• Rav Yitzchak Levy

"And if You Will Make Me an Altar of Stones" (Shemot 20:22)


            Why does the Torah formulate the building of an altar of stones with what appears to be a conditional clause: "And if (im)you will make Me an altar of stones"?  Rashi cites the Mekhilta, which states:


R. Yishmael said: Every time the word im is used in the Torah, it refers to some action the doing of which is optional, except in three instances: Here, "im you will make Me an altar of stones," you see that the im is used in the sense of ka'asher (when), "And when you make me an altar of stones, you shall not build it of hewn stones," for it is obligatory upon you to build an altar of stones, as it is stated: "Of whole stones you shall build [the altar of the Lord your God" (Devarim 37:6). And similarly, "Im you lend My people money" (Shemot 22:24) [means: "When you lend My people money"]. And similarly, "Im you make the meal-offering of first-fruits," refers to the meal-offering of the Omer [and therefore means: "And when you make the meal-offering of first-fruits"]. You must admit that these instances of im are not conditional [meaning "if"], but rather are absolute, and they are used in the sense of "when."


The Mekhilta explains that the word im in this context means "when." This is not an optional matter, but rather an obligatory one. Regarding the altar, the proof that its construction is obligatory is the command to build the altar on Mount Eival at the time of Israel's entry into the land as an altar of stones.


            The question remains: Why does the Torah formulate these commands with the word im, in contrast to all the other commandments of the Torah?


            The Ramban, who also cites the Mekhilta, explains the matter as follows:


This teaches that if the time arrives that you should merit to inherit the land and to build for Me an altar of stones in the Temple, beware that you not build it of hewn stones, thinking to do so because of its superior construction.


The Ramban understands the conditional clause with respect to the timing of the fulfillment of the command, so that the verse means that when they reach Eretz Yisrael and build an altar of stones in the Temple, they must take care not to build it of hewn stones.


            The Chizkuni, who also mentions the Mekhilta, writes in similar fashion: "Even if you wish to build Me an altar, you shall build it of whole stones for this reason." In other words, when you build the altar, it should be built of whole stones.


            The Maharal, in his Gur Aryeh commentary, relates to the question of why the Torah formulated these three commandments specifically with the word im:


We can explain why it uses the term im, even though it is an obligation, because if he does it out of obligation as if he were fulfilling the decree of a king, God does not find favor with this. He must do it willingly, and then when he does it willingly, God is pleased. For with respect to an action that is compelled and obligatory, one need not look for any reason; rather, he fulfills the decree of the king. And if he does these three things as if he were fulfilling the decree of a king, it is not worth anything. For if he builds an altar, which is His service to sacrifice upon it, and he fulfills [the obligation] exclusively because of the decree of the king – this is not service, for service must be performed willingly, and then he is called a servant, but if he is forced, he is not a servant. And similarly, if he lends money as if he were fulfilling the decree of a king, this is not a mitzva, because the mitzva of lending money must be performed willingly, with a good heart, as it says even of giving: "And your heart shall not be grieved" (Devarim 15:10). The same is true of the offering of the omer, about which the Torah commanded (Vayikra 23:14) that one not eat of the new grain until the offering of the omer, and Chazal explained (Vayikra Rabba 281) that God brings clouds, causes the rain to fall, brings dew, causes the earth to produce, and fattens the fruit, and we give Him as His reward the omer offering. All this is to say that it is God who caused the fruit to grow for us and who gave us everything. This requires gratitude from the heart, not like a king of flesh and blood who forces a person to recognize his kingdom. Rather he must recognize in his heart that it is from God and that God gave to us from His hand. If he fulfills the mitzva as if he were forced by a royal decree, this is not recognition that God did everything. Therefore, he must fulfill [the mitzva] as if it were optional.

We can also explain this according to its plain sense, that these three things, even though they are obligatory, Scripture does not speak in these verses of their obligations. For it is explained elsewhere that there is a mitzva to build an altar of stones (Devarim 27:5-6), and the verse here comes only to prohibit building it of hewn stones. And similarly, regarding "if you lend My people money" (Shemot 22:27), the main mitzva is "You shall not be to him as a creditor." And similarly, regarding the meal-offering of first-fruits (Vayikra 2:14), that is not the main mitzva, but rather the main mitzva concerns corn beaten out of fresh ears. Thus, the word im is fitting, as if it said: If you shall do the mitzva as I have commanded you to do it, you shall not build it of hewn stones, and similarly the others. This is like: "If you walk in My statutes." Even though it is obligatory to fulfill the commandments, it says: "If you walk in My commandments," that is to say, if you shall fulfill them as I have commanded.


The Maharal explains that even though in practice these mitzvot are obligatory, they are formulated with an “if” clause so that one should not perform them as royal edicts, but rather willingly.


            We will focus on the matter of the altar of stones. The Maharal emphasizes that the service must be performed out of free will, and that if it is compelled, it is not deemed service. Man's service of God in building an altar and offering sacrifices is service that is supposed to bring man's desire to fullest expression. The principal value of the sacrificial service performed at the altar is man's free-will choice to serve God with his own powers. Therefore, Scripture does not speak here of an obligation to build an altar of stones. (This is explained in Devarim 27:5-6 in the command to build an altar at Mount Eival when the people of Israel enter the land).


            The editor of the Gur Aryeh Ha-Shalem comments in his notes to the words of the Maharal:


This should be understood in light of what he writes in Netiv Ha-Avoda, chap. 1 (1:77), in his definition of the "service" regarding the sacrifices: "[Offering sacrifices] is called service, because the servant is owned by his master; he and his money all belong to his master. Therefore, when one brings a sacrifice to Him, he shows that he is His, like a servant who is owned by his master. Therefore, this is called service to God… There is no service greater than this… When he ministers to him and does what he is required to do, this indicates that he is a servant who is owned by Him… Therefore this is called service." And similarly he writes in Derekh Chayyim 1:2: "A slave has no existence of his own, but as he serves his master." Therefore, if he serves his master without will and knowledge, then even if he serves him with his organs and his body, nevertheless his mind and reason are not nullified to His service, and the principal part of the person, his reason, is not subservient to his Creator. For the essence of man is not his body, but rather his mind and reason. And as long as a person performs his service as a royal decree, his mind does not become part of his service. This is especially true of the sacrificial service, the essence of which is the effacement of the person bringing the sacrifice to God…” And similarly he writes in Netiv Ha-Avoda, chap. 1: "A person nullifies himself only with his mind, and when his mind does not join with his sacrifice, there is no nullification whatsoever. See that it is only with respect to sacrifices that are brought without the proper intent that the prophets cry out: ‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me…’ (Yeshayahu 1:11). And similarly: ‘Thus says the Lord… Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices, and eat meat… For I did not speak to your fathers, nor command them… concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices. But this thing I commanded them, saying: Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My People…’ (Yirmiyahu 7:21-23). We do not find that they cried out about the other mitzvot: To what purpose are your tzitzit, and the like. Rather, a sacrifice that does not involve effacement is not worth anything.

What still requires clarification is why it says "if" with respect to the building of the altar, and not with respect to the sacrifices themselves. Surely the essence of the service is the offering of the sacrifices, and not the building of the altar. The Vilna Gaon asked this question in Bereishit, chap. 2, on Rashi there, but his answer does not apply here. The matter requires further clarification.


When the Torah speaks of an Altar of Stones, is it referring to a Specific Altar?


            The two other places where mention is made of an altar of stones are in connection with Mount Eival:


And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, that you shall set up great stones and cover them with plaster. And you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah, when you are passed over, that you may go in to the land that the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you. And it shall be when you have gone over the Jordan that you shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, on Mount Eival, and you shall cover them with plaster. And there shall you built an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; the altar of the Lord you God of whole stones. And you shall offer burnt–offerings upon it to the Lord your God. (Devarim 27:2-6)


According to these verses, there is an explicit command to build an altar of stones on Mount Eival.[1]


The third mention is found in connection with the execution of this command in the book of Yehoshua:


Then Yehoshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel in Mount Eival, as Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel in the book of the Torah of Moshe, an altar of whole stones, over which no man lifted up any iron implement; and they offered on it burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace-offerings. (Yehoshua 8:30)


The emphasis here is on the fact that the altar on Mount Eival must be an altar of stones.


            The Ibn Ezra explains (in his long commentary to Shemot 20:22):


And the reason for "And if you shall make Me an altar of stones" is that it is as if He said: Make Me now an altar of earth, and if you merit to enter the Land [of Israel], then you shall build an altar of stones.


It is possible that the altar of earth was in active use while Israel wandered in the wilderness, when the Mishkan was mobile and had to be taken apart, whereas the more solid altar of stones expressed permanence, Israel's fixed presence in the land. An altar of earth did not require an act of building, but simply filling the empty space created by the brass framework of the altar with earth. An altar of stones, on the other hand, requires an act of building that creates a fixed structure in the place where it is built. This is expressed first and foremost in Eretz Yisrael, in one fixed place. (We expanded upon this in our discussion of the comments of R. D. Tz. Hoffman in shiur 175: The Names of the Outer Altar [IV] – The Altar of Earth [III]).


            Before the previously mentioned comment, the Ibn Ezra writes:


"And if you will make Me an altar of stones" – the altar which Moshe built in order to make a covenant with Israel with the blood of the covenant. And God commanded that they should build an altar of stones on the other side of the Jordan before they conquer the land and that they should write the entire Torah on the stones because many mitzvot depend on the land, and it was necessary to do so with their children when they entered the land, because of the mitzvot that depend on the land. And there they sacrificed peace-offerings and ate, as their fathers had done. (Shemot 20:21)


There seems to be a contradiction here as to whether only the altar built in Eretz Yisrael was built of stones, or whether also the altar built by Moshe at the foot of Mount Sinai was built of stones.


The Altar in Shilo, in Nov, in Givon, and in Jerusalem


            We cited above the view of R. Yishmael in the Mekhilta that building an altar of stones is obligatory. The Mekhilta there asks:


What then is meant by "And if you shall build Me an altar of stones"? Rather, if he wished to make it of stones, he may do so; of bricks, he may do so.


            The gemara in Zevachim (61b) says as follows:


R. Huna said in the name of Rav: The altar at Shilo was of stones. For it was taught: R. Elazar ben Yaakov said: Why is "stones" stated three times? One refers to that of Shilo, another to that of Nov and Givon, and the third to that of the Eternal House [in Jerusalem].


The gemara raises an objection from a baraita in Torat Kohanim, according to which the fire that descended from heaven in the days of Moshe remained on the brass altar until the days of Shelomo, which indicates that the altar in Shilo was made of brass and not of stones. The gemara answers by citing the view of R. Natan that the altar in Shilo was actually made of brass, but it was hollow and filled with stones.


            It is very interesting that R. Eliezer ben Yaakov's position is base on the mention of an altar of stones in Parashat Yitro and the double mention of such an altar in Parashat Ki-Tavo:


And there shall you build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; you shall not lift up any iron tool upon them. You shall build the altar of the Lord your God of whole stones, and you shall offer burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord your God. (Devarim 27:5)


Thus, the source for the fact that the altar in Shilo, Nov and Givon, and Jerusalem was built of stones is the Torah's command in Parashat Yitro and the command regarding the building of the altar on Mount Eival upon Israel's entry into the land.


In addition, it is interesting that the Gemara relates to Nov and Givon as a single entity, as Rashi writes there:


Nov and Givon – They are considered as one, since both are a bama and they were not sanctified.


It turns out then that after the Mishkan's first stop in Eretz Israel – in Gilgal – after the conclusion of the conquest and initial settlement of the country, the various altars at the next stops of the Mishkan were, according to this opinion, built of stones.[2]




            According to the plain sense of the verses, the text does not relate in any way to the form of the altar or to the materials of which it was made. As noted above, R. Natan maintained the interesting opinion that the altar in Shilo was made of a brass frame that was filled with stones. It stands to reason that in the Mishkan in the wilderness, the altar was made of brass and filled with earth, while in Shilo it reached the intermediate stage between the brass altar of the Mishkan and the stone altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is possible that building it from brass is meant to emphasize its being a vessel and not part of the structure and that this was not the place chosen by God for His permanent residence.


            According to this understanding, there is a great similarity between this intermediate situation and the fact that in Shilo, the Mishkan itself was an intermediate situation between the wilderness, where the roof of the Mishkan was made of curtains, and the Temple in Jerusalem, where the walls were made of stone. As the mishna puts it, the Mishkan in Shilo was "A house of stones on the bottom and curtains above" (Zevachim 112b).


            Thus, according to R. Natan, Shilo represents an intermediate reality, spiritual and physical, between the mobile reality of the wilderness and the fixed reality of the Temple, this finding expression both in the structure of the Mishkan and in the structure of the altar. What is interesting is that stones represent permanence both in the Mishkan and the altar, whereas the impermanence is represented by the curtains with respect to the Mishkan and by the brass framework with respect to the altar.


            The Rambam writes (Hilkot Beit Ha-Bechira 1:13): "The altar should only be made as a structure of stone. Although the Torah states, ‘You shall make Me an altar of earth,’ [that verse is interpreted to mean that] the altar must be in contact with the earth and not built on an arch or on a cave."[3]




            The verses do not relate in any way to the form of the altar or to the materials of which it was made in Nov.




            We find in II Divrei Ha-Yamim 1:3-6:


So Shlomo, and all the congregation with him went to the high place that was at Givon; for there was the Ohel Mo'ed of God, which Moshe the servant of the Lord had made in the wilderness… Moreover, the brass altar that Betzalel the son of Uri the son of Chur had made, he put before the Mishkan of the Lord; and Shelomo and the congregation sought to it. And Shelomo went up there to the brass altar before the Lord, which was the Ohel Mo'ed, and offered a thousand burnt-offerings upon it.


Accordingly, the altar in Givon was made of brass.


            This is also implied by the gemara in Zevachim:


The altar of stones that Shelomo made instead of the

brass altar was too small. (Zevachim 60a)


            And in Vayikra Rabba it says:


"And the fire of the altar shall be kept burning in it" (Vayikra 6:2) – It was taught in the name of R. Nechemya: The fire kept burning on it for close to a hundred and sixteen years. Its wood was not consumed and its brass was not smelted. (Vayikra Rabba 7:5)


            According to the Zayit Ra'anan commentary to Yalkut Shimoni (Tzav, 480), this calculation of 116 years includes the years of the Mishkan in the wilderness, in Gilgal, in Nov, and in Givon, but not the years in Shilo, where the altar was made of stones.


            According to this, R. Nechemya distinguishes between the altar in Shilo, which was made of stones, and that in Nov and Givon, which was the brass altar made by Betzalel. Apparently, R. Nechemya disagrees with R. Eliezer ben Yaakov and says that the law of an altar of stoneswas not taught with respect to Nov and Givon.


            Mention should be made of the Ramban’s view:


"And if you shall build an altar of stones" – If the time arrives that you should merit to inherit the land and to build for Me an altar of stones in the Temple, beware that you not build it of hewn stones. (Ramban, Shemot 20:21)


It is possible that according to the Ramban, even in Shilo it was not obligatory to build an altar of stones; this was only an option. The Malbim also maintains that the obligation to build an altar of stones began only with the building of the Temple, while until then it was merely an option.


The Altar in the First Temple


            The altar in the First Temple is usually called the brass altar. In the account of the building of the altar that appears only in Divrei Ha-Yamim,we find:

And he made an altar of brass, twenty cubits its length and twenty cubits its breadth and ten cubits in height. (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 4:1)


Regarding the dedication of the Temple, we find in I Melakhim:


On the same day did the king hallow the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord… because the altar of brass that was before the Lord was too small to receive the burnt-offerings and meal-offerings and the fat of the peace-offerings. (I Melakhim 8:64)


            The altar is also referred to as the brass altar in the days of Achaz (II Melakhim 16:15), as well as in the prophecy of Yechezkel in which he speaks of the abominations of the Temple (Yechezkel 9:2).[4]


            The gemara in Zevachim explains the verse in Melakhim according to the view of R. Yehuda:


The altar of stones that Shelomo made instead of the

brass altar was too small. (Zevachim 60a)


In other words, according to these verses, Shelomo hallowed the floor of the courtyard for offering sacrifices, and it was the new altar that Shelomo built that was too small, but even R. Yose agrees that Shelomo's altar was made of stones.


            Many Rishonim explained differently.     The Ralbag writes in his commentary to I Melakhim:

It was plated with brass, but under the brass there were whole stones, as is mentioned in the Torah. (8:64)


This is similarly the view of Rashi and R. Yosef Kara, ad loc.:


The altar of stones that Moshe built under the brass altar.


            The Shiltei Gibborim (chap. 26) notes that the altar of stones was enclosed with a framework built of cedar wood plated with brass. In any event, it is commonly accepted that the altar was an altar of stones plated with brass.


            The main discussion among the commentators relates to the meaning of the fact that the altar is called a brass altar, considering that the brass was merely plating for the stones.


Thus, when the Torah speaks of an altar of stones, it stands to reason that it is referring primarily to the fixed situation in Eretz Yisrael. In addition to its mention in the Torah in the command regarding the altar in Parashat Yitro, it is only in the command regarding the building of the altar on Mount Eival and in the execution of that command in Yehoshua 8 that explicit mention is made of an altar of stones.


It is interesting that according to Chazal, even though the matter is not explicit in the verses, the altars in the Mishkan at Shilo, Nov, Givon, and in the Temple were altars of stone. According to certain opinions (regarding Shilo and the Temple in Jerusalem), this means altars of stones plated with brass.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] At the present time we shall not address that section in depth or consider the relationship between the building of an altar of stones and the writing of the Torah on the stones.

[2] This issue is explained well in Shaarei Heikhal on Zevachim, no. 142, p. 492ff.

[3] The gemara in Zevachim 61b brings the additional opinion of R. Nachman bar Yitzchak, according to which there were two altars in Shilo, one of brass and one made entirely of stones.

[4] The gemara in Shabbat 55a cites the verses in Yechezkel and asks: "Was then the brass altar still in existence?" And it explains: "From the place where song is uttered before Me." And Rashi explains: “From the Levites who utter song to the accompaniment of musical instruments of brass.”