LECTURE 174: THE NAMES OF THE OUTER ALTAR (III) – THE ALTAR OF EARTH (II)
In this shiur, we will discuss additional meanings of the Torah's command to build the outer altar specifically of earth.
4. In contrast to the making of gods of silver and gold
As we saw in the previous shiur, the Torah's account of the giving of the Torah is immediately followed by the command:
And the Lord said to Moshe: Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: You have seen that I have talked 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)
According to the simple explanation of the verses, making an altar of earth stands in clear opposition to making gods of silver and gold. Indeed, the Torah refers to the fashioning of both with the same verb – “la-asot.”Various commentators who aim for the plain meaning of the text interpret the verses in this manner. The Rashbam writes:
"An altar of earth you shall make to Me"– Since the nations [of the world] make their asherot next to their altars, as it is written regarding Givon: "And cut down the ashera that is by it" (Shoftim 6:25), and it is written: "Like the symbols of their sons are their altars and their asherot" (Yirmeyahu 17:2), and: "You shall not plant an ashera of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make you" (Devarim 16:21), therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Even if you make to Me an altar, you shall only make it of earth, as it is not usual [to decorate an earthen altar with] pictures and images, but rather smooth work. (Shemot 20:20-21)
Shadal follows a similar approach, but is extreme in his reading of the verse, and we therefore cannot accept his position. We will cite his view because he sharpens the contrast between the making of gold and silver gods and the making of an altar:
"You shall not make with Me" – According to the [traditional] vocalization, this means: You shall not make anything to partner with me. But this does not accord at all with what precedes it or with what follows it. It seems to me that we should read as follows: You shall not make Me [oti, rather than iti]. That is, you shall not make My image; you shall not portray Me in any way. He then explains and says: "You shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold," not even as a reminder of heaven [as explained by the Rashbam]. In order to bring down God's abundance [into this world], you do not need any of this, but rather: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me." (Shemot 20:20)
Even without changing how the word is vocalized, it might be possible to argue that the gist of Shadal's understanding can be read into the traditional vocalization: "You shall not make with Me" – you shall not assign any form to God, but rather you shall make an altar of earth.
The Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) explains:
"You shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold." This is like: "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol or any likeness" (Shemot 20:14). And the reason that you would make images is to receive heavenly forces, and you would think that you are acting in My honor, so that there should be intermediaries between Me and you, like the golden calf that Israel fashioned, for Aharon was acting to honor God. And since God knew that Israel would do this, therefore He warned them from the beginning that they should not make gods of gold. The meaning of "with Me" is that I do not need intermediaries with Me. And therefore it says afterwards: "I will come to you and I will bless you" – that is, I Myself, in my splendor, will come to you.
M. D. Cassuto notes in his commentary:
This verse is not superfluous, even after the prohibition in the Ten Commandments. There, the general principle is established that one must not make any image, and here the details are presented. You must not make any carved idol, even to honor the God of Israel, and even from precious metals like silver and gold, with which the nations of the world honor their gods. The loftiest embellishment cannot serve as an appropriate symbol for the invisible God. The service performed in My honor must not be like the majestic service of the nations, who build magnificent altars in honor of their gods. Rather, it should be very simple, an altar of earth you shall make to Me, a modest altar made of clods of earth like the altars of the early generations.
Cassuto emphasizes two points: the need for absolute distancing from all materialization of God, even if it is done in His honor, and the contrast between simplicity and magnificence, between earth and gold and silver. We will see this second idea emphasized by the Seforno as well.
5. The opposite of palaces of gold and silver
"An altar of earth you shall make to Me" – Also you will not need to make palaces of gold and silver and precious stones, so that I should be close to you, for an altar of earth will suffice… You will not have to draw My providence to you by way of gold and silver and the like, for in any case I will come to you and I will bless you. (Shemot 20:20)
This comment of the Seforno is directly related to his overall understanding of the Mishkan, according to which the ideal way for the Shekhina to rest is: "In all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you." According to the Seforno, the ideal situation is when the Shekhina rests in all places, among each and every family in a most egalitarian manner, rather than only in one place and only among the priestly family.
According to the Seforno, an altar of earth is the opposite of palaces of silver and gold in two senses:
1) The altar in contrast to a palace: An altar is a simple structure, close to the person's home, and it can be relatively small and suited for ordinary people. A palace, on the other hand, is by definition a much larger and more magnificent structure, with walls and a ceiling.
2) The altar is made of earth: Earth is a simple and natural material that is found everywhere, while silver, gold, and precious stones are much more expensive and luxurious materials, with which a person can build a lavish building for God.
Another point noted by the Seforno is that in ancient times, people apparently thought that the service of one's god includes building a magnificent structure, with which, as it were, the person could draw Divine providence to him. To counter this idea, the Torah states that God will come to man and bless him on His own initiative; as such, it is not necessary for him to draw His providence to him.
6. Halakhic significance of an altar of earth
In addition to the spiritual meanings of the command to build an altar specifically of earth, "an altar of earth" also has halakhic significance, as we find in the Mekhilta:
"An altar of earth you shall make to Me" – R. Yishmael says: An altar that is connected to the earth you shall make to Me; you shall not build it on arches or on columns. R. Natan says: An altar whose hollow is filled with earth you shall make to Me, as it is stated: "Hollow with boards shall you make it" (Shemot 27:8). (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Massekhta De-Ba-Chodesh, parasha 11)
R. Yishmael maintains that there must be no barrier between the altar and the earth; there must be a direct connection between the earth and the altar. According to this approach, the connection to the ground is an essential element of the altar's function. It is reasonable to assume that the role of the sides of the altar was to serve as a framework to hold the earth. This halakhic understanding fits well with R. S.R. Hirsch's opinion that it is through the altar that man symbolically raises the earth up toward heaven (and the building of the ramp of the altar symbolizes this uplifting in a physical way). This understanding also fits in with the idea that man was created from the place where he achieves atonement.
R. Natan emphasizes the fact that the altar was hollow, and therefore the Torah stresses: "Hollow with boards shall you make it" (Shemot 27:8). The altar consisted primarily of a framework of walls made of acacia wood, which was filled in with earth.
THe Altar during Journeys
An interesting question regards what happened during Israel's journeys in the wilderness. Did the altar continue to function or not? Depending on the answer to this question, the altar was or was not filled with earth even during the journeys. If this filling is essential for defining the altar as an altar, the altar had to be filled with earth even during the journeys.
R. Makover cites in this context a midrash:
"It [the fire] shall not be put out" (Vayikra 7:5) – Even during the journeys. What was done with it? A large pot was spread over it; these are the words of R. Yehuda. R. Shimon says: Even on Shabbat. And for the journeys they changed it, as it is stated: "And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth on it" (Bamidbar 4:13). (Torat Kohanim, Tzav 2:10)
It is reasonable to assume that according to R. Yehuda, w the fire burnt on the altar during the journeys, and the altar was filled with earth so that it could fulfill this function. According to R. Shimon, on the other hand, during the journeys the fire was extinguished, and the altar was hollow. R. Makover suggests that the disagreement depends on the question of whether an altar filled with earth fulfills its mission even when it is detached from the ground or not. In other words, is connection to the ground indispensible for defining the altar as an altar?
According to this, it may be suggested that according to R. Yehuda, the altar has an independent role. Therefore, during Israel's journeys, it was filled with earth and the fire burnt on it. According to R. Shimon, in contrast, the altar must be attached to the ground, and therefore during the journeys, the altar was not filled with earth and the fire was extinguished.
The relationship Between the altar of earth and the altar of stones
Moving beyond all the meanings that we have thus far discussed, I would like to examine the relationship between an altar of earth and an altar of stones. What is the meaning of an altar of stones, and does it stand in opposition to an altar of earth?
According to the plain sense of the verses, it would seem that the altar should be made of earth, but if the altar is made of stones, it should not be made of hewn stones.
The Mekhilta explains that the altar actually should be made of stones, as it is stated (Devarim 27:5): "And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones." It follows from here that the altar should be made of stones and be attached to the ground. The Mekhilta cites a Tannaitic dispute:
R. Yishmael says: An altar that is connected to the earth you shall make to Me; you shall not build it on arches or on columns. R. Natan says: An altar whose hollow is filled with earth you shall make to Me, as it is stated: "Hollow with boards shall you make it" (Shemot 27:8). Isi ben Akiva says: An altar of brass filled with earth you shall make to Me.
It is not clear from the Mekhilta what the difference is between the opinion of R. Natan and that of Isi ben Akiva. The Netziv explains in his commentary to the Mekhilta, Birkat Ha-Netziv, that according to R. Natan, there is no obligation to fill the altar with earth, as one clod of earth suffices. This is in keeping with his opinion in Zevachim 61b, according to which the altar in Shilo was filled with stones and not with earth. In contrast, Isi ben Akiva maintains that the altar must be filled with earth.
R. Yishmael appears to agree with the baraita cited in the gemara, whereas R. Natan and Isi expound the verse differently as indicating that it is necessary to fill the brass altar with earth.
The Mekhilta De-Rashbi states:
"An altar of earth you shall make to Me." I might have thought earth, and that is enough. Therefore the verse states: "And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones." When you enter the land, make to Me an altar that is attached to the earth. These are the words of R. Yehuda. R. Meir says: Under the Temple courtyard it was hollow, and the altar was connected to the ground.
R. Yehuda understands "an altar of earth" as referring to an altar that is connected to the ground, in the sense that it is fixed in place and cannot be moved like the altar of brass. But this does not negate the possibility of a hollow beneath it. R. Meir maintains that the altar must be attached to the ground with no hollow beneath, in keeping with the opinion of R. Yishmael.
The same dispute appears in the various Aramaic translations of the Torah. Onkelos translates the phrase as "an altar of earth," i.e., an altar filled with earth, in accordance with the view of R. Natan and Isi ben Akiva. Targum Yonatan, on the other hand, renders it as "an altar that is fixed to the ground," in accordance with the view of R. Yehuda.
This dispute may stem from an exegetical difficulty. Following the giving of the Torah, we read: "An altar of earth… And if you shall make me an altar of stones." But in the account of the erection of the Mishkan, mention is made of a completely different altar, one that is made from acacia wood and plated with brass. R. Natan and Isi ben Akiva explain "an altar of earth" in such a way that it could have existed even in the wilderness, whereas R. Yehuda explains that "an altar of earth" belongs exclusively to the permanent Temple, whose altar will be fixed in the ground. According to R. Yishmael, the altar must be directly connected to the ground, and this can be accomplished even in the wilderness.
The gemara in Ta'anit 27 states: "All the vessels in the Temple had second sets. The brass altar, as it is written: 'An altar of earth you shall make to Me.'" Rashi explains (ad loc.): "Scripture calls the altar on which the burnt-offerings and peace-offerings are brought '[an altar of] earth,' and it is the brass altar." The Tosafot (ad loc., s.v. mizbe'ach adama) cite two views: According to R. Elchanan, “altar of earth” refers both to the altar of stones and to the brass altar, whereas according to the Tosafot in the name of his teacher, the law of an altar of earth was not fulfilled in the brass altar.
It turns out that Chazal had several different understandings of "an altar of earth." Either it was connected to the ground and not portable, it was connected to the ground in the sense that there was no space between it and the ground, or it was filled with earth.
What is interesting for our purposes is that the requirement of attachment to the ground applies also to the altar of stones. In other words, the possibilities are not either an altar of earth or an altar of stones. Rather, it is possible to combine an altar of stones with attachment to the ground, both in the sense of permanent attachment so that the altar will not be moved from place to place and in the sense of being attached to the ground without any space between them.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 The Rashbam goes on to explain the prohibition to build an altar with hewn stones in the same way – because the hewers are accustomed to decorate the stones with images and carvings.
 In his article, "Mizbe'ach Adama U-Mizbe'ach Ha-Avanim – Halakha U-Machashava,” Ma'alin Ba-Kodesh 2, p. 131.
 This issue is well-explained in Sha'arei Heikhal on Tractate Zevachim, 143, p. 496ff.
 The Acharonim disagree about the parameters of attachment to the ground. An important point about which they disagree is whether it is forbidden for there to be any kind of cavity beneath the altar or whether this is permitted, as the law is just that the altar must rest on the ground (this is the view of the Even ha-Ezel). There are practical ramifications of this dispute with regard to the question of whether or not there were cavities below the altar to serve as barriers to ritual impurity, as there were all across the Temple Mount.