The History of the Divine Service at Altars (V)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
 
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In memory of Abraham and Batsheva Leidner z”l
by Jesse and Brenda Hefter
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Following Moshe's building of the altar in Refidim, which we discussed in the previous shiur, the people of Israel continued on to Mount Sinai. At the end of Parashat Yitro, after the giving of the Torah on the mountain, the Torah issues commandments and establishes rules regarding the building of an altar of earth and stones,[1] after which it continues with Parashat Mishpatim.[2]
 
At the end of Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah states:
 
And Moshe came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. (Shemot 24:4)
 
            After writing the words of God, Moshe builds at the foot of the mountain an altar and twelve pillars. Subsequently, young men of the children of Israel are sent to offer sacrifices, and the covenant of the basins is made.
 
In this shiur, we will examine the building of the altar and the pillars at the foot of Mount Sinai. Is there significance to their location at the foot of the mountain? Is there a connection between the breaking of the tablets at the bottom of the mountain and the location of the altar? If so, what does this teach us about the sanctity of Mount Sinai?
 

The Breaking of the Tablets at the Site of the Altar

 
The midrash makes a very interesting comment regarding the building of the altar:
 
"And he shall offer it upon the altar" (Bamidbar 8:25) – These are the tablets that he broke at the foot of the mountain, as it is stated: "And he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 32:19) - in the place of the altar that Moshe built at the foot of the mountain to receive the Torah, as it is stated (Shemot 24:4): "And he built an altar at the foot of the mountain." (Bamidbar Rabba 48)
 
The midrash notes the interesting connection between the location of the altar and the site of the giving and receiving of the Torah, and more specifically between the location of the altar and the site of the breaking of the tablets. This correspondence is clearly based on the fact that in both places, the verse uses exactly the same formulation, "at the foot of the mountain." Regarding the altar, we read: "And he built an altar at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 24:4); regarding the breaking of the tablets, we read: "And he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 32:19).
 
One might have said that these verses note the general location in which these two events occurred. But it is possible, as the midrash suggests, that the breaking of the tablets occurred in precisely the same place as where the altar was built.
 
R. Kasher (Torah Sheleima, Shemot 24, letter 23) explains this connection. He writes that the twelve pillars signified the mutual responsibility that all the members of Israel accepted for each other. Moshe broke the tablets at the foot of the mountain at the site of the altar to emphasize the fact that he broke the tablets instead of giving them to those who did not sin because they were all punished owing to the mutual responsibility that they had accepted for one another.
 
Another midrash (cited in Yalkut Shimoni) states:
 
"Where is your beloved gone" (Shir Ha-Shirim 6:1) – On the day about which it is stated: "And he built an altar at the foot of the mountain." For Israel thought that Mount Sinai had permanent sanctity, but it only had temporary sanctity. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 991)
 
R. Kasher explains:
 
Perhaps we can say that the reason that Israel thought this is that they thought like the Sages that Moshe built 144 altars (that is, 12 times 12 tribes) so that a reminder of the sanctity of the place should remain for future generations. After the sin, Moshe broke the tablets at the foot of the mountain, at the site of the altar, to publicize the fact that the permanent sanctity was removed from the place.
 
According to R. Kasher, before the sin of the golden calf, the people of Israel thought that Mount Sinai was endowed with permanent sanctity. In the wake of the sin, however, it became clear that this was not the case, and the tablets were therefore broken specifically at that place.
 
In order to attain a broader understanding of R. Kasher's suggestion, let us examine the words of Chazal in the Mekhilta:
 
What did Moshe do on the fifth day? He rose up early in the morning and built an altar, as it is stated: "And he rose up early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain." He erected twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel; these are the word of R. Yitzchak. And the Sages said: Twelve pillars for each and every tribe. He built an altar and offered upon it a burnt-offering and peace-offerings. (Mekhilta Yitro, Torah Sheleima, Shemot 24, letter 20)
 
The Tanna’im disagree as to the number of pillars that were erected. According to R. Yitzchak, a total of twelve altars were built for the twelve tribes, a pillar for each tribe. According to the Sages, twelve pillars were built for each tribe, for a total of 144 pillars.
 
According to R. Kasher's explanation of the position of the Sages, the great number of pillars was meant to reflect the permanent sanctity of the place as a memorial for future generations. After the sin involving the golden calf, Moshe broke the tablets in precisely the same place where the altar and the pillars had been built. The purpose of breaking them in that precise location was to publicize the fact that the place had lost its permanent sanctity.
 
According to this understanding, it turns out that had it not been for the sin, Mount Sinai would have had permanent sanctity; it is only because of the sin that it does not have it. There is a correspondence between the sanctity of the place and the sanctity of the tablets. Whole tablets parallel permanent sanctity, whereas broken tablets correspond to temporary sanctity.
 

The Sanctity of Mount Sinai

 
This conclusion raises an interesting question regarding the sanctity of Mount Sinai. In its account of the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah says:
 
No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live. (Shemot 19:13)
 
Mekhilta De-Rashbi (ad loc.) states:
 
R. Yosi says: A man's place does not honor him, but rather the man honors his place. For as long as the Shekhina rested on Mount Sinai, whoever ascended to its top was liable for death. When the Shekhina was removed, ritually impure people and people with blemishes were permitted to go up there. As long as the Ohel Mo'ed was pitched, whoever entered into it was liable for death. When the Ohel Mo'ed was removed, ritually impure people and people with blemishes were permitted to enter.
 
The Mekhilta emphasizes that the sanctity of the mountain depended upon the revelation of the Shekhina upon it; when that ceased, the sanctity terminated. It seems that from the outset, the revelation of the Shekhina upon Mount Sinai was meant to be temporary, and thus the sanctity of the mountain was also meant to be temporary. How, then, can it be suggested that the permanent sanctity of the place was cancelled only as a result of the sin of the golden calf?
 
In a certain sense, this is the unique point of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The unique force of that event stemmed from the singular revelation. God revealed Himself to all of Israel amid lightning and a cloud over the mountain, in the course of which the people of Israel heard the first two commandments. R. Dessler is quoted as saying that this revelation was so sublime that it left no impression whatsoever on the material world.
 
This point becomes clearer when we compare the sanctity of Mount Sinai to the sanctity of Mount Moriya.[3] As opposed to the sanctity of Mount Sinai and the Mishkan, the sanctity of Mount Moriya is eternal and did not terminate with the destruction of the Temple. Mount Moriya was designated for the resting of the Shekhina since the creation of the world. Ever since it was revealed and the Temple was built there in the days of David and Shelomo, its sanctity has remained intact: "Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem stems from the Shekhina, and the Shekhina can never be nullified" (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 6:16).
 
This fundamental difference between temporary and permanent revelation reflects other differences between the two revelations as well:
 
1) The revelation at Sinai was a singularly sublime revelation, unique in human history, leaving no impression whatsoever in the material world. The revelation at Mount Moriya was less sublime, but if left an impression in the world.
 
2) At Mount Sinai, the initiative, the divine appearance and its contents, came exclusively from God; the human participation in the event was hearing the word of God, accepting the Torah, and internalizing the revelation. In the Mishkan, and afterwards in the Mikdash, man's participation is demanded, both in the seeking out of the place ("There you shall seek Him, at His dwelling, and there shall you come"; Devarim 12:5) and in the building of the structure ("And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them"; Shemot 25:8).
 
3) Despite the similarity between the regions of sanctity on Mount Sinai and those in the Temple – the similarity between Moshe, who ascends to the top of the mountain, and the High Priest, who enters the Holy of Holies – there is a difference between the places with respect to the standing of the people of Israel. At Mount Sinai, the people of Israel are at the foot of the mountain, while on Mount Moriya, they are at the top of the mountain. Israel's standing at the foot of the Mount Sinai symbolizes their smallness after the exodus from Egypt, when they came to receive the Torah. In a certain sense, the revelation from above forces them to receive the Torah, as Chazal said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, suspended the mountain over Israel like a vault and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it will be well with you, but if not, there will you find your grave" (Avoda Zara 2b). On Mount Moriya, on the other hand, the people of Israel are on top of the mountain. This represents their status as full partners in the Temple service. This partnership was not possible at Mount Sinai; at that time, only Moshe could ascend the mountain.
 
4) The revelation at Mount Sinai was an act of personal communion between the people of Israel and God, in the course of which the people of Israel accepted Hashem as their God. Mount Moriya is different; all the nations will eventually flock to it and there accept upon themselves the kingdom of God, as the prophets prophesized, each in his own style (see Yeshaya 2; Mikha 4; Yoel 4; Zekharya 14).[4] Mount Sinai was the starting point; Mount Moriya is the climax. Through the destiny assigned to them at Sinai to be a kingdom of priests and a holy people, the people of Israel will eventually bring the entire world to recognize God's kingdom. At Mount Sinai, the people of Israel began their connection with God alone; on Mount Moriya, the place from which the world was created, the Temple was built, which in the end will serve the entire world.
 
This may be the reason that the more sublime revelation, which did not take hold in the material world, was temporary and one-time, and precisely the lower revelation took hold in this world and is eternal and enduring. God, as it were, restricted His revelation at Mount Moriya when He chose it at the beginning of creation in order to allow for the existence of the world and bring it to its perfected state. The revelation at Mount Sinai, on the other hand, was essentially a divine, one-time event, which was meant to begin the process of crystallizing the people of Israel around the Torah. There, the revelation was complete.
 
This is the foundation of establishing the place on Mount Moriya; there, the beginning and the end are bound together. The objective of existence, to bring redemption to the entire world, changed in the wake of the sins of Adam and later generations. God then chose Avraham to be the father of a nation that would serve God, and through them the entire world would return to His service. Mount Moriya expresses this connection between its primordial objective and its final goal; the entire world will return to God, accept His kingdom, and recognize that "Torah will issue forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem."
 
Thus, when we conduct a detailed comparison between the revelations at Mount Sinai and Mount Moriya, we see that the Sinaitic revelation was clearly superior to the revelation at Mount Moriya, but the sanctity of Sinai was temporary, as opposed to the eternal sanctity of Moriya. This is the basis of R. Kasher's explanation that the sanctity of Mount Sinai was originally supposed to be eternal, and it was only the sin of the golden calf that changed it to become temporary.
 
It is clear that the end result is that the sanctity of Mount Sinai was temporary. The question is whether this was the intention from the outset. The verse states explicitly: "When the horn sounds long, they shall come up to the mountain" (Shemot 19:13). In other words, once the divine revelation is over, the mountain will have no sanctity. But perhaps Mount Sinai was also supposed to have eternal sanctity, had the first set of tablets remained whole as they had been given; it was only in the wake of the sin of the golden calf and the breaking of the tablets at the site of the altar and the pillars at the foot of the mountain that the status of the mountain changed and its sanctity became temporary.
 
The Meshekh Chokhma presents an interesting understanding of the sanctity of the place:
 
The sanctity of Mount Sinai is absolute sanctity that is rooted in revelation, whereas the sanctity of Mount Moriya is rooted in national tradition.
 
He makes a similar comment in his commentary to Shemot 12:11:
 
It may be assumed that all the sanctified places are not founded on religion, but only on the nation and roots, like Mount Moriya, from where man was created and where Avraham offered Yitzchak, and it was also chosen by the prophet. But according to the religion, it only says: "The place that God will choose." Mount Sinai, however, is a place of religion; once the Shekhina was removed from it, the flocks and herds went up… Jerusalem and all of Eretz Yisrael and Mount Moriya are all founded on their relationship to our forefathers, the roots of faith, and the nation's connection to its roots… This is a deep matter, but this is not the place to expand upon it.
 
In his commentary to Shemot 32:19 he writes:
 
And Moshe shouted about this at the top of his voice: Do you imagine that I am something and a certain sanctity apart from God's commandments, to the point that in my absence you made yourselves a calf? God forbid! I too am a man like you, and the Torah does not depend upon me, and even had I not come the Torah would exist without any change. And the proof: That during the thirty eight years that they were rebuked in the wilderness, God did not speak to Moshe (Yerushalmi Ta'anit 3:4). Do not imagine that the Mikdash and the Mishkan have intrinsic sanctity. God forbid! God, blessed be He, rests among His sons, but if "they like Adam have transgressed the covenant" (Hoshea 6:7), all their sanctity is removed from them, and they are like mundane vessels, the villains came and defiled them, and Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a prostitute and was not harmed (Gittin 56b), for its sanctity had been removed. Moreover, the tablets – "the writing of God" – are also not intrinsically sanctified, but only for you. When a bride strays in her bridal canopy… they have no intrinsic sanctity, but only for your sake when you observe them. In conclusion: There is nothing sanctified in the world to which is assigned service and submission. Only God, may His name be blessed, is sanctified because of His necessary existence, and to Him is fitting praise and service. And all the sanctified things are because of the command given by God to build a Mishkan to offer in it sacrifices to God alone. And the keruvim, God forbid, have no service or thought or matter. It is like a sea captain who wishes to know which way the wind is blowing sets up a banner. So too the Creator, blessed be He, made signs and markers to demonstrate whether Israel is doing God's will when "their faces will look one to another" (Shemot 25:20) (see Bava Batra 99a). Therefore, "there was nothing in the ark but the tablets" (Melakhim I 8:9) and the Torah scroll. But the keruvim were outside on the kaporet, not in the ark…
 
Similarly, in his commentary to Shemot 19:13 (s.v. bimshokh ha-yovel), the Meshekh Chokhma writes:
 
The truth is that the whole essence of the religion is to uproot idolatrous affairs from the hearts of the people of Israel and to show them that they did not see any picture… For there is no sanctity in any created being, but only in the Creator, blessed be He. Do not imagine that the mountain was sanctified and for that reason God revealed Himself upon it; this is not true of the children of Israel, for "When the horn sounds long, they shall come up to the mountain," and it is a habitation for animals. Only as long as the Shekhina was upon it was it sanctified by reason of the sanctity of the Creator, blessed be His name. Therefore, it says (Taanit 21): A man's place does not honor him, but rather the man honors his place. This is a venerable idea. Therefore, in the Temple, where the sanctity is eternal, do not imagine that there is sanctity in the building itself. Therefore, all the ritually impure people, even those impure through contact with a corpse, are permitted to touch it from the outside.
 
In other words, God alone is sanctified, and it is not correct to attribute sanctity to any objects, as it is only by the Creator's command that they are endowed with sanctity. The sanctity of Mount Sinai is based on revelation and a religious determination from above. Therefore, from the moment that the revelation terminated, the sanctity terminated. In contrast, the sanctity of Jerusalem and Mount Moriya is based on the roots of the nation and our relationship to our forefathers, and it received divine confirmation.[5]
 
According to the Meshekh Chokhma, the Torah's assertion that when the horn sounds the people shall come up to the mountain is a matter of fundamental principle. It is the Torah's intention to uproot idolatry from the hearts of the people of Israel, and therefore there is no sanctity whatsoever to Mount Sinai itself, but only when the Shekhina is revealed upon it. The mountain's sanctity stems directly from the sanctity of God Himself. He further explains why even in the Temple, whose sanctity is eternal, there is no sanctity in the building itself.
 
By considering the relationship between the breaking of the tablets and the altar and pillars that were built at the foot of the mountain, we have attempted to understand whether the sanctity of the Mount Sinai was originally intended to be permanent sanctity or whether already from the outset it was meant to be temporary. We saw two opinions on the matter. According to the first, expressed by R. Kasher, the sanctity of Mount Sinai was meant to be permanent, but in the wake of the breaking of the tablets, the sanctity of the mountain became temporary. According to the second view, from the very outset the sanctity of Mount Sinai was meant to be temporary. Based on this second approach, the Meshekh Chokhma reaches a fundamental conclusion regarding sanctity of place in general.
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 

[1] We dealt with this issue at length earlier this year.
[2] We will not deal here with the question of the order of the parshiot.
[3] We devoted a shiur to  the relationship between Mount Sinai and Mount Moriya:
[4] This point was noted by Hillel Ben Shammai, "Be-Sod Sinai Vi-Yerushalayim," in Yerushalayim – Pirkei Hagut U-Masa (Department of Education), pp. 42-43.
[5] This explanation resembles the points raised above. We cite it here because of its special formulation, and because it raises a broader issue (which we will not deal with here): What is the source of the sanctity of places in general?