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Lecture #233: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (XLIII) – The Prohibition of Bamot (XX)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Intermediate Stage Between Shilo and Nov – Part I

In the previous shiur we noted that Scripture hints at the fact that there was a split between the site of the sacrificial service, i.e., the great bama, and the location of the ark, following the destruction of Shilo. Several statements of Chazal regarding the location of the Mishkan after Shilo support this. Thus, for example, the Mishna in Zevachim (14:7) states: "When they came to Nov and Giv'on, bamot were [again] permitted. Most holy sacrifices were eaten within the curtains, and lesser sacrifices [were eaten] in all the cities of Israel."

As we have mentioned in the past, the Meshekh Chokhma presents one of the most meaningful explanations of the allowance of bamot in Devarim chapter 12. With respect to verse 8 – "You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day" – the Meshekh Chokhma cites the Tosefta at the end of Zevachim (13:8) which states: "Which is the great bama when bamot are permitted? When the Ohel Mo'ed was pitched in the proper way, and the ark did not rest there, then bamot were permitted."

The first condition for service at the great bama while sacrifices were being offered at private bamot was "the Ohel Mo'ed pitched in the proper way," as it had stood in the wilderness and at Shilo. The second condition was that "the ark not be resting there [in the Mishkan}." This was the case during the period that the ark was moved from one place to another as described in the book of Shemuel.

Later, the Meshekh Chokhma cites the Yerushalmi in Megilla (1, 12), which states explicitly: "Rabbi Yasa in the name of Rabbi Yochanan [said]: ‘This is the sign– as long as the ark is inside, bamot are forbidden. If it went out, bamot are permitted.’" While the Mishkan stood in Shilo, the ark did not leave the Ohel Mo'ed, and, therefore, bamot were forbidden.

The halakhic principles articulated by Chazal guided the nature of the service from the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo and until the building of the Temple. During this time period, the great bama in Nov and Giv'on served as the site of communal sacrifices, while the ark wandered between the cities of the Pelishtim, to Beit Shemesh, to Kiryat Ye'arim, and finally to the City of David. Bamot were permitted at this time and each individual could offer sacrifices at his own private altar.

In any event, the sources imply that the sacrificial service continued in direct succession from Shilo to Nov (and then later to Giv'on).

In contrast, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi[1] argues that after the destruction of Shilo and before the transfer of the Mishkan to Nov, there was an intermediate stage, where the great bama stood in Gilgal. He rests his argument on three main proofs:

1. In Shemuel it says:

Then Shemuel said to the people, Come, and let us go to Gilgal, and renew the kingdom there. And all the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Shaul king before the Lord in Gilgal; and there they made sacrifices of peace- offerings before the Lord; and there Shaul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly (I Shemuel 11:14-15).

The term "before the Lord" appears twice. The first instance seems to describe the place, while the second instance relates to the nature of the offering of the sacrifices.

            Ralbag explains the passage as follows: "And it says: 'Before the Lord in Gilgal,' because there they built an altar and sacrificed on it. At first the Mishkan was there, as is mentioned at the beginning of the book of Yehoshua (4:20)." According to him, the expression, "before the Lord in Gilgal," indicates that this was the site of the building of the altar (while noting that the Mishkan originally stood there). The very fact that the people gathered in Gilgal for an event of great spiritual and national significance points to its importance during Shemuel’s time.[2]

2. Following the war against Amalek, Scripture writes in I Shemuel chapter 15:

And when Shemuel rose early to meet Shaul in the morning, it was told to Shemuel saying, Shaul came to Karmel, and, behold, he set him up a monument, and is gone about, and passed on, and gone down to Gilgal. And Shemuel came to Shaul: and Shaul said to him, “Blessed be you of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (15: 12-15).

Later, Shaul recognizes that his sin, and he asks of Shemuel: "Now therefore, I pray you, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, and I will bow down to the Lord" (v. 25). Similarly afterwards: "I have sinned: yet do me honor now, I pray, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may bow down to the Lord your God" (v. 30), and at the end: "So Shemuel turned again after Shaul; and Shaul bowed down to the Lord" (v. 31).

What is the significance of the repeated bowing down before God? As we have already explained, bamot were permitted at that time. Shaul nevertheless tries to justify himself: "But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted property, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal" (v. 21). Despite the fact that it was permitted to offer sacrifices in all places, a specific location in Gilgal was designated for communal offerings.

This also clarifies what is stated at the end of the chapter: "And Shemuel said, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.’ And Shemuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal" (v. 33). The expression "before the Lord" is repeated here as well indicating that the place had special sanctity, therefore serving as the central site for offering communal sacrifices. It is precisely there that Shaul wished to bow down to God.

3. In chapter 10, after Shemuel anoints Shaul as king, he gives him a set of signs that will shape his way towards recognition as king by all the people: "After that you shall come to the hill of God, where the garrisons of the Pelishtim are, and it shall come to pass, when you are come there to the city, that you shall meet a band of prophets coming down from the bama with a lute, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a lyre, before them, and they shall prophesy" (v. 5).  Later, Shemuel instructs: "And you shall go down before me to Gilgal, and behold, I will come down to you, to offer burnt-offerings, and to make sacrifices of peace offerings; seven days shall you tarry till I come to you, and show you what you shall do" (v. 8). Here too, Shemuel asks Shaul to meet him specifically in Gilgal demonstrating that he prefers to offer the communal sacrifice there, even though there was a private bama on the hill of God.

According to Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi, the signs given to Shaul to complete the process of anointing him as king, the request to renew the monarchy, and the changes following the war against Amalek were events that had spiritual, national and communal significance. The desire to conduct them specifically at Gilgal shows that the central public bama stood there, and the Mishkan only moved to Nov at a later stage.[3]

We have, then, two views as to whether Gilgal served as an additional station of the Mishkan. Let us now analyze the view of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi.

According to the plain reading of Scripture, there is no explicit reference to the time between the Mishkan's leaving Shilo and its arrival in Nov. The Baraita in Zevachim (118b) even notes: "When Eli the priest died, Shilo was destroyed and they came to Nov." Although there is no clear reference to the timing of these events it stands to reason that the move to Nov was immediate. Logic dictates that while private bamot were permitted, there was clearly a need for the immediate establishment of a "great bama" where the service performed at the Mishkan could be conducted (the offering of the daily and the additional offerings, the lighting of the menora, and the service of the shewbread).

As for the proofs adduced by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi, the three sources do indeed attest to sacrifices being offered at a central bama in Gilgal as well as public events taking place there. The fact that Gilgal served as the site of the Mishkan for the first fourteen years of Joshua’s conquest gives it further historical significance. While it is true that the Mishkan stood in Shilo for at least 369 years, it is still possible that it could have returned to Gilgal. The difficulty lies in the fact that Chazal do not mention such a possibility, and that, according to them, the Mishkan moved directly from Shilo to Nov with no  stops in between.

It may be possible to understand Rabbi Halevi's proposal alternatively through an explanation of the uniqueness and essence of Gilgal.

Despite Chazal’s view, and the evidence that communal sacrifices were offered in Gilgal "before the Lord," there is nothing that necessitates connecting the place to the Mishkan. In fact, Scripture explicitly states that the shewbread service was performed in Nov and that the sword of Goliat was kept there. Thus, it seems that even though the great bama stood in Nov, certain public events took place specifically in Gilgal due to its unique status.

At this point, we will deal with the significance of the name Gilgal, and we will later expand upon the uniqueness of the place.

Gilgal is first mentioned in the book of Yehoshua, after the people of Israel successfully cross the Jordan: "And the people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped in Gilgal, on the east border of Jericho" (4:19). That is to say, Israel's first stop in the Promised Land was in Gilgal, on the east border of Jericho.[4] According to Rashi, Gilgal is the place where Israel lodged that night, and where the twelve people were commanded to carry the stones from the Jordan.

One possible origin for the name Gilgal might be the piles (galim) of stones in the area. Yigal Yadin maintains that Gilgal is a technical term for a circle, which was the structure of a military camp (see also I Shemuel 17:20). The definite article (the letter heh) that precedes the word Gilgal supports his argument.[5] However, there is actually an explicit explanation of the name in the verses themselves. Following the account of the circumcisions performed there by Yehoshua upon all of Israel, Scripture says: "And the Lord said to Yehoshua, ‘This day have I rolled away (galoti) the shame of Egypt from off you.’ So he called the name of the place Gilgal to this day" (Yehoshua 5:9).

 My revered teacher, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun suggested[6] that the expression "the shame of Egypt" refers to the foreskin. The people of Israel removed their foreskins for the first time when they were circumcised before leaving Egypt in preparation for the Paschal offering, and a second time when they were circumcised before beginning the conquest of the land. Thus, circumcision expressed their total exit both from slavery and from their foreskins. The “shame of Egypt,” which includes both the humiliation that they were uncircumcised as well as the disgrace of exile and slavery, was utterly removed from them before they were to regain the land of their heritage.

As mentioned above, the next shiur will deal with the reason why a number of major events took place in Gilgal despite the fact that the great bama stood in Nov.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In his book, Dorot ha-Rishonim, vol. 6, Jerusalem 5699, pp. 156-157.

[2] This is in contrast to the view of the Radak who explains: "Shemuel said to renew the monarchy in Gilgal out of respect to the ark and the Ohel Mo'ed that were there when they first entered the land. Therefore they showed respect to the place, even though it [the ark] was not there now, but rather in Nov." According to him, the fact that the ark and the Ohel Mo'ed were in Gilgal when Israel first entered the land was sufficient reason to show respect to the place. According to this explanation, there is, of course, no need to say that the Mishkan was in Gilgal at that time.

[3] We should note that the first explicit reference to Nov as the site of the great bama is found in chap. 21 when David runs away from Shaul.

[4] Gilgal has been identified with Galgul, about 3 kilometers east of Jericho, or with Al-Ochla which is found nearby.

[5] Cited in Yehuda Kil's Da'at Mikra commentary to Yehoshua (4:19, note 44).

[6] In his article, "Chametz, u-Matza be-Pesach, bi-Shevu'ot, u-be-Korbanot ha-Lechem," Megadim 13 (Adar 5751), p. 40, note 30.