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Shiur #19a: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina(Part IX) - The Service of Yaakov

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


Shiur #19a: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina

(Part IX)

The Service of Yaakov


Rav Yitzchak Levi



            Yaakov builds two altars, one in Shekhem and another in Bet-El; he sets up two pillars in Bet-El, one on his way to Charan and another on his way back; and he offers sacrifices on Mount Gil'ad and in Be'er-Sheva. In this lecture, I will analyze these acts of worship in the order of their appearance and I will attempt to understand the unique aspects of Yaakov's worship as compared to the worship of Avraham and Yitzchak. First, I wish to devote a short chapter to Bet-El, "the Temple of the patriarchs," which is most strongly associated with Yaakov.




During the period of the patriarchs, Bet-El stood out as the most sanctified place.[1] There, Avraham called upon God for the first time in Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 12:8),[2] and there he returned after his journeys to the Negev and to Egypt – "to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bet-El and Ai; to the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first; and there Avraham called upon the name of the Lord" (ibid. 13:3-4). There he received, following his parting from Lot, the blessing regarding his seed and the land (ibid. vv. 14-17) – the first explicit blessing that Avraham received from God in Eretz Yisrael.


It was Yaakov, however, who conferred upon Bet-El its unique status. He stopped there on his way to Charan (ibid. 28:10-22), and upon his return he turned it into the Temple of the patriarchs (ibid. 35:15).[3] Let us read about Yaakov's first encounter with the place (Bereishit 28):


And Yaakov went out from Be'er-Sheva, and went toward Charan. And he lighted on a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set upon the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, "I am the Lord God of Avraham your father, and the God of Yitzhak. The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; and your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places to which you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you of." And Yaakov awoke out of his sleep, and he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." And he was afraid, and said, "How dreadful is this place! This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." And Yaakov rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bet-El, but the name of that city was called Luz at first. And Yaakov vowed a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear, so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to You."


            In this context, attention should be paid to the designation "the place" (ha-makom) (which appears here six times and four times in Bereishit 35) – which attests to the unique essence of this place (similar to the expression, "the place that the Lord will choose," which appears repeatedly in the book of Devarim with respect to the Temple in Jerusalem).  Attention should be paid as well to the nature of the revelation: "This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The name of the place is Bet-El, "the house of God," that is, the Temple. The fear that Yaakov felt when he woke up from his sleep was a fear of the Mikdash, and the oil that he poured over the stone alludes to the libations in the Temple. As a Mikdash, the place gives expression to the two objectives familiar to us: on the one hand, a place for the resting of the Shekhina, the house of God; on the other hand, a place where man serves God in His house.


            With respect to the nature of the revelation – "And, behold, the Lord stood above it"[4] – God's closeness to man is emphasized here in an unprecedented manner. The vision of the ladder, "And behold a ladder set upon the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven," is the first explicit mention of the connection between heaven and earth in the framework of the Divine service of the patriarchs, and it is not by chance that the revelation is connected to the place being called a "house" – "the house of God" (see below, chapter V); this is the place that connects heaven and earth. All these are expressions of Bet-El being the natural Temple of the patriarchs Avraham and Yaakov.[5]


            Following the conquest of Eretz Israel, Bet-El was situated on the border between the two tribes descending from Rachel – Efrayim and Binyamin (Yehoshua 16:2; 18:13). In the wake of the incident involving the concubine in Giv'a, all of Israel gathered for war against Binyamin. There it is stated:


And the children of Israel arose, and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God… Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came to the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. And the children of Israel inquired of the Lord, for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days. (Shoftim 20:18, 26-27)


            What was the nature of this assembly in Bet-El, and why was the ark there in those days? Surely at that time the Mishkan stood in Shilo, and in the beginning of chap. 20, a great assembly of the entire people of Israel was held in Mitzpeh! It seems that the special sanctity of the city was not forgotten at the end of the period of the patriarchs, and that the people of Israel, who were well aware of the place's sanctity, chose to go there to inquire of God, to weep and to sit there before God, to fast and to offer sacrifices, and it was to that place that the ark of God was brought for that same period of time. They acted as if the sanctity of the place was still intact.


            In the days of Shmuel as well, following the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo, the unique sanctity of Bet-El was maintained, as it follows from one of the signs that Shmuel gave to Shaul on the day that he was crowned as king:


And there you shall meet three men going up to God to Bet-El, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine. (I Shmuel 10:3)


            We see from here that in this period as well Bet-El preserved its unique position as a place towards which people go up to God, carrying animals, bread and wine.


            Following the break-up of the monarchy, Yerovam, who ruled over the kingdom of Israel from Shekhem, decided to separate the seat of his rule from the site of religious ritual,[6] setting up two golden calves, one in Dan and the other in Bet-El (I Melakhim 12:29). Setting up the calves in Dan and in Bet-El was undoubtedly connected to the fact that they were border cities: Yerovam established central ritual sites on the borders of his kingdom, sort of border Temples – the northern one in Dan and the southern one in Bet-El.[7] But it is not by chance that it was precisely these two cities that were chosen. Yerovam, as it were, proposed a ritual alternative to Jerusalem in the form of Bet-El, the Temple of the patriarchs, which had been endowed with sanctity from ancient times.[8] Against the backdrop of its sanctity during the days of the patriarchs, Bet-El became a significant ritual site during the period of the divided monarchy, just as what happened during the period of the Shoftim. Various prophets related to this ritual worship, especially Amos and Hoshea – who viewed it as outright idol worship and as treachery against the covenant between God and Israel (see, for example: Hoshea 4:15; 5:8; 8:5; 10:5-15; 13:2).


            In this context, the Malbim offers an interesting explanation of the prophet's words: "He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he strove with God: and he strove with an angel, and prevailed: he wept and made supplication to him: He would find him in Bet-El, and there He would speak with us" (Hoshea 12:4-5). The Malbim suggests that Yerovam chose Bet-El because the angel who represented Esav and admitted in Bet-El to Yaakov's right to his father's blessing, is still there, serving as an intermediary for bestowing blessing even now:


The prophet informed us thereby of ancient mysteries, for we see that regarding King Yerovam it is written: "Then Yerovam built Shekhem in mount Efrayim, and dwelt there: and went out from there, and built Penu'el… Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold… And he set the one in Bet-El, and the other put he in Dan" (I Melakhim 12:25-29). Now, the fact that he put a calf in Dan is not surprising, for in Dan stood the idol of Mikha from days of old, and it was thought that the place had been sanctified for the worship of the calf. But why did he put the other one in Bet-El? As we already explained, the calf in Bet-El was the main one for him. Why did he choose precisely Bet-El? And why did he build these two cities, Shekhem and Penu'el?

All this may be understood in light of what I have written that the ten tribes traced themselves to the name of Yaakov and tried to copy him. And since Yerovam conspired to sanctify places that would be holy in the eyes of Israel like Jerusalem, he considered the ways of Yaakov, the father of the nation, who strove with the angel in Penu'el, as it is written: "And he called the name of the place Penu'el" (Bereishit 32:31), and from Penu'el he went to the city of Shekhem, and from Shekhem he went to Bet-El, and there he built an altar. He [= Yerovam], therefore, built Shekhem and Penu'el, because those places had sanctity; Penu'el, where [Yaakov] saw the angel for the first time, and Shekhem, where Yaakov dwelt after that [incident] and built there an altar. But [he set up the calf] in Bet-El because [there] God appeared to [Yaakov]. And the Midrash says[9] that when the angel asked Yaakov to release him and Yaakov wanted him to admit to his right to the blessing, the angel pleaded with him that he should release him now, because in Bet-El he would admit to his right to the blessing. This aggada is very old, and based on it Yerovam said that this angel was still in Bet-El, and there he would reveal himself to the prophets and worshippers of the calf. I have explained what they did, according to their understanding, in the same manner as Yaakov: 1) their quarrel with their brothers was like Yaakov's quarrel with Esav; 2) by his strength he strove with God, and he strove with an angel, and prevailed, as it is written: "For you have contended with God, and with men, and have prevailed" (ibid. v. 29). And then the angel wept and made supplication to Yaakov, and he promised him that he would find him in Bet-El, and there he would admit to his right to the blessings. On the basis of this Efrayim now said that he would speak with us there, that is to say, the angel is still there and he will speak with the children of Yaakov, who serve the calves in Bet-El. They said that this angel will inspire them with prophecy and he is the intermediary that will bestow his blessings upon them now as well.


            Bet-El's special status was preserved until the end of the first Temple period, and even with the conquest of Shomron by the kingdom of Ashur, and the settling of new residents in the area, one of the priests was sent to Bet-El to teach the new residents how to serve God (II Melakhim 17:28).


            We can summarize by saying that the establishment of Bet-El as a holy site for the patriarchs, and especially for Yaakov, left its mark on the character of the place for many generations.




Yaakov erected two pillars in Bet-El.[10] On his way to Charan it says:


And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bet-El: but the name of that city was called Luz at first. (Bereishit 28:18-19)


            And on his return from Charan it says:


And Yaakov set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Yaakov called the name of the place where God had spoken with him, Bet-El. (ibid. 35:14-15)


            In both instances the erection of the pillar follows God's talking to Yaakov and is followed by Yaakov's naming the place "Bet-El."


            Erecting pillars in particular circumstances (see note 10) is unique to Yaakov; the other two patriarchs did not set up any pillars whatsoever. We find later that Moshe set up twelve pillars at the foot of Mount Sinai (Shemot 24:4), but the Torah forbids this for future generations (Devarim 16:22):


Neither shall you set you up any pillar, which the Lord your God hates.


            As Rashi (ad loc.) explains (based on Sifrei Devarim, 146):


Which [the Lord your God] hates – An altar of stones and an altar of earth He has commanded you to make; this, however, He hates, because it was a religious ordinance among the Canaanites. And although it was pleasing to Him in the days of our ancestors, now He hates it because these [= the Canaanites] made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character.[11]


            The Seforno offers an interesting explanation of this prohibition (in his commentary to Devarim 16:21–17:1):


There are three things that are comely according to the senses, but have become despicable because of their spiritual defect… Second, a pillar. Even though it had been viewed with favor prior to the giving of the Torah, as it says, "And twelve pillars" (Shemot 24:4), and this is because it is as if the person stands at all times before the holy, in the manner of "I set the Lord before me always" (Tehilim 16:8), and they fell from this level at the affair of the [golden] calf, as it is stated there "For I will not go up in the midst of you" (Shemot 33:3).


            This understanding fits in with the connection arising from the verses between "And, behold, the Lord stood (nitzav) above it" and the revelation of the Divine word to Yaakov, on the one hand, and "and he set it up for a pillar (matzeva)" and calling the place Bet-El, the house of God, on the other.


            I wish now to clarify the essence of a pillar and the difference between it and an altar. The Ramban (Bereishit 28:18) defines the difference between them as follows:


Our Rabbis have explained (Avoda Zara 53b) the difference between "pillar" and "altar," the former being constructed of one stone and the latter of many. It also appears that the pillar was designed for the pouring out of oil and wine libations and not for burnt offerings and sacrifices, whereas an altar was meant for burnt offerings and peace offerings.


            In other words, the difference between a pillar and an altar is twofold: as for the structure, a pillar is made of a single stone, whereas an altar is made of many stones; as for the use, a pillar is set up for wine and oil libations, whereas an altar is erected for sacrifices.[12]


            I wish to follow in the footsteps of Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Bereishit, "Pillar and Altar," pp. 388-393), who explained the differences between a pillar and an altar in light of the words of Rav S.R. Hirsch and Rav Kook:


            Thus writes Rav Hirsch in his commentary to Bereishit 33:20:


The pillar being of one single natural stone, the work of God, fittingly represents a memorial of His kindnesses to man. It was therefore approved in the days of the patriarchs, since their primary role was to acknowledge their Maker and to publicize His name in the world as the author of nature and history.

The Torah had not yet been given, and man had not been called upon to devote his whole life, both social and individual to the fulfillment of the will of his Creator. The pillar was therefore an appropriate symbol of the benefits bestowed on man by God, along with the altar as a symbol of the sacrifice of man's personality and works to the will of God.

The pillar consequently served for the pouring out of libations which represent man's gratitude to His benefactor for all the bounty he had received whereas the altar served for sacrifices which express the devotion of all living things to God. But when the Torah was given the pillar not only receded from view, but disappeared completely and its role was absorbed by the altar. Praise and thanksgiving to the Lord for His miracles and bounty – the pillar – distinct from our devotion and sacrifice and the subjection of our whole lives to His will – the altar – was absolutely forbidden. God no longer desired that we should discern His imprint in His deeds to mankind, but in our deeds before Him. He no longer desired that we merely acknowledge Him as the presider in majesty over the heaven and earth alone, but rather as the ruler over the deeds of men.

Our lives were no longer to be conditioned exclusively by the impact of external events, but our existence, good and evil, all that befell us were to come forth from our deeds before Him in conformity with His command and wish.

This was the reason for the ban on the pillar. It was henceforth the altar that was designed for sacrifice and offering, oblation and libations, signifying: the deeds of man in fulfillment of the will of God as revealed in His Torah would turn the earth into a Mount of God and the fire which would burn on the altar is the Fire of the Law which illumines the earth.


            Rav Kook writes as follows (Iggerot ha-Ra'aya, III, 746, p. 10):


We see that a pillar was loved in the days of the patriarchs, but afterwards absolutely hated, without any temporary allowance. The substance of a pillar was explained by the Rambam in Hilkhot Avoda Zara, that it is a structure around which people gather around for worship. It is fitting to consider the distinction between a center around which people gather for worship which fell into disrepute and a structure in which people gather for service which remained in favor.

In Pesachim 88a, Chazal say: What is the meaning of the verse which states (Yeshayahu 2:3): "Many peoples shall go and say, Come you and let us go up to the mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Yaakov"? Not like Avraham who called it a mountain (Bereishit 22:14), and not like Yitzchak who called it a field (ibid. 24:63), but like Yaakov who called it a house.

That is to say: At first when Avraham began to call upon the name of God, his calling did not involve specific modes of worship and detailed commandments. He simply directed the hearts of mankind toward the Lord, God of the world, Creator of heaven and earth. Such a form [of worship] allows of no distinction between one people and another. All of mankind can assemble together to serve God, and this is the implication of a pillar: a central point of sanctity, around which all people without distinction gather for worship.

But such a general approach was purely a transitional stage. The supreme aim was the emergence in the world of the specific mode of worship followed by the chosen people, Israel, to which level not all mankind could equally attain. When Yaakov foresaw the specific mode of worship that was destined to emerge from his descendants, he said that "this stone which I have set as a pillar" will not be a center of generalized free worship, but "a house of God," a special place of worship bounded by walls into which only the worthy can enter. None of the peoples have as yet any concept of the values of this exclusive organized ritual, the minutiae of the Torah and its precepts which distinguish Israel in all their actions…

Though we have not been granted in our time the shining of the light, and the lifegiving power derived from above that informs the specific Torah-governed worship of Yaakov has not come into its own and which transcends the indeterminate "call upon the name of the Lord the everlasting God"; in time to come, when all mankind will see what all these rites and judgments, minutiae and fundamental laws have done for this wonderful people which has existed by miracles and flourished in its specific holiness even in the days of direct misfortune, attaining the great light when their righteousness and glory will be made manifest, all shall say: Henceforth we realize that the generalized approach to God, the concept of disembodied ("naked") faith which we thought would satisfy all the spiritual functions is not enough for us. But we need to scale the mountain of the Lord which summons to the sacred totality of faith and intimate knowledge of Him, in order to enter the inner sanctum – "the house of the everlasting God."


            That is to say: The difference between a pillar and an altar is that around a pillar all peoples can gather, without distinction and without specific restrictions and commandments, whereas at an altar there are precise restrictions – the Torah's laws and commandments – similar to a house that has walls and fences that distinguish between those inside and those outside: between Israel and the nations. After the giving of the Torah, the concept of disembodied faith is no longer enough, and in order to enter the house of God, it is necessary to define man's obligations toward God and his relationship with Him with precise commandments. It is interesting that at the transitional point between pillar and altar – the giving of the Torah – Moshe erected at the foot of Mount Sinai both an altar and twelve pillars (Shemot 24:4).[13]


            As stated above, the two pillars set up by Yaakov, both on the way to Charan and on the way back, were set up in the wake of a revelation to him and as a response to it, and in great measure they symbolize the intimate and meaningful revelation of the Shekhina: its standing before Yaakov, and not only appearing to him. This is why a pillar is made of a natural stone. The last pillar set up in a permitted manner – the pillar set up by Moshe at the foot of Mount Sinai – represents the Divine revelation on Mount Sinai before all of the tribes of Israel.


            This is also the first instance in the Torah of a libation, which in this context served as an act of consecration of the stone.[14] Nothing is changed in the stone itself; the act of libation involves pouring a liquid and allowing it to fall down, as if to say: this is a tangible sign in the natural stone of its connection to God.


            If indeed this is the purpose of a pillar – to symbolize Divine revelation and the resting of the Shekhina – it is clear why it became forbidden for later generations. The altar gives expression, from ancient times, to the place where man serves God. The pillar, in contrast, represents the revelation of God – something that in the future will find expression through the entire Mikdash. Mount Sinai was the transition from the twelve pillars set up by Moshe and the Mishkan, which replaced the pillar and thus forbade it for later generations. From that time on, the Mishkan would serve as the site for the resting of the Shekhina, and the altar remained the sole site of worship.


            In light of this, we can also understand why Yaakov called the place of the pillar "the house of God," for a house of God would one day replace the pillar. It was precisely Yaakov, who set up pillars, who called the place "house." Thus far the patriarchs had built altars, which served as signs of gratitude for God's actions; Yaakov was the first to set up also a pillar, which represented Divine revelation and standing.


To be continued.

[1] I dealt at length with Bet-El's location on the way to Jerusalem in my lectures on biblical Jerusalem, 5765, lectures 1-3. Here I have briefly summarized what is relevant to the present discussion – Bet El as "Temple of the patriarchs."

[2] Regarding Avraham, mention is always made of the stop "between Bet-El and the Ai," but regarding Yaakov only Bet-El is mentioned. After the period of Yehoshua, Ai loses all of its significance, leaving only Bet-El for future generations.

[3] It is not by chance that following the revelation at the Akeida, neither Avraham nor Yitzchak returned to Mount Moriya. According to the plain meaning of Scripture Yaakov and his sons also did not go there. The revelation at Mount Moriya, in the sense of "the deeds of the fathers are an omen for the children," was merely an allusion for later generations. The Akeida was a one-time event that transpired between Avraham, Yitzchak and God; there were no additional witnesses to the event, and the site will only become revealed anew to all of Israel in the days of David, in the revelation at the threshing floor of Aravna the Yevusi.

[4] Resh Lakish learned from this verse that "the patriarchs are the chariot," that is to say, the patriarchs serve as the foundation for God's revelation to the entire world (Bereishit Rabba 47, 6).

[5] Chazal identified this revelation with Mount Moriya (see, for example, Pesachim 88a; Chulin 91b, and Rashi ad loc.; and elsewhere), even though according to the plain sense of Scripture, it took place in Bet-El. This understanding indicates the importance that they bestowed upon Bet-El as a Mikdash for all purposes, which served the patriarchs as a site of both revelation and worship. It is interesting to note that Yitzchak never goes to Bet-El. As I noted in the previous lecture, in many senses Yaakov retraces Avraham's path, whereas Yitzchak paves an independent course.

[6] Unlike David and Shlomo, who chose to unite the seat of their monarchy – Jerusalem – with the site of the resting of the Shekhina – Mount Moriya and the Temple.

[7] Of course, one of the main goals of setting up the calf in Bet-El was to prevent pilgrims from going up to Jerusalem.

[8] Dan too has significance that is connected to the patriarchs: this is the furthest point that Avraham reaches in his pursuit after the four kings (Bereishit 14:14).

[9] Cited by Rashi to Hoshea 14:5, s.v. va-yitchanen lo (and see Rashi, Bereishit 32:28): "When he said to him: 'I will not send you away, unless you bless me," the angel pleaded with him: Let me be now, in the end the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you in Bet-El, and there He will meet us and there He will speak unto us, and He and I will agree to the blessings with which Yitzchak blessed you. And that angel was the officer of Esav who laid claim to the blessings."

[10] I refer here only to those pillars that served as a site for the worship of God. In addition to these, Yaakov erected pillars to mark a grave (Bereishit 35:20) and to mark a boundary (ibid. 31:51-52).

[11] The Ramban to Bereishit 28:18: "And when they came to the land [of Israel], pillars were forbidden to them, because the Canaanites made them part of their rite more than altars. Even though it is written regarding them, "You shall smash their altars" (Shemot 34:13). Or else He did not want to forbid everything, so He left them with an altar which is fit for libations and for sacrifices."

[12] Mekhilta de-Rashbi (Shemot 24:4) alludes to a slight difference in their use: "'And he built an altar' – for service; 'and twelve pillars' – corresponding to the twelve tribes." This implies that only the altar was used for service, whereas a pillar was meant to represent Israel before God, and nothing more.

[13] The Chizkuni makes an interesting comment there (following the commentary of the Bekhor Shor): "As it is written: 'And you shall set bounds to the people round about' (Shemot 19:12) – three tribes to the east, three to the west, three to the north, and three to the south, as they were arranged in the wilderness around the Mishkan." The pillars resembled the Mishkan, and so once there was a Mishkan, there was no longer any need for pillars. See below.

[14] In a certain sense, this might be similar to the anointing of the vessels of the Mishkan and of the priests with the anointing oil (though here there is no anointing, but rather pouring).