LECTURE 180: THE NAMES OF THE OUTER ALTAR (IX) – THE ALTAR OF STONES (IV)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Introduction

 

            In the previous shiur, we tried to understand the significance of building with hewn stones and the relationship between building with hewn stones and building with whole stones. In this shiur, we shall complete the discussion of this issue.

 

            The Torah explains the prohibition to build the altar with hewn stones as follows: "For if you lift up your sword [cherev] upon it, you have defiled it" (Shemot 20:21). The Ibn Ezra comments:

 

Know that the word cherev is a generic term for anything made of iron to cut with. The phrases "upon it" and "you have defiled it" refer to each and every stone.

 

            The Mekhilta De-Rashbi (ad loc.) adds:

 

"For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it" – it is defiled, but the altar is not defiled. From here [the Sages] said: Any stone that came into contact or was scratched with an iron tool to the extent that [the nick] catches a nail, as with a shekhita knife, is disqualified for the altar and for the ramp.

 

            The Abravanel explains:

 

Others explain: Cherev, in its plain sense, [i.e., a sword]. For it was the customary practice of the heathens that when they built an altar, they would make incisions [on their bodies] on it with spears and swords. Therefore, it says: "For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it," for the defilement follows from the shedding of human blood on it…

 

            As opposed to the Ibn Ezra and the Mekhilta which emphasize the impairment of each individual stone, the Abravanel notes the impairment of the altar as a whole.

 

            How does the sword defile the stone?     The assumption is that the altar is sacred and that it symbolizes justice and life. Trimming the stone with an iron tool that is used for killing defiles the stone and disqualifies it from being fixed into the sacred structure of the altar. The sword imprints the stone with a seal of sin and death.

 

            The Midrash (ad loc.) states:

 

"For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it" – If you have lifted up your sword upon it, you have defiled it. We have heard the punishment, but a warning we have not heard. Therefore it states: "You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them" (Devarim 27:5).[1]

 

Why is it Forbidden to Build the Altar with Hewn Stones?

 

1. The altar extends man's life, as opposed to iron, which shortens his days

 

            Why is it forbidden to build the altar with hewn stones? The simple answer to this question is given by the Torah: "For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it."

 

            The Mekhilta (ad loc.) expands upon this:

 

"For you have lifted up your sword upon it." From here R. Shimon ben Elazar said: The altar was created to lengthen man's years, while iron was created to shorten them. One may not lift up that which shortens [man's life] upon that which lengthens it. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai said. Surely it says: "You shall build the altar of the Lord your God of whole [sheleimot] stones," stones which cast peace [shalom]. The matter is a kal va-chomer: Now if the stones of the altar, which cannot see, or hear, or speak, because it makes peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: "You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them," one who makes peace between a man and his fellow, between a man and his wife, between city and city, between nation and nation, between government and government, between family and family, all the more so will no calamity befall him.

 

            R. Shimon ben Elazar sees a fundamental contradiction between the altar and iron. Accordingly, one is not permitted to lift up that which shortens life upon that which extends it. What does R. Shimon mean when he says that the altar was created to extend man's years?

 

            It may be suggested that the altar is the site where man can achieve atonement for his sins, and thus extend his life. In similar fashion, the Yerushalmi states:

 

"Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Bereishit 2:7) – R. Yuda ben Pazi said: The Holy One, blessed be He, took a tarvad-full of dust from the site of the altar and created with it the first man, saying, O, that he should be created from the site of the altar, so that he may endure. This is what is written: "Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth," and it is written: "An altar of earth you shall make for Me." Just as the earth mentioned there is the altar, so too here it is the altar. (Yerushalmi, Nazir 7:2)

 

            In other words, it is precisely because man was created from dust taken from the site of the altar that he has been able to endure. So too in our context, owing to the possibility of atonement, the altar extends man's years, whereas a sword is used in war shortens man's years, as it is an instrument of death.

 

            In similar fashion, the Minchat Chinukh explains the prohibition in more general terms:

 

The root of the mitzva is that we should establish in our souls from the day it is fashioned that because of it we can attain pardon of sin, blessing, and peace. Therefore, to remember this, we are commanded not to do anything to it with tools that are meant for destruction, i.e., iron which cuts and which is always ready to shed blood.

 

2. The stones of the altar make peace between Israel and their father in Heaven[2]

 

            R. Yochanan ben Zakkai follows a different approach. He expounds the word (sheleimot) inthe verse: "You shall build the altar of the Lord your God of whole [sheleimot] stones; and you shall offer burnt-offerings upon it to the Lord your God" (Devarim 27:6), in the sense of peace [shalom]. The stones make peace between Israel and their father in Heaven. What does this mean?

 

            It may be suggested that the essence of every sacrifice is the closeness that it generates between man and God, whether it is a free-will offering or an offering brought in the wake of a sin (a burnt-offering, a sin-offering, or a guilt-offering), and certainly if it is a peace-offering, which by definition is related to peace. Regarding a peace-offering, this is stated explicitly by R. Shimon in the Tosefta:

 

Peace-offerings – for all are at peace with it, [part] of it going to the altar, [part] of it going to the priests, and [part] of it going to the owner. (Tosefta Zevachim 11:1)

 

            In other words, the very fact that a peace-offering is divided between the altar, the priests, and the owner connects it to peace. This is in addition to the fact that it is sometimes brought as a free-will offering.

 

From this perspective, every offering, inasmuch as it is an expression of unmediated intimacy with God, brings peace.

 

Another possible way of understanding this is that the altar brings peace through the sacrifices brought upon it, whose purpose is the repair and atonement of man's sins.

 

The reality of sin is a reality of separation between Israel - both the individual and the community – and God. The repair of the sin through the offering of a sacrifice gives expression to reunification, to reconnection after separation between the person who is now bringing the sacrifice and God, and in this sense we are dealing here with peace.

 

It is interesting that the continuation of the Mekhilta brings another statement of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, which completes what he said above:

 

"For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it." From the fact that it is stated: "For if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it,” you might say that they are only disqualified if they were cut with a sword. Therefore, it says: "You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them." We see that an iron tool is like a sword. If in the end we make an iron tool like a sword, what is the meaning of the verse that states: "For if you lift up your sword upon it"? This is what R. Yochanan ben Zakkai said: What did an iron tool see that it [alone] became disqualified among all the other kinds of metals? Because a sword is made of it. A sword is a sign of calamities, and the altar is a sign of atonement. We remove that which is a sign of calamities from before that which is a sign of atonement. Surely the matter is a kal va-chomer: Now if stones, which cannot see, or hear, or speak, because they make peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: "You shall not lift up any iron tool upon them," Torah scholars, who atone for the world, all the more so that no evil spirit shall touch them. (Mekhilta De-Rashbi 20)

 

            The midrash addresses the relationship between iron and a sword. Iron, from among all the metals, is disqualified because a sword is made from iron, and the altar is essentially a sign of atonement, which is the repair of the meaning of a sword – calamity.

 

            R. S. R. Hirsch, in his usual manner, attempts to understand the symbolic meaning of the metals in general, and in this case that of iron:[3]

 

The strongest metal according to conventional wisdom, and that which cannot be overcome and cannot be destroyed, is iron; brass has similar qualities. Thus, God promises the prophet Yirmeyahu: "For, behold, I have made you today a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and walls of brass against the whole land" (Yirmeyahu 1:18). The beasts are described: "His bones are tubes of brass; his limbs are like bars of iron" (Iyov 40:18). About the leviathan it says: "He esteems iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood" (ibid. 41:19). So too, Iyov laments: "Is my strength the strength of stones? or is my flesh of brass?" (ibid. 6:12). The frozen sky and earth are called: "And I will make your skies like iron, and your earth like brass" (Vayikra 26:19); and also: "And your sky that is over your head shall be brass, and the earth that is under you shall be iron" (Devarim 28:23). The prophet Yeshaya says to the house of Jacob: "Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew, and your forehead brass" (Yeshayahu 48:4). Thus we see that in poetic fashion, iron and brass are depicted as the pinnacle of hardness and strength. This is proof that the entire Temple and its vessels are symbols which are found in some important detail. Here it is stated explicitly that the structure and also the manner of its building symbolize something for Israel. It is written: "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 20:25). And Chazal say: "Gazit means trimmed, that an iron tool was lifted up upon them… R. Shimon ben Elazar said: The altar was created to lengthen man's years, while iron was created to shorten them. One may not lift up that which shortens [man's life] upon that which lengthens it" (Mekhilta, Yitro).

 

3. Concern about Idolatry

 

            Some Rishonim explain the prohibition differently. After the Rambam mentions the reason brought in the Mekhilta, according to which that which shortens man's life should not be lifted up against that which lengthens it, he writes:

 

This is excellent in the manner of the midrashim… However, the reason for this is manifest, for the idolaters used to build altars with hewn stones. Accordingly, imitating them was prohibited, and in order to avoid this imitation of them, it was commanded that the altar be of earth. It says: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me." If, however, it was indispensible to make it with stones, the latter must have their natural form and not be hewn. (Guide of the Perplexed III:45)

 

In other words, according to the Rambam, the prohibition of building an altar with hewn stones and the commandment to make an altar of earth stem from the prohibition to imitate idolaters, who build their altars in this manner.

 

The Rashbam (ad loc.) adopts a similar position:

 

Because when they build it with hewn stones and with an iron tool, the hewers are accustomed to make pictures and images on them, as it is written in Yeshayahu: "The ironsmith makes an axe, and works in the coals, and fashions it with hammers, works it with the strength of his arms… he marks it out with a pencil, he fits it with chisels, and he marks it out with the compasses (Yeshayahu 44:12-13). (Shemot 20:20)

 

The Rashbam mentions as the principal reason for the prohibition the similarity to idolaters, who would make pictures and images on the altars that they would fashion of hewn stone.

 

The Ibn Ezra writes in his long commentary (ad loc.):

 

And according to reason, perhaps it was like pigul; since it was brought to the altar, it is not fitting that the rest should be pigul, as that would defile the sacred that he consecrated if there would remain of it something that is pigul. And so it would be, if they would cut stones to build the altar, perhaps that which is cut from the stones would become defiled for idolatry, and that would be disrespectful. And we have seen that the priest must atone for the altar.

 

The Ibn Ezra is concerned that perhaps that which is trimmed from the stones will become defiled and be used in idol worship. Thus, he also too connects this prohibition to that of idolatry.

 

Stone – Yaakov; Sword - Esav

 

The Ramban explains at length the relationship between iron and the sword, on the one hand, and the power of Esav, on the other:

 

And I say that the reason for the commandment [forbidding the lifting up of an iron tool over the stones of the altar] is that iron is used for a sword, which destroys the world, and therefore it is called by that name [cherev]. Now Esav, whom God hates, inherited the sword, as he was told: "And you shall live on your sword" (Bereishit 27:40), and the sword is his strength in heaven and on earth… And therefore they shall not enter into the house of God. This is the reason that is stated explicitly in Scripture: "You shall not build it of hewn stone," for when you lift up any iron tool over them to fashion them, you have lifted up over it your sword which kills and causes many corpses, and you will defile it. (Shemot 20:21)

 

R. Ades[4] nicely explains the contrast between Yaakov and Esav and between stone and a sword. He cites the words of the Maharal, who defines the connection between Israel and stone and between the nations (including Esav) and the sword (for example, in the war against Amalek and in David's victory over Goliath).

 

In this context, R. Ades cites a midrash that states that the metals used in the Mishkan corresponded to the various kingdoms:[5]

 

Gold – corresponding to the kingdom of Babylon; silver – corresponding to the kingdom of Media; brass – corresponding to the kingdom of Greece; and skins of rams dyed red – corresponding to the kingdom of Edom. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Even though you see four kingdoms rising up and coming upon you, I will sprout salvation from bondage. What is written afterwards? Oil for the light – this is the Messianic king, as it is stated: "There will I make the horn of David to shoot up; I have set up a lamp for My anointed" (Tehillim 132:17). (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Teruma 7)

 

            The Maharal (Ner Mitzva pp. 7-8) writes that it is possible that the kingdoms appeared like metals because they came to replace God's kingdom in this world.

 

            R. Ades adds that each of the four kingdoms, inasmuch as they are all deficient, can only give expression to a certain aspect of full Divine presence. Therefore, it is only when all the metals are in harmony that they can give expression to the full Divine presence. Accordingly, there is no problem with iron in the Temple, as it appears there in the measure set by God.

 

What is unique about the altar as opposed to the rest of the Mikdash, so that the prohibition of iron applies exclusively to the Altar?

 

How is the altar different from the structure of the Temple and the rest of the vessels, so that iron may not be used in connection with the former but it may be used in connection with the latter?

 

On the simple level, it may be argued[6] that the altar symbolizes man's service of God, whereas the rest of the Temple represents first and foremost the resting of God's Shekhina in His house.

 

R. Ades formulates this idea as follows: While the other vessels of the Temple constitute the substrate for God's revelation in this world, the altar expresses the uplifting of the world towards God. The people of Israel do not wish to replace God's appearance in the world, as do the other four kingdoms. Their sole interest is to efface themselves before God's appearance and follow after it.

 

There is, of course, an interesting distinction between iron tools that are susceptible to ritual impurity and stone tools that are not. Stone was created directly by God and therefore is not a human product. Iron, on the other hand, is processed by the human hands, and ritual impurity in general is connected directly and essentially to human action.

 

R. Ades also notes that in the priestly garments, there is also a distinction between the shoham and milu'im stones on which were written the names of the tribes of Israel and the golden tzitz on which was written the name of God. 

 

This may also explain[7] the difference between the garments of the High Priest, which had metal in them, and the garments of an ordinary priest, which were made of linen without any metal.

 

This point touches upon the general question of whether the priests are seen as representing God or as representing Israel. It may be argued that the High Priest represents God, while the ordinary priests represent the people of Israel. This explanation accords with the distinction that we made between the structure of the Mishkan and the High Priestly garments, where we find metals that represent the appearance of the Shekhina in the world, as opposed to the altar in the courtyard and the ordinary priestly garments, which give expression to man's service of God, and so the use of iron is banned at the altar.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 



[1] Brought in Torah Sheleima, on Shemot 20:12, no. 559, and in the Chizkuni.

[2] We shall devote the next shiur to the overall connection between the Mikdash and peace.

[3] Ha-Mitzvot Ki-Semalim, p. 126.

[4] In "Ha-Tzedadim Ha-Enoshiyim Ve-Ha-Elokiyim Be-Mizbach Ha-Nechoshet," in his book, Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evneh, p. 416ff.

[5] The midrash brings Scriptural support for each of its assertions.

[6] This is based on what was stated in one of the shiurim dealing with the functions of the Mikdash, where we discussed the idea that the altar in its very essence expresses man's service of God.

[7] This is based on what was stated in an earlier shiur, where we drew a correspondence between the relationship between the High Priest and his garments and the Mishkan and the relationship between an ordinary priest and the courtyard.