• Rav Yitzchak Levy

The Altars Built by Avraham


We will open this week's shiur by completing the survey that we began last week of the altars built by Avraham.[1]


The last altar built by Avraham is the altar that he built on Mount Moriya. This is the only altar that he built about which it is explicitly stated that a sacrifice was brought on it - in this case, a ram. An altar together with a sacrifice expresses the perfect relationship with God.


While it is true that the altar was built to bring Yitzchak as an offering and it was only at the end that it was used for the sacrifice of a ram, the entire episode expresses the fact that an animal offered as a sacrifice substitutes for a human sacrifice.


Since this is the only place where the Torah notes with respect to the patriarchs the building of an altar and the offering of a sacrifice upon it, the logical conclusion is that the story of the Akeida should be understood as alluding to the essence of the future Temple on Mount Moriya.


Many halakhic principles are connected to the Akeida and there is a clear parallel between the Akeida and the revelation in the days of David in the threshing floor of Arvana the Yevusi. In this regard as well, “the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.”[2]


The Building of an altar by Yitzchak in Be'er-sheva


Yitzchak's building of an altar is described in the following verses:


And he went up from there to Be'er–Sheva. 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 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, and pitched his tent there. (Bereishit 26:23-25)


Like Avraham in his day, Yitzchak builds an altar in the wake of God's revelation to him, and like Avraham, he calls there upon the name of God. The altar is built in Be'er-Sheva,[3] perhaps in close proximity to the place where his father planted a tamarisk and called in the name of the eternal God (ibid. 21:33) (although Scripture does not mention this).


According to the simple understanding of the text, the altar was built in gratitude for God's appearing to Yitzchak and promising him seed. The Meshekh Chokhma (ad loc.) explains that the altar was meant to publicize the prophecy or the miracle – in other words, to make God's name known in the world:[4]


The idea of building an altar is to publicize a prophecy or a miracle. For this he built an altar. And similarly they called the name of an altar: "The Lord is my miracle" (Shemot 17:15) and "The Lord is peace" (Shofetim 6:14), and the like. After the first vision, in which the prophecy was that he and his seed would inherit "all these lands" (v. 4), he did not publicize them, because he was afraid of the inhabitants of the land, lest their envy burn against him, and Yitzchak never fought in his life. Furthermore, it would have run counter to ethical conduct that he should look forward to inheriting their land, seeing that the inhabitants of the land were at peace with him. Therefore, he did not publicize this vision, nor did he build an altar. This was not the case with the second vision, in which [God] made no mention to him of the land, but only said: "Fear not… for I will bless you." [There] he built an altar and publicized the vision. Therefore, the people said: "We saw that the Lord was with you" (v. 28) – this refers to the revelation of God's glory to him. Understand this.


The Building of altars by Yaakov in Shechem and Bet-El


The Altar in Shechem


And Yaakov came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan-Aram; and pitched his tent before the city. And he bought the piece of land on which he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Chamor, Shechem's father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohei-Yisrael. (Bereishit 33:18-20)


            The phrase "And he erected [va-yatzev] an altar," as opposed to the phrase "And he built (va-yiven] an altar," is unique to Yaakov, and is reminiscent of the action done to a pillar. The Radak explains (ad loc.):


From the fact that it says, "and he erected," rather than "and he built"," it would seem that it was only a single stone. He erected it and offered a sacrifice on it.


Here too the erection of the altar is followed by the calling of a name – “El-Elohei-Yisrael.” The commentaries disagree whether this is the name of the altar or the name of God. As for the substance of the naming, the Radak writes:


He called the altar by this name so that it should commemorate the fact that God saved Him on the way and sent him an angel and changed his name to Yisrael - that is to say, that he contended with God. Therefore, this is the name of the altar. And similarly Moshe our master called the altar that he built "The Lord is my miracle" (Shemot 17:15) to commemorate the miracle that God had performed for them.


With respect to this altar as well – as with most of the altars built by the patriarchs – there is no mention whatsoever of any sacrifices brought upon it.


The Altar in Bet-El


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.” Then Yaakov said to his household and also to all that were with him, “Put away the strange gods that are among you, and make yourselves clean, and change your garments, and let us arise and go up to Bet-El; and I will make there an altar to God, who answers me in the day of my distress and was with me in the way on which I went.” And they gave to Yaakov all the strange gods which were in their hands and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Yaakov hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. And they journeyed; and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Yaakov. So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bet-El, he and all the people that were with him. 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. (Bereishit 35:1-7)


This is the first time that a person is commanded to build an altar. According to the plain sense of the text, the altar was built in gratitude for God's appearing to Yaakov when he fled from Esav and in fulfillment of his vow, as explained by the Seforno:


"And make there an altar to God who appeared to you when you did flee" - to give thanks for His having fulfilled the promise that He made to you there, as the Sages said (Berakhot 54a): "One blesses: Blessed is He who has performed a miracle for me in this place."


The Midrash Lekach Tov (cited in Torah Sheleima, Bereishit 35:7, letter 32) says that the altar was built in precisely the same place the stone had been set up:


"And he built there an altar" – He renewed the stone that he had placed under his head, as it is written: "And this stone which I have set for a pillar" (Bereishit 28:22). When "shall it be God's house" (ibid.)? When he came from Padan-Aram, as it is stated: "And he built there an altar."


R. S. R. Hirsch explains that building an altar where the pillar had been means building God's house at a site of revelation and erecting an altar alongside it. In this way, Yaakov, when he returns from Charan and fulfills his vow, combines both dimensions - the pillar and the altar.


Here, too, the building of an altar is followed by the naming of the place. And here, too, there is no mention of the offering of sacrifices.


It turns out that the command here to build an altar strengthens the understanding that Bet-El served in practice as the Temple of the patriarchs and as the main site of divine revelation and human service of God.


In two places, Yaakov offers sacrifices, the first on Mount Gilad (Bereishit 31:54) and the second in Be'er-Sheva before he leaves for Egypt: "And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Be'er-Sheva, and offered sacrifices (zevachim) to the God of his father Yitzchak" (Bereishit 46:1). Zevachim refers to peace-offerings (see Shemot 24:5); Yaakov is the first to offer peace-offerings to God.


Although this is not stated explicitly in the text, it is possible that Yaakov offered these sacrifices at the site where Yitzchak built an altar in Be'er-Sheva. This is the understanding of the Rashbam (as well as the Chizkuni):


"To the God of his father Yitzchak" – for Yitzchak made an altar there in Be'er-Sheva when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed himself to him, as it is stated in Parashat Toldot, and he too offered peace-offerings there, as did his father.


The Radak sees in the words "to the God of his father Yitzchak" an allusion to the purpose of the offering – to bring down upon him the prophetic spirit so that he might know whether God permits him to go down to Egypt or will forbid it, as He forbade his father Yitzchak:


He offered sacrifices in Be'er-Sheva, which is on the border of the land of Canaan. Before leaving the land, he wanted to know the will of God, whether or not He would prohibit him [to leave] as He had prohibited his father Yitzchak, and he offered sacrifices in order to bring down upon him the prophetic spirit.


The Ramban (following Bereishit Rabba 94:5) explains the purpose of the sacrifice in a different manner:


For when Yaakov came to go down to Egypt, he saw that the exile would start with him and his sons, and he feared it, and offered many sacrifices to the fear of his father Yitzchak so that the attribute of justice should not be stretched against him. He did this in Be'er-Sheva, which was a house of prayer for his fathers, and it was from there that he asked permission to go to Charan. Scripture speaks of zevachim to inform us that they were not burnt-offerings like those of his fathers, for Avraham offered burnt-offerings. And our Rabbis said (Zevachim 116a) the descendants of Noach did not offer peace-offerings, but rather they offered burnt-offerings. Regarding Noach it is stated explicitly: "And he offered burnt-offerings on the altar" (Bereishit 8:20). But Yaakov, owing to his fear of God, offered peace-offerings to make peace with all the attributes, as the Sages have expounded (Torat Kohanim, Dibura Di-Nedava, 13:16): Peace-offerings (shelamim) – which bring peace into the world.


In other words, a sacrifice is brought so that the attribute of justice should not be extended, and he therefore brought peace-offerings and not burnt-offerings.


It is interesting that immediately after the offering of the sacrifices, God reveals Himself to Yaakov in visions of the night with the name God (Elokim) - that is, specifically with the attribute of justice.


It may be noted as an aside that we find here another unique aspect of Yaakov: The revelation comes in the wake of service (slaughtering an animal), as opposed to the usual order found regarding the patriarchs – generally, the revelation comes first and the service (building an altar, calling out in the name of God, or offering sacrifices) follows in its wake. This touches upon the question regarding the relationship between human action and divine revelation. This point as well – human action – characterizes Yaakov.


R. Hirsch proposes another explanation for the fact that Yaakov offers peace-offerings, explaining that peace-offerings express the idea of perfection and Yaakov goes down to Egypt knowing that his family is perfect. The owner's participation in the eating of the meat of the peace-offering, man's eating from the table of the Most High, reveals a perfect world that allows for the connection between the mundane and the holy. Yaakov is one whose “bed is perfect,” from whom all of the people of Israel were created and for whom they were all called, who called the site of the Temple a house. In short, Yaakov represents a fixed and perfect reality – and he therefore offers peace offerings.


It is interesting in this light to consider the meaning of the sites of the altars of the patriarchs - Shechem, where Avraham entered the land, Be'er-Sheva, from where Yaakov left the land, Bet-El and Mount Moriya, the most sanctified places for the forefathers and their descendants, and Chevron, the crown of the kingdom of Yehuda.


The Service of God during the days of the forefathers - Summary


In recent shiurim,we examined the patriarchs' service of God, as it expressed itself in the building of altars, the erection of pillars, and the offering of sacrifices.


We saw that according to the plain sense of Scripture, the altars were not intended specifically for sacrifices, but rather to express gratitude for the connection to the Holy One, blessed be He, and to attest to His rescue, His providence, His appearance, and His assistance. They were similar to the altar built by the tribes of Re'uven, Gad, and half of Menashe when they returned to the East Bank of the Jordan (Yehoshua 22).


The main objective of this testimony is (as is stated explicitly in several verses with respect to Avraham and Yitzchak) “calling out in the name of God,” spreading God's name in the world. In addition, the altars served as sites for prayer and the various requests of the patriarchs on behalf of themselves and for the future. The places where altars were built also have symbolic meaning, both with respect to the essence of the places themselves and with respect to their future in Jewish history, in the sense that the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.


Besides the ram offered at the Akeida in place of Yitzchak, we find offerings being brought only by Yaakov, who offers peace-offerings.


Another unique feature of Yaakov is his erection of pillars, which were favored in the days of the patriarchs and complemented the altars – another reflection of the perfection which finds expression in the person of this patriarch. The last appearance of a permitted pillar was at the foot of Mount Sinai. After that time, pillars were prohibited and regarded as hated owing to their deep connection to idol worship.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In the discussion here, we will not deal with Avraham's meeting with Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem, or with the bread and wine that Malki Tzedek brought out, alluding to the shewbread and the libations, or with the tithe that Avraham gave to Malki Tzedek the priest. We will also not expand here upon the covenant between the pieces, which has been understood as a sacrificial act together with a clear revelation of the Shekhina.  

[2] We expanded upon all these issues in previous years' shiurim.

[3] This location (as opposed to Avraham's altars in Shechem, in Chevron, and on Mount Moriya, and Avraham and Yaakov's altar in Bet-El) typefies the principal place of Yitzchak's settlement in the land – in the Negev, in the region of Be'er-Sheva, Gerar, and the land of the Philistines.

[4] This explanation accords with the plain meaning of the verses, for this altar – similar to most of the altars of the patriarchs – was not intended for the offering of sacrifices.