• Rav Yitzchak Levy



Over the course of the year, we dealt with various aspects of the altar. We considered the various names of the altars, we saw the relationship between earthen altars and stone altars, and we discussed several key laws connected to the altar and its spiritual significance. Among the laws that we addressed are the prohibition to go up by steps to the altar, the prohibition to plant an ashera near the altar, and the obligation to set the Sanhedrin in close proximity to the altar.


From this shiur on, we will discuss the history of the divine service on altars. We will try to understand the role of the altar in each period and the nature of the service conducted on it. Later, we will also address the phenomenon of bamot and examine the relationship between them and the altar.  




According to the plain sense of Scripture, there is no explicit reference to any service through which Adam worshipped God over the course of his life – neither before nor after his sin – or to the form of worship, if it existed. However, Midrashic literature addresses this issue at length.


We related earlier this year to the significance that Chazal attached to the creation of man from the site of the altar on Mount Moriya and to the fact that man was created from the ground, from the place where he would later achieve atonement - a perfect, pure, and holy place.


Commenting on the first explicit mention in the Torah of the building of an altar by Noach, the Midrash attributes the start of the building of that altar to Adam:


"And Noach built an altar to the Lord” (Bereishit 8:20)… R. Eliezer ben Yaakov says: On the great altar in Jerusalem, where Adam sacrificed, as it is stated: "And it shall please the Lord better than an ox, or a bullock that has a horn and hoofs" (Tehillim 69:32). (Bereishit Rabba 34:9)


The Rambam, in the wake of this Midrash, describes the building of altars by Adam, Kayin, and Hevel on Mount Moriya, which is not mentioned in the biblical verses:


The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed…

It is universally accepted that the place on which David and Shelomo built the altar, the threshing floor of Arvana, is the location where Avraham built the altar on which he prepared Yitzchak for sacrifice. And Noach built [an altar] on that location when he left the ark. It was also [the place] of the altar on which Kayin and Hevel brought sacrifices. [Similarly,] Adam, the first man, offered a sacrifice there and was created at that very spot, as our Sages said: Man was created from the place where he [would find] atonement. (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 2:1-2)


It is interesting that the Rambam emphasizes the tradition regarding the site of the altar, while no mention is made of the tradition concerning the creation of the world from the foundation stone (even ha-shetiya). This accords with the Rambam’s general view, which emphasizes human action relating to God and sees holiness as a consequence of such action, and with his understanding that the primary purpose of the Temple is to serve as the site of man's service of God. This is apparently the reason that it is precisely the altar, and not the Holy of Holies, that the Rambam views as the special place in the Temple; it is specifically the altar that is to be constructed "in a very precise location, which may never be changed."


The verse quoted at the end of the aforementioned Midrash was expounded by R. Yehuda:


The ox which Adam sacrificed had one horn in its forehead, as it is stated: "And it shall please the Lord better than an ox, or a bullock that has a horn and hoofs.” (Shabbat 28b)


Scripture does not specify when Adam offered his sacrifice, what sacrifice he offered, and under what circumstances and for what he offered it. Targum Yonatan comments that Adam built the altar when he was banished from the Garden of Eden in the aftermath of his sin. This accords with the idea that the altar is essentially the site of repair and atonement and with the words of Chazal that Adam was created from the site of his atonement, and it alludes to the essence and the character of a sacrifice.[1]


In other words, already from the time of creation, man's course of atonement and drawing close to God was by way of the sacrificial service, which maintains the world (Avot 1:2). At the beginning of creation, there began the relationship between man and his Creator, the objective of which was to draw man close and raise him, and the entire world along with him, to his source. Already at that time, the unique essence of Mount Moriya found expression in human action, through the building of an altar and the offering of a sacrifice. Indeed, the Midrash sees the sacrificial service as Adam's initial purpose from the moment that he was placed in the Garden of Eden:


Another explanation: "To work it (le-ovda) and to keep it (u-le-shomra)" (Bereishit 2:15) – this refers to the sacrifices, as it is stated: "You shall serve (ta'avdun) God" (Shemot 3:12); and it is written: "You shall observe (tishmeru) to offer to Me in due season" (Bamidbar 28:2). (Bereishit Rabba 16:7)


Elsewhere (Bamidbar Rabba 4:5), the midrash lists Adam as the first in the chain of priests, which continues through the patriarchs, until it eventually reaches the tribe of Levi.[2]


One can clearly understand the Midrash's desire to show that from the very beginning of creation, man wanted to draw close to God through the offering of sacrifices, and that it was Adam, the firstborn of the world, who began the sacrificial service while wearing the priestly garments that were then handed down from one generation to the next.


Below,we will try to understand why the first altar explicitly mentioned in the Torah is the altar built by Noach after leaving the ark at the end of the flood, and not the altars built by Adam, Kayin, and Hevel.


Kayin and Hevel


            The first account of the bringing of an offering is found in the story of Kayin and Hevel. Here too, the Torah says nothing about the building of an altar or about the offering of a sacrifice, but speaks only about the bringing of an offering:


And in the process of time it came to pass that Kayin brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Hevel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat parts thereof. And the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offering. (Bereishit 4:3-4)


The Torah does not specify how Kayin and Hevel brought their respective offerings. It is possible that they simply placed their offerings on the ground itself and that God received Hevel's offering with favor. The Radak (ad loc.) writes:


It is not mentioned whether or not he built an altar, as it is stated with respect to Noach: "And Noach built an altar to the Lord" (8:20). It seems to me that he did not slaughter the sacrifice, but rather he placed it alive and tied up in the place designated for that purpose, so that fire from heaven should consume it, as he would do with his father's sacrifice. As they did not slaughter, since they did not eat meat. And in Bereishit Rabba, it says that Hevel offered his sacrifice without removing the hide and cutting it into pieces, but later sacrifices were brought with the hide removed and the animal cut into pieces. (Bereishit 4:4)


            According to the Radak, since there is no mention of an altar in connection with the offering brought by Hevel, it may be assumed that it was not slaughtered. Rather, it was placed while still alive in a fixed place on the ground, so that fire would descend from heaven and consume it. Since they were not permitted to eat meat, there was no need to slaughter the animal. The Radak (Bereishit 4:3) explains, based on Chazal (Shabbat 28b), that "the ox that Adam sacrificed had one horn in its forehead, as it is stated: ‘And it shall please the Lord better than an ox, or a bullock that has a horn and hoofs’” (Shabbat 28b). His children learned from him, each one bringing an offering from the occupation in which he was engaged in order to thank God for the blessing that He bestowed upon his work.[3]


            I will not address here the various opinions as to why Hevel's offering was favorably received, while Kayin's was rejected. Nor will I discuss the nature of the quarrel between the two brothers. I wish to bring here R. D.Tz. Hoffman's remarks regarding the nature of Kayin and Hevel's offerings, found in his commentary to the book of Vayikra:


The first sacrifices were by Kayin and Hevel. These are called "mincha," that is, a gift (Bereishit 4:3). The word mincha wherever it is found in the Bible means a gift, something presented to one who is distinguished in stature or power (other gifts are called "maset" or "matana"). Some present this mincha to a high ranking officer because it is in the latter's power to steal from him his entire fortune. He wishes to come to a compromise with the tyrant and he is ready to sacrifice part of it in order to save the rest. But a mincha may also serve as a sign of submission to the superior power. He recognizes his lordship and sets himself as his slave, saying that anything that he acquires belongs to his master. In such a case, the master is honored with the best and dearest property, the underling keeping for himself only the rest. Hevel's offering was of this latter type. He brought his gift from the firstlings of his flock and of the fat parts thereof with the intention that be pleasing to God - namely, that he wishes to set at his true master's feet the choice parts of his property so that he may receive from his hand the rest as a gracious gift.

For this reason, Hevel's gift was received favorably, not because of its inherent superiority, but because it appeared to be a tangible expression of a delicate emotion. Therefore, it does not say: "And the Lord had respect to Hevel's offering" – but rather: "And the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offering." Kayin's offering, on the other hand, was of the first type. He recognized that the blessing of his land depended on God and that it is in His power to take all that he has, and therefore he wished to reach a compromise and give Him part in order to ensure for himself the rest. For this reason: "But to Kayin and to his offering he had not respect." Most of the sacrifices brought by idolaters were accompanied by such thoughts. They were overcome by the idea of jealous gods and toiled to reach a compromise with the supernal powers, which, as it were, threatened their lives and property (vol. I, pp. 64-65).




The first altar mentioned in the Torah is the altar built by Noach after he was rescued from the flood:


And Noach built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the sweet savor, and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. (Bereishit 8:20-21)


R. S. R. Hirsch explains the significance of the altar built by Noach:[4]


It is evident from many places in the scriptures that a mizbe’ach is an elevation of the earth towards God built by the hands of man, so that in Yechezkel the mizbe’ach is simply called the Mount of God. More, it is extremely likely that the fire on its summit corresponded to the "consuming fire at the top of the mountain" (Shemot 24:17). Thus we find in Tehillim (68:18): "The Lord is among them; Sinai in holiness." God came down from heaven and restricted His Shekhina in the human domain: "The Lord is among them and Mount Sinai in the Temple." It stands to reason that this is also the way to understand what is written in the passage dealing with the daily offering: "It is a continual burnt-offering, which was offered at Mount Sinai" (Bamidbar 28:6).

In this respect, it is characteristic that one of the things in which the Jewish sanctuary of the Torah differs from the Noachian conceptions is that there the altar on which we are allowed to bring offerings had to be a mizbe’ach built up of stones, but not a matzeva, not made of one single stone or rock presented for it by nature. We have to build the mizbe’ach ourselves. It must not be standing on an arch or pillars (Mekhilta 20:24). The mizbe’ach is called "an earthen altar" (Shemot 20:21); it must be attached to the earth (Zevachim 58a) as a continuation of the earth. Only thus does the altar express the elevation of the earth towards God by human activity. To take a single slab of stone and sacrifice thereon would mean recognizing God from the standpoint of nature; whereas the built mizbe’ach expresses the conception of first working oneself up above the bound character of nature to the godlike free-willed standpoint of man, and, from that point of view, strive upward to God. So that inasmuch as Noach built an altar to God on the fresh gift of the earth, he, as the ancestor, dedicated this newly-gifted earth to be a place on which the future activity of mankind is to add stone to stone until ultimately the whole becomes a holy mount of God.


R. Hirsch explains that the structure and form of the altar teach us that the primary purpose of the altar was to raise the earth, as it were, to heaven, through human action. The altar, which expresses man's service, symbolizes the elevation of the earth – the physical aspect of the world – to heaven. But the context of the building of the altar gives Noach's action added significance. When Noach was rescued from the flood, the world, as it were, was given anew to Noach.[5] With the building of an altar, he dedicated the world once again to God.


In light of this, we can understand the essence and purpose of his sacrifice. The simple understanding is that it was a thanksgiving offering for his rescue,[6] as is explained by Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (chap. 23), Radak, Chizkuni, and others. We bring this explanation as it was so aptly formulated by R. D.TZ. Hoffman in his commentary to the book of Vayikra (vol. I, p. 65):


But even if Hevel's offering testified to a noble thought, it was essentially only a mincha, that is, a gift. He gave a living creature, but as a living creature, its purpose was not to symbolize Noach's life as belonging to God and dependent upon Him. Rather, it was just part of his wealth, just as the fruit of the ground was part of Kayin's property.

It was only Noach, who saw with his own eyes the loss of a world full of evil people, and who alone was saved by way of divine miracle – only he felt that his life was given to him by God and depends upon him, and he gave vigorous expression to this feeling by bringing an animal sacrifice. The blood that was spilled on the altar as the animal's "soul" symbolized the human soul and human life, and with this sacrifice, Noach's feelings burst out with tangible expression that he belongs to God not only with respect to his property, but with respect to his very life: "In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind" (Iyov 12:10).


 R. Hoffman sees here a step up: Kayin and Hevel brought God of their property, whereas Noach's sacrifices essentially represented man himself and the entire world.[7]


The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba (14:12) goes in a different direction:


Why did [the tribal princes] bring three types of sacrifices? A burnt-offering corresponding to Noach, who took from all the beasts and offered sacrifices, as it is stated: "And he took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar"… Why a goat as a sin-offering? Because Noach only offered them as burnt-offerings to atone for the curse pronounced on the ground, as it is stated: "And the Lord smelled the sweet savor; and the Lord said in His heart: I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake."


 According to the Midrash, Noah's sacrifice came to atone for sin, as may be learned from the outcome: "And the Lord said in His heart: I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake."[8]


Of course, the two explanations complement each other: The building of an altar both then and in later generations involved the elevation of the world to its source through the slaughter of living creatures, whose blood/soul represented the person bringing the sacrifice. It also involved atonement for sin and repair of the world, which are included among the primary functions of an altar.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] So writes R. Makover in his book Oro Shel Mikdash, part II, note 6 (p. 16): "It should be noted that the High Priest's bullock offered on Yom Kippur is a continuation of the atonement for the sin of Adam. So too, the sprinkling of the blood in the Holy of Holies on that day atones for Adam's sin, which led to the fall of the entire world. Chazal describe Adam as offering this sacrifice in regret after he saw nightfall and was worried that the world had been destroyed on account of his sin, and at the break of dawn he offered a thanksgiving sacrifice to God."

[2] "Adam was the firstborn of the world, and when he offered his sacrifice - as it is stated, “And it shall please the Lord better than an ox, or a bullock that has a horn and hoofs” (Tehillim 69:32) - he wore the garments of the High Priest. When Adam died, he passed them to Shet; Shet passed them to Metushelach. When Metushelach died, he passed them to Noach. Noach stood and offered a sacrifice, as it is stated: "And he took of every clean beast" (Bereishit 8:20). Noach died and passed them to Shem… Know that Shem offered sacrifices, as it is stated: "And Malki-Tzedek, king of Shalem, etc." (ibid. 14:18)… since he offered sacrifices with priests. Shem died and passed them to Avraham… and he offered sacrifices, as it is stated: "And he offered it up for a burnt-offering in place of his son" (ibid. 22:13). Avraham died and passed them to Yitzchak. Yitzchak stood and passed them to Yaakov… When Yaakov took the birthright, he began to offer sacrifices, as it is stated: "And God said to Yaakov: Arise, go up to Bet-El, and dwell there; and make there an altar to God" (ibid. 35:1). And similarly, when Moshe offered sacrifices at Sinai, it was the firstborns who offered them, as it is stated: "And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, etc." (Shemot 24:5)… And when Israel committed the act [the sin of the golden calf], they said: Let the firstborns come and offer sacrifices before Him… God said to them: I remove the firstborns and bring in the sons of Levi."

[3] How did Hevel sacrifice a living creature? (This question may be raised with respect to Adam as well.) Is it possible to distinguish between eating non-sacred meat, which was not permitted to Adam, and offering living creatures to God, which was permitted to him?

A more complicated question arises from the gemara in Zevachim (116a), which brings a dispute regarding whether the children of Noach offered peace-offerings. In other words, was the offering of peace-offerings permitted prior to the giving of the Torah? Or was it only permitted to Israel at Sinai, while before that they only offered burnt-offerings? In support of the first position, the gemara cites Hevel's sacrifice: "What is the reason for the view that the children of Noach did offer peace-offerings? Because it is written: 'And Hevel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.' What thing is it whose fat [only] is offered on the altar, but the whole of it is not offered on the altar? Say, that is a peace-offering." What is unique about a peace-offering is that the person bringing the sacrifice eats of its meat. Thus, the question arises according to this opinion: How could Hevel have eaten of the meat of his offering? The Radak continues in the same exegetical vein and argues that according to this view, Hevel left all the parts of the animal that were not offered "to the beasts and the birds, because he did not eat it, as he did not eat meat."

Another possibility is to distinguish between eating non-sacred food and eating sacrificial meat from God's table, as it were. The second opinion in the gemara, that the offering of peace-offerings was only permitted after the giving of the Torah, sees in man's participation in the consumption of the offering an expression of the elevation of the entire world. ("Peace offerings – as everybody is at peace with it: Part goes to the altar, part goes to the priests, and part goes to the owner" – Tosefta, Zevachim 11:1). This was only possible after the giving of the Torah.

[4] I will not deal here with the gap between the simple meaning of the verses, according to which the altar was built on the mountains of Ararat, and the tradition of Chazal (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 23), according to which the altar was built on Mount Moriya. I will also not discuss the nature of the sacrifice brought from every clean beast and from every clean bird, or the fact that this sacrifice was a burnt-offering which is offered totally to God. I dealt with these issues in a previous year.

[5] With the destruction of the world through the flood, there was a new creation of the world, parallel in all its details to the orginal creation of the world (e.g., with respect to the order in which the animals appeared and the actions taken by Noach when he emerged from the ark). For a detailed analysis of the correspondence, see: R. Z. Weitman, "Ha-Beri'a Ha-Chadasha," Alon Shevut 78 (Kislev 5740), pp. 27-39; Y. Berman, "Ha-Mechadesh Be-Tuvo Ma'aseh Bereishit: Hakbalot Ve-Hevdelim bein Perek I U-Ferek VIII Bi-Bereishit," Megadim 9 (Tishrei 5750), pp. 9-14.

[6] Although a thanksgiving offering is generally a peace-offering (see Radak cited in note 6), here Noach offers burnt-offerings as an expression of the absolute elevation of the world. Noach thanks God for the fact that together with the destruction of the world, He also renewed the creation with the rescue of the ark. For this reason, he keeps no part of the sacrifice for himself.

[7] Later in his commentary, he points to the continuation of the process of drawing close to God with Avraham's burnt-offering at the Akeida and with the sacrifices of Yaakov.

[8] So too in Midrash Tehilim 29: "'And He sits enthroned as King forever' (Tehillim 29:10) – His mind was settled with the sacrifice brought by Noach and He had compassion for the whole world, as it is stated: 'And the Lord smelled the sweet savor.'"