LECTURE 176: THE NAMES OF THE OUTER ALTAR (V) – THE ALTAR OF EARTH (IV)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Introduction

 

            In the previous shiur, we continued our study of the altar of earth, discussing several aspects of that altar. In the second part of the shiur, we cited midrashim that assert that man was created from dust taken from the site of the altar and that one who is buried in Eretz Yisrael is deemed as if he were buried under the altar. Based on these midrashim, we expanded on the ideas that death involves a return to the place of one's origin, and that the entire world's capacity for repair is connected to the altar.

 

            In this shiur, I wish to continue our discussion of the altar of earth. Let us open by considering the relationship between the altar and the Even Ha-Shetiya, the foundation stone located in the Holy of Holies.

 

The Relationship Between the Altar and the Even ha-Shetiya

 

            As opposed to the understanding that we saw in the previous shiur, according to which the altar stands at the center of the world, the mishna in Yoma says as follows:

 

After the ark had been taken away, there was a stone from the days of the earlier prophets, called the shetiya [foundation]. (Yoma 53b)

 

            The gemara there (54b) adds:

 

A Tanna taught: [It was so called] because from it the world was founded. We were taught in accordance with the view that the world was created from Zion on. For it was taught: R. Eliezer says: The world was created from its center, as it is stated: "When the dust runs into a mass, and the clods keep fast together." R. Yehoshua said: The world was created from its sides on, as it is stated: "For He says to the snow: Fall you on the earth; likewise to the shower of rain, and to the showers of His mighty rain." R. Yitzchak said: The Holy One, blessed be He, cast a stone into the ocean, from which the world then was founded, as it is stated: "Whereupon were the foundations thereof fastened, or who laid the cornerstone thereof?" But the Sages said: The world was created from Zion, as it is said: "A Psalm of Asaf: God, God, the Lord has spoken," whereupon it states: "Out of Zion, the perfection of the world" – that means from Zion was the beauty of the world perfected.

It was taught: R. Eliezer the Great said: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven." The generations [the creations] of heaven were made from the heaven and the generations of the earth were made from the earth. But the Sages said: Both were created from Zion, as it is stated: "A Psalm of Asaf: God, God, the Lord, has spoken, and called the earth from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof." And Scripture further says: "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shined forth" - that means from it the beauty of the world was perfected.

 

            The Gemara brings several views on subjects connected to the order and form of creation. Among other things, it records a fundamental Tannaitic disagreement as to whether the world was created from its center, the view of R. Eliezer, from the sides, the view of R. Yehoshua, or from Zion, the view of the Sages. It seems that the Sages agree with R. Eliezer that the world was created from its center, but they emphasize that the even shetiya in Zion is the center of the world. The gemara deals with the manner in which the world was created, and not with the site of man's creation. It raises the possibility that the world was created from its center, in this case, from the Even Ha-Shetiya found in the Holy of Holies.

 

            The mishna in the first chapter of tractate Keilim describes ten circles of sanctity. The Holy of Holies is the holiest of all places, "for only the High Priest on Yom Kippur at the service may enter it." The place's sanctity reveals itself in this case with respect to who may enter it and when.[1]

 

            What is the relationship between these two elements? On the one hand, the world was created from the Even Ha-Shetiya, and the entire world was created around that point. On the other hand, man was created from the site of the altar or from dust collected from the entire world.

 

            It is clear from the sources that we saw that the Even Ha-Shetiya is the center of the world. On the other hand, it is possible to view the altar as the center of the world. It is the site from which man was created, and there may be a connection between creation from the altar and creation from all corners of the earth. If these are two sides of the same coin, so that the entire world is seen as symbolically folded up under the altar, by way of which the world is raised up to heaven, it turns out that in this sense, the altar is the center of man's activity, repair, and atonement.

 

            In a certain sense, the Maharal follows this approach. Explaining the relationship between burial in Eretz Yisrael and burial under the altar, he writes:

 

He is deemed as if he were buried under the altar. Because burial in Eretz Yisrael is much more than living there, for when a person is buried in Eretz Yisrael, he returns to its dust, and when he returns to the dust of Eretz Yisrael, this involves removal of his sin… And therefore the altar is a site of atonement on its own, and so too Eretz Yisrael is fit for atonement and removal of sin, as we have said that the land is with God, and there is no sin with God; therefore, it achieves atonement. Know further that the altar is fit for atonement because the altar stands at the center of the world (Tanchuma, Parashat Kedoshim,and Yoma 16a), as we expanded upon at length in a different place, regarding that which they said (Bereishit Rabba 14:9) that man was created from the site of his atonement so that there should be atonement for his sin. For man was created from the middle and in balance, and therefore he is removed from sin, for sin removes the sinner from being in balance to being unbalanced, and man was created from the middle, equally distant from the extremes, and because of this there is atonement for man's sins. And since Eretz Yisrael is the center of the world (Tanchuma, ibid.), as we also said elsewhere, therefore one who is buried in Eretz Yisrael is deemed as if he were buried under the altar, which is the middle point wholly removed from sin, which involves leaving being in balance. And when he returns to the dust of Eretz Yisrael, which is at the center, he leaves his sins, which involve leaving the middle and being in balance. This is what the Sages said: Anyone who lives in Eretz Yisrael resides without sin, because sins involve leaving the middle, and he who lives in Eretz Yisrael which is at the center is removed from sins. (Chiddushei Aggadot, Ketuvot 111a)

 

The Maharal makes two points:

 

1)      Eretz Yisrael belongs to God, and therefore it is fit for atonement and removed for sin. In this way, it is like the altar, which is also God's and there is no sin with God. Thus, there is a strong connection between them, and anybody buried in Eretz Yisrael is deemed as if he were buried under the altar.

 

2)      The altar is fit for atonement because it stands at the center of the world. The meaning of the statement that man was created from the site of the altar is that he was created from the middle, because sin causes man to leave being in balance and become unbalanced. Sin, as it were, distances one toward the extreme, whereas repair and atonement are found at the center. Accordingly, one who lives in Eretz Yisrael is at the center and removed from sin.

 

In his Gur Aryeh, the Maharal relates to what Rashi’s statement that since man was created from dust taken from all parts of the earth, the land receives him wherever he is buried:

 

That which he says that man was created from all the earth so that the earth should receive him, he means to say that since he was created from all the earth, he is everything and not something partial. And therefore wherever he dies, the earth receives him, and he suffers no loss, as he is not partial, and he is not outside of it. It is fitting that he should be created from all the earth, because of his intelligence, which is not something particular, and therefore man is something general. Now man was created singly (Sanhedrin 37a), which shows that man is not a part, but rather everything. Therefore, he was created from all the earth, and there is no loss for him to suffer, as he is everything. It has been explained that since man existed in potential in the ground prior to his creation, and then he was found in actuality after he was created, and when he died, he returned to the ground, as he had been there at first in potential before he was created – he is once again there in potential until the time of the resurrection. This potential cannot suffer loss… for man was created from all the earth… Therefore the ground receives him, as he had been in the ground in potential when he was created, and after he died he returned there to be in potential until the time of the resurrection, and then once again he will be in actuality. This is what they said that man was created from all the earth, so that he should be received in all places, because man is general, created from all the earth. (Bereishit 2:7)

 

The Maharal emphasizes that man is general and not partial, and that it is fitting that he should be created from all the earth, and therefore he does not suffer loss, as he is not partial. Man's reason also indicates that he is not a particular, but something general. Before man was created from the earth, he existed in potential, and after he was created, he existed in actuality, and when he returns to the earth when he is buried, he once again exists in potential until the time of the resurrection. Something general does not suffer a loss.

 

Elsewhere, the Maharal explains the idea that man was created from the site of the altar, the place where he can achieve atonement:

 

Know that the altar is located at the center of the civilized world, and that earth is precisely between the extremes, and everything that is in middle is in balance and does not tend to one of the extremes. It is the best, and therefore the altar and the Temple were chosen for the service there, it being the center of the civilized world, and not leaning to one of the extremes, the extremes not being good. And therefore it says that man was created from the site of the altar, which is totally in the middle of the world. It means to say that the matter of which man is made is not the matter of the other creatures; rather, his matter is in the middle, entirely in balance, not tending to any extreme. So too, scientists distinguish between the matter of man and the matter of other living things, as that of man is more in the middle. And all this is in order that he should have atonement, that if he happens to sin, it will be easier for him to remove the sin. For the sin is because he tends to one of the extremes. And since man was created from the middle, it is easier for him to return to the middle, the place where he was created, and the sin is removed from him, the sin being the tendency toward one of the extremes. This may be likened to one who is himself handsome and pure; if he were to become filthy, it would be easy for him to clean himself. But if he himself is filthy, the dirt enters into himself. This is what our Rabbis said (Bereishit Rabba 14:8) that God created man from the altar in order that he should have atonement, that is, removal of filth. This is an exceedingly wondrous matter, how the fact that he was created from the site of the altar causes that he should be able to achieve atonement.

 

The Maharal explains that the altar is located at the center of the civilized world, and therefore it is in balance, as that which is in the middle is in balance. Sin is connected to going to one of the extremes. The fact that the world was created from the site of the altar, the site of balance that is located in the middle, is what allows for atonement and removal of sin.

 

The Rambam's Understanding of the Centrality of the Outer Altar

 

            Without a doubt, the Rambam views the altar as the place designated for man's service of God, which is the purpose of the entire Temple.

 

In continuation of what was said in the previous shiur, it is exceedingly interesting that the Rambam does not relate in any way to the Even Ha-Shetiya as the site of the creation of the world. When he considers the site of the ark, he writes:

 

There was a stone in the western portion of the Holy of Holies, on which the ark was placed. (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 4:1)

 

            The Rambam does not mention the name of the stone, nor does he relate to the fact that it was from that stone that the entire world was created.

 

            In contrast, regarding the outer altar, the Rambam writes:

 

The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed, as it is stated (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 22:1): "This is the altar for the burnt-offerings of Israel."

 

Yitzchak was prepared as a sacrifice on the Temple's [future] site, as it is stated (Bereishit 22:2) "Go to the land of Moriya," and in Divrei Ha-Yamim (II 3:1), it is stated: "Then Shelomo began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriya, where [the Lord] appeared to David, his father, in the place that David had prepared, in the threshing floor of Ornan, the Yevusite.

It is universally accepted that the place on which David and Shelomo built the altar, the threshing floor of Ornan, is the location where Avraham built the altar on which he prepared Yitzchak for sacrifice. Noach built [an altar] on that location when he left the ark. It was also [the place] of the altar on which Kayin and Hevel brought sacrifices. [Similarly,] Adam, the first man, offered a sacrifice there and was created at that very spot, as our Sages said: Man was created from the place where he [would achieve] atonement.

The dimensions of the altar must be very precise. Its design has been passed down from one to another [over the course of the generations].

The altar built by the exiles [returning from Babylon] was constructed according to the design of the altar to be built in the future. We may not increase or reduce its dimensions. (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 2:1-3) 

 

Several salient points regarding the words of the Rambam:

 

First, note the Rambam's wording concerning the site of the altar and its dimensions: "The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed" and "The dimensions of the altar must be very precise. Its design has been passed down from one to another." Why is the location of the altar so precise? Why does the Rambam note there is a specific prohibition to change it?[2]

 

Similarly, in his commentary to tractate Middot,the Rambam writes:

 

The precision regarding the dimensions of the altar in the Torah is very strict, and so too its place. It says in Divrei Ha-Yamim, when the site of the altar was designated: "Then David said, ‘This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 22:1). And [the Sages] said: R. Elazar said: He saw the altar built, and Michael, the great officer, standing and bringing sacrifices on it. And they said: Three prophets went up with them from the Exile. One who testified about the altar, one who testified about the location of the altar, and one who testified that we may bring sacrifices even if there is no Temple. And that which they said: "about the altar" – that he testified about its precise measurements, as I shall explain. (Commentary to the Mishna 5:1)

 

Both the dimensions of the altar and its location are exceedingly precise, and the verses emphasize that precision.

 

In this context, the Rambam has an interesting comment on the words of a mishna in Yoma (5:2):

 

After the ark had been taken away, there was a stone from the days of the earlier prophets, called the shetiya.

 

The Rambam writes:

 

The meaning of word shetiya is foundation. And in truth, the site of the service is the foundation of the world, as was mentioned at the beginning of tractate Avot (1:2).

 

The Rambam disagrees with the mishna, writing that the site of the service is the foundation of the world, and not the Even ha-Shetiya in the Holy of Holies.[3] He supports his position with what is stated in Avot: "The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on service, and on acts of lovingkindness." "Service" here refers to the sacrificial service that is performed on the outer altar.

 

For this reason, the altar is to be constructed in a very precise location, which may never be changed. And this is the reason that all of the most significant events occurred there, from the creation of man at the site of the altar and through Kayin and Hevel, Noach and Avraham.

 

This idea is connected to the Rambam's fundamental position regarding the purpose of Temple, as he defines it both in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot and in Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira:

 

It is a positive commandment to construct a house for God, designed for the offering of sacrifices and for making thereto a pilgrimage three times every year.[4] (Hilkhot Beit ha-Bechira 1:1)

 

This also explains the Rambam's nearly total disregard of the ark (apart from Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 4:1, which mentions the place where the ark was hidden away, as well as his failure to mention the Even ha-Shetiya and the site of the creation of the world. In the Rambam's view, what is most important is man's service of God.

 

This point is also strongly highlighted by the order of the laws in Hilkhot Beit ha-Bechira in the Mishneh Torah:

 

·           In 1:6, the Rambam describes the sacred vessels from the outermost to the innermost, i.e., from east to west. He starts with the burnt-offering altar, then moves on to the laver and its pedestal, and then the incense altar, the candlestick and the table.

·           In the continuation, in 1:12-17 and all of chapter 2, he spells out in detail the laws governing the altar.

·           In chapter 3, he describes the candlestick, the table, and the incense altar.

 

R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (the Griz), in a letter published at the end of his novella on the Rambam, draws an inference from the following words of the Rambam:

 

Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, it became forbidden to build a sanctuary for God or to offer sacrifices in any other place. There is no sanctuary for all generations except in Jerusalem and [specifically,] on Mount Moriah, as it is stated (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 22:1): "Then David said, This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel." And it is stated (Tehilim 132:14): "This is My resting place forever." (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 1:3)

 

In other words, according to the Rambam, the proof that the Temple must be built in Jerusalem on Mount Moriya is the verse in which the site of the Temple is revealed to David in the threshing floor of Aravna the Yevusite at the end of the plague.

 

Interestingly, at the beginning of chapter 2, the Rambam writes as follows:

 

The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed, as it is stated: (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 22:1) "This is the altar for the burnt- offerings of Israel."

 

The very same verse that the Ramban cited in chapter 1 as proof of the everlasting choice of Mount Moriya is brought here in connection with the exceedingly precise location of the altar. Of course, with respect to the Temple as a whole, the critical part of the verse is the first half which states: "This is the house of the Lord God," whereas with respect to the site of the altar, the critical part of the verse is the second half which states: "This is the altar for the burnt-offerings of Israel." These two parts of the verse relate to the two principal parts of the Temple – the part reserved for the resting of the Shekhina and the part designated for man's service at the altar.

 

In light of this, the Griz infers that the selection of the site of the Temple and the selection of the site of the altar are rooted in the same verse; they are two parts of a single law, according to which the selection of the site of the Temple includes the precise selection of the site of the altar.

 

Beginning the Service with the Altar

 

It may be possible to connect what was said above to the fact that the service of God began with the altar. The Midrash states:

 

"You shall make to Me" (Shemot 20:21). Wherever it says "to Me," it is preserved forever. Great is [the sacrificial] service, for Scripture began with: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me" (ibid.). And similarly you find with the Ohel Mo'ed that Scripture began with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "And the Lord called to Moshe, and spoke to him out of the Ohel Mo'ed, saying… If any man of you bring an offering to the Lord" (Vayikra 1:1-2). And similarly, you find when they entered the land, they began with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "Then Yehoshua built an altar" (Yehoshua 5:31). And similarly, you find when they returned from the Exile, they began with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "And they set the altar upon its bases" (Ezra 3:3). So too, in the future, they will begin with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "I will go into Your house with burnt offerings" (Tehillim 65:13). (Midrash Ha-Gadol,Shemot 20:21)

 

In a previous shiur,[5] we brought extensive historical proofs that the altar was built first, and then we summarized as follows:

 

It turns out that in addition to the fact that the service began and will begin with the building of the altar – at the time of the Akeida, in the First Temple, in the Second Temple, and in the future - the building of the altar began with God pointing to its site.

 

Perhaps these are the Biblical proofs upon which the Rambam bases his statement that the altar is to be constructed in a very precise location, which may never be changed. It is not by chance that the Rambam cites the verse in Divrei Ha-Yamim, in which the site is revealed to David, who then says: "This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar for the burnt-offerings of Israel" (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 22:1).

 

Thus, we have seen that in addition to the relative positions of the ark and the altar with respect to the structure of the Mishkan and the Temple as a whole, there is great significance to the connection between these two vessels and the physical place where they are found on Mount Moriya.

 

·           The ark is connected to the Even ha-Shetiya, the site of the creation of the world.

 

·           The altar is connected to the site of the creation of man, and to the specific place where an altar was built by Adam, Kayin and Hevel, Noach and Avraham at the Akeida. The site where man was created is the place where he can achieve atonement.

 

According to the Rambam's approach, our main concern should be our obligation to serve God, and there is therefore an essential connection between the site of the foundation of the world and the site of the creation of man, the site of human activity and human service.

 

In this shiur,we tried to point out the two locations, which in many senses constitute the centers of the world, the outer altar and Even ha-Shetiya before the ark.

 

As was suggested, the centrality of the altar may be based on the fact that it is made of earth that is connected to the site of man's creation and his potential for repair and atonement. Or it may be based on the connection between the earth of the altar that is raised toward heaven and the earth of all of Eretz Yisrael, which atones in a way parallel to the altar itself, or the earth of the entire world from which man was created.

 

We cited the sources according to which the entire world was created from the Even Ha-Shetiya. Regarding the creation of the world, we brought differing views as to whether the world was created from the inside out, i.e., from the Even ha-Shetiya and from Zion outwards, or just the opposite, from the periphery inward.

 

In the next shiur,we will consider the meaning of an altar of stones.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] Similarly in Midrash Tanchuma: "Eretz Yisrael is located at the center of the world, and Jerusalem at the center of Eretz Yisrael, and the Temple at the center of Jerusalem, and the Heikhal at the center of the Temple, and the ark at the center of the Heikhal, and the Even Ha-Shetiya before the ark, and from there the world was founded" (Kedoshim 10). The center of the entire world is located at the Even Ha-Shetiya, from which the world was founded.

[2] In our shiur, The Location of the Ark and the Altar in the Temple in Jerusalem (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/mikdash5/121mikdash.htm), we discussed the sources on which the Rambam drew.

[3] Of course, it cannot be that the Ramban disagrees with an explicit mishna. Two possible resolutions may be offered: 1) The Rambam does not mention the stone by the name by which it was called. (This was suggested by R. Zvi Shalva in an private conversation.) 2) When the Rambam uses the word "yesod" (foundation), he is not referring to a physical place, but to a spiritual idea.

[4] As opposed to the Ramban, who understands that the main purpose of the Temple is to serve as a site for the resting of the Shekhina and as a place from which God speaks to man from between the two keruvim.

[5] See above, note 2.