Lecture 201: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (VI) – The Covenant at the Foot of Mount Sinai (v)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
Dedicated to Liora & Ari Tuchman - In honor of the Bat Mitzvah of Danelle Sophia and in Honor of the Birth of their son, Adin Emanuel
This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Herschey Hawk z”l
by Dr Jerry Hawk
In this shiur, we will examine the details of the service at the foot of Mount Sinai and argue that the nature of that service parallels and is even identical in many details to the service in the Mishkan. Thus, it can be said that in a certain sense, the Mishkan had already been erected at the assembly at Mount Sinai described in detail in the parshiot of Yitro and Mishpatim, and that the covenant entered into at the foot of Mount Sinai was an essential part of that phenomenon.[1]    
At the foot of Mount Sinai, a "Mikdash" in its halakhic form was already erected, the people who were to serve there were already selected, and the altars, the vessels, and the laws of the sacrifices were already established. In practice, the sacrificial service began with the covenant entered into at the foot of Mount Sinai, and that place continued to serve as the center of the communal service until the erection of the Mishkan almost a year later. This is indicated by a number of points
1. The establishment of the altar at the foot of the mountain as part of the giving of the Torah.[2]
2. The holy vessels associated with the service at the altar are used with the sacrifices offered at Mount Sinai.
From the verse in our parasha, "And Moshe took half of the blood and put it in basins; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar" (Shemot 24:6), R. Eliezer ben Beroka learns that there is an obligation to use basins and sprinkling bowls in the sacrificial service in the Mikdash:
And from where do we know that burnt-offerings require a vessel in future generations? The verse states: "It is a continual burnt-offering, which was ordained in Mount Sinai" (Bamidbar 28:6). The burnt-offering of future generations is compared to the burnt-offering at Mount Sinai. Just as the burnt-offering at Mount Sinai required a vessel, so too the burnt-offerings of future generations require a vessel. (Torat Kohanim, Tzav 11, 18)
R. Eliezer ben Beroka learns from here about the offerings in general: the meal-offering, the sin-offering, the guilt-offering, and the peace-offering. The comparison is valid not only with respect to receiving the blood and sprinkling it with a sprinkling bowl, but also with regard to the obligation to use other vessels, such as a knife (see Zevachim 97b).
3. Offering sacrifices on the altar as an introduction to the assembly at Mount Sinai
According to some opinions among the Tanna'im and the Rishonim, the covenant was made before the revelation at Mount Sinai, and it can thus be explained that building the altar and bringing the offerings prepared the mountain for the resting of the Shekhina and the giving of the Torah.
4. Offering the daily burnt-offering begins with the covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai
The gemara in Chagiga (6a) states that according to Beit Hillel, the words, "And they offered burnt-offerings" (Shemot 24:5) relates to the daily burnt-offering:
The burnt-offering sacrificed by Israel in the wilderness was the daily burnt-offering.
The gemara there cites the view of R. Akiva regarding the burnt-offering that was offered at the foot of the mountain: “It was offered and never discontinued.”
This view is consistent with the verse: "It is a continual burnt-offering, which was ordained in Mount Sinai" (Bamidbar 28:6). In other words, the daily burnt-offering in the Mishkan was a direct continuation of the commandment to offer the first daily offering at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The Ramban in his commentary (Vayikra 7:38, s.v. asher) maintains that the regular daily burnt-offerings began only with the erection of the Mishkan. According to Beit Shammai, the burnt-offering brought by Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai was a pilgrimage burnt-offering (olat re’iya). This implies that they understand that there is a similarity between the assembly at Mount Sinai and the obligation to make a pilgrimage on the pilgrimage festivals and offer a pilgrimage-offering as part of the Torah's command, "And none shall appear before Me empty-handed" (Shemot 23:15). According to this understanding, the burnt-offering brought at the foot of Mount Sinai was the first pilgrimage-offering and the model for all future pilgrimage-offerings.
5. The sprinkling of blood in the Mikdash was a continuation of the sprinkling of blood at Mount Sinai
The Mekhilta states:
Moshe took of the blood of the burnt-offering in two cups [basins], part for God and part for the congregation: "And Moshe took half of the blood, and put it in basins" – this is the part for God; "and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar" – this is the part for the congregation. (Yitro, Massekhta De-Chodesh, 3, s.v. va-yomer)
The midrash here changes the relationship between the two portions of blood. The portion in the basins (which afterwards was sprinkled on the people) goes to God, while the portion that was sprinkled on the altar belongs to the congregation.
Chazal in Midrash Rabba explain the meaning of the covenant as follows:
R. Berakhya and R. Chiyya said in the name of R. Yose bar Chanina: He swore to them and they swore to Him… Since they transgressed the condition stipulated at Mount Sinai, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, "I also will do this to you" (Vayikra 26:16). (Vayikra Rabba 6:5, s.v. Rabbi Pinchas)
The covenant that was made by way of the blood of the sacrifices is an obligating covenant; should Israel not keep the covenant, the blood will come and testify against them and the curses stated in the Torah will pursue them.
6. A covenant regarding the establishment of the people of Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation in the erection of the altar and the offering of the sacrifices
The Torah describes what was said to Moshe when he first ascended the mountain:
“Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Shemot 19:5-6)
The covenant mentioned here is that involving the sprinkling of blood from the basins, which Rabbeinu Bechayei compares to the sprinkling of blood on Aharon: "And sprinkle it upon Aharon, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon the garments of his sons with him" (Shemot 29:21). In the latter covenant, the priests were separated from the rest of Israel to serve and minister before God in His Mikdash. Moshe similarly sprinkled the blood of the offering on the people of Israel in order to bring them under the wings of the Shekhina as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
After Moshe reads the book of the covenant (which includes a series of commandments similar to the seven Noachide laws, the commandments that were given at Mara, the commandments relating the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the blessings and the curses, and more),[3] the entire nation proclaims: "We will do and obey" (Shemot 24:7). This call around the altar and the pillars turns the covenant into something that is present. The people of Israel's standing around their king designates them to serve in the roles of priesthood and sanctity (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation).
7. The origin of the camps of holiness in Israel at the assembly at Mount Sinai
The various camps in the Mishkan and the Mikdash are based on the various camps on Mount Sinai. Rabbeinu Bechayei writes:
And Moshe merited going up into the mountain and entering into the midst of the cloud, as it is stated (Shemot 24:18): "And Moshe went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain." Furthermore, he merited drawing close to the thick cloud (Shemot 19:9)… The thick cloud is the "the thick darkness where God was" (Shemot 20:18)… According to this, there were four levels, one above the other, one deeper in than the other, and they are: the bottom of the mountain, the top of the mountain, the cloud, and the thick cloud. We find something similar in the Temple: The gate of the Temple courtyard[4] corresponding to the bottom of the mountain; and the courtyard itself corresponding to the mountain itself; and the sanctuary itself corresponding to the midst of the cloud; and the Holy of Holies which is further inside than the sanctuary corresponding to the thick cloud, this being the thick darkness where God was. (Shemot 19:7)
In future generations, the various camps were established in the Mishkan and afterwards in the Mikdash on the Temple Mount as a continuation of the reality that was created at Mount Sinai. The Rambam summaries the matter of the camps as follows:
The [encampment of the Jewish People] in the desert [was divided into] three areas: the camp of Israel, which was itself subdivided into four camps; the camp of the Levites about which it is stated (Bamidbar 1:50): "They shall camp around the Sanctuary;" and the camp of the Shekhina [which included the area] beginning at the entrance to the courtyard of the Ohel Mo'ed inwards.
Correspondingly, for [future] generations: [The area] from the entrance to Jerusalem to the Temple Mount is comparable to the camp of Israel. [The area] from the entrance to the Temple Mount until the entrance to the Temple Courtyard, the gate of Nikanor, is comparable to the camp of the Levites. [The area] from the entrance to the Temple Courtyard inward is comparable to the camp of the Shekhina. (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 7:11)
The partitions and the levels of sanctity on Mount Sinai are also reflected in the attitude towards the standing of the various people who participated in the ascent to the mountain.
Regarding the command to Moshe, "And the Lord said to him, ‘Go, get you down, and you shall come up, you and Aharon with you; but let not the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break forth upon them" (Shemot 19:24), Rashi explains:
Consequently, you must now admit that this is what God spoke to him: You have a designated place for yourself, and Aharon a designated place for himself, and they a designated place for themselves. Moshe approached closer than Aharon, and Aharon closer than the priests, but let the people under no circumstances break down their position to go up to the Lord.
This division is also evident in light of what is stated at the end of Parashat Mishpatim:
Then Moshe went up, and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. (Shemot 24:9)
The Mekhilta De-Rashbi and the Midrash Ha-Gadol similarly state:
Moshe was a designated place for himself… Aharon was a designated place for himself, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy elders of Israel each one was a designated place for himself.
These designated places correspond to the various camps and levels of sanctity in the Temple:
a. Moshe enters the designated area of the Holy of Holies, the thick cloud at the top of the mountain, to receive prophecy and the word of God at Sinai.
b. Aharon enters the designated area of the Heikhal, as he is destined in the future to serve in the Temple.
c. Nadav and Avihu the priests enter the designated area of the courtyard, as this is the primary site of the priestly service. The sacrificial service began at the altar at the foot of Mount Sinai.
d. The elders of Israel are the seventy members of the Sanhedrin who sat on Moshe's court at the entrance to the Mishkan. In the Mikdash, their fixed seat was in the Chamber of Hewn Stones, which was close to the altar.
Each party has a role of his own, different from that of the others, and the place where he is found fits his role and destiny. Camped around all of these are the tribes of Israel, who prepared and sanctified themselves for three days.
The camps of sanctity that were established at Mount Sinai thus constitute a model of the future of the Mishkan in the wilderness and of the Mikdash in Jerusalem.
8. The camp of Israel to the east of Mount Sinai
In future generations, the Mishkan and the Mikdash were erected on an east-west axis, with the most sanctified area located on the west side, while the central courtyard, the courtyard of Israel, and the altar were all located to the east of the sanctuary.
The Mekhilta explains:
"And there Israel encamped before the mountain" (Shemot 19:2) – on the east side of the mountain. Wherever you find the word "before" [neged], it faces the east. (Yitro, Massekhta De-chodesh, parasha 1, s.v. vayichan)
            One of the seven names of the eastern gate is the Charisit gate (Yerushalmi, Eiruvin 5:1), as the sun is called Cheres. The eastern gate is called by this name because it faces east, toward the sun. Even in the wilderness, they were careful about these directions, as R. Acha notes in the Yerushalmi (ad loc.): "The ark would determine the directions for them."
The Rambam mentions this point as well:
Therefore, Avraham our father singled out Mount Moriya… and determined and defined the direction toward which one would turn in prayer, fixing it exactly in the west. For the Holy of Holies is in the West. This is the meaning of the dictum of the Sages: “The Shekhina is in the west” (Bava Batra 25a). (Guide for the Perplexed III:45)
This has a very interesting spiritual meaning. First, the presence of the Shekhina in the west stands in contrast to the idolaters, who naturally turn to the sun and worship it. Furthermore, the gemara in Bava Batra concludes that the Shekhina is in the west based on the verse, "And the host of heaven bows down to You" (Nechemia 9:6). The Ri Migash explains the verse cited by the gemara:
That is to say, that they [the hosts of heaven] bend down and descend every day to the west. This is their bowing down before God, from which it may be inferred that the Shekhina is in the west. (Shitta Mekubbetzet)
Every day, all of the celestial bodies - the sun, the moon and the stars – rise in the east and bow down, as it were, before the Shekhina in the west. Similarly, the priest serving in the Mikdash faces west and serves, as it were, as a representative of all of creation.
It is interesting to learn that that this concept starts at Mount Sinai, when the people of Israel camp to the east of the mountain.
9. Setting up boundaries around Mount Sinai as the forerunner of the prohibition to enter into the sanctity of the Temple
When Moshe ascends Mount Sinai, he is commanded by God: "And you shall set bounds to the people round about, saying, ‘Take heed to yourselves, that you go not up into the mountain, or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be surely put to death’" (Shemot 19:12). Regarding the prohibition to enter the Mishkan, the Torah states: "And the stranger that comes near shall be put to death" (Bamidbar 1:51).
Rabbeinu Bechayei (Shemot 19:12) points out the parallel between the prohibition to go up to Mount Sinai and the prohibition to enter the Mikdash in an inappropriate manner, an offense that carries the punishment of death at the hand of God.
It should be noted that the Mekhilta on the verse "No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through" (Shemot 19:13) states that the stringent prohibition even to touch the mountain applied only to Mount Sinai; in the Temple, only entry that is prohibited, but not touch.
The very comparison between the prohibition at Mount Sinai and the prohibition in the Temple teaches that the halakhic status of Mount Sinai was similar to that of the Temple.
The Meiri cites a passage in the Yerushalmi dealing with the law of "he shall surely be shot through":
Some explain this in connection with that which is stated in the Yerushalmi: "Or he shall be shot through" – comes to include Shilo and the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. And it asks: How many were needed [to judge] the ox [that sinned in approaching] Mount Sinai? For if an ox enters [the Mishkan] in Shilo or the permanent Temple [in Jerusalem], its law is like that of an ox [that sinned in approaching] Mount Sinai, so that it is judged by twenty-tree [judges]. (Sanhedrin 15b, s.v. shor Sinai)
How many judges must sit on the court to judge an ox that went beyond the designated area at Mount Sinai and is now liable for the death penalty? Mount Sinai was sanctified with the sanctity of the Temple, and therefore comparison between the two is possible and valid.
10. The offerings brought by Israel at Mount Sinai parallel the pilgrimage-offerings in the Mikdash
The similarity between Mount Sinai and the pilgrimages made to the Temple is reflected in two areas:
a. According to Beit Shammai, the burnt-offerings brought by Israel at Mount Sinai foreshadowed the pilgrimage-offerings brought to the Temple.
b. The sanctification and purification of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai served as a model for the purification of Israel on the pilgrimage festivals in the Temple.
Beit Shammai identifies the burnt-offering that the Israelites offered at Mount Sinai as a pilgrimage-offering, which were later brought by every man in Israel when he arrived in the Temple on a pilgrimage festival (see Chagiga 6a).
Rashi bases this position on the fact that the people of Israel saw the face of the Shekhina at that assembly at Mount Sinai: "And they beheld God and did eat and drink" (Shemot 24:10). Indeed, according to the order of the verses, the people of Israel first offered their sacrifices, Moshe then sprinkled the blood on the altar, and only afterwards did Israel merit a revelation of the Shekhina. Based on this parallel, Beit Shammai sees great similarity between this offering and the pilgrimage-offering brought on the pilgrimage festivals, for what stands out in both cases is the principle of “seeing.” The matter of seeing appears first at Mount Sinai and it alludes to the seeing in the Mikdash in later generations.
There is a clear link between the revelation to all of Israel at Mount Sinai and the revelation to Moshe at the burning bush, for there too what stands out is the matter of seeing:
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. And he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed. And Moshe said, “I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, “Moshe, Moshe.” And he said, “Here I am.” (Shemot 3:2-4)
In many ways, God's revelation at the burning bush on Mount Chorev served as an introduction to His revelation at Sinai in the sight of all of Israel, and Israel's appearance at Mount Sinai served as an introduction to their appearance before God in the Temple on Mount Moriya in Jerusalem.
In this shiur, we showed in several ways that the covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai and the assembly at Mount Sinai itself began a process that continued with the erection of the Mishkan and later the Temple. In the next shiur, we will bring additional proofs to this process.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Many of the examples cited in this shiur and the analysis of them are taken from R. Yisrael Ariel, Machzor Ha-Mikdash (Shavuot), pp. 71-86.
[2] The meaning of the altar and the pillars was discussed at length in previous shiurim.
[3] There are several opinions in Chazal regarding the mitzvot that were included in the book of the covenant. The various views depend also on the timing of the covenant in relation to the entire assembly at Mount Sinai (primarily the Ten Commandments and Parashat Mishpatim). We shall not discuss these questions in this context.  
[4] The reference here is apparently to the gate of Nikanor between the courtyard of the women and the courtyard of Israel, as the Rambam explains in the continuation.