• Rav Yitzchak Levy

            In the two previous shiurim, we related to various spiritual and halakhic meanings of the fact that the altar was made of earth. Before proceeding to consider the significance of an altar of stones, I wish to relate to several additional aspects of the meaning of an altar of earth.


What did the altar of earth actually Look like?


            What is the meaning of "an altar of earth" on the practical level? Several possibilities may be suggested:


·           An altar made exclusively of earth. If so, how is it possible to maintain the altar's shape, as it can easily come apart?

·           An altar filled with earth. In this case, the altar must have a frame. A brass frame filled with earth would certainly seem to fulfill the requirement. Concerning Shilo and the Temple in Jerusalem, we find a position maintaining that the brass altar was filled with stones; it may similarly be suggested in our context that the altar of earth was a brass altar that was filled with earth. This accords well with Rashi's understanding that the altar of earth mentioned at the end of Parashat Yitro (Shemot 20:21) is identical to the altar of brass found in the Mishkan.

·           Another possibility is that the term "altar of earth" refers to an altar constructed out of hardened mud bricks that do not easily come apart.


R. D.Z. Hoffmann addressed this question:


"An altar of earth you shall make to Me" – It is difficult to know which altar is being referred to here. R. Yishmael in the Mekhilta (and in a baraita in Zevachim 58a) says: "An altar that is connected to the earth you shall make to Me; you shall not build it upon arches or upon columns." It seems, however, that this is merely a midrashic exposition, but according to the plain sense of the text we must say that earth is the material out of which the altar must be built. That is to say, "an altar of earth" is an altar made of earth, just as the "altar of stones" in the next verse can only mean an altar made of stones. Therefore, R. Natan explains in the Mekhilta: "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)." And Yonatan ben Uziel explains: Hollow with boards filled with earth shall you make it. Now, although it is most likely that the brass altar during the time of encampment was filled with earth, it is very difficult to assume that the words "an altar of earth" mentioned here refer to that altar. On the contrary, this command is the reason that even the altar of the Mishkan had to be filled with earth, as the Ibn Ezra already noted. And he rightfully argues that "an altar of stones" cannot be understood as an altar that must be filled with stones, for it is explicitly stated in Devarim (26:5-6) that the altar must be made entirely of stones. Therefore, the Ibn Ezra maintains that the altar mentioned here is the altar that Moshe erected when he came down from the mountain. See, below, 24:4, for there it says: "They offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings," precisely as is commanded here: "And you shall sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings, and your peace-offerings."


            R. Hoffman relates to our issue and suggests that according to the plain sense of the text, the Torah refers here to an altar that is made of earth. He similarly understands that "an altar of stones" means an altar made of stones. Based on this, he concludes that the altar in the Mishkan had to be filled with earth, even though the verse here is not referring to the brass altar.


When was the altar of earth used?


Beyond the question of whether the Torah's command regarding an earthen altar refers to the altar mentioned in Parashat Teruma – the burnt-offering altar in the Mishkan – or alternatively to an altar in a period when bamot were permitted, a practical question may be raised: When did they actually build altars of earth and when did they build altars of stone? This is important, because in most instances, the verses do not explain of what material the altar was made. It would seem that the determining factor was transience versus permanence.


R. Hoffmann addresses this issue as well:


R. S. R. Hirsch already explained well the significance of the altar. The altar represents Israel's mission to raise all the earthly up to heaven toward God (blessed be He). We must not represent God through images in order to bring Him down to earth. On the contrary, we must aspire to elevate the earth toward heaven. Now the altar of earth was sort of a temporary mound of earth, whereas the altar of stone was a strong and permanent structure. The one was appropriate during the period of Israel's wanderings in the wilderness, when they were deprived of rest, and the other during the time that God would grant Israel rest from all its surrounding enemies. In other words, the altar of earth was fit for the period that Chazal refer to as the time when bamot are permitted, whereas the altar of stone was fit for the time when bamot were forbidden. At all times, the nation must strive to raise the earthly toward heaven. During times of rest and secure peace, [this is done] by way of a strong construction. But even during periods of wanderings and the absence of rest, one must not desist from this aspiration. When it is impossible to build a permanent structure, they must at the very least erect a mound of earth, upon which to conduct – for the time being and in temporary fashion – the service of God, and in that way man will raise himself up to his God. This last type of altar could not be limited to a single place, because at such times it was not always possible to achieve unity of the people, and people who were distant from the site of the main Mikdash would often be prevented from reaching it. It was therefore permitted at those times to set up altars and offer sacrifices on them. It is about these altars that the Torah speaks when it says: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me… In all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you." However, the construction of such altars is limited here to those places that God would dedicate for this purpose by way of revelation of some sort. And indeed, Jewish history teaches us that there were such places. In Bokhim, an angel appeared before the people, and they erected an altar and offered sacrifices to God (Shofetim 2:1-5); an angel appeared to Gidon in Ofrat, and he built there an altar (ibid. 6:24). And similarly, the altar that Mano'ach built on the order of the angel (ibid. 13:19).

When the children of Israel gathered in Bet-El, the site of the ark of the covenant, they offered sacrifices – burnt-offerings and peace-offerings (Shofetim 20:26-27; 21:4). A similar gathering before God took place in the days of Shemuel in Mitzpeh, and he offered sacrifices there (I Shemuel 7:9). Also in the place where Shemuel lived there was a bama, certainly based on a Divine revelation, upon which he offered sacrifices (ibid. 9:12), and so too in Gilgal (ibid. 13:9). At God's command, Shemuel offered sacrifices in Bet-Lechem (ibid. 16:5), and perforce there was a bama there, presumably still from the days that David was anointed there as king (ibid. v. 13), for Avshalom sacrificed there, with the permission of his father David (II Shemuel 15:7 and on). David also built a bama in the threshing floor of Aravna the Yevusi when he saw the angel of God there, and he offered sacrifices upon it (ibid. 24:17-25). There was a great bama in Giv'on in the days of David and at the beginning of Shelomo's reign (I Melakhim 3:4). This means that until the land rested in the days of Shelomo, bamot were erected in all parts of the country, in places where there was a revelation of the Shekhina. It stands to reason, that most of these bamot, which were built quickly, due to the need of the hour, were made exclusively of earth, and only those that were built to be permanent were built of stones. It is self-evident that this is permitted even with respect to the altar discussed here. Nevertheless, the Torah refers here with the words "an altar of earth" first of all to that altar that was meant for all the people of Israel, and that must be built in one place, when they reach rest and inheritance. Such a period of rest could have started already immediately with the conquest of the land, had Israel walked in the path of God. And therefore it was necessary to build an altar of stones immediately after they crossed the Jordan (Devarim 27:5; Yehoshua 8:31), an altar that would testify to the fact that the time has arrived for unified service of God, which is expressed in one permanent altar of stones. But the people's sins did not allow them to reach the rest. They would have to build many more altars of earth until the time that one Temple would unite all of Israel.

The altar in the Mishkan was made of brass, but filled with earth, as this was still the time of the journeys in the wilderness. The altar in the Mikdash was also made of brass, but it was filled with stones – a sign of the promised rest. Now, after the Mishkan was built, the building of bamot was prohibited, that is to say, the building of other altars of earth (Vayikra 17:3-5). But this mitzva was one of the mitzvot given in the Ohel Mo'ed, after the incident of the golden calf, and it is evident that it was given only because of the worry that perhaps multiple altars would bring the people of Israel, God forbid, to idol worship. (Shemot 20:21)


We brought here the words of R. Hoffmann in full because he lays out before us the main arguments and proofs concerning the issue at hand.


The first principle that he establishes is the connection between the altar of earth and the period during which bamot were permitted, on the one hand, and the altar of stones and the period during which bamot were prohibited, on the other. From the interpretive perspective, this is the Rambam's position regarding the verses in Shemot 20, and he demonstrates in a detailed manner how the matter was implemented in practice throughout the period. This nicely explains the connection between the command to build an altar of earth and the idea that "in all places where I cause My name to be pronounced, I will come to you, and I will bless you."


This understanding stems not only from differences in the materials (earth, which easily crumbles, as opposed to solid and permanent stones), but also from the spiritual-social reality – the absence of unity among the people and the distance from the Mishkan,which made it difficult for people to reach it.


According to this, there is a connection between these things; the earth expresses the transient situation, whereas the stone reflects the permanent phase.


R. Hoffmann relates to the various appearances of bamot and altars in the books of Shofetim and Shemuel,[1] but he does not fully clarify each of the cases that he mentions. He adds that it appears that most of the bamot were set up quickly due to the need of the hour and were therefore made of earth, while those that were built as a permanent structure were built of stones. There is room to discuss regarding each of the cases mentioned, where it is reasonable, in light of the circumstance, that the bama or altar served temporarily, and where for an extended period of time, and on this basis to conclude whether it was made of earth or stones. R. Hoffmann understands that the Torah's commandment relates both to the period during which bamot were permitted and to the structure of the Mishkan and the Mikdash, but the altar in the Mishkan was made of brass and filled with earth, while the altar in the Mikdash was made of brass and filled with stones.[2]


An altar of earth you shall make to Me[3]


The gemara records yet another Talmudic exposition regarding the altar of earth:


R. Anan said: Whoever is buried in the Eretz Yisrael is deemed to be buried under the altar. It is written here: "An altar of earth you shall make to me," and it is written there: "And His earth atones for His people" (Devarim 32:43). (Ketubot 111a)


The word "earth" appears in both verses, and the parallelism teaches that just as the altar achieves atonement, so all the earth of Eretz Yisrael atones for those who are buried in it.


The Maharsha (ad loc.) explains the exposition in a way that draws a special connection between the altar and all of Eretz Yisrael:


He is deemed to be buried under the altar – This is clear, as it was stated that man was created from the site where he achieves atonement… And owing to man's dignity, he says that he is deemed to be buried there. For just as his soul and spirit return in purity to the place from where they were taken, so too the dust of his body returns to the place of purity, the site of the altar from which man's dust was taken. And therefore he says concerning the sanctity and purity of Eretz Yisrael, "And His earth atones for His people," for one who is buried anywhere in Eretz Yisrael, it is as if he were buried at the site of atonement, the site of the altar from which his body had been taken. (ibid.)


What he says here is connected to what Rashi says in his account of the creation of man:


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. Another explanation: He took his dust from that spot about which it is stated: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," saying: Would that this sacred earth may be an atonement for him so that he may be able to endure. (Rashi, Bereishit 2:7)


According to the second interpretation, man, who was created from the earth, was created from the place where he can achieve achievement, that is, from the site of the altar of earth, because it is there that he can repair his actions. In contrast, according to the first interpretation, "dust from the earth" refers to dust taken from the entire earth – not just Eretz Yisrael, but the entire world.


The combination of the two midrashim – that which says that one who is buried in Eretz Yisrael is deemed as if he were buried under the altar and that which says that man was created from the site of the altar – seems to create a connection between the site of man's creation and the range of the site of his burial.


One meaning of this connection lies in the assertion that "you come from dust and to dust you shall return." Man began from dust and he returns to his source. But according to the midrashim, this is not merely a general statement, but rather a very practical statement that there is a geographical connection between the site of man's creation and the place of his possible burial. It is not merely a general return to the source from which he came, but a return to the place from which he was actually created.


This statement means that the site of death is connected to the source of life – a connection between the end and the beginning. This statement itself may be associated with the understanding that death itself is not the final word, but rather a continuation of life in another form. It is not by chance that a cemetery is called beit ha-chayyim, the house of life.


In this context, it is interesting to note the words of R. Tukochinsky,[4] who draws a comparison between burial and sowing seeds. R. Tukochinsky explains that burial is a type of sowing, during which the corpse is sown, as it were, in the ground. The assumption is that the disintegration of the body in the ground allows the materials of which the body had been made to come back to life, and thus there is a certain resurrection and continuation of life under different conditions. In contrast, when a body is cremated, the materials of which the body was made are consumed by the fire, and there is no possibility of rebirth and continuity.[5] In this context, the fact that Chazal refer to a woman's uterus as a grave is very interesting.


But there is another aspect here. We have seen two approaches in the Midrash as to the site from which man was created – from the site of the altar, the significance of this being that he was created from the outset from the place that allows for his repair and atonement, or from all places in the world, so that upon his death his body would be received anywhere in the world. It seems that this point is connected to a more fundamental question of whether man was created from the source – the altar – or from the entire perimeter – the entire world.


We see regarding this issue two separate and distinct approaches, each emphasizing a different aspect of the relationship between man and the earth. It is possible that the midrash that associates man's creation with the site of the altar places greater emphasis on man's repair during his lifetime, whereas the midrash that connects his creation to the four corners of the earth describes man's true belonging to the entire world and the connection between the place of death and the place of creation.


But it may also be suggested that there is no fundamental disagreement, but there are rather two different dimensions. In a certain sense, the altar, being made ​​of earth, embodies the earth as a whole. According to this approach, the two different midrashim express the relationship between the heart, which is the source, and the entire perimeter.


The entire world is the potential site of human activity, and the essence and heart of the world's capacity for repair is the atonement made ​​possible at the site of the altar. The connection between earth and heaven, the place where the entire world can be raised toward heaven, is the site of the altar. This is the same understanding brought by R. Hirsch, according to which the altar represents the raising of the world to God, the earth's connection to heaven, through the actions of man. This reinforces the understanding that the heart of the world lies in human action, that which man achieves in reality.


            In the next shiur, we will continue to deal with the altar of earth, and expand upon the connection between the centrality of the altar and the even ha-shetiya, the foundation stone.


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] At this stage, we will not relate to the difference between altar and bama. This issue will be addressed in one of the coming shiurim.

[2] In the coming shiurim, we will examine the materials of which the Mishkan was built in its various stations.

[3] What we said here complements what we said in the shiur before last.

[4] In his book, Gesher Ja-Chayyim, in the chapter entitled "Kevurat Zeri'a."

[5] This issue requires a shiur of its own. Here we have merely alluded to the idea of a connection between the end and the beginning.