• Rav Yitzchak Levy



In the previous shiurim, we discussed the Torah's command in Parashat Yitro following the Ten Commandments: "And if you will make Me an altar of stones."We addressed the question of why the Torah introduces the commandment with an “if” clause, as well as the question of whether the reference here is to a specific altar or is general command.


We saw that in practice, the altars in the Mishkan in its various stations in Eretz Yisrael – Shilo, Nov, and Giv'on – as well as the altar in Shelomo's Temple on Mount Moriya, were stone altars. In addition, we saw that stone altars are mentioned in the Bible in different places and in different contexts. These are both private and public altars, and they are found in different forms – bedrock, a large stone, or multiple stones.[1]


In this shiur, I wish to go back to the Torah's commandment:


And if you will make Me an altar of stones, you shall not build it of hewn stone; for if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it. (Shemot 20:21)


This prohibition forbids the building of the altar with hewn stones. What exactly is included in this prohibition? Why does lifting up a sword upon the stones disqualify them? In this shiur, I wish to discuss these questions and their ramifications.


The Torah's Commandment and its Execution on Mount Eival and in the Temple


            Regarding the building of the altar on Mount Eival, the Torah states:


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…. (Devarim 27:5)


While in Shemot the Torah speaks of the stones not being hewn and it mentions a sword, the command in Devarim speaks of a prohibition to lift up an iron tool upon the stones and it says that the altar must be built of whole stones.


In the report of the execution of the command in the book of Yehoshua, the formulation of the commandment is not exactly the same as in Devarim:


As Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the Torah of Moshe, an altar of whole stones, over which no man lifted up any iron instrument. (Yehoshua 8:31)[2]


When Shelomo built the First Temple, we read:


And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought there: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was being built. (I Melakhim 6:7)


            According to the plain understanding, Shelomo extended the ban to the entire Temple; thus, Scripture notes that no sound of iron tools was heard at the entire building site. One possible understanding of this expansion of the prohibition is connected to the perception of the sanctity of the place. In Shelomo's days, God chooses a place for the first time, and therefore Shelomo decides not to use an iron tool on the entire expanse of ​​Mount Moriya because of the sanctity of the place that was introduced during his time.


            The mishna in tractate Middot describes the building of the Second Temple as follows:


The stones both of the ramp and of the altar were taken from the valley of Beit Kerem. They dug into virgin soil and brought from there whole stones over which no iron had been lifted, since iron disqualifies by mere touch, though a scratch made by anything could disqualify. If one of them received a scratch, it was disqualified, but the rest were not. They were whitewashed twice a year… The plaster was laid on with a trowel of iron, for fear that it might touch and disqualify, since iron was created to shorten man's days and the altar was created to prolong man's days, and it is not right therefore that that which shortens should be lifted against that which prolongs. (Middot 3:4)


We see, then, that the prohibition of using iron tools was a fundamental issue in the building of the altar and the Temple, both in the Mishkan and in the First and Second Temples.


The Parameters of the Prohibition


The Mekhilta (ad loc.) states:


Gazit means trimmed - that an iron tool was lifted up upon them.


According to the simple understanding of the Mekhilta, it seems that the prohibition is limited to the case in which the stones were trimmed with an iron tool.


The Ramban in his commentary to the Torah adopts this approach, which emphasizes that the essence of the prohibition is the lifting up of the iron tool. According to him, the goal of the prohibition is to distance iron tools from the altar. After citing other explanations, he writes:


And I say that the reason for the mitzva is that iron is used in the making of a sword (cherev), and it destroys (machariv) the world, and therefore it is called by that name. Now Esav who is hated by God (Malachi 1:3) inherited the sword, as it was said to him: "And by your sword you shall live" (Bereishit 27:40). And the sword is his strength in heaven and on earth… And therefore it shall not enter God's house.

And this is the reason that Scripture mentions in explanation of why you shall not build [the altar] of hewn stones. For when you lift up an iron tool upon them to fashion them, you lift up upon them your sword, which kills and increases the dead, and you defile it.

And for this reason, there was no iron in the Mishkan, for even its pegs, which would have been better had they been made of iron, were made of brass. And similarly in the Temple, there were no iron implements, except for the knives, because slaughter is not part of the service. And Scripture only prohibits building with hewn stones, when iron tools are lifted up upon them, as it explains: "For if you lift up you sword upon it"; and it is stated explicitly: "You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them." But if he comes to chisel them with a silver tool or with the shamir that was mentioned by our Rabbis (Sota 48b), this is permitted, even though the stones are not whole. This refutes the reason given by R. Abraham [Ibn Ezra]. Also the reason given by the Master [the Rambam] is incorrect because of this.


How Does an Iron Tool Disqualify the Stone?


Is a stone disqualified only when it is cut by an iron tool, or even when it merely comes into contact with it? The Rambam discusses the prohibition in Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira:


Any stone which is damagedto the extent that a nail will become caught in it [when passing over it], as is the case regarding a slaughtering knife, is disqualified for [use in the] altar or the ramp, as it is stated: "You shall build the altar of the Lord with whole stones." From where would they bring the stones of the altar? From virgin earth. They would dig until they reach a point which was obviously never used for tilling or for building, and they would take the stones from there. Alternatively, [they would take them] from the Mediterranean Sea and build with them. Similarly, the stones in the Temple and the courtyard were whole.

Damaged or split stones in the Temple and the courtyard are invalid.They can not be redeemed [and used for mundane purposes]. Rather, they must be entombed. Every stone which was touched by iron, even though it was not damaged, is disqualified [for use] in building the altar or the ramp, as it is stated: "For if you lift up your sword against it, you have defiled it." Anyone who builds the altar or the ramp with a stone that has been touched by iron [violates a negative command and] is [given] lashes, as it is stated: "Do not build them with hewn stone." And one who builds with a damaged stone violates a positive command. (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 1:14-15)


            The Rambam expands the prohibition and prohibits all contact with an iron tool. What we have here is absolute distancing, so that the altar should have no connection whatsoever to iron.


Additional Halakhic Ramifications


An interesting and original ramification of the Torah's assertion, "for if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it," is presented by the Chizkuni in connection with the pinching off (melika) of a bird's head in a bird burnt-offering:


By the priest himself, since he is at the top of the altar; and not with a knife, as it is written: "For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it." (Vayikra 1:15, s.v. u-malak)


A question may be raised: All of the sacrifices were slaughtered at the rings located to the north of the altar, and the slaughter was performed with knives. In what way is the pinching of a bird's head different than the slaughter of the rest of the sacrifices?


An answer may be suggested in light of a Talmudic passage in Zevachim (65a):


"And pinch off [its head], and make it smoke [on the altar]" - as making it smoke is done on the top of the altar, so is pinching done on the top of the altar.


In other words, what is unique about the pinching off of the bird's head is that it is performed on the top of the altar. This being the case, argues the Chizkuni, a knife may not be used, "for if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it."  While it is true that the priest would not bring the knife itself into contact with the altar, the very fact that he brings it near the top of the altar is considered as if contact were made with the altar. Therefore, the pinching may not be performed with a knife, but only with the hands of the priests.


Another interesting ramification of this rule is found in the words of the Rokei'ah (no. 332). The Rokei'ah discusses a passage in the Mekhilta that brings the words of R. Shimon ben Elazar, who says that the altar was created to extend man's life and iron was created to shorten it, and therefore one is not permitted to wave that which shortens life over that which extends it. The Rokei'ah concludes from this that one should cover the knife that is on the table while reciting the Grace after Meals, since the table is treated like an altar (Chagiga 27a).


The Torah Temima (no. 132), in his comment on this passage in the Mekhilta, cites the words of the Magen Avraham (end of sec. 180), who writes that on Shabbat, one need not cover the knife, since there is no building in the Temple on Shabbat. He notes that if this is so, then also at night it should not be necessary to cover the knife, because there is no building in the Temple at night. Another question that may be raised is why this rule should apply only while reciting the Grace after Meals. Also, the comparison drawn between the altar and a table for this purpose is problematic, for if the comparison is valid, then leaven and honey should also not be brought to the table, just as they may not be brought on the altar!


Rather, the matter of covering the knife is certainly meant merely as an allusion. Just as in the time of the Temple the altar would atone because the sacrifice is an expression of man's gratitude to God, and we find that the word akhila (eating, consumption) is used in connection with the altar, so too when the righteous eat in order to strengthen themselves so that they may better serve God and they thank God for what they have eaten, they achieve atonement. But this does not mean that all the detailed laws governing the altar are applied to a table.


The Altar as a Table


            The similarity between the altar and one's table stems from the fact that the altar consumes the sacrifices that are offered on it, just like a person eats at his table. Eating is also connected to the atonement that is achieved through the consumption of the offerings, which parallels the consumption of the food eaten by the person.


This idea is already found in the words of the prophets. Thus, the prophet Yechezkel, in his description of the future Temple, says:


The altar, three cubits high, and two cubits long was of wood: and it had corners; and its length and its wall were of wood: and he said to me, “This is the table that is before the Lord.” (Yechezkel 41:22)


And later:


They shall enter into My sanctuary, and they shall come near to My table, to minister to Me, and they shall keep My charge. (Yechezkel 44:16)


We similarly find in the words of the prophet Malachi:


You offer disgusting bread upon My altar; and you say, “In what have we polluted You?” In that you say, “The table of the Lord is contemptible.” (Malachi 1:7)


And in the wake of this, the gemara states:


For it is stated: "The altar, three cubits high, and two cubits long was of wood: and it had corners; and its length and its wall were of wood: and he said to me, ‘This is the table that is before the Lord.’" [The verse] begins with the altar and ends with the table! R. Yochanan and R. Elazar both said: While the Temple still stood, the altar used to make atonement for a man, but now that the Temple no longer stands, a man's table makes atonement for him. (Menachot 97a)




Meaning of the Word


The Mekhilta (ad loc.) states:


"You shall not build it of hewn stone (gazit)". Gazit means trimmed, that an iron tool was lifted up upon them.


According to this understanding, the word gazit is derived from the root g-z-h, which is similar to g-z-z, which means cut. The Ibn Ezra offers a similar explanation in his long commentary:


The word gazit is related to "He went up to his sheep shearers [gozezei]" (Bereishit 38:12); "And wretchedness, it is soon cut off [gaz]" (Tehillim 90:10); and "Even so they shall be cut down [nagozu], and it shall pass away" (Nachum 1:12). It means "to cut." [You must use] only whole stones, as they were created.


The Appearance of the Word in the Bible


In most places, the word is used to describe a grand building. It first appears in connection with the building of the house of God:


And the king commanded and they quarried great stones, costly stones, to lay the foundation of the house with hewn stone.  (5:31)


            The reference here is clearly to the house, and not to the altar, as it is only the altar that may not be built with hewn stones, and not the structure of the house itself.


And David commanded to gather together the strangers that were in the land of Israel; and he set masons to hew hewn stones to build the house of God. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:2)


The house of the king:


All these were of costly stones, according to the measures of hewn stones, sawed with saws, within and without, even from the foundation unto the coping, and so on the outside unto the great court. (I Melakhim 7:9)


In the Temple of Yechezkel:


Moreover, there were four tables for the burnt-offering, of hewn stone… (Yechezkel 40:42)


The prophet Amos describes a grand building project:


You have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them. (Amos 5:11)


The prophet Yeshaya compares building with hewn stones to building with bricks:


The bricks are fallen, but we will build with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down, but cedars will we put in their place. (Yeshayahu 9:9)


In the book of Eikha:


He has enclosed my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked.  (Eikha 2:9)


            Based on the verses dealing with the house of the king, the commentators explain that hewn stones had a fixed dimension, and therefore the verse refers to "the measures of hewn stones." In any event, it is clear that we are dealing with trimmed stones that were used in important buildings: in the house of God, in the house of the king, and in the private houses of wealthy individuals. It is clear from the verses that building with hewn stones is more grandiose than building with bricks.


Whole Stones


            Whole stones are mentioned in relation to the altar at Mount Eival, both in the Torah's command and in the execution in the book of Yehoshua. The command reads:


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 thereon to the Lord your God. (Devarim 27:5)


And in the execution:


Then Yehoshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, in Mount Eival, as Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the Torah of Moshe, an altar of whole stones, over which no man lifted up any iron instrument. (Yehoshua 8:30-31)


            The expression even sheleima, "whole stone," is mentioned in the Torah in another context as well:


A perfect and just weight (even sheleima)shall you have. (Devarim 25:15)


And in the book of Mishlei it says:


A false balance is an abomination to the Lord; but a perfect weight (even sheleima) is His delight. (Mishlei 11:1)


It is also mentioned with respect to the house of God built by Shelomo:


For the house, when it was in building, was built of stone (even sheleima)made ready at the quarry; and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building. (I Melakhim 6:7)


Here, too, even sheleima is connected to the building of the Temple and to the absence of the sounding of iron tools.


Regarding the connection between even sheleima and justice, the Ibn Ezra explains (ad loc.):


Sheleima – that there be nothing missing. "And a just measure" – that it be like the market measures. "That your days may be lengthened" – for it is known that every just kingdom will endure, because justice is like building and perversion is like demolition, the moment the wall falls.


Ibn Ezra notes the correspondence between justice and building. When a building is constructed with whole stones that are not defective in any way, it will stand, and therefore the blessing for observance of the mitzvot is that your days will be extended in the land which the Lord your God gives you.


The Netziv comments on this verse (s.v. even sheleima ve-tzedek)":


In addition to being whole for selling and for purchasing (this accords with the prohibition in Devarim 25:13: "You shall not have in your bag diverse weights, a great and a small"), it should also be just (that is, its weight should be precisely the weight inscribed upon it), and when it is just, its reward will come along with it.


The Abravanel cites Ibn Caspi, who offers a different explanation regarding whole stones:


The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted the altar to be built of whole stones, in their natural form, without being given an artificial form, because natural is superior to artificial. And therefore the word pasul (carved, disqualified) is used for it, because when something is removed from its natural wholeness, it is called pasul. Therefore, it says about the second set of tablets: "And he carved two tablets of stone," because Moshe carved them, and thus they were the opposite of the first set which were in their natural form. He therefore commands that if we make an altar of stones, we should leave them in the form that they were given by wise nature, because all natural things necessarily reflect the wisdom of God.


Unlike those commentators who connect the idea of whole stones to justice, Ibn Caspi emphasizes that a whole stone is in its natural state, untouched by human hands, and that things in their natural state are superior to things that were processed by man.


The altar should express the divine natural world, and its construction by man comes to connect human endeavor to God. Therefore, the altar is built with whole, natural stones, as they were created and untouched by man.


This understanding is consistent with the words of Ibn Ezra quoted above:


 Whole stones, as they were created.


Regarding the stones used in the house of God constructed by Shelomo, R. Yehuda and R. Nechemya disagree in the gemara (Sota 48b) whether or not the stones were split with the shamir, a worm which tradition relates had the power of splitting the hardest stone. The mishna in Avot (5:6) counts the shamir among the ten things that were created on Friday evening at dusk. On the other hand, the mishna in Sota 9:12 states: "When the Temple was destroyed, the shamir ceased."


The gemara in Sota defines shamir as follows:


Our Rabbis taught: The shamir is a creature about the size of a barley-corn, and was created during the six days of Creation. No hard substance can withstand it…

We may not write with ink upon these stones, because it is said: "Like the engravings of a signet," nor cut into them with a knife because it is said: "In their settings." But he writes with ink upon them, shows the shamir [the written strokes] on the outside, and these split of their own accord, like a fig which splits open in summer and nothing at all is lost, or like a valley which splits asunder in the rainy season and nothing at all is lost. (48b)


The gemara brings a dispute between R. Yehuda and R. Nechemya:


Our Rabbis taught: With the shamir Shelomo built the Temple, as it is stated: "And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry." The words are to be understood as they are written; such is the statement of R. Yehuda. Rabbi Nechemya asked him: Is it possible to say so? Has it not been stated: "All these were of costly stones… sawed with saws"? If that be so, why is there a text to state: "There was neither hammer, nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in the building"? [It means] that they prepared them outside and brought them within. Rabbi said: The statement of R. Yehuda is probable in connection with the stones of the Sanctuary, and the statement of R. Nechemya in connection with Shelomo's house.


According to this gemara, the shamir was a creature that allowed Shelomo to build the Temple without hewing the stones. In this way, the Torah's command not to build the altar with hewn stones was fulfilled in a miraculous manner.


In this shiur, we began our study of the prohibition against raising an iron tool over the stones of the altar. In the next shiur, we shall consider the spiritual meaning of this prohibition.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] We have dealt with a detailed description of the stone altar found on Mount Eival. We will address this issue in a future shiur.

[2] The manner in which this commandment was executed in the First and Second Temples will be discussed below.