Shiur #19b: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina(Part IX) - The Service of Yaakov - Part 2

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion



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

(Part IX)

The Service of Yaakov - Part 2


Rav Yitzchak Levi







And Yaakov came safely to the city of Shekhem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan-Aram; and pitched his tent before the city. And he bought the piece of land on which he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Chamor, Shekhem's father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it El-Elohei-Israel. (Bereishit 33:18-20)


            The expression "and he erected [va-yatzev] an altar" (as opposed to "and he built [va-yiven] an altar") is unique to Yaakov, and brings to mind the setting up of a pillar [matzeva]. The Radak (ad loc.) comments:


The fact that it says, "he erected," and not "he built," indicates that it was only one stone; he set it up and offered a sacrifice on it.


            Here too following the erection of the altar we find a naming – El-Elohei-Israel. The commentators disagree whether this name was given to the altar or to God. As for the substance of the naming, the Radak writes as follows:


He gave this name to the altar so that it should serve as a reminder that God had saved him on his journey, sent him an angel, and changed his name to Israel, that is to say, that he strove with God. This explains why the altar has this name. And similarly, Moshe our Master called the altar that he had built "the Lord is my miracle" (Shemot 17:15), to remember the miracle that God had performed for them…


            Regarding this altar as well – like most of the altars built by the patriarchs (see lecture no. 14) – there is no explicit mention of it being used for the offering of sacrifices.


2)         THE ALTAR IN BET-EL


And God said to Yaakov, Arise, go up to Bet-El, and dwell there: and make there an altar to God, who appeared to you when you did flee from the face of Esav your brother. Then Yaakov said to his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and make yourselves clean, and change your garments: and let us arise, and go up to Bet-El; and I will make there an altar to God, who answers me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way on which I went… So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bet-El, he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Bet-El: because there God appeared to him, when he fled from the face of his brother. (Bereishit 35:1-7)


            This is the first time that anybody was commanded to build an altar. According to the simple understanding, the altar was built as a sign of thanksgiving for God's appearance to Yaakov when he fled from Esav, and in fulfillment of the vow that Yaakov had taken at that time. As the Seforno explains: "'And build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled' – to give thanks for having fulfilled the promise made there. As they say (Berakhot 54a): He recites the benediction, 'Who performed a miracle on my behalf in this place.'"


            Midrash Lekach Tov (cited here from Torah Sheleima to Bereishit 35:7, letter 32) says that the altar was built precisely in the place where the stone had been placed:


"And he built there an altar." He renewed the stone that had been put under his head, about which it is written: "And this stone, which I have set for a pillar." When "shall [it] be God's house"? When he comes from Padan-Aram, as it says: "And he built there an altar."


            Rav Hirsch explains (consistent with his whole approach) that the building of an altar in a place where there was a pillar means building a house of God in the place of a revelation and the building of an altar alongside it. Thus Yaakov, on his return from Charan and in fulfillment of his vow, combines the two elements: a pillar and an altar.


            Here too in the wake of the building of the altar we find a naming of the place. And here too there is no mention of sacrifices.




Yaakov is the first of the patriarchs about whom the Torah says that he slaughtered zevachim.[1] We find two instances of zevachim.




Yaakov's first zevach was at Mount Gil'ad, when he returned from his first period of exile, following his confrontation with Lavan:


Then Yaakov offered a zevach upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread: and they did eat bread, and tarried all night on the mountain. (Bereishit 31:54)


            The commentators explain that we are dealing here with the slaughter of a non-consecrated animal (see Rashi and Radak). The Meshekh Chokhma writes that thus far the Torah had made no mention of slaughtering an animal: "Yaakov slaughtered and introduced the mitzva of slaughter."




Yaakov's second zevach was in Be'er-Sheva, before he went down into the exile of Egypt:


And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Be'er-Sheva, and offered zevachim to the God of his father Yitzchak. (Bereishit 46:1)


            Here the zevachim are peace offerings (see Shemot 24:5), Yaakov being the first to offer peace offerings to God.


            Even though this is not explicitly stated in Scripture, it is possible that this was in the same place that Yitzchak built his altar in Be'er-Sheva, and this indeed is what the Rashbam says: "To the God of his father Yitzchak – for Yitzchak had built an altar in Be'er-Sheva when the Holy One, blessed be He, appeared to him, as it is written in Parashat Toledot, and he [= Yaakov] too offered sacrifices there as did his father." (So too the Chizkuni.)


According to the Radak, the words "to the God of his father Yitzchak" allude to the goal of the sacrifice – receiving the prophetic spirit, in order to know whether God will allow him to go down to Egypt, or perhaps He will forbid this to him as He had forbidden it to his father Yitzchak:


He offered sacrifices in Be'er-Sheva which lies on the border of Eretz Cana'an.[2] Before he left the land, he wanted to know God's will whether or not He would prevent him as He had prevented his father Yitzchak, and he offered sacrifices in order to bring the prophetic spirit upon himself.


            The Ramban (in the wake of Bereishit Rabba 94, 5) explains the purpose of the sacrifice in a different manner:


For when Yaakov came to go down to Egypt, he saw that the exile would start with him and his seed. He feared it, and offered many sacrifices to the object of his father Yitzchak's fear so that the attribute of justice not be stretched out against him. And he did this in Be'er-Sheva which served as a house of prayer for his ancestors, and there he received permission when he went to Charan. Scripture mentions "zevachim," to tell us that they were not burnt offerings like those of his ancestors, for Avraham offered burnt offerings. And our Rabbis said (Zevachim 115a): The descendants of Noach did not offer peace offerings; they offered burnt offerings. Regarding Noach it is stated explicitly: "And he brought burnt offerings on the altar" (Bereishit 8:20). But Yaakov, owing to his fear of God, offered peace offerings in order to make peace with all the attributes. As they expounded (Torat Kohanim Dibbura di-Nedava, parasha 13, chapter 16): Shelamim – which bring peace into the world.


That is to say, the purpose of the offerings was to allay the attribute of justice, and therefore he offered zevachim, peace offerings, rather than olot, burnt offerings.[3]


Rav Hirsch understands Yaakov's sacrifices differently:


We do not find again that our ancestors offered zevachim. They, like all Noachides only offered olot (burnt offerings). An ola expresses giving oneself up completely to God. Zevach in itself is a family meal to be eaten by the owners, and consecrates the "family-house" and the family table to a Temple and altar.[4] For zevachim which as a rule are shelamim express the higher thought that "God comes to us." They are, accordingly, brought from that happy consciousness that where a family circle lives united and faithful to duty, and feels that God is caring for it, there God is present. That is why shelamim of family life blessed by God, are so specifically Jewish. The idea of being absorbed in God, devoted to God dawns in non-Jewish feelings also. But that one's ordinary day-by-day life can be so penetrated by the idea of God that one "eats and drinks and sees God thereat," that all our ordinary living rooms become a Temple, our dining-table an altar, our sons and daughters priests and priestesses, that through and through spiritualizing of our ordinary private lives, that is a gift of Judaism. The reason that Yaakov-Israel brought, not olot but zevachim lay in the fact that now for the first time Yaakov felt himself happy and joyful and "complete" in his family circle. It was in this consciousness and feelings that he brought his offering with deep significance, not to God in general, but to the God of his father Yitzchak.


            Shelamim denote wholeness, and now Yaakov is going down to Egypt knowing that his family is whole. The owners participating in the eating of the meat of the shelamim offerings – man eating from God's table – reveals the wholeness of reality, which allows a connection between mundane life and holiness. Yaakov is he whose bed is whole, he from whom the entire people of Israel descends and is called by his name, he who called the place of the Mikdash a house – in short, Yaakov represents a fixed and whole reality – and therefore he sacrifices shelamim.




And Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of the verse: "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" (Yeshayahu 2:3) – the God of Yaakov, but not the God of Avraham and Yitzchak? Rather, not like Avraham who called it a mountain, as it is stated: "As it is said to this day, In the mount the Lord will appear" (Bereishit 22:14). And not like Yitzchak who called it a field, as it is stated: "And Yitzchak went out in the field" (ibid. 24:63). But rather like Yaakov who called it a house, as it is stated: "And he called the name of that place Bet-El (the house of God) (ibid. 28:19). (Pesachim 88a)


            Rabbi Elazar describes three different attitudes toward the Mikdash, that correspond to the nature and essence of each of the patriarchs: a mountain – a high place that one must climb up; a field – found on a mountain and which one takes hold and control of; and a house – a defined structure on the mountain or in the field.


            Avraham expresses the idea of climbing a mountain – going up to Eretz Israel from the land of the Kasdim; going up to Mount Moriya; and dealing with challenges and missions. Yitzchak (who repeats the actions of Avraham) expresses the idea of preserving what already exists and fiercely holding on to it. Yaakov expresses the idea of the wholeness of a house.


            The various designations used by the patriarchs for the place of the Mikdash also reflect their various points of encounter with God. Avraham, whose most prominent quality is lovingkindness (chesed), sees this encounter in the form of a mountain – his entire life he rises from one test to the next, and strives to lift himself up to God and become close to Him; Avraham is the first to pray – the first person to stand before God. Yitzchak, who is characterized by the quality of might (gevura), meets God in the field – in the world of nature. Yaakov, who is marked by majesty (tiferet), anoints a pillar and establishes at the site a house: Bet-El, the house of God.


            The Acharonim explain Rabbi Elazar's statement in different ways. The Maharal (Derekh Chayyim 5:4) writes that each of the three Temples stands by virtue of one of the patriarchs. And therefore:


Avraham called it a mountain, which indicates destruction, because the first Temple would eventually be destroyed. And similarly Yitzchak called it a field, which denotes destruction. But Yaakov called it house, indicating continuous settlement, namely the third Temple.


            The Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot, Pesachim 86b) offers a similar explanation:


Mountain… symbolizes the first Temple that the Shekhina watched over like a guard on the top of a mountain, though it was a temporary, rather than a fixed watch. About this it says: "Because of the mountain of Zion which is desolate" (Eikha 5:18)… Field… marks the second Temple which was watched over very little, for it lacked several things that were in the first Temple, and about it the verse says: "Zion shall be plowed like a field" (Yirmiyahu 26:18; Mikha 3:12)… A palace… marks the last Temple that will be built speedily in our days, which will be watched over in a superior manner and will be lived in like a palace, for then people will go "to the house of the God of Yaakov" (Yeshayahu 2:3).


            And the Netziv (Ha'amek Davar, Bereishit 12:17, s.v. eishet Avraham) explains:


Avraham our father called the Temple Mount, the site of God's providence, a mountain… because Avraham our father saw from there providence in war, and therefore likened it to a mountain which can lead to victory, as it is written (Devarim 33:19). And Yaakov saw from there an abundance of maintenance, and therefore called it a field. And Yaakov called it a house because it leads to peace between those who live there together.


            The author of Kiryat Sefer has an interesting suggestion (Hilkhot Bet Ha-bechira, chap. 5):


It seems that the sanctity of the Temple Mount was conferred by Avraham our father who called it a mountain. And the sanctity of the Temple courtyard was conferred by Yitzchak our father who called it a field… The Temple courtyard is like a field because it is not covered. And the sanctity of the Temple itself was conferred by Yaakov our father who called it a house.





In the last few lectures I have examined the patriarchs' worship of God as it expressed itself in the building of altars, erection of pillars, and offering of sacrifices.


We saw that according to the plain sense of Scripture, the altars were not used for sacrifices, but rather as an expression of gratitude for the connection with God and as testimony to God's deliverance, providence, appearance, and assistance. They were similar to the altar built by the tribes of Reuven and Gad and half the tribe of Menashe when they returned to the east bank of the Jordan (Yehoshua 22). The primary purpose of this testimony (as is explicitly stated in several verses relating to Avraham and Yitzchak) was calling upon the name of God, that is, publicizing His name in the world and encouraging conversion. The patriarchs also used the altars for prayer on their own behalf and for the future. The places where the altars were built also have symbolic meaning, both with respect to the essence of those places, and with respect to their use in the future over the course of the history of the Jewish people, in the sense of "the deeds of the fathers are an omen for the children."


Besides the offering of the ram as a burnt offering at the Akeida in place of Yitzchak, the only sacrifices mentioned are those of Yaakov, who brought zevachim - shelamim.


Yaakov was unique in his setting up of pillars, which were viewed with favor during the period of the patriarchs and which complemented the altars – another aspect of the wholeness expressed in the figure of this patriarch. The last instance of a pillar set up in a permitted manner was at the foot of Mount Sinai, at which time it became forbidden and was thereafter despised owing to its deep connection to idol worship.




            This lecture concludes the discussion of the worship of God in the book of Bereishit. In the next lecture, we will consider the revelation and worship of God from the time of His revelation at Mount Sinai until the building of the Mishkan.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Regarding Avraham at the Akeida it says that he offered up (va-ya'alehu) a ram (Bereishit 22:13).

[2] Be'er-Sheva is the southern gateway into Eretz Israel.

[3] It is interesting that immediately following the offering of the zevachim, God appears to Yaakov in a night vision in the name of Elohim (Bereishit 46:2), that is, with the attribute of justice.

As an aside, it should be noted that we find here another phenomenon that is unique to Yaakov: a revelation that comes in the wake of Divine service (the offering of a zevach) – and not in the usual order that we find with the patriarchs, that the revelation comes first, and the service (building an altar, calling upon the name of God, or offering a sacrifice) comes in its wake. This touches upon the question regarding the relationship between human action and Divine revelation, and it is possible that this point – human action – is also characteristic of Yaakov.

[4] According to this explanation, we can connect to this also the offering brought at Mount Gil'ad.