• Rav Yitzchak Levy



            In this shiur, we will continue our examination of the various names of the outer altar, focusing on the significance of the designation "altar of earth."


            We saw in the previous shiur that some of the commentators identify the altar that appears as part of the structure of the Mishkan (Shemot 27) with the altar of earth about which Moshe was commanded immediately following the giving of the Torah. We briefly dealt with the question that arises from this conclusion: Why was it necessary for the Torah to issue a separate command regarding the building of the altar?


            In this shiur, we will discuss various explanations of the Torah's emphasis that the altar should be constructed specifically of earth.


1. The Torah from Heaven is Completed with Sacrificial Service on an Altar of Earth – Elevating the Earth to God


            The Torah's account of the giving of the Torah is immediately followed by the command to build an altar of earth:


And the Lord said to Moshe, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven. You shall not make with me gods of silver; neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make to Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings, and your peace-offerings, your sheep, and your oxen. In all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you. (Shemot 20:19-21)


            The altar is presented here as standing in opposition to the gods of silver and gods of gold.[1] Moreover, we see here a contrast between the word of God, which issues from heaven, and human activity, which involves the earth. During the great Divine revelation at Sinai, the people of Israel saw the sublime Divine revelation, but what is expected of man in order to complete the creation is to elevate the physical world to the Creator. It is specifically through an altar of earth that man is expected to complete God's work and the perfection of the world from below. Accordingly, man is commanded to build an altar of earth that will raise him up to God.


This explanation corresponds well with R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's essential understanding of the altar, as he expresses it in connection with the altar built by Noach when he emerged from the ark:


When Noach built an altar to God on the earth once again presented to mankind and brought burnt-offerings thereon, he thereby dedicated the earth to be a place on which mankind striving upwards to God. Mankind would add stone to stone until they formed the whole world into a mount of God, on which, devoting all their energy and strength, they would strive in constant progress, to the height of their God-serving vocation in life. (Bereishit 8:20)


The significance of building an altar is raising the earth toward heaven by way of human action. In the context of Noach, this was sort of a rededication of the earth to God after the flood.


This understanding is expressed explicitly in R. Hirsch's commentary to our passage:


You shall not make images, you shall not form the likeness of the sun or moon or anything that is with Me – but I do allow you to form for yourselves things that are with you. What you are to do is not to bring heavenly things down to you on earth, but to elevate all earthly things up to Me. When you wish to come to Me, you have not to represent to yourselves with things that you imagine are with Me in heaven, but rather to ponder on how I wish things to be carried on by you on earth. It is the earth, not heaven, that concerns you, if and when you wish to come near to Me. The altar that you build up to Me should represent the earth raised up to God by men's deeds, men's actions…

Hence, it is not heaven, but the earth, raised up towards God, which is to be in our minds when we wish to step near to God. It is on it, an altar of earth, that we must dedicate through burnt–offerings our active life, and through peace-offerings our enjoyment, our passive life, to the endeavor to get nearer to God, whether we feel our position in life to be the most modest one of sheep or in the consciousness of the most free independence as oxen. (Shemot 20:21)


According to R. Hirsch, the Torah emphasizes that man must build an altar of earth to teach us that man's priority should be the earth and not heaven. Our role in this world is to elevate the earth toward heaven. In essence, this means that a person must dedicate his life to the constant elevation toward God. The altar symbolically expresses this idea. The Torah's emphasis on the fact that the altar is made of earth teaches that man, as it were, builds another story from the earth upward, and in that way he raises himself and the world toward God.


It may be possible to ground this explanation in the view of R. Yishmael in the Mekhilta:


An altar that is connected to the earth you shall make to Me; you shall not build it upon arches or upon columns. (Massekhta De-Bachodesh Yitro 11).


Connection to the ground is essential if the altar is to achieve atonement. The direct connection to the ground turns the altar into a direct extension of that ground.[2]


2. To Repair the Earth by Man, Who was Created From the Earth


Why does the Torah emphasize that the altar is an altar of earth in the very first commandment given to Moshe after the Ten Commandments? A midrash explains as follows:


"An altar of earth you shall make to Me." Why of earth? Since man was created from the earth, and he is called Adam because he was taken from the earth (adama), he must offer burnt-offerings and other offerings on an altar made from the earth in order to atone for his body that was taken from the earth. (Tanchuma 96:14)


The role of the altar is to atone for man's sins. Man's sins are related, among other things, to the materials from which he was made – first and foremost, to the earth. It is not by chance that man is called "Adam," as his physical component is the earth. The same material that can bring a person to sin can serve as the foundation of his atonement; the altar is made ​​from the earth and it has the capacity to atone for man's body, which is taken from the earth. The relationship between the material of which man was created and the material of which the altar was made forms a close connection between them and explains man's ability to achieve atonement by way of the altar.


This relationship between man and the earth emerges from other sources relating to the significance of the verse: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth" (Bereishit 2:7):


"Of the earth" – R. Berachya and R. Chelbo said in the name of R. Shemuel bar Nachman: He was created from the place of his atonement. This is what it says: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me." The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I shall create him from the place of his atonement; O that he should endure! (Bereishit Rabba 14:8)


Similarly, the Yerushalmi writes:


R. Yuda ben Pazi said: The Holy One, blessed be He, took one ladleful from the site of the altar and created the first man from it. He said: O that he should be created from the site of the altar and that he should endure! This is what is written: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth." And it is written: "An altar of earth shall you make to Me." Just as "earth" stated below refers to the altar, so too here it refers to the altar. (Nazir 7:2)


Parallel to the world, which was created from the foundation stone (even ha-shetiya)in the Holy of Holies, man was created from the site of the altar.[3] What this means is that man, with all his material weaknesses, was created from the site of the "altar of earth," through which he can repair his "earthy" component and atone for his wrongdoings. This gives man hope. Despite all his weaknesses, he knows that it is in his power to repair himself and achieve atonement, and thus to endure for the future.


A second aspect of the fact that man was created from the site of the altar is that man was created from a place of purity and sanctity (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 12). In other words, at the outset, man was perfect – without blemish and without impurity.


In contrast to the view cited above, according to which man was created from the site of the altar, Rashi brings an opposing position (based on Tanchuma Pekudei 3):


He gathered his dust from the entire earth – From its four corners, in order that wherever he might die, it should receive him for burial. (Bereishit 2:7)


The Zohar[4]and the Targum Yerushalmi cite both positions. The Keli Yakar reconciles them as follows:


Even according to the one who says that God gathered his dust from the entire earth, this is what it means: Since the foundation stone is found at the place about which it is stated: "An altar of earth shall you make to Me," and from there the world was founded, and earth taken from there is from the center of the world – it is as if He gathered his dust from the entire world. (Keli Yakar, Bereishit 3:23)


In other words, the point of origin is connected to and expresses the far edges of the world.


It is interesting that Chazal expounded the words "of the earth" as teaching that man was created from the site of the altar – that is, from east of the site of the structure of the Temple. In the Torah’s description of the creation of man, we read:


"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden; and there he put the man whom He had formed. (Bereishit 2:7-8)


Man was not created in the Garden of Eden, but was rather brought there from the site of his creation, which was apparently close by (see Radak and the Chizkuni, ad loc.).[5] This is also implied by the Torah’s description of Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden:


Therefore, the Lord God sent him out of the Garden of Eden, to till the earth from whence he was taken. (Bereishit 3:23)


The course of events is described in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer as follows:


God especially cherished the first man, whom He created from a pure and holy place. From which place did He take him? From the site of the Mikdash. And he brought him into His palace, as it is stated: "And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to till it and to keep it." (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 12)


"So He drove out the man" (Bereishit 3:24) – He was driven out and made to leave the Garden of Eden, and he settled on Mount Moriya, for the gate of the Garden of Eden is adjacent to Mount Moriya. From there He took him, and there He returned him, as it is stated: "To till the earth from whence he was taken." (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 20)[6]


What emerges from all this is that the man was created from the site of the altar on Mount Moriya, then taken from there to the Garden of Eden (which was adjacent to Mount Moriya). After he sinned, he was driven out and returned to Mount Moriya, the place from which he had been created, to till the earth from which he had been taken.


This account accords with the midrash’s statement that "man was created from the place of his atonement." The man was returned to the site of the altar; from there he was created, and there he must repair his sin. It turns out that the site of creation is also the site of repair. Man was created from the place that has the potential for self-repair.[7] As the Keli Yakar writes:


The Holy One, blessed be he, created Him from the place of his atonement… This is Mount Moriya, to where he was sent by God to till the earth and build from it an altar of earth, so that he may offer a sacrifice upon it to achieve atonement. And since he was taken from that earth, and it is a gate through which he passed, since the earth gave him dense and crude matter on account of which he fell in sin… Therefore, in the place that caused his sin, there he shall achieve atonement, for that place, that is, that very earth, caused him to sin, and therefore the earth must help him achieve atonement, by tilling it and making from it an altar to offer upon it… (Bereishit 3:23)


To complete our understanding of this issue, let us consider the Ramban's comments about what God said when He created man:


"And God said, Let us make man" – God issued a separate utterance when He fashioned man, owing to his lofty standing, as his nature is unlike that of the beasts and animals that were created with the previous utterance. The correct understanding of the words, "Let us make," is as was already demonstrated (above, v. 1) that God created something out of nothing only on the first day, and afterward from those created elements he fashioned and made [other things]. And just as He gave the water the power to swarm abundantly with moving creatures that have life, and the utterance regarding them was "Let the waters swarm abundantly" (v. 20), and the utterance regarding cattle was "Let the earth bring forth" (v. 24), so He said with regard to man, "Let us make," that is to say, I and the aforementioned earth shall make man, that the earth shall bring forth the body from its elements, as it did with the cattle and beasts, as it is written: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground" (2:7); and He (may He be blessed) shall bring forth the spirit from on high, as it is written: "And He breathed into His nostrils the breath of life" (ibid.). And He said: "In our image, after our likeness," because [man] would be similar to both of them; in the form of his body [he would be similar] to the ground from which he was taken, and in his spirit he would be similar to the heavenly beings, as it is not a body and it does not die. And it says in the second verse: "In the image of God He created him" (v. 27), to tell of his uniqueness among the created beings. (Bereishit 1:26)


According to the Ramban, the result of man's having been made both by God and by the earth is that man is similar to both; in his body, he is similar to the earth from which he was taken, and in his spirit, he is similar to the heavenly beings, the image of God within him. The part which is dust from the earth originated at the site of the altar, and it achieves atonement at the altar of earth. The very earth that is a part of him, the source of his earthy component, allows him to atone for his sins.


In the next shiur,we will examine additional meanings of the Torah's command to build an altar specifically from earth, and we will also expand upon the relationship between the altar of earth and the altar of stones.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The Seforno addresses the spiritual significance of this contrast.

[2] This explanation is also connected to the fact that man was created from earth from the site of the altar, so that it is there that he achieves atonement.

[3] This corresondence is connected to the two objectives of the Mikdash – the resting of the Shekhina and man's service of God in His house. The Shekhina rests in the world from the site of the foundation stone, while man's service is from the site of the altar.

[4] Zohar, Bereishit 130a: "Come and see, when the Holy One, blessed be He, created man, He gathered his dust from the site of the Temple and constructed his body from the four corners of the earth."

[5] The Chizkuni adds: "But his initial creation was not there, for had he been created and placed there in the Garden of Eden, he would have thought that the whole world was like that. Rather, He created him outside, and he saw that the whole world was filled with thorns and thistles, and afterwards he brought him into the Garden of Eden, the choice location."

[6] See also the Targum attributed to Yonatan ben Uziel to Bereishit 2:7,15, and 3:23: "And He took dust from the site of the Temple and from the four corners of the world… And the Lord God took man from Mount Moriya, the place from which he was created, and put him in the Garden of Eden… And the Lord God drove him out from the Garden of Eden and he settled on Mount Moriya."

[7] R. Makover suggests another possibility in his book Oro shel Mikdash (Jerusalem, 2005), vol. 2, p. 15. Along the lines of Rashi's comment to the verse, "And He stationed at the east of the Garden of Eden" (Bereishit 3:24) – "Eastward of the garden and outside the garden" – R. Makover suggests that there is a total identity between the site of the Mikdash and the Garden of Eden. Man was driven out from there eastward, to the site of the altar, from which he was created and where he can achieve atonement. He concludes with the idea that this is what Chazal meant when they said that "the Shekhina is in the west" (Bava Batra 25a-b), and that we are found in the east and face the dark side of the world in order to illuminate it. This accords with the idea that the Shekhina is in the west and with the relationship between east and west in the Mikdash itself. We devoted several shiurim to these ideas.

However, I wish to note two points. First, despite the essential connection which undoubtedly exists between the Mikdash and the Garden of Eden, no early source identifies one with the other. Second, we must consider whether this understanding that in the wake of the sin, man was driven out from the Mikdash itself to the altar gives the altar and man's service in the Mikdash in general a bedi'eved standing in relation to the resting of the Shekhina in the Mikdash (we dealt with this issue in an earlier shiur).