Lecture #215: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXV) – The Prohibition of Bamot [Private Altars] (II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

            Having dealt in the previous shiurim with the issue of the Torah's attitude toward the slaughter of non-consecrated animals, we return now to the subject of the prohibition of bamot (which we began in Lecture 203: "The History of the Divine Service at Altars [XII] – The Prohibition of Bamot [1]").

Before we do that, I would like to discuss one additional aspect of the allowance to eat the meat of non-consecrated animals, namely, the possibility that eating the meat of such animals is not only permitted, but a mitzva.

“Because You Long To Eat Meat” – A Mitzva

In the previous shiur, we brought the conventional understanding among the majority of commentators that with Israel's entry into the Promised Land and settlement in all its parts, the Torah permitted the eating of the meat of non-consecrated animals since it had become impossible to eat such meat as peace-offerings, as had been done (according to R. Yishmael) in the Mishkan in the wilderness.

Interestingly, R. Saadya Gaon counts "When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border" (Devarim 12:20) as a positive commandment (commandment no. 95): After God enlarges Israel's border, there is a positive commandment to eat meat.[1]


R. Yerucham Fischel Perla, in his commentary to R. Saadaya's Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, suggests the possibility that R. Saadya counts "When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border" based on the law that "The Torah teaches proper conduct, that one should eat meat only out of desire." Although the Rambam implies that this is a rabbinic prohibition, R. Saadya maintains that this is a Torah law. The Torah commands that a person should handle his affairs wisely and in a proper manner and that he should take care of his possessions to the best of his ability.

In the end, R. Perla concludes that we are dealing here with a negative commandment that follows from a positive commandment, which is treated as a positive commandment, even though R. Saadya generally counts negative commandments that follow from positive commandments among the negative commandments. According to R. Saadya, there is a positive commandment to eat meat after God will enlarge Israel's borders. R. Perla links this to a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12):

R. Kohen said in the name of Rav: In the future, a person will have to give a reckoning for the things that his eyes saw but he did not eat.

R. Moshe Leib Shachor, in his book "Avnei Shoham," explains the matter based on what is stated about Shlomo (I Melakhim 5:2-4): "And Shlomo's provision for one day was thirty kor of fine flour, and sixty kor of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty oxen out of the pasture, and a hundred sheep, apart from deer, and gazelles, and fallow deer, and geese. For he had dominion over all of the region on this side of the river…" The expansion of Israel's borders was fulfilled through Shlomo. He therefore filled his table with meat in order to fulfill the positive commandment to eat meat.

Of course, the idea that eating meat is a mitzva is a novel idea. In my opinion, the words: "And you shall say, I will eat meat, because you long to eat meat," are the Torah's words of criticism, or as R. Kook would formulate it, the Torah's rebuke of a person who yearns to eat meat. This is not praise, and certainly not a mitzva. Hence, R. Saadya's counting the eating of a meat as a positive commandment is an exceedingly novel position.

The Difference Between Vayikra 17 and Devarim 12

In the last shiur, that was addressed to this issue ("The History of the Divine Service at Altars [XII]), we cited the mishna in Zevachim (14:5), which describes the various stages in the prohibition and allowance of bamot. Regarding the period following the building of the Mishkan, we saw several explanations of the prohibition to slaughter non-consecrated animals outside the Mishkan: To prevent idolatry, to prevent worship of the demons in the wilderness, the blood of the slaughtered animal is intended for the altar, and slaughtering an animal outside the Mishkan is considered murder.

The Torah refers to the concentration of the service and the offering of sacrifices in one central location in two different passages: Vayikra 17 and Devarim 12. What is the relationship between the two passages? What changes in the transition from the book of Vayikra, which describes Israel's encampment around the Mishkan in the wilderness, to the book of Devarim, which describes Israel's entry into the Promised Land, each tribe in its own territory?[2]

In the book of Vayikra, where the focus is on the sanctity of the Mishkan and all that issues from it, there is a comprehensive discussion of the issue of the blood. According to the plain sense of the text, there is no eating of the meat of non-consecrated animals, but only of the meat of peace-offerings. One who offers a sacrifice outside and fails to bring its blood to the Mishkan is considered a murderer and liable to the punishment of excision.

In the book of Devarim, the novelty lies in the very choosing of a place. In the wilderness, the Shekhina rests on the structure of the Mishkan; in the land of Israel, God chooses a place, and it is to that place that the required sacrifices must be brought and eaten. One is prohibited to offer a sacrifice outside this place, but this is an ordinary prohibition which does not carry the punishment of excision. The Torah relates to the change in circumstances resulting from the significant distance of most people from the place that God will choose, and therefore permits the eating of the meat of non-consecrated animals in all places. Incidental to this, the Torah mentions the prohibition of eating blood and the allowance to pour it on the ground like water.

If so, the Torah relates in two places to the importance of the sacrificial service being conducted in one place: In the book of Vayikra, which deals with the Mishkan in the wilderness, the commandment is intended to prevent slaughtering animals to the demons "in the open field," whereas in the book of Devarim, the obligation to offer sacrifices stands in contrast to the sacrificial service of idol worshippers, who offer their sacrifices in all places.

Indeed, all of the evidence – starting with what is stated in the Bible and ending with contemporary archaeological research - indicates that the worship of idols in the land of Canaan was similar in many ways to service at bamot: the multiple places, the natural service ("on the high mountains and the hills and under every green tree"), and the service of individuals at altars and pillars.

It is therefore not by chance that the Torah warns time and time again, especially over the course of the book of Devarim (as in the previously cited verse), about the encounter with idolatry, and demands that it be eradicated, permitting service of the God of Israel only "in the place which the Lord your God has chosen."

A fitting formulation of this idea is found in the Tanchuma, which attributes the following words to Moshe in his negotiations with the band of Korach:

It is the way of idol worshippers to have many religious observances, and they don't all assemble in one building. But we have only one God, and one Torah, and one judgment, and one altar, and one High Priest, and one Temple. (Tanchuma, Korach 5)

The Dispute Between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael

R. Akiva and R. Ishmael disagree about the interpretation of the passages themselves and the relationship between them. Their respective positions are recorded in a number of different sources. We will cite the Gemara in Chullin. The mishna states: "All may slaughter, and at all times one may slaughter." The gemara asks:

Who is the Tanna who holds this view? Rabba said: It is R. Yishmael. For it has been taught: [It is written:] "When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border, as He has promised you, and you shall say, I will eat meat" (Devarim 12:20). R. Yishmael said: The verse comes only to permit meat of desire, for at first meat of desire was forbidden to them, but upon entering the land of Israel, meat of desire was permitted to them. (Chullin 16b)

Is it possible that during a period of exile the original prohibition will return to full force? The mishna thus states: "At all times we may slaughter." The gemara explains R. Yishmael's rationale:

Why were they forbidden in the beginning? [Surely] because they were near the Mishkan. And why were they permitted subsequently? [Similarly,] because they were far away from the Mishkan. Then is there not all the more reason [for them to be permitted] now that they are even further away.

According to R. Yishmael, meat of desire was forbidden in the wilderness because everyone was close to the Mishkan. Therefore, when they entered the Promised Land and settled it at a distance from the Temple, meat of desire was permitted to them, and all the more so after they went out into exile, as they were even further away from the Mikdash.

R. Yosef proposes a different interpretation of the mishna:

The Tanna of our mishna is R. Akiva. For it has been taught: [It is written:] "If the place which your God has chosen to put His name there be too far from you, then you shall slaughter of your herd and of your flock" (Devarim 12:21). R. Akiva says: This verse comes only to prohibit the flesh of a stabbed animal. For in the beginning, the Israelites were permitted to eat the flesh of a stabbed animal, but on entering the land of Israel, they were forbidden.

It is according to these two conditions that we must understand the reality in the wilderness at the time of the Mishkan and the change that took place between the wilderness and the land of Israel, between the book of Vayikra and the book of Devarim.

 According to R. Yishmael, there is a very significant change from the wilderness to the land of Israel, from transience to permanence, since he connects the allowance to eat meat of desire to the prohibition of bamot. In the reality of the Mishkan in the wilderness, with all the tribes of Israel camped around it, there was no need to deal with the prohibition of bamot, and there was therefore a prohibition to eat the meat of non-consecrated animals; everything was focused on the offering of peace-offerings in the Mishkan. With Israel's entry into the Promised Land and the tribes' settlement in their respective territories, the distance from the Temple on Mount Moriya allowed for the existence of bamot, and therefore one was permitted to eat meat of desire in all places. In the wilderness, sanctity was found exclusively in the Mishkan itself, whereas in the land of Israel, while there was sanctity in the Temple itself, the eating of the meat of non-consecrated animals was permitted in all places.

According to R. Akiva, there was no essential difference between the wilderness and the land of Israel. In the wilderness, the meat of an animal killed by stabbing was permitted, and with Israel's entry into the Promised Land, such meat was prohibited. It is possible to connect this new prohibition on the land and its sanctity.

R. Samson R. Hirsch summarizes the disagreement between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael:

According to R. Yishmael, during the whole period of the sojourn in the wilderness, meat of desire was forbidden. That is to say, it was forbidden to kill a bull, a sheep, or a goat solely for the purpose of eating the meat. Only that which had been consecrated as a peace-offering, and as such brought as an offering in the Mishkan, could afterwards be eaten by the owner. It was only after the entry into the Land that meat of desire was permitted to them, and the permitting order in Devarim 12:20-21 would refer to this. Then, as Rashi says there in Chullin, the prohibition of meat of desire in the wilderness would be contained in verses 3-7.

But according to R. Akiva, the killing and eating of a non-consecrated animal was never prohibited. Even in the wilderness it was permitted to slaughter and eat a non-consecrated animal. The law in Devarim would only give the command for ritual slaughter which, before the entry into the Land, was only required for consecrated animals, whereas the character of nevela was removed from a non-consecrated animal by simple stabbing. According to this, our verses refer exclusively to consecrated animals that were slaughtered outside the Mishkan, as in verses 8-9 below. (Vayikra 17:3)[3]

According to R. Akiva, the entire passage is dealing with consecrated animals and the prohibition of animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan (bamot). This is Rashi's understanding in his commentary to the Torah, and this is spelled out explicitly in the gemara in Zevachim 106b-107a. The first part of the passage (vv. 3-7) deals with slaughtering animals outside, while the second part deals with offering them outside.

Whether we accept the view of R. Yishmael or we adopt the view of R. Akiva, the passage has a clear intention: To concentrate the people of Israel and their service of God around the Mishkan, in order to prevent them from slaughtering in the field to the demons. The midrash says as follows:

R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Levi: This may be compared to the son of a king who was arrogant and was accustomed to eat nevelot and tereifot. The King said: This shall always be on my table, and he shall withdraw from it on his own. So too, since the people of Israel were passionately attached to idolatry in Egypt and they would offer their sacrifices to the demons, as it is written: "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to the se'irim" (Vayikra 32:17), and these se'irim are demons (shedim), as it is stated: "They sacrificed to the demons (shedim)" (Devarim 32:17), and these shedim are se'irim, as it is stated: "And the se'irim shall hop about there" (Yeshaya 13:21), and they would offer their sacrifices on a prohibited bama, and punishment would come upon them. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let them offer their sacrifices before Me at all times in the Ohel Mo'ed, and they will separate themselves from idol worship, and they will be saved. This is what the verse states: "Whatever man there be of the house of Israel" (Vayikra 17:3). (Vayikra Rabba 22:8)

The people of Israel left Egypt immersed in idolatrous customs, and especially the worship of demons.[4] The prohibition of slaughtering a consecrated animal outside the Mishkan and the prohibition of meat of desire according to the opinion of R. Yishmael were meant to distance them from these practices and to consolidate the entire nation in tribes around the one Mishkan in which the one God rests His Shekhina. For our purposes, it is important to note that the goal of distancing Israel from the worship of the demons is the unique reason for the prohibition of slaughtering consecrated animals outside the Mishkan during the period of their sojourn in the wilderness. As the Rambam explains in his commentary to the mishna:

Since the wording of the prohibition concerning bamot is connected to the camp, as it is stated: "That kills an ox, or lamb, or oat, in the camp"; and the reason is stated: "To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they offer in the open field," this being the prohibition of bamot, surely with the closing of the camps and Israel's entry into the land, that is, the land of Canaan, this being when they were in Gilgal, this prohibition disappeared, and the allowance remained that if a person wished to offer a sacrifice on a bama, he could do so as he could before the Mishkan, since this was only forbidden in the wilderness where there were the camps. (Commentary to Zevachim 14:5)

It is possible that bamot were prohibited in the wilderness and in Eretz Yisrael for different reasons.[5]

Before concluding this section, I wish to note the significance of the allowance to eat meat of desire upon Israel's entry into the Promised Land according to R. Yishmael.[6] As stated, in the wilderness, the Mishkan served as the heart of the camp, and the nation organized itself around it. The physical proximity to the Mishkan was part of the general nature of God's governance in the wilderness – clearly miraculous governance. Just as God's connection to and concern for the people of Israel expressed themselves in their most basic needs in the form of the pillar of cloud, the pillar of fire, the manna, the quail, and the well, so too the people of Israel had to direct their entire beings, including their mundane life, to God. In such circumstances, there is no place for meat of desire; meat could only be eaten in connection with the Mishkan through the offering of a peace-offering. Needless to say, sacrifices could only be brought at the site of the resting of God's Shekhina, i.e., in the Mishkan.

The situation changed radically in Eretz Yisrael. First and foremost, there was a change in the geographical reality. The tribes settled in their respective territories, some of which were very distant from the Mishkan (and then later from the Mikdash). In such circumstances, it was no longer possible to require everybody to travel great distances to the Mishkan in order to eat meat, and meat of desire was permitted.

The second change relates to Israel's spiritual solidification around the Mishkan. The camp of Israel, divided into tribes, was dissolved, and each tribe was occupied with settling its own territory and handling its own affairs. The settlement of the land and the establishment of Israel's dominion over it culminated in the fixing of a place for the resting of the Shekhina, first in the Mishkan in Shilo and later in the Mikdash on Mount Moriya. At the same time, that constant proximity between the nation and the Mishkan that was situated in the heart of the camp was no longer possible. That reality was appropriate during the period of God's miraculous governance of Israel in the wilderness, but not in the natural setting of the people of Israel settled in their land. The nature of the service in the Mishkan is connected to the general spiritual reality of the life of the people of Israel.[7]  


[1] We follow here R. Gershuni in his book, "Hagut Be-Parshiyot Ha-Torah," in his study of Parashat Re'eh, "Ve-Amarta Okhla Basar," pp. 759-763.

[2] R. Re'em Hakohen deals wih various aspects of this issue in his book, Derekh Sha'ar Ha-Elyon Etzel Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet, pp. 53-68, 127-154.

[3] Later, R. Hirsch asserts that the plain sense of the verses accords with the understanding of R. Yishmael, as argued by the Ramban. He adduces proofs: "The Rambam in Hilkhot Shechita 4:17 adopts the view of R. Akiva. But Ramban remarks here on our verse that in the majority of depositions of our Sages which have come down to us, the opinion of R. Yishmael stands pre-eminent, and it is really more in accordance with the wording of the text. If we compare the wording of verses 3 & 4 with that of 8& 9, everything seems to indicate that the former is speaking of non-consecrated animals and the latter of consecrated animals. In v. 3, the objects are: an ox, a sheep, and a goat, while in v. 8 they are descibed as a burnt-offering or a sarifice. We should accordingly, here, have the prohibition of killing an ox, a sheep or a goat, i.e., the kinds of animals suitable for offerings, not as offerings, but for ordinary profane food. Every such animal is to be brought to the forecourt of the Sanctuary, and there alone may it be killed, and it must be offered as a peace-offering. By Devarim 12:20, where it says: 'When the Lord your God shall enlarge… you may eat meat, to your heart's desire,' this prohibition of meat of desire is then limited to the stay in the wilderness and ceased with the entry into the Land."

[4] We shall not expand here on the nature of that idol worship. See Ibn Ezra and Ramban (Vayikra 17:7; 16:8) and the Rambam's "Guide for the Perplexed" (III:46).

[5] Regarding the worship of demons specifically in the wilderness, see the sources cited in the previous note. For example, the Rambam writes in his "Guide for the Perplexed" (ibid.): "For it was one of the generally accepted opinions that the jinn lived in deserts and held converse and appeared there, but did not appear in cities and cultivated places; so that whenever a townsman wished to do something in the ways of this insanity, he had to go from the city to the desert and to isolated places."

It should be noted that the Rambam's interpretation of this issue is not consistent. In Hilkhot Shechita (4:17-18; and see the words of R. S.R. Hirsch cited in note 3 above), the Rambam rules in accordance with the opinion of R. Akiva, and accordingly he writes in his commentary to the mishna that the rationale of slaughtering animals to the demons is relevant to the prohibition of bamot. In contrast, in his "Guide for the Perplexed," the Rambam adopts the view of R. Yishmael that meat of desire was forbidden in the wilderness, and he assigns the aforementioned reason to that prohibition.

[6] This is certainly a significant halakhic change. Chazal viewed this as an example of the principle that "there are many things that the Holy One, blessed be He, forbade, and then later permitted somewhere else" (Devarim Rabba 4:6).

[7] Although this was certainly not the intention, the physical distance occasionally expressed itself also in spiritual distance, which led to idol worship or to bamot when they were forbidden, as we shall see in future shiurim.