the ark, which gives expression to the resting of God's Shekhina – or whether the main purpose of the Mikdash is the sacrificial service (Rambam) –  in which case the primary vessel is the outer altar.

[2] We dealt with some of these issues in earlier shiurim. In this framework, we will try to present these issues in logical order in light of what was said in the past.

[3] We will deal with these altars at length in a later shiur.

[4] The term "outer altar" does not appear in Scripture, but it does appear in Chazal (e.g., Zevachim 4:1), as opposed to the "inner altar" (ibid., mishna 2), which refers to the incense altar.

[5] We will not deal here with the meaning of an altar of stone, the spiritual meaning of the command in Parashat Yitro, or with the spiritual meaning of the answers to the question raised here. Here we will deal exclusively with the exegetical question regarding the meaning of the repetition if the altar here refers to the altar commanded in Parashat Yitro. We will deal with the broader issues later this year when we survey the history of the various altars. At that time, we will also address the term "altar of earth."

[6] We devoted several shiurim ( on) to the question of whether the Mishkan was lekhatchila or bedi'eved, bringing many sources dealing with the issue.

[7]  In a previous year, we devoted a shiur ( to the relationship between the various materials used in the Mishkan, and we addressed this point at length.

[8] In the First Temple as well, all the vessels found in the courtyard were made of brass – the brass altar, the lavers, the brass bases, and the brass sea.

[9] Following Amos Chakham in his Da'at Mikra commentary to Yeshaya.