• Rav Yitzchak Levy

In the previous lecture, we reviewed the history of worship on altars with respect to Adam, Kayin, Hevel, and Noach. We will now consider this issue with respect to the patriarchs. We will first relate to the general characteristics of worship on altars by the patriarchs, and we will then address in more detailed manner the worship at altars by each of them.


The Service of God in the Days of the Patriarchs: Altar and Sacrifice


            In examining the worship of God on altars in the days of the patriarchs, a distinction must be made between two types of worship: the offering of sacrifices and the building of altars and pillars.


            We find that Avraham brought an actual offering when he sacrificed the ram at the Akeida (Bereishit 22:13), and in a certain sense, we find this as well at the covenant between the parts (Brit Bein Ha-Betarim; Bereishit 28:18; 35:14). Other than that, we do not find that the patriarchs or the twelve sons of Yaakov were involved in any type of sacrificial service.


            On the other hand, each of the patriarchs built altars. Avraham built four: in Shechem (Bereishit 12:7), between Beit-El and Ai (ibid. v. 8), in Chevron (ibid. 13:18), and on Mount Moriya (ibid. 22:9).[1] Yitzchak built one altar in Be'er-Sheva (ibid. 26:25). And Yaakov built two altars, one in Shechem (ibid. 33:20) and one in Bet-El (ibid. 35:7).


            What is interesting is that at most of the altars, sacrifices were not offered. To be more precise, when the Torah describes the building of an altar, it says nothing about offering sacrifices on it. It seems that although the word “mizbei'ach”is derived from the root z-b-ch, "slaughter," the building of an altar in itself has eternal meaning that is not connected exclusively to the offering of sacrifices.[2]


            There are two notable exceptions to this general rule: At the Akeida, Avraham offered a ram on the altar that he had built in order to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. And even though the Torah does not say so explicitly, it is reasonable to assume that the sacrifices that Yaakov brought in Be'er-Sheva were offered on the altar that his father Yitzchak had built there. Thus, with regard to the patriarchs,[3] the only explicit mention of an altar and a sacrifice offered on it is at Mount Moriya; in all the other places, we find altars that are not connected to sacrifices.


            In addition, Yaakov erected pillars (matzeivot) in Bet-El, offered libations on them, and poured oil on them (Bereishit 28:18; 35:14). Yaakov was the only patriarch who built pillars; the next pillars mentioned in the Torah are those built by Moshe at the foot of Mount Sinai (Shemot 24:4).


The Altars Built by the Patriarchs – A Survey


See how cunning the wicked Bil'am was. He first said: "I have prepared the seven altars" (Bamidbar 23:4) – He did not say "seven altars," but "the [seven] altars"; from the time that Adam was created and until now, seven altars were built… (Tanchuma Tzav 1)


            As noted above, the patriarchs built seven altars: Avraham built four, Yitzchak built one, and Yaakov built two.


            It is interesting to examine the places where the patriarchs built their altars. Avraham built in Shechem, between Bet-El and Ai, in Chevron, and on Mount Moriya; Yitzchak built in Be'er-Sheva; and Yaakov built in Shechem and Bet-El. Each of the patriarchs built in places that characterize their activity and the place of their wanderings and residence. Avraham built altars along the length of his primary route in the land, from Shechem to Chevron. Yitzchak built an altar in Be'er-Sheva, his primary place of residence, close to the land of the Pelishtim. And Yaakov followed in the footsteps of Avraham and built in Shechem and Bet-El, places that are connected specifically to the children of Rachel. Shechem is the capital of the tribal territories of the descendants of Yosef, close to the boundary between Ephraim and Menashe, and Bet-El marks the future boundary between the tribes of Ephraim and Binyamin.


            The midrash addresses the altars built by Avraham:


R. Elazar said: He built three altars:[4] one for the tidings regarding Eretz Yisrael, one for its acquisition, and one so that his descendants should not fall. (Bereishit Rabba 39:17)


The altar built for the tidings regarding Eretz Yisrael is the altar in Shechem, the first place that God revealed Himself to Avraham after he arrived in the country. The altar for the acquisition of Eretz Yisrael is the altar in Chevron, the first place that was acquired in the land. Finally, the altar built so that his descendants should not fall is the altar between Bet-El and Ai, where the battle of Ai would take place in the days of Yehoshua.


            The Torah Sheleima (Bereishit 12:8, note 124) writes that Avraham built four altars:[5]


"And he built there an altar" – Avraham built four altars. One in Shechem in Elon-Moreh. [It seems to me that he atoned for the sale of Yosef in Shechem, as his brothers would eventually sell him there, and for the calves of Yerov'am ben Nevat, after whom Israel strayed, and because there Yehoshua would renew the covenant.]

A second altar in Ai, the first land that they would conquer with their swords and benefit from.

A third altar in Elonei-Mamre in Chevron, where David would be appointed as ruler forever. [It seems to me that it was also because there Avraham underwent circumcision for the sake of God, and therefore he built an altar there.]

A fourth altar at Mount Moriya, where Shelomo would build a permanent Temple, because Akeidat Yitzchak took place there.[6]


            According to both midrashim, the objective of the altars was not the offering of sacrifices. Rather, the altars came to express certain ideas relevant to the places where they were built. All agree that the building of altars is not connected exclusively to the here and now, to that which occurred in the days of Avraham itself. Rather, they are part of a future vision of the central events in the history of Israel, which the altars reflect or even influence – in the sense of "the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children."


An Altar and Sight, a Pillar and Speech


            The Torah maintains a clear distinction between an altar (mizbe'ach) and a pillar (matzeva). The altar is connected in its very essence with the appearance of God. Thus, we find regarding the first altar built by Avraham:


And Avram passed through the land to the place of Shechem unto Elon-Moreh… And the Lord appeared to Avram and said, “To your seed will I give this land;” and there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (Bereishit 12:6-7)


            The Ramban writes (ad loc.):


And the meaning of "to the Lord, who had appeared to him," is that he gave thanks to the distinguished God and offered Him a thanksgiving sacrifice for having appeared to him. For until now, God had not appeared to him or made Himself known to him through a vision. "Go you, from your land" (Bereishit 12:1) was in a night dream or through the Holy Spirit. It is possible that the words "who appeared to him" allude to the mystery of sacrifices. And the person who understands will understand.


            Regarding Yitzchak in Be'er-Sheva, we read:


And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Avraham your father; fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and multiply your seed for My servant Avraham's sake.” And he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord. (Bereishit 26:24-25)


            And regarding Yaakov, when he returns from Charan, we read:


And God said to Yaakov, “Arise, go up to Bet-El and dwell there and make there an altar to God, who appeared to you when you did flee from the face of Esav your brother…” So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bet–El… And he built there an altar and called the place El-Bet-El, because there God appeared to him, when he fled from the face of his brother… And God appeared to Yaakov again, when he came out of Padan–Aram,[7] and blessed him. (ibid. 35:1, 6-9)


            We see, then, that each of the three patriarchs built an altar in the wake of God's appearing to him: Avraham – in Shechem/Elon-Moreh, when he entered the land; Yitzchak in Be'er-Sheva; and Yaakov in Bet-El, in fulfillment of his vow when he returned to Eretz Yisrael. God's appearance to the patriarchs results in the building of an altar, and, as stated, the emphasis is placed on the very building of the altar, with no connection to the sacrifice of any animals.


            As opposed to the altar, the pillar erected by Yaakov when he returned from Bet-El after God's second appearance to him is connected specifically to speech:


And Yaakov set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone. (ibid. v. 14)


            In many senses, speech is more penetrating and elevated than appearance, which is more external. God appears in the Temple courtyard and in the Sanctuary, but in the Holy of Holies – the innermost chamber – there is no possibility of seeing the ark. (It is not by chance that entry into the Holy of Holies must be accompanied by the burning of incense, which creates an essential barrier between man and the revelation of the Shekhina from between the two keruvim.) In the Holy of Holies, the revelation of God is characterized by hearing the voice of God issuing forth from between the two keruvim. (This is not the forum to expand upon this issue.)[8]


Avraham's Altars


I. The altar in Shechem


And Avram passed through the land to the place of Shechem unto Elon-Moreh… And the Lord appeared to Avram, and said, “To your seed will I give this land;” and there he built an altar to the Lord,[9] who had appeared to him. (Bereishit 12:6-7)


            Scripture emphasizes that the altar was built because of God's appearance to Avraham.[10] This revelation fulfills the divine promise: "Go you… to the land that I will show you" (ibid. v. 1). For that reason, as well as to show appreciation for the promise regarding seed and the land, Avraham gives thanks to God through the building of an altar. As the midrash states (Bereishit Rabba 39:15): "He only built an altar for the tidings about Eretz Yisrael." The Radak writes: "In thanksgiving to God who appeared to him and gave him the tidings about the land that it is good and broad, flowing with milk and honey, and that He will give it to his seed after him."


The Ramban writes: "It is possible that the words 'who appeared to him' allude to the mystery of sacrifices." In other words, according to the Ramban, Avraham also offered a sacrifice. Similarly, we find in Bamidbar Rabba:


Just as Avraham did when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "To your seed will I give this land." Avraham immediately built an altar for the good tidings, as it is written: "And there he built to the Lord who had appeared to him," and there is no altar without a sacrifice. (Bamidbar Rabba 10)


            We remarked above that according to the plain sense of the text, there were no sacrifices offered here. As we have frequently emphasized, one must draw conclusions not only from what the Torah says, but also from what it does not say.


II. The altar between Bet-El and Ai


And he removed from there to a mountain on the east of Bet-El, and pitched his tent, having Bet-El on the west and Ai on the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord. (ibid. v. 8)


            The novelty here is calling upon the name of the Lord,[11] which is a primary objective for Avraham, and is repeated below: "And Avraham planted a tamarisk in Be'er-Sheva, and called there upon the name of the Lord, the everlasting God" (ibid., 21:33).


            Calling upon the name of the Lord means turning to all of humanity and asking them to worship God, to accept the yoke of His kingdom, and to observe His commandments, as Resh Lakish explains in tractate Sota regarding the tamarisk in Be'er-Sheva:


Read not "and he called," but "and he made to call," thereby teaching that our father Avraham caused the name of the Holy One, blessed is He, to be uttered by the mouth of every passerby. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but he said to them: Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe. Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being. (Sota 10b)


            Onkelos renders the phrase "and he called upon the name of the Lord" as a reference to prayer: "And he prayed to the name of the Lord." And so explains Rashi (based on Bereishit Rabba 39:17): "He prophesied that in the future, his descendants would stumble there with the sin of Akhan, and he prayed for them there."


However, the plain sense of text seems to be in accordance with what the Ramban writes:


"And he called upon the Lord" – Onkelos explains that he prayed there, as in: "I called upon Your name, O Lord, out of the nethermost pit" (Eikha 3:55). The correct explanation is that he would call out the name of God with a great voice and before the altar, informing mankind of His existence and divinity. For in Ur-Kasdim he had taught them, but they did not want to listen. But now when he came to the land about which it had been promised: "And I will bless those who bless you," he would regularly teach and publicize God's divinity. Scripture says the same thing about Yitzchak when he went to Nachal Gerar and was promised: "Do not fear, for I will be with you," (Bereishit 26:24), that he built an altar "and called upon the name of the Lord" (ibid. v. 25). For he came to a new place, where they had not heard of Him nor had they seen His glory, and so he spoke about His glory among those nations. It does not say this about Yaakov because he fathered many children, all of whom worshipped God, and he had a large congregation called the congregation of Israel, and through them the faith became publicized and known to every nation. Also because already in the days of his forefathers, [the faith] became publicized in all of the land of Canaan. Thus, they said in Bereishit Rabba (39:16): "This teaches that he made every person call out the name of the Holy One, blessed be He."


            So too explains the Radak, as well as the Ibn Ezra, who in his terse style writes: "'And he called upon the name of the Lord' – means prayer, or else calling upon people to worship God." The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 39:16) adds: "Another explanation: 'And he called' – he began to convert people and bring them under the wings of the Shekhina."


III. The Altar in Hebron


And the Lord said to Avram, after Lot was separated from him, “Lift up now your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed for ever. And I will make your seed as the dust of the earth, so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall your seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to you.” Then Avram removed his tent and came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre, which is in Chevron, and built there an altar to the Lord. (ibid. 13:14-18)


            The Radak explains: "He would call the people to God, to the place of the altar that he built. Wherever he would fix his residence, he would build an altar and call upon the name of God."[12]




            We have demonstrated in this shiur that the worship of the patriarchs was marked by the building of altars in various places, and there seems to be a special relationship between the altar and the place in which it was built. These altars, according to the plain sense of Scripture, were not used for the offering of sacrifices. It would seem from the context that they served for calling upon the name of God and assembling people together for various purposes (bringing people under the wings of the Shekhina, publicizing the name of God, and prayer). While the primary purpose of an altar (mizbe'ach) is the offering of sacrifices, here the altars seem to have served other uses.


            In this shiur, we examined Avraham's worship of God from the time that he arrived in the land of Canaan until (but not including) the Akeida. We emphasized the building of altars, which involved a novelty. Until the days of Avraham, we find only one altar (with a sacrifice) in connection with Noach, but now we find that Avraham built many altars, in different places and to serve different purposes.


            Whatever the meaning of the altars and the calling upon God, it stands to reason that in light of the idol worship that was rampant in Canaan, we are dealing here with the first attempt to create centers for the worship of God in the main cities along Avraham's route. In other words, in addition to the special value of each altar in the place where it was built, calling upon the name of God turned Avraham's settlement in the land into an act of religious and spiritual significance, aimed at drawing the Canaanite inhabitants of the land closer to the belief in one God.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] We dealt at length in earlier shiurim with the significance of the places in which the altars were built.

[2] We find a similar phenomenon – an altar that was not intended for sacrifices, but rather to attest to the service of God – at the end of the days of Yehoshua. When the members of Reuven, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe crossed the Jordan to return to their tribal territories on the east bank of the river, they built an altar. The rest of Israel saw this as a sign of rebellion against God; this took place when the Mishkan stood in Shilo, when the prohibition against bamot was in force. They therefore sent them a military delegation headed by Pinchas and the princes of Israel. This is how the East Bank tribes explained their behavior: "The mighty one, God, the Lord, the mighty One, God, the Lord, He knows and Israel shall know; if in rebellion, or if in trangression against the Lord, save You us not this day… Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt-offering, nor for sacrifice, but that it may be a witness between us and you and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt-offerings, and with our sacrifices, and our peace-offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, You  have no part in the Lord" (Yehoshua 22:22-27). We will expand upon this exchange when we deal with it directly in a later shiur.

[3] As may be recalled, Noach, who, according to the plain sense of Scripture, was the first to build an altar, used it for burnt-offerings.

[4] The reference is to altars that Avraham built on his own initiative, to the exclusion of the altar built on Mount Moriya.

[5] "In the name of a manuscript of the book Chem'at ha-Chemda," passages of which were published in Ginzei Yerushalayim, vol. III.

[6] The Midrash Ha-Gadol (Bereishit 13:18) states: "'And he built there an altar' – Avraham built three altars: One in Shechem, the place where the blessings and curses would be given, and there Yehoshua entered into a covenant with all of Israel, as it is stated: 'And Yehoshua gathered all the elders of Israel to Shechem' (Yehoshua 24:1). One in Ai, so that his descendants should be saved from the people of Ai. And one in Chevron, the place where they would establish David as king, and there they made a covenant, as it is stated: 'And they came… and King David made a covenent with them in Chevron before the Lord' (II Shemuel 5:3)." Like the midrash in Bereishit Rabba, this midrash counts only the three altars that Avraham built on his own initiative.

[7] Attention should be paid to the causal relationship between human acts and God's revelation. Does the human act lead to the revelation? Or is the opposite true, that the revelation comes first, and in its wake, man builds an altar or sacrifices upon it?

[8] This explains and illustrates what we said in earlier shiurim regarding the essence of a pillar.

[9] It is interesting that it is specifically the Tetragrammaton that is used in connection with the building of altars.

[10] It is interesting that Avraham was the first person to receive a prophetic vision, as opposed to revelation and hearing God's word, which we find already with Adam, Kayin, Noach and others. See Meshekh Chokhma, ad loc.

[11] There are interesting differences between the altar in Shechem and the altar between Bet-El and Ai. It is not by chance that it is specifically in the wake of the revelation at Bet-El that Avraham calls out upon the name of God. Whatever the precise meaning of this “calling out,” it is clear that in Bet-El, Avram's second stop in the land, there is not only divine revelation, but human service of God in its wake. This accords with our understanding that Bet-El was the site of "the natural Temple" of the patriarchs.

[12] It is possible that it was there that all the elders of Israel anointed him as king before the Lord (II Shemuel 5:3), and perhaps there that Avshalom tried to worship God (ibid. 15:7-9).