• Rav Yitzchak Levy



            In the previous shiur,we addressed the fundamental distinction between an altar of earth – which was temporary, portable, fit to be taken apart, and especially appropriate for Israel's wanderings in the wilderness – and the altar of stones – which expressed the permanence in the place where it was built. We discussed the view of Chazal that the altars that stood in the Mishkan at Shilo, Nov, and Givon and in the Temple in Jerusalem were altars of stones.


            It should be emphasized that stone altars were found not only at the various stations of the Mishkan, adjacent to the structure of the Mishkan itself, but also in various cities in open places that were not adjacent to the Mishkan. In this shiur,we will examine the stone altars that existed during the First Temple period, in some measure in light of the archaeological findings. In general, we can distinguish between three main materials used in the building of altars during the biblical period: earth, stone, and brass.


Distinction Between Altars of Earth, Stone, and Brass[1]


Altars of earth are found only among popular altars. Na'aman, commander of the army of Aram, alludes to such an altar in his words to Elisha:


And Na'aman said, “If not, let then I pray you, be given to your servant two mules' burden of earth; for your servant will henceforth offer neither burnt-offering nor sacrifice to other gods, but to the Lord.” (II Melakhim 5:17)


Yehuda Kil understands this verse as follows (Da'at Mikra commentary, ad loc.):


"Two mules' burden of earth" - That is, a load of earth that a pair of mules is capable of carrying on their backs. This was to build on this earth an altar to God. It is possible that he used the word "earth" in order to allude to the mitzva written in connection with the altar: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings and your peace-offerings" (Shemot 20:21).


Brass altars are mentioned only in the courtyards of the sanctuaries, as is stated explicitly with respect to the courtyard of the Mishkan (Shemot 27:2) and with respect to the courtyard of the Temple (I Melakhim 1:8, 64; II Melakhim 16:14; Yechezkel 9:2).


Stone altars are found both among popular altars and adjacent to sanctuaries. They constitute the majority of the altars that have been uncovered in archaeological excavations.[2] There is no explicit mention of altars made of bricks.[3]


In addition to the distinction discussed in the previous shiur between an altar of earth and an altar of stones, between temporary and permanent settings, and to some extent between the wilderness and Eretz Yisrael, Menachem Haran proposes an additional distinction in light of what was said above. In his opinion, the altar of earth is the popular altar, the altar of brass is the altar mentioned only in the courtyard of the Temple, and the altar of stones is found both in popular settings and adjacent to the Temple.


The Form of the Stone Altars


In the previous shiur,we saw that at the various stations of the Mishkan/Temple, there were stone altars. We shall now examine the different types of stone altars that are mentioned over the course of the First Temple period.[4]


Natural Rock as an Altar


In some cases, a natural rock serves as an altar, or the altar is essentially one large rock. When Gid'on encounters the angel, we read:


And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and lay them upon this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord stretched out the end of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes, and the fire rose up out of the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the Lord departed out of his sight. (Shofetim 6:20)


Although the term "altar" is not mentioned here, an offering is sacrificed on a rock and an angel of God appears to Gid'on while the fire consumes the sacrifice.


We similarly find with respect to Mano'ach:


So Mano'ach took the kid with the meal-offering and offered it upon the rock to the Lord; and the angel did wondrously and Mano'ach and his wife looked on. For it came to pass, when the flame went up toward heaven from off the altar, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar. (Shofetim 13:19-20)


This account is very similar to what happened with Gid'on, but here the rock is explicitly called an altar. Here too there is a revelation of an angel of God, an eating of the offering, and an angel of God ascending in the flame of the altar.


It is interesting that a number of altars cut into stone have been found in Eretz Yisrael. The altar discovered by Adam Zartal on Mount Eival requires separate discussion. We shall therefore relate here to two other altars: the altar found west of Tel Shilo in Givat Harel and the altar referred to as "the altar of Mano'ach," which was found at the foot of and to the east of Tel Tzor'a.


1. The Altar West of Shilo[5]


We are dealing here with a block of hewn stone with four horns projecting from the upper surface. The upper surface shows signs of artificial leveling, creating right angles between the horns and the area where the fire burnt on the top of the altar. The outer surfaces of the altar are not even, and they demonstrate considerable weathering. The upper surface of the altar is not a perfect square. It is possible that the hewers were forced to make do with an imperfect square owing to the circumstances of the natural rock.


The dimensions of the altar at their widest are 2.90/2.90/2.60/3.40 meters.


The ancients invested great effort in dressing the stone and toiled to fashion the four horns of the altar out of the bedrock. Note should be taken of the overall correspondence between the design and dimensions of this altar and the dimensions of the burnt-offering altar recorded in the Torah:


And you shall make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits wide, and the height of it shall be three cubits. (Shemot 27:1-2)


The altar's topographical location is not on the crest of the hill, but in the middle of its slope above the wadi. This does not accord with the classical biblical account of the Canaanite pagan ritual "on every high hill," "on the high mountains." It may match the monotheistic service of God; it accords with the location of the Mishkan at Shilo and the Mikdash on Mount Moriya, which were also not on the highest point in the area.


As for the direction of the altar, the corners face the four cardinal directions, i.e., north, south, east, and west, and the sides of the altar face the intercardinal directions, located halfway between the cardinal directions, i.e., north-west, north-east, south-west and south-east. The altar on Mount Eival is also situated in this manner, as opposed to the altar in the Mishkan and in the Temple, the sides of which face the four cardinal directions.


R. Yoel Bin Nun[6] has argued that the directionality of the altar in the Mishkan and in the Temple was a constraint that was caused by the proximity of the altar to the sanctuary, which was built on axes facing the cardinal directions. But when the altar was not built in proximity to the Mishkan or Temple, having its sides face the intercardinal directions accorded more closely with the Torah's laws governing the sacrifices. This altar may support this thesis.


2. The Altar at the Foot of Tel Tzor'a[7]


This altar is found below Tel Tzor'a to the east, in what is today the end of the industrial area located at Shimshon Junction. This altar has been known for decades as "Mano'ach's altar." The altar was hewn in the rock outside the city. It lacks horns. There are two points on the sides of the altar where the altar narrows. This creates two galleries that go around the altar. Etched on the top are holes that are connected by channels.


The dimensions of the altar are 1.50/3.00/2.50 meters. It is located under the tel on the slope of the hill. The corners of the altar face the four cardinal directions, while the sides face the intercardinal directions.


Thus, there are certain similarities between this altar and the altar located to the west of Shilo: its dimensions, its location on the slope of the hill and not at the top of the tel, and its directionality.


Both of these altars confirm the fact that in ancient times, use was made of stone altars. The archaeological evidence does not allow for a precise dating of these altars. They may belong to the period of the First Temple, but there is no hard proof to support this.


A Large Rock as an Altar


1. Bet-Shemesh


When the Pelishtim return the ark and it reaches Bet-Shemesh, we find:


And the cart came into the field of Yehoshua, a man of Bet-Shemesh, and stood there, where there was a great stone; and they split the wood of the cart, and offered the cows as a burnt-offering to the Lord. And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord, and the box that was with it, in which were the devices of gold, and put them on the great stone. And the men of Bet-Shemesh offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord. (I Shmuel 6:14-15)


The verse does not explicitly state that the offering was sacrificed on the great stone, but it stands to reason that the mention of the great stone in connection with the splitting of wood and the offering of cows as burnt-offerings to God alludes to the possibility that the sacrifice were indeed offered there. On the other hand, immediately afterwards it is mentioned that the ark of the Lord and the box with the gold devices were placed on the great stone, and in addition they offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed sacrifices in some unspecified location.


Did the great stone serve at different stages both for offering sacrifices and for placement of the ark? Or did it only receive the ark, while the sacrifices were offered some place else nearby? It is difficult to decide the matter, but in any event, in this passage, the word altar is not mentioned.


2. After Shaul's victory over the Pelishtim


We read as follows:


And the people flew upon the spoil, and took sheep, and oxen, and calves, and slew them on the ground; and the people did eat them with the blood. Then they told Shaul, saying, “Behold, the people sin against the Lord, in that they eat with the blood.” And he said, “You have transgressed; roll a great stone to me this day.” And Shaul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people, and say to them, ‘Bring me here every man his ox, and every man his sheep, and slay them here, and eat; and sin not against the Lord in eating with the blood.’” And all the people brought every man his ox with him that night, and slew them there. And Shaul built an altar to the Lord; that was the first altar that he built to the Lord. (I Shmuel 14:32-35)


The great stone is clearly presented here in contrast to and as a rectification of the people's eating with the blood.[8]


It is reasonable to assume, even though this is not stated explicitly in the verses, that the sacrifices offered by Shaul were offered on the great stone. Rashi (ad loc.) explains:


"Great stone" – He made a bama to sprinkle blood and burn fats on it.


And similarly the Radak:


Therefore, Shaul commanded to roll a great stone and to slaughter, so that the blood would be well channeled and drained.


The phrases, "and slay them here" and "they slew them there," also seem to refer to the stone, although this is not stated explicitly.


At the end of the passage cited above, mention is made of an altar, and it is very reasonable to assume (although, once again, this is not stated explicitly) that the offering of the sacrifice and slaying of the oxen and sheep on the great stone was the initial use of the altar referred to here, and not that the altar was built only after the fact and for future use.


The Ralbag (ad loc.) writes:


That stone was the beginning of the building, and there he built an altar afterwards to serve as a reminder of the miracle that was performed for them.


In other words, at a later stage, the stone served as an altar in order to remember the miracle.


R. Joseph Caspi understands that this altar was not meant for burnt-offerings or sacrifices.


As part of Adoniya’s attempt to rule as king, we find as follows:


And Adoniyahu slaughtered sheep and oxen and fat cattle by the stone of Zochelet, which is by Ein-Rogel, and called all his brethren, the king's sons, and all the men of Yehuda, the king's servants. (I Melakhim 1:9)


Why does Scripture mention the slaughter "by the stone of Zochelet" if the place is identified as Ein-Rogel? Here too there is no explicit mention of an altar, and it is possible to suggest that there is a connection between the sacrifice and the stone that is mentioned.


In this context, it is interesting to consider the actions of the prophet Shmuel during the second war against the Pelishtim. On the one hand, it is stated:


And Shmuel took a sucking lamb and offered it for a burnt-offering wholly to the Lord; and Shmuel cried to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord heard him. (I Shmuel 7:9)


On the other hand, it is later stated:


Then Shmuel took a stone, and set it between Mitzpa and Shen, and called the name of it Even-ha-Ezer, saying, “Hitherto the Lord has helped us.” (ibid. v. 12)


On the face of it, there is no connection between the two matters. On the one hand, there is a sacrifice; on the other hand, there is the placing of a stone. A stone is used not only for the offering of sacrifices, but in some cases also as a memorial, as a sign, as testimony for future generations about a significant event that is important to remember.


This is what Yehoshua did when he set up stones in the Jordan, in Gilgal, in the Akhor valley, in Ai, and in Makeda, in order to serve as a memorial for different things:


That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty; that you might fear the Lord your God forever. (Yehoshua 4:24)


R. Joseph Caspi explains Shmuel's action in this manner:


"Then Shmuel took a stone" – similar to Yehoshua's command (Yehoshua 24:26). This was all to serve as a reminder for them and for those coming after them. And similarly with Yaakov (Bereishit 28:18). And the proof is the twelve stones that Yehoshua set up in Gilgal (Yehoshua 4:8). Also the pattern of the altar of the children of Reuven and the children of Gad (Yehoshua 22:28). (I Shmuel 7:12)


It turns out that just as altars serve both for the offering of sacrifices and as testimony or a memorial, so too stones serve both for the offering of sacrifices and as testimony or a memorial.


A Stone as a Pillar


In several places, we find that a large stone served as a pillar. We find this in the Torah in connection with Yaakov in several contexts. In Bet-El:


And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it… And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to You. (Bereishit 28:18-22)


In Yaakov's covenant with Lavan:


And Yaakov took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. And Yaakov said to his brethren, “Gather stones;” and they took stones, and made a heap; and they did eat there upon that heap… “This heap will be a witness, and this pillar will be a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and that you shall not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, for harm…” Then Yaakov offered sacrifice upon the mount, and called his brethren to eat bread. (Bereishit 31:45-54)


So too, the pillar that Yaakov built upon his return from Charan:


And Yaakov set up a pillar in the place where he talked with Him, a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Yaakov called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bet-El. (Bereishit 35:14-15)


Without examining these stories in depth,[9] it is clear that we have here stones that are set up as pillars both for ritual purposes and to bear witness.


An Altar Built of Multiple stones


Thus far, we have discussed the use of rocks and large stones as altars. Now I would like to examine the matter of altars built of multiple stones.


The simplest form of this type of altar is the heap. An example of this is the heap of stones erected by Yaakov on Mount Gil'ad and called by him Gal-Ed.


Another place that we find an altar of this type is in the book of Yehoshua:


And Yehoshua said to them, “Pass over before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel: that this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, “What mean you by these stones?” Then you shall answer them, “That the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.” And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever. And the children of Israel did as Yehoshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, as the Lord spoke to Yehoshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them to the place where they lodged, and laid them down there. And Yehoshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood: and they are there to this day. (Yehoshua 4:5-9)


The twelve stones described here represent the tribes of Israel; there job is to serve as a memorial for the children of Israel forever. In addition to the stones set up in the place where Bnei Yisrael lodged, Yehoshua set up twelve stones in the Jordan River in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood.


Here, too, there is no mention of an altar. But the most important point for our purposes is, of course, the ritual use of the stones, reflected in the fact that an event that occurred in a particular place was marked by a stone or stones that were set up in that place. We find this twice with Yaakov in Bet-El, another time with Yaakov in Gil'ad, and again with Yehoshua in the Jordan River and in the place where Bnei Yisrael lodged.


The places themselves, by virtue of the stones, become permanent perpetuations of the memory of some miracle or testimony that has significance for future generations. This is expressed in the dimension of permanence associated with stone. Some of the events are communal, while others are more personal. In any event, in Yehoshua, the memorial stones are not called an altar, and there is no offering of sacrifices of any kind.


Eliyahu's Altar


When the prophet Eliyahu tests the priests of the Ba'al on Mount Carmel, he proposes that they should call on the name of their gods, and he will call on the name of the God of Israel:


“And call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answers by fire, let him be God.” And all the people answered and said, “It is well spoken.” (I Melakhim 18:24)


After the priests of the Ba'al fail, Scripture describes what Eliyahu does as follows:


And Eliyahu said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down. And Eliyahu took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Yaakov, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Yisrael shall be your name;” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he made a ditch about the altar… Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt-sacrifice, and the wood pile, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell to their faces, and they said, “The Lord, He is the God; the Lord, He is the God.” (ibid. vv. 30-39)


From all this we see, first of all, that Eliyahu's contest with the prophets of the Baal was by way of God's revelation at the altar. Second, we find here an altar of twelve stones that represent the tribes of Israel, similar to the stones that Yehoshua commanded be set up in the Jordan and at Israel's place of lodging.[10]


Prof. Yoel Elitzur makes an interesting remark regarding the meager archaeological finds regarding burnt-offering altars (apart from the two altars mentioned above and the altar on Mount Eival):[11]


A large part of the ritual was conducted on natural rock surfaces, on large stones, or on an altar of earth (Shemot 20:21), which in all likelihood would not be preserved. The first type can be found, for example, in the incident involving Mano'ach and the angel – "And he offered it upon the rock to the Lord" (Shoftim 13:19) – and in the archaeological findings, perhaps in the heaps in western Jerusalem. The second type in the great stone mentioned in the battle of Michmash (I Shmuel 14:33). And the third kind in the words of Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram (II Melakhim 5:17). Yet, it is doubtful whether these solutions suffice. The books of the Bible explicitly mention certainly not only the ritual itself, but also the building of altars, the demolition of altars, and altar stones.

In the story of Gid'on (Shofetim 6), the initial revelation involves a sacrifice of meat and unleavened cakes on stone, but in that same place an altar is then built and another altar is demolished. The great stone upon which King Shaul offered a sacrifice later became a real altar (I Shmuel 14:35). In the incident involving Eliyahu on Mount Carmel (I Melakhim 18), offerings are made in an open area "containing two measures of seed," which is surrounded by a ditch that was hastily prepared. But there is also a broken down altar that was restored and an (additional?) altar made of twelve great stones. The bottom line is that the hundreds of references in Scripture to an altar indicate that there is no easy solution to the problem. It might be argued that altars made of whole stones upon which no iron tools were lifted (Shemot 20:22; Devarim 27:5) are not likely to be preserved, or that it is difficult to distinguish between them and ordinary heaps of stones. But the altar of earth discovered in Arad and the altar on Mount Eival teach us that even altars made of bricks or undressed stones can be preserved. It may be assumed that the absence of altars is the result of the broad and massive project of Chizkiya, and especially of Yoshiyahu, who were exceedingly thorough in their purification of the land of all altars, as is attested to by Scripture. In this case, however, it may be asked why the incense altars were not similarly destroyed.   It should also be mentioned that in at least two archaeological contexts, altars built for the sake of the God of Israel were buried and not destroyed. The finding that we present here does not solve the problem; but it improves the balance. The altar under discussion was well-preserved and it joins the two large altars hewn in stone that were previously found.


Prof. Elitzur notes that a large part of the sacrificial ritual was conducted on natural rock surfaces, on large stones, or on altars of earth that are not likely to be preserved.


A second point that he makes is that a rock surface used for sacrifice may later become an altar (as in the cases of Gid'on and Shaul, and to a certain extent also that of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel).


As for the fact that the many altars mentioned in the Bible have not been preserved, he argues that altars made of whole stones are not likely to be preserved. Furthermore, Yoshiyahu's wiping out of all ritual outside the Temple, as is mentioned in Scripture, offers a limited explanation of the paucity of archaeological findings.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In this survey, we follow the summary of Menachem Horn in Encyclopedia Mikra'it, vol. IV, s.v. mizbe'ach, pp. 769ff.

[2] Of course, mention is also made of the golden altar, i.e., the incense altar, but we will not relate to that altar for the time being.

[3] An altar of this type was found in a Canaanite temple in Layer IX in Beit-Shean.

[4] It is not our intention at this stage to deal with the history of the sacrificial service at these altars in chronological order. We shall deal with this issue in a later shiur.

[5] The explanation regarding this altar is taken from an article of Doron Nir and Yoel Elitzur, "Mizbe'ach Chatzuv Be-Sela Mi-Ma'arav Le-Shilo," Mechkarei Yehuda Ve-Shomron 12. Pictures and additional information can be found in this Wikipedia article.

[7] For pictures and additional information see the Wikipediaarticle.

[8] This issue requires lengthy discussion. The commentators (ad loc.) elaborate on the matter.

[9] In a future shiur, we will expand on the matter of a pillar and on the relationship between an altar and a pillar.

[10] We have not analyzed any of these incidents. Our sole purpose was to survey the appearance of altars and stones and to consider their significance.

[11] In the article mentioned in note 5.