• Rav Yitzchak Levy



            In the previous two shiurim, we dealt with the various meanings of the Torah's command regarding the 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 20:22).


            The next of the Torah's commands in this context is the prohibition to go up by steps to the altar. This command has implications regarding the structure of the altar. This issue will be the focus of our discussion in this shiur.


Idolatry, Murder and Incest and their Relationship to the Altar


            It is interesting to note that immediately after its description of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Torah relates to the three most stringent transgressions, which a person must give up his life rather than violate: idolatry, murder, and incest.


You shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. (Shemot 20:20)


You shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you lift up your sword upon it, you have defiled it. (Shemot 20:22)


You shall not go up by steps to the altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it. (Shemot 20:23)


            R. S.R. Hirsch, in his commentary to the Torah, explains the meaning of the mitzvot appearing immediately after the giving of the Torah as follows:


And just as the altar is to be a preacher of right and humaneness, those twin spirits of society striving upwards to God, so is it to be a preacher of modest decency, that fundamental trait of godliness in humanity without which justice and humaneness will be sought for in vain in human society. With uncovered nakedness the heights of the altar will never be mounted. "The earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence" (Bereishit 6:11) is the oldest and the most serious experience of the history of man.

To summarize this epilogue to the Ten Commandments: The three main sins which undermine our relation to God are countered, and to banish them, to expel the very last trace of them from our midst is the object of the Divine Lawgiving. These are idolatry, murder and incest, the culmination of sin against God, of sin against one's fellow-man, and of sin against oneself. Verses 20 and 21, idolatry; v. 22, murder; and v. 23, incest.

God, society and the human being are the subjects of the Divine Torah, and this epilogue announces that just as our relation to these form the contents of the Lawgiving, so it, and it alone, is to form the subject of the symbolism of the Sanctuary, as a whole, and of all its parts. The altar and the Torah itself have solely human beings as their subject matter and meaning as well as the godly building up and extending of all that true humanity should be.


            Not only does the Torah relate here to these three mitzvot, but it formulates these three most severe transgressions specifically in connection with the altar. It is of supreme importance that they should find expression in connection with the altar, which more than any other vessel in the Mishkan and the Mikdash represents the raising of the earthly towards heaven, of the direction of the human towards the Divine.


In similar fashion, in addition to the physical proximity between the Sanhedrin and the altar that Chazal learn from the juxtaposition of Parashat Yitro to Parashat Mishpatim, Chazal explain in the Gemara in Sanhedrin (7b) that this juxtaposition has spiritual significance as well:


Bar Kapara expounded: From where do we derive the dictum of our Rabbis: Be deliberate in judgment? From the words: "You shall not go up by steps upon My altar," which is followed by: "And these are the judgments" (Shemot 21:1).


Similarly, the Midrash in Shemot Rabba expounds:


What is written previously? "You shall not go up by steps to My altar." And it is written: "And these are the judgments." What is the matter of the one next to the other? Was the nakedness of the priests exposed? Surely it is written: "And you shall make them linen pants to cover their nakedness" (Shemot 28:42). Rather R. Avina said: Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, warned the priests that they must not take large steps on the altar, but rather they should walk heel to toe, so the Holy One, blessed be He, warned the judges that they must not take large steps in judgment. (Shemot Rabba 30:2)


This midrash also draws a correspondence between going up to the altar and executing justice.[1]


Similarly, R. Kasher brings in his commentary, Torah Sheleima:


In my opinion, we must add the idea that the Sanhedrinwas adjacent to the altar, because the building of the altar, according to the laws of the Torah, symbolized distancing oneself to the far extreme from the three transgressions concerning for which a person must allow himself to be killed rather than violate, namely, idolatry, incest, and murder. 1) Regarding the verse: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," the reason is clear, because it was the way of the nations of the world to form an image of idolatry on those stones. Therefore, Israel was commanded to make an altar of earth or of stones that were not hewn. 2) Incest. Regarding the mitzva not to go up by steps to the altar, so that your nakedness not be exposed - even though the priests wore pants, nevertheless, the Torah forbids even large steps. How great is the distance between this and actual incest! 3) Murder. An altar that came into contact with an iron tool is disqualified from use in the altar because it shortens a man's days, and the altar was created to extend man's years, and it is not right to raise up that which shortens a life over that which extends it. From here we may learn the extent to which one should distance himself from murder and everything connected to it. Therefore, the Torah wished that the altar should be close to the seat of the Sanhedrin, the eyes of the congregation, who must judge capital cases, so that they should always remember the Torah's desire, which was revealed in the laws governing the altar, that a person should distance himself from these transgressions to the far extreme. (no. 574)


R. Kasher also points to the connection between the Torah sections dealing with the altar after the giving of the Torah and the extreme extent to which one must distance himself from the three transgressions for which one must give up his life rather than transgress.


·           Service at an altar of earth or an altar of stones that have not been hewn is the opposite of the service of the gentiles, who form images of their idols in stone.

·           Even though the priests wore pants, the Torah forbids them to take large steps so that they not expose their private parts on the altar.

·           The prohibition to allow contact between a sword and the stones of the altar teaches the extent to which one must distance himself from bloodshed.

·           According to R. Kasher, the seat of the Sanhedrin had to be adjacent to the altar so that the judges sitting on capital cases would constantly keep in mind the Torah's demand, as it is revealed in the laws governing the altar, that a person must remove himself from these sins to an extreme degree.


The Location of the Command


Why does the Torah see fit to spell out its requirements regarding the altar specifically here?


The Abravanel in his commentary to the Torah cites Rashi's exposition regarding the ramp to the altar and the priest's exposure of his nakedness, and remarks:


He commanded all this for the sake of fearing the Temple, as that is His honor. He commanded here the laws governing the altar and its construction and that one should not ascend to the altar with stairs before commanding the laws of the Mishkan and its vessels, because the matter of the altar arose incidentally to inform us that God's blessing and bounty will come by way of the altar and that we do not need gold and silver images, as I have explained. It seems to me to explain that "You shall not go up by steps to My altar" does not come to teach about the ramp upon which the priest must go up to the altar to offer the sacrifices. For why should He command this law now, of all the other laws governing the altar, the priests, and the priestly garments? Moreover, the command, "You shall not go up by steps" is for all of Israel, and not only for the priests. Rather, the idea is that since it says: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," and it says that if there is a desire to upgrade the altar and make it of stones, they should be in their natural state without chiseling and without any other artificial enhancement, it commands Israel: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar," not gold or silver, not hewn stone, which are superior to and their beauty is greater than that of plain stones. For the burnt-offering altar, as will be explained in the proper place, alludes to natural matter. And therefore it was hollow, and it was from the soil of the earth, or from stones that are found in the earth. And there is no rule on the day of one's death. And about this it truly says: "And you shall not go up by steps to My altar." That is, when you build the altar, you shall not expand it more than this. And you shall not put gold or silver or precious stones or pearls which are considered upgrades in the eyes of men on My altar. As I have said: "You shall not make with Me gods of silver or gold," for if you do, you will expose your nakedness upon it. That is, you will be inclined to the ways of the idolaters, and there is no greater nakedness than that. For therefore figured stones are prohibited. This is the correct explanation, and it fits in with the verses.


The Abravanel's answer to our question is that indeed the Torah does not spell out here all the details governing the altar. According to him, the passage is connected to the prohibition to build the altar using costly materials, e.g., silver, gold, or hewn stones, which are considered better and more beautiful than simple stones. Expanding the altar with silver, gold, and other jewels is a type of building gods of silver and gods of gold.


According to the plain meaning of the text, however, it is difficult to accept the Abravanel's understanding that connects the prohibition "You shall not go up by steps to My altar," to idolatry, for the Torah offers here an explicit explanation for the prohibition - to prevent the exposure of the priest's nakedness.


Regarding the Abravanel's question of why the Torah spells out the laws governing the altar here, rather than in the course of the description of the burnt-offering altar, it seems to me, as stated earlier, that the Torah, as part of the completion of its account of the revelation at Mount Sinai, relates to the three most stringent transgressions: idolatry, bloodshed, and incest, and that the mitzvot spelled out here relate specifically to these three prohibitions, and therefore the Torah mentions them here. There is no systematic description here of the structure of the altar, but rather the verses here relate to those characteristics of the altar that stem from these prohibitions.


What are the Steps?


            Rashi (ad loc.) explains:

"And you shall not go up by steps" – When you build an ascent to the altar, you shall not construct it of steps, but it shall be even and sloping.[2]


            Rashi's grandson, the Rashbam, adds:


"You shall not go up by steps" – Therefore, it is made of slanted stones, ten [cubits] high and thirty [cubits] long, and they also sprinkle salt upon it so that the priests should not slip as they ascend it.


            R. Kasher writes in a footnote to his Torah Sheleima:


In the Semag, no. 291: Make a ramp for the altar. That is, it should not be made of steps, which lead to an exposure of [the priest's] nakedness, owing to the expansion of his strides. The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira (1:17): "We must not make steps for the altar, as it is stated (Shemot 22:26): "You shall not go up by steps to My altar." Rather, we must build an incline on the southern side of the altar, diminishing [in height] as it declines from the top of the altar until the ground. This was called the ramp. Anyone who ascends the altar with steps [violates a negative command and] is [given] lashes.


            This is based on the simple fact that the altar, according to what is stated explicitly in the Torah, was three cubits high. Chazal in several places[3] deal with the height of the altar and bring a Tannaitic dispute as to the actual height of the altar: Is it as explicitly written, this being the position of R. Yehuda (according to the gemara in Zevachim 49b); or should we draw an analogy between the bronze altar and the golden altar – just as there the height is double the length, so too here the height is double the length – as argued by R. Yose, in which case the altar is ten cubits high.


            The gemara in Sukka describes the young willows that would be put alongside the altar with their tops bent over it. This gemara supports the second position, as it describes how the willows were 11 cubits long so that they would lie 1 cubit across the top of the altar. It is clear from here that the altar itself was 10 cubits high.


According to this view, when the Torah says that the height of the altar is three cubits, it refers to that portion of the altar from the sovev, the gallery around the altar for the priests to walk on, up to the horns of the altar.[4] Indeed, Baraita De-Melekhet Ha-Mishkan says:


The altar fashioned by Moshe was ten cubits in height, and that which was made by Shelomo was ten cubits in heights, and that which was made by the [returning] exiles was ten cubits in height, and even that of the future will be ten cubits in height. (chap. 11)


Similarly, the Rambam rules:


The altar constructed by Moshe, and [similarly,] that built by Shelomo, and that erected by the [returning] exiles, and that to be built [in the Messianic age] are all ten cubits high. And that which the Torah states: "Its height will be three cubits" (Shemot 27:1) [refers to] the surface on which the wood for the sacrifices was arranged. (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 2:5)


            We have mentioned this fact regarding the height of the altar because the higher the altar, the greater the question of how one went up to its top. How, in a relatively short distance, did they overcome the difference in height of ten cubits? Chazal answer that there were no steps leading from the floor of the courtyard to the top of the altar, but rather a sloping ramp, and that the length of the ramp (thirty-two cubits) created a moderate ascent that protected the Torah's law: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar, that your nakedness not be exposed on it."


            In this context, it is important to note that the Rambam counts the ramp among the seven vessels in the Temple:


The following utensils are required for the Sanctuary: a) an altar for the burnt offering and other sacrifices; b) a ramp to ascend to the altar. It was positioned before the Ulam to the south. (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 1:6)


In addition, mention should be made of an important comment made by the Netziv:


Even steps that do not reveal the [priest's] nakedness are forbidden; there was only an inclined ramp. (Shemot 20:23)


According to him, the reason for the mitzva does not determine its content. The prohibition of steps is a prohibition that stands on its own, and does not depend on the exposure of the priest's nakedness.


Why is there no explicit command to build a ramp?


            One of the interesting questions regarding this issue is why the Torah does not explicitly command the building of a ramp. In addition to the command appearing in our passage, nowhere else in Scripture is mention made of a structure standing alongside the altar – neither in the account of the building of the Mishkan (Shemot 27:6 and on), nor in the account of the building of Shelomo's Temple. Only in the Mishna's account in tractate Middot do we learn of the existence of a ramp on the southern side of the altar.


It may be suggested that the Torah does not relate to the ramp because it is connected to the issue of exposing the priest's nakedness, discussion about which the Torah prefers to avoid. Perhaps the fact that there is no explicit mention of the ramp as part of the structure of the altar parallels the fact that the priest's pants are not mentioned in the detailed command regarding the priestly garments, which are worn for honor and for beauty. Only in Shemot 28:42, after the Torah already finished its account of the priestly garments, does the Torah relate to the linen pants that were worn to cover the priest's nakedness.


In both cases, the mention is incidental; in the case of the ramp, incidental to the prohibition to go up by steps to the altar, thereby exposing the priest's nakedness, and in the case of the pants, at the end of the parasha, and not in the context of the garments worn for honor and for beauty, like the other garments. It is possible that the connection between them is precisely this issue of exposing nakedness, and the Torah prefers not to spell out the garment and the structure that are intended to prevent exposure of the priest's nakedness.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] R. Kasher (Torah Sheleima, Shemot 20:23, no. 574) cites additional expositions in this direction.

[2] The Siftei Chakhamim on Rashi notes that the warning is addressed to the person who builds the altar - when he builds it, he should not build it with steps.

[3] We shall not analyze here the structure and height of the altar, but merely note the practical facts regarding its height.

[4] R. Kasher (Torah Sheleima on Parashat Teruma, Shemot 17, no. 19) cites the rabbinic sources dealing with the issue. We present here only the conclusions.