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Lecture 226: THe History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXXVI) – The Prohibition of Bamot (XIII)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

In this shiur, we will continue our study of Mikha's idol. After examining the time period of the idol, and the nature of the worship at Mikha's shrine in the last shiur, we will now consider its location.


Where was Mikha's shrine?[1]


The plain meaning of the text offers no hint regarding the location of Mikha's shrine, beyond that it was found somewhere in Mount Efrayim. It is logical to assume that the house was located in close proximity to a major road, owing to the fact that many travelers passed through Mikha's house.


In our story alone we read of several instances in which a person located in Mount Efrayim comes specifically to the house of Mikha: the young Levite, the delegation of the tribe of Dan, and, later, the six hundred men of Dan. These examples provide evidence that Mikha's house was located along the road traversing the central mountain.


Two sources in Chazal relate to the location of Mikha's idol. The first is the Gemara in Sanhedrin:


Why did they not include Mikha [among those who have no share in the world-to-come? Because his bread was available to travelers… It was taught: Rabbi Natan said: From Garev to Shilo is a distance of three mil, and the smoke of the altar and that of Mikha's idol intermingled. The ministering angels wished to thrust Mikha away, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: Let him alone, because his bread is available for travelers. And it was on this account that the people involved in the matter of the concubine at Giv'a were punished. For the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: You did not protest for My honor, yet you protest for the honor of a woman. (Sanhedrin 103b)


The second is Pesikta Rabbati:


Come and see that Mikha's idol stood in Ma'aravo,[2] and the Mishkan stood in Shilo. He [Mikha] would burn incense before the idol, as it is stated: "And a thick cloud of incense went up" (Yechezkel 8:11). In Shilo they offered half in the morning and half in the evening, and the two columns of smoke [from Mikha and from Shilo] would blend and ascend to heaven, as it is stated: "And they blend in a billow of smoke" (Yeshayahu 9:17). And the Holy One, blessed be He, says: Which should we accept, this one or that one? (ed. Ish Shalom, no. 29, s.v. ketiv ve-lo)


Chazal were familiar with a place that was called Garev or Ma'aravo three mil west of Shilo, and had a lodging house for travelers. Mikha's house did not stand in the town itself, but on the main road of Mount Efrayim. There was one central house, and alongside it were "the houses near to Mikha's house" where neighbors lived (Shoftim 18:22). In the main house there was room for travelers to lodge, and a place for them to eat. During the period of the Judges it also served as a shrine that had a carved idol, a molten idol, an efod and terafim. It is reasonable to assume that whoever traveled northward from the land of Yehuda on the main road passed through the town, spent the night, and received the services provided there to travelers.


It stands to reason that this place was a day's journey from the center of the land of Binyamin. Based on this information, it is reasonable to assume that Mikha's house was located along the ancient road that ran the length of the central mountain to the west of Shilo. The ancient name mentioned by Chazal in Sanhedrin and in Pesikta Rabbati was preserved by the Arabs found on both side of the ancient road:


1. Chirbat Abu al Uf is called Chirbat Graba, and is located on a moderate peak east of the road.


2. The peak of Gabal Araba, which is west of the road, on a ridge south of Ma'ale Levona, 4-5 kilometers long from east to west, and home to several ruins.


The fact that the ancient name is preserved in two different locations in the area strengthens the possibility of identifying the place there.


Both places are located a short distance west of Shilo (three to six kilometers). Indeed, if we measure three kilometers west of Tel Shilo based on the ancient road, we reach the area of Chirbat Al Uf and Khan Aluban (Khan Levona). This is mentioned in Shoftim (21:19): "Then they said, Behold, there is a yearly feast of the Lord in Shilo which is on the north side of Bet-El, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bet-El to Shechem, and on the south of Levona."


Both of these two sites in the vicinity of Maale Levona are excellent places to stop before ascending the steep incline. In Chirbat Al Uf there are remains from the Second Temple period, while in Chirbat Araba there are remains from a large settlement from the period of the Judges. This settlement could be Garev, where Mikha's shrine once stood, at the main inn on Mount Efrayim during the period of the Judges.


Beyond the importance of identifying the site of Mikha's house, Chazal emphasize both the geographical proximity to Shilo, and the blending of the smoke from the altar in the Mishkan with the smoke from the incense burned before Mikha's idol.


The location of Mikha's house strengthens the question of how it is possible that all those coming to Mount Efrayim chose to go to Mikha's house and did not make a pilgrimage to nearby Shilo.


The status of Shilo during the period of the Judges


Astonishingly, there is only one mention of Shilo throughout the period of the Judges of over three hundred years. The verse reads: "And they set up for themselves Mikha's idol, which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shilo" (18:31).[3]


The subject of the verse is Mikha's idol, which was stolen by members of the tribe of Dan, and then transferred to the city of Dan. The verse clarifies that Mikha's idol stood in that city all the time that the house of God was in Shilo. Beyond this sole mention, the book of Shoftim makes no other reference to the Mishkan’s presence in Shilo.


There is no biblical description of the Mishkan's arrival in Shilo. There are no pilgrimages to Shilo, nor are there any festive assemblies centered on the Mishkan. There is no record of any Judge coming to the Mishkan to pray, to offer sacrifices, to organize a military campaign against an enemy, or in the aftermath of a victory. The fact that Scripture makes no mention of any event connected to the Mishkan in Shilo over a period of centuries indicates that the Mishkan had no significance for hundreds of years.


This gaping hole stands in contrast to the status of the Mishkan in Shilo during the time of Yehoshua. Scripture describes the lottery in Shilo for the seven tribes that had not yet received their inheritance (Yehoshua 18:1-9): "These are the territories which Elazar the priest, and Yehoshua the son of Nun, and the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel divided for an inheritance by lot in Shilo before the Lord, at the door of the Tent of Meeting. So they made an end of dividing the country" (Yehoshua 19:51). Similarly, it is in Shilo that the Levites are given their cities, and it is from Shilo that the two and a half tribes go out to the land of their inheritance in the Gil'ad.


That is to say, during the period of Yehoshua all of the important public events take place in Shilo. When there is a single political leader, Yehoshua, and a High Priest, Elazar, there is also one central place where important events occur before God - in Shilo.


At the end of the period of the Judges, in the beginning of the book of Shemuel, we read about the special pilgrimage undertaken by Elkana to Shilo. This pilgrimage is described in an amazing way in Midrash Eliyahu Rabba 8:


Elkana would go up to Shilo four times a year, three times because of a Torah obligation and once that he voluntarily accepted upon himself. And when people went up with him on the journey, they would come and spend the night in the town square, and they would gather men and women separately… And the town would be excited. And they would ask them: Where are you going? And they would say: To the house of God in Shilo from which Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds issue forth. And you, why don't you come with us? We will go together! Immediately, their eyes filled with tears and they said to them: We will go up with you! And the way that he went up one year he would not go up the next year, but rather he would go another way, until all of Israel went up [to Shilo]. And Elkana would tip the scale in Israel's favor, and he taught them mitzvot, and the community benefited because of him.


The Midrash describes Elkana's impressive initiative that involved convincing the people of Israel to join him on his pilgrimage to Shilo. The very existence of this effort proves how novel this pilgrimage was and how rare it was for people to go up to Shilo.


To summarize, in the book of Yehoshua, before the period of the Judges, the Mishkan in Shilo occupied a central place in all public gatherings that took place before the Lord. Later, at the beginning of the period covered by the book of Shemuel, Chazal describe Elkana's grand enterprise of returning the people of Israel to the Mishkan in Shilo. Between the end of the book of Yehoshua and the beginning of the book of Shemuel, a period of over three hundred years, there is no substantive reference to the Mishkan in Shilo.


Why was the Mishkan in Shilo so insignificant during the period of the Judges?


Why didn't the people visit the Mishkan in Shilo, either as individuals or as a community, during the entire period of the Judges? We may suggest the following explanations:


  • As long as there was one central leadership, with Yehoshua leading the people, and Elazar serving as the High Priest, all of the important public assemblies took place in Shilo. During the period of the Judges, when each tribe returned to its own territory and the leaders were local Judges, the previous central, national meeting place was ignored.[4]


  • This time period saw a transition from a focus on national concerns to a preoccupation with local territorial concerns, without any unified and continuous leadership. In a parallel development, with almost no prophets prophesying at the time, some of the people were drawn to idolatry.[5] Some people worshipped the God of Israel along with other gods, also deviating from traditional worship at the Mishkan in Shilo.[6]


  • Ultimately, Eli's sons, Chofni and Pinchas, corrupted the worship in the Mishkan.[7] Scripture recounts the way they would forcibly seize meat from those who brought sacrifices and were rumored to "lay with the women that assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting" (Shemuel I 2:22). According to Chazal, the meaning of these rumors reaching Eli's ears is that his sons delayed the sacrifices of women bringing pigeons and doves, so that those bringing meatier sacrifices could offer them first. As the Gemara in Shabbat (55b) formulates the matter: "Because they delayed their bird-offerings so that they did not go to their husbands, Scripture stigmatizes them as though they had lain with them."[8] It is possible that this sad state was itself a consequence of the broader neglect of the Mishkan. This detachment created the opportunity for Eli's sons to conduct themselves in the Mishkan as if they were sole arbiters over the service.


 Just as the entire nation was immersed in their own private affairs, so too the priests were focused purely on exploiting their power for personal gain. Chazal in Yoma (9a) say: "Why was Shilo destroyed? Because of two [evil] things that prevailed there, illicit sexual relations and contemptuous treatment of sanctified objects." The man of God reproaches Eli: "Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering, which I have commanded in My habitation, and honor your sons above Me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel My people" (I Shmuel 2:29).


Thus, it is also very possible that the dire reality in the Mishkan itself deterred the people from making a pilgrimage to Shilo. No one would want to be subjected to the kind of theft and abuse notoriously practiced by the sons of Eli.


Mikha's house contrasted with the Mishkan in Shilo


As we have seen, the rampant corruption in the Mishkan discouraged people from going to Shilo. However, we must still explain how the shrine in MIkha’s house became a popular rest stop for travelers passing through.


Let us recall the reasons given for the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo (Shemuel I 2:11-26). The Gemara in Yoma mentions illicit sexual relations and the contemptuous treatment of sanctified objects. Scripture also recounts Eli's sons’ taking sacrificial meat from pilgrims and delaying women from becoming permitted to their husbands. Both of these reasons brought in text present very serious interpersonal offenses. Scripture states:


And the priests’ custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's lad came, while the meat was cooking, with a fork having three teeth in his hand. And he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or cauldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest took for himself. So they did in Shilo to all the people of Israel who came there. Also before they burnt the fat, the priest's lad came, and said to the man that sacrificed, Give some roasting meat for the priest; for he will not have boiled meat of you, but raw. And if any man said to him, Let them first burn the fat, and then take as much as your soul desires; then he would answer him, No; but you shall give it to me now; and if not, I will take it by force. Wherefore the sin of the lads was very great before the Lord; for the men dishonored the offering of the Lord. (Shemuel I 2:13-17)


A dispute takes place between the priests who control the Mishkan and those bringing their offerings. The people bringing the offering want the parts of the animal to be brought in the right order, burning the fats first. The priests, however, wrongfully insist on seizing the meat by force before burning the fats on the altar.


Later in the passage, Scripture describes Eli's criticism of this behavior:


Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did to all Israel; and how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting. And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings with all these people. No, my sons; for it is not a good report that I hear: you make the Lord's people to transgress. If one man sin against another, the judge judges him: but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall intercede for him?” But they did not hearken to the voice of their father, because the Lord was minded to slay them. And the child Shemuel grew on, and was in favor both with the Lord, and also with men. (Shemuel I 2:22-26)


In his argument, Eli distinguishes between interpersonal quarrels, where the judge will evaluate the sinner, and sins against God, where there is nobody who will pray on his behalf.


Rabbi Yosef Kara writes in his commentary:


It says above: "If one man sin against another, the judge judges him: but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall intercede for him." Some people are good to other people, but not to Heaven, but Shemuel is good to Heaven and good to other people. (I Shemuel 2:20, s.v., ve-ha-na'ar Shemuel)


Scripture contrasts Shemuel with Eli, Chofni and Pinchas, particularly regarding interpersonal relations. Eli's sons, Chofni and Pinchas, and even Eli himself, greatly emphasize the relationship between man and God. Shemuel, however, grows both in his relationship with God and in his relationships with other people.


Eli and his sons’ held the distorted belief that the ark would save Israel regardless of their lack of improvement in their actions. This also points to the great gap in their view between relations with God and relations with other people.[9]


Let us now go back and examine Mikha's idol.


The Gemara in Sanhedrin (103b) asks why Mikha was not denied a share in the world-to-come, and it answers: "Because his bread was available to travelers." Later, Rabbi Natan relates: "And the smoke of the altar and that of Mikha's idol intermingled. The ministering angels wished to thrust Mikha away, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: Let him alone, because his bread is available for travelers." 


Beyond Scripture’s presentation of Shemuel as the opposite of the sons of Eli, Chazal emphasize Mikha's hospitality and special treatment of passersby who received a warm welcome at his shrine. Thus, Shilo stands in contrast to the shrine in the house of Mikha, in addition to the differences in ritual service between the two locations. In Shilo, the sons of Eli harass the pilgrims, forcibly seize the meat of their offerings, and leave the women who bring bird-offerings to stand at the end of the line. At Mikha's shrine, on the other hand, travelers, guests, and all those arriving are greeted warmly.


In both of these senses, Mikha's shrine and the Mishkan in Shilo stand in opposition to each other. The welcoming atmosphere of Mikha's shrine is another reason it drew so many visitors, and why people opted not go to the nearby Mishkan in Shilo.


As an aside, the Gemara states in Pesachim (117a): "Mikha's idol stands at Bekhi." Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this is the place where the idol stood during the days of David.


 There is no place named Bekhi mentioned in Scripture. In Bokhim (Shoftim 2:1-5) the angel of God reproaches the people of Israel for not having destroyed the altars used in idol worship. If we identify Bekhi with Bokhim, it would be appropriate for the reproach to be delivered specifically in the place where Mikha's idol stood for generations.


It is interesting that Prof. Yehuda Elitzur in his commentary (Da'at Mikra, Shoftim 2:1) writes about Bekhi that it is: "A place in the mountainous region in the area of Bet-El." There is no precise identification of the place, and we do not know how it is connected to the place identified with Garev, west of Tel Shilo. According to the plain meaning of the verses, Bokhim is close to Gilgal, and therefore it would seem that there is no direct connection between Bokhim and Bekhi.


There is also another difficulty. According to the plain reading of the text, the idol stood in Dan. How, then, could it have stood in Bekhi?


Some commentators disagree with Rashi’s understanding that Bekhi is the name of a place. The Rashbam writes that Mikha's idol stood in a state of "bekhi," literally, crying, but used here as a euphemism for "joy." Chazal did not want to use the word "joy" in reference to an idol and therefore they used the term "crying."


Rabbi A. M. Horowitz connects the word bekhi to "yitavkhu ashan," "And they blend in a billow of smoke" (Yeshayahu 9:17), the verse cited in Pesikta Rabbati. That is to say, Mikha's idol stood in Garev, and the Mishkan was in Shilo, and the two columns of smoke would blend and ascend to heaven.


The Mishna at the end of tractate Ma'asrot mentions a place called Ba'al Bekhi. The Mishna writes: "Ba'al Bekhi garlic and Rikhpa onions are exempt from tithes… and may be bought from any man in the Sabbatical year." Rabbi Ovadya Mi-Bartenura writes that this refers to garlic that grows on Mount Lebanon, for Lebanon is called Ba'al Bek in Arabic, and the Melekhet Shlomo writes that this is Ba'al Bek garlic. According to this, it is possible that Mikha's idol stood in Ba'al Bek, which is not very far from Dan.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Our comments in this section are based on a source sheet prepared by Prof. Yoel Elitzur regarding Garev.

[2] According to another reading in the Pesikta Rabbati: Aravo.

[3] This is with the exception of the description of the daughters of Shilo dancing in the vineyards and the yearly feast of the Lord in Shilo (Shoftim 21:19-21)

[4] Each time that Israel was rescued by a particular Judge, the people would soon return to their evil ways, until a new enemy appeared and a new Judge arose from a different tribe

[5] This is spelled out in detail in Shoftim 2 about those who worshipped the Ba'alim and Ashterot

[6] An example of this is the shrine in Mikha's house where people worshipped the God of Israel through carved or molten images, an efod and terafim.

[7] We do not know exactly when the reality regarding the Mishkan in Shilo as described in Shemuel I 2 began.

[8] A woman who just given birth must bring pigeon and dove offerings before becoming permitted to her husband (Vayikra 12:6-7)

[9] The attitude of Eli and his sons toward the ark requires a separate discussion. We dealt with this issue at length in our shiurim on the Mishkan at Shilo.