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Lecture 221: THe History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXXI) – The Prohibition of Bamot (VIII)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise,
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tamuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.



In previous lectures, we surveyed the spiritual and halakhic principles underlying the mishna in Tractate Zevachim that distinguishes between the various stations of the Mishkan with respect to the allowance and prohibition of bamot. We also considered the essence of the prohibition of bamot. In this shiur, we will examine how these elements were reflected in each period.


We will examine the books of the Early Prophets that describe the stations of the Mishkan – Gilgal, Shilo, Nov, and Givon, until the Temple was built in Jerusalem – and the books of Melakhim and Divrei Ha-Yamim from the time that Shelomo built the Temple in Jerusalem until its destruction, while addressing the division of the kingdom and the respective realities in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.


As we learned, according to the author of Seder Olam Rabba, the Mishkan stood in each of its stations for the following durations:


1. Gilgal - 14 years of Israel's occupation and division of the land.

2. Shilo - 369 years.

3. Nov - 13 years.

4. Givon - 44 years.


            This reflects the number of years that passed from the time that the people of Israel first entered the land until Shelomo began building God's house in Jerusalem.


Since, as we have seen, the allowance and prohibition of bamot depends on the various stations of the Mishkan, we will relate to the situation in accordance with the various stations of the Mishkan.


THe Mishkan in Gilgal


During the period that the Mishkan was in Gilgal, the people of Israel were occupied with the conquest and settlement of the land. This period parallels what is described in Yehoshua 1-12. There is no detailed description of the location of the Mishkan in Gilgal. Scripture merely states (Yehoshua 4:9) that after the people of Israel crossed the Jordan, they camped in Gilgal to the east of Jericho, where they set up the twelve stones that were taken from the Jordan, underwent circumcision, and celebrated their first Pesach in the land. Scripture emphasizes that the camp was in Gilgal (Yehoshua 9:6; 10:10) when the Givonim arrived there. It was to the camp in Gilgal that the Israelites returned after their pursuit of the kings of the South and after their conquest of all the cities of Judah (Yehoshua 10:15, 43), which the tribes of Judah, Ephraim, and half of Menashe then settled.


It is interesting that Scripture does not mention that the Mishkan was transferred to or found in Gilgal during this period. It seems clear that the assignment of the territories of the land of Canaan to the various tribes by Elazar the Priest and Yehoshua bin Nun (described in Yehoshua 14) took place in Gilgal. Scripture, however, does not mention this, noting only the fact that the Israelite camp was stationed there and that it was to there that they returned after their military campaigns.


Apparently, Scripture does not attach great significance to the Mishkan's being found in Gilgal. The only event that is mentioned during this period that involves divine service parallel to the Mishkan's presence in Gilgal is the altar that Yehoshua built on Mount Eival, on which they offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, where they wrote the book of Devarim on the stones, and where they assembled for the blessings and curses (Yehoshua 8:33-34).


The fact that Mount Eival is the only place that the Torah explicitly states Israel must reach after entering the land demonstrates the supreme importance of that event.


One of the most significant questions for our discussion is the question of the timing of that event. Did it take place on the very day that Israel entered the land, as one might understand from the plain sense of the verse: "And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, that you shall set you up great stones, and cover them with plaster" (Devarim 27:2)? The gemara in Sota understands that all of the events described in this context indeed took place on the day that Israel entered the land and that they occurred in a miraculous manner.


However, it is possible to interpret the verses based on the location of Yehoshua 8, assuming that the chapters of the book are arranged in chronological order. Accordingly, the events on Mount Eival took place upon Israel's entry into the land, but more precisely following the conquest of Jericho and Ai. This also accords with the topographical logic of the people of Israel advancing in the mountainous region, from Ai northward toward Mount Eival.


The Yerushalmi (Sota 7:3) concludes that the blessings and curses were pronounced fourteen years after Israel entered the land. It is reasonable to assume according to the Yerushalmi that in accordance with Seder Olam Rabba's assertion that the Mishkan stood in Gilgal for fourteen years, the assembly at Mount Eival was held at the end of that period, prior to the Mishkan's transfer to Shilo. That assembly thus constitutes a transitional link between the two stations of the Mishkan.


It is interesting that when the Torah first mentions the assembly (Devarim 27:2-26), it explicitly notes the fact that it should be held on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, but it makes no mention of any connection between this assembly and the Mishkan.


The importance of the location of the assembly at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival upon Israel's entry into the land was apparently great enough that the Torah does not relate at all to the Mishkan. It was possible for the assembly to take place while the Mishkan was in Gilgal because during this period bamot were permitted. It is important to emphasize that we are dealing with a public event in which all of Israel participated, and there is no description during this period of any ritual service outside the Mishkan in Gilgal.


The Mishkan in Shilo


As noted above, according to Seder Olam Rabba, the Mishkan stood in Shilo for 369 years. These years parallel the end of the book of Yehoshua (from chapter 18 on), through the book of Shofetim, until the destruction of Shilo found in the book of I Shemuel (chapter 4), although the destruction of Shilo is not explicitly mentioned there. In contrast to the Mishkan in Gilgal, the prophet describes in detail the Mishkan's transfer to Shilo: "And the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shilo and set up the Ohel Mo'ed there. And the land was conquered before them" (Yehoshua 18:1). Scripture refers to the Mishkan here as Ohel Mo'ed.


Let us now consider now the events related to the worship and service of God at altars during the period that the Mishkan stood in Shilo. The first major event was the building of an altar on the east bank of the Jordan by two and a half tribes.


The Altar built by the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and the half-tribe of Menashe


In this event, Pinchas and ten tribal princes approach the children of Gad, Reuven, and the half-tribe of Menashe and say to them:


Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord: What trespass is this that you have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the Lord, by building for yourselves an altar, that you might rebel this day against the Lord? Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we have not been cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord…

If the land of your possession be unclean, then pass over to the land of the possession of the Lord, where the Lord's tabernacle dwells, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the Lord, nor rebel against us, in building an altar for yourselves besides the altar of the Lord our God. (Yehoshua 22:16-19)


Very interesting phrases are used here: "trespass against the God of Israel," "to turn away from the Lord," "to rebel against the Lord." Mention is also made of "the uncleanness of the land of your possession" and of the building of another altar in addition to "the altar of the Lord our God." Similarly, mention is made of the responsibility of all of Israel for their actions, and specifically of the sin of Peor, in which only certain individuals sinned, but this brought a plague on the entire congregation of the Lord, and of Achan's trespass in regard to the devoted property, which brought wrath on all the congregation of Israel. Thus, there are two principle arguments: one with respect to God and the significance of this act, and another with respect to the ramifications of this act upon all of Israel.


The two and a half tribes respond as follows:


Then the children of Reuven and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Menashe answered and said to the heads of the thousands of Israel: The mighty One, God, the Lord, the mighty One, God, the Lord, He knows and Israel shall know; if in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord, save you us not this day, if we have built an altar for ourselves to turn from following the Lord, or if to offer a burnt-offering or a meal-offering upon it, or if to offer peace-offerings upon it, let the Lord himself demand reparation.

Or if we have not rather done this out of anxiety, saying: In time to come your children might speak to our children, saying: What have you do to with the Lord God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between us and you, you children of Reuven and children of Gad; you have no part in the Lord. So shall your children make our children cease fearing the Lord. 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 with our peace-offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come: You have no part in the Lord.

Therefore, we said, that it shall be, when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may reply: Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifices, but it is a witness between us and you. God forbid that we should rebel against the Lord, and turn this day from following the Lord, to build an altar for burnt-offerings, for meal-offerings, or for sacrifices, besides the altar of the Lord our God that is before His tabernacle. (Yehoshua 22:21-29)


The people of Israel suspected that the action of the two and a half tribes involved both a rebellion against God and an abandonment of Israel. They were concerned about an impairment of the unity of the Divine service at the Mishkan in Shilo, during a period when bamot were forbidden. After hearing these accusations, the two and a half tribes responded that their goal was not, God forbid, to divide the nation and the service of God by introducing an alternative center somewhere other than in the Mishkan. Rather, the opposite is true. They wished to create a connection between the two sides of the Jordan River through the building of an altar.


Beyond the overall perspective, this debate relates to the role of the altar. Pinchas the priest and the ten tribes thought that this altar was designed for the offering of sacrifices, and during the period that the Mishkan was in Shilo, it was forbidden to offer sacrifices anywhere outside the Mishkan. The building of a great altar across from the land of Canaan entailed service performed outside the Mishkan. Since this was forbidden, in the eyes of the ten tribes, it constituted trespass and rebellion against God, an alternative central location where sacrifices would be offered on the east bank of the Jordan, separate from and in place of Shilo.


The two and a half tribes responded that the purpose fo the altar was not for sacrifices, but rather to serve as a witness: "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." This answer persuaded Pinchas and the ten tribal princes.


It is interesting to note that the main objective of the building of the altar in the view of the two and a half tribes was to serve in the future as proof that their children and the coming generations are part of God's nation; the Jordan River cannot be considered a topographical line that separates between them and the rest of the tribes living on the west bank.


In great measure, the two suspicions about the tribes – rebellion or trespass against God through the building of an altar and the offering of sacrifices outside the Mishkan in Shilo and its implication for the people of Israel - were proven wrong. The altar was not built for burnt-offerings or sacrifices; on the contrary, the two and a half tribes wished to be part of God's nation. It is clear that the component of being part of the nation of Israel was of great significance in their answer to Pinchas the priest and the tribal princes.


In any event, what emerges from this episode is that there was a clear perception the entire time that the Mishkan stood in Shilo that no altar may be built in addition to and outside the Mishkan. This possibility was considered a most serious matter that must not be attempted.


An altar that was not meant for Sacrifices


Incidental to our consideration of this issue, we must note the novel idea that is introduced here – the building of an altar that is not to be used at all for sacrificial service, but rather to serve as a witness. On the face of it, the very word mizbe'ach (altar) is connected to the offering of sacrifices (zevach). Here, however, we have an altar that two and a half tribes built from the outset for a purpose other than the offering of sacrifices.


It seems that this phenomenon made its first appearance in the altars built by the patriarchs. In many cases, references to altars built by the patriarchs are not accompanied by a description of the sacrifices that were offered upon them. Thus, for example, we find in the case of Avraham when he reached the place of Shechem, Elon Moreh: "And the Lord appeared unto Avram, and said: To your seed will I give this land; and he built there an altar to the Lord, who appeared unto him" (Bereishit 12:7).


Although the Torah uses the term mizbe'ach, the plain meaning of which implies the offering of a sacrifice, no mention is made of such a sacrifice. This can be explained in two ways.


One possibility is that the primary act is the very building of the altar, even without performing any actions on it. Thus, for example, in the words of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 39:22, cited by Rashi): "He built an altar only for the tidings about Eretz Yisrael." This would seem to mean that he built the altar for the tidings about Eretz Yisrael, without offering any sacrifices upon it.


The Radak explains: "In gratitude to God who had appeared to him and gave him the tidings about the land, it being good and broad, flowing with milk and honey, that He will give it to his seed" (s.v. vayiven sham mizbea'ach). Here too it is clear that Avram built an altar to the Lord who appeared to him because the very building of the altar is an expression of gratitude to God for the good tidings relating to Eretz Yisrael.


A different explanation emerges from the words of the Ramban (ad loc.):


He thanked the revered God and offered a thanks-offering to Him for having appeared to him, for until this point God had not appeared to him and had not made Himself known to him in a vision. Rather, he was told, "Go, you, from your country," in a nocturnal dream or through the holy spirit. It is possible that the words "who appeared unto him" allude to the mystery of sacrifices. The discerning intellect will understand. (s.v. veta'am lashem)


The Ramban speaks about a thanks-offering in the wake of God's appearing to Avram, even though the Torah does not explicitly refer to such an offering.


In the continuation, the Torah describes Avram's journey in the land: "And he removed from there unto the mountain on the east of Bet-El, and pitched his tent, having Bet-El on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord" (Bereishit 12:8). According to the plain sense of the verse, this altar was meant for calling upon the name of the Lord, and not for sacrifices.


Midrash Bereishit Rabba writes:


"And he built there an altar unto to the Lord" – R. Eliezer said: He built three altars: One for the tidings about Eretz Yisrael, and one for acquiring it, and one so that his descendants should not fall in Ai.


            According to the Midrash, each altar has its own end, the substance of which was something other than offering a sacrifice. Calling upon the name of the Lord can be understood as prayer. So it is understood by Targum Onkelos (ad loc.): "And he prayed in the name of God." The Radak, however, writes in his commentary:


And there he called upon the name of the Lord - that is to say, he called upon the inhabitants of that mountain that they should come to the altar, for he expressed to them reasonable arguments, that it was fitting to worship the God on behalf of whose name he built an altar, and not to the idols that they worship. And he brought back many people to his faith. (s.v. Bet-El miyam)


Similarly, the Ramban writes (ad loc.):


And the correct understanding is that he would call out loudly the name of God before the altar, making it and His Divine nature known to man… And now when he came to the land about which he was promised, "I will bless those who bless you," he was accustomed to teaching about God and making Him known. Similarly, the verse states regarding Yitzchak when he went to the Gerar valley and he was promised: "Fear not, for I am with you" (Bereishit 26:24) that he built an altar "and called upon the name of the Lord." For he came to a new place where the people had not heard about Him and had not seen His glory, and he spoke about His glory among those nations.


The altar has an additional function - namely, to bring people under the wings of the Shekhina and to pray there. The aforementioned Midrash continues:


"And he called upon the name of God" – this teaches that he put the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, into the mouth of every person. Another explanation: "And he called" – he began to convert people and bring them under the wings of the Shekhina.


It is not mentioned in the verse, nor in the words of the commentaries, that this activity was performed incidentally to the offering of sacrifices. The very building of an altar created a geographical focus that allowed for calling upon the name of God by making God's unity known to all of creation or by praying.


Accordingly, the word "altar" can be understood as a site of sacrifice, but it can also refer to a central structure that allows for the gathering of people for the purpose of prayer or drawing close to God. This may have been the case with the altars established in various places by the patriarchs (Elon Moreh, between Bet-El and Ai, and others).


It is not coincidental that the Torah does not emphasize the sacrificial service when describing the building of such altars. It is possible that the dispute between the tribes in the book of Yehoshua revolved around this very point. Was the altar supposed to serve as a sacrificial center on the east bank of the Jordan for the two and a half tribes while the Mishkan was in Shilo, or was it to serve merely as a witness with the purpose of unifying the people of Israel despite their division between the two sides of the Jordan?


In the coming shiurim we will continue to examine the sacrificial sites outside the Mishkan and their significance.


(Translated by David Strauss)