LECTURE 182: "YOU SHALL NOT GO UP BY STEPS TO MY ALTAR, THAT YOUR NAKEDNESS BE NOT EXPOSED ON IT" (PART II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Introduction

 

            In our previous shiur,we discussed the commandments recorded immediately following the description of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. We demonstrated how the Torah explicitly relates, in connection with the altar, to the three most severe prohibitions: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder. We also discussed the significance of steps to the altar.

 

            In this shiur, I wish to address the Torah's rationale for the prohibition to go up by steps to the altar – that is, to prevent exposure of the priest's nakedness.

 

Not to Take Large Steps, But Rather to Walk Heel to Toe

 

            Commenting on the Torah's words, "That your nakedness not be exposed on it," the Mekhilta states:

 

R. Yishmael says: This is not necessary. Surely it was already stated: "And you shall make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness" (Shemot 28:42). What is taught by: "That your nakedness not be exposed on it"? That he should not take large steps, but rather step toe alongside the heel and heel alongside the toe.

 

R. Yishmael's question certainly seems valid. Only the priests go up to the altar, and the priestly garments include linen breeches, whose purpose is to "cover their nakedness."[1] Why then does the Torah explain the prohibition to go up by steps to the altar as a measure to prevent exposing the priest's nakedness? In light of this, the Mekhilta interprets the verse contrary to its plain sense, proposing that the verse refers to a prohibition to take large steps on the altar and an obligation to walk heel to toe.

 

The author of the Torah Temima cites this exposition and comments:

 

It understands that the words "that your nakedness not be exposed on it" should not be taken in their plain sense, as this is impossible, since they were wearing breeches, and so their nakedness was covered. Rather it is a poetic way of saying that one should not take large steps on an incline going up. It teaches the reason that by taking large steps, one's nakedness might become exposed. And even though this sin does not apply to this person, it is nevertheless wrong because it could possibly happen in such a situation, that is, in a place where it is slanted upwards and he is not walking well covered.

 

In other words, although practically speaking there is no concern that the priest's private parts will be exposed, as they are well covered by his breeches, there is reason to prohibit large steps because of the possibility that in other circumstances, a person will walk in an inclined area and take large steps, thereby exposing his nakedness.

 

Rashi, following the Mekhilta, writes in his commentary:

 

"That your nakedness not be exposed" – for because of the steps, you would lengthen your steps. Even though there is no real exposure of nakedness, as it is written, "And make for them linen breeches," nevertheless, broadening one's steps is close to exposing one's nakedness, and you are treating them in a contemptuous manner.

 

In other words, even though there is no real exposure of private parts, this is contemptuous conduct. According to this understanding, the Torah prohibited the lengthening of one's steps when going up to the altar.

 

It is interesting that the Mekhilta later distinguishes between the altar and the Holy or the Holy of Holies:

 

"That your nakedness not be exposed on it." What does the verse teach you? On it [the altar] you shall not take large steps, but you may take large steps in the Holy and in the Holy of Holies.

 

            In the Holy and in the Holy of Holies, there is no concern about exposing one's nakedness by taking large steps because they are level ground. (As we have seen, the prohibition of building with hewn stones also applies only to the altar and not in the Holy or the Holy of Holies).

 

            R. Kasher (Torah Sheleima on our parasha, no. 571) cites the Midrash Ha-Bei'ur from a manuscript:

 

"That your nakedness not be exposed on it." But surely his breeches protect him? Rather, if they tore on his way up or fell from him.

 

The Midrash Ha-Be'ur writes that there is indeed a concern, albeit a remote one, that the breeches will become torn or fall while the priest is going up to the altar, and owing to this concern, the Torah warns him not to go up by steps to the altar, lest his nakedness become exposed.

 

R. Kasher notes that this is a novel explanation that he did not find anywhere else.

 

"We Walked to the House of God with Fervor"

 

            The Mekhilta De-Rashbi cites an exposition that is similar to that of the Mekhilta regarding the prohibition to take large steps while ascending the altar. It then adds:

 

I only know about the altar. From where do I know about the courtyards? Therefore, the verse states: "You shall not go up by steps to My altar" and it states "on it." "On it" means near it. Similarly, it says: "We would walk in the house of the Lord with fervor" (Tehillim 55:15). I might say that there should be no steps to the Holy or to the courtyards. Therefore, the verse states: "You shall go up by steps to My altar." To the altar you may not make steps, but you may make steps to the Holy and to the courtyards.

 

In this context, it is interesting to see the approach of the Rambam:

 

Everyone who enters the Temple Courtyard should walk in a dignified manner, in the region where he is permitted to enter. He should conceive of himself as standing before God, as it is stated: "My eyes and My heart will be there forever" (Melakhim I 9:3). One should walk with awe, fear, and trembling, as it is stated: "We would walk in the house of the Lord with fervor." (Hilkhot Beit Ha-Bechira 7:5)

 

The Radbaz explains:

 

One should not walk there in the manner of simpletons nor in the manner of the vulgar, but rather in a dignified manner, as it is stated: "We would walk in the house of the Lord with fervor."

 

Similarly, Rashi writes:

 

"And you shall fear My sanctuary" - A person must enter there in fear, so that the fear of heaven be upon him. Similarly, it says: "We would walk in the house of the Lord with fervor," in the sense of fear and dread.

 

These sources imply that along with the obligation that we saw regarding the altar, there is another requirement that one must walk in all the courtyards in a dignified manner, in fear and in dread, as it is stated: "We would walk in the house of the Lord with fervor."

 

The Mekhilta links the prohibition to take large steps while ascending the ramp to the altar as a measure to prevent exposure of the priest's nakedness to the commandment to walk in a dignified manner, in fear and in dread, through all of the courtyards. In both places, one must walk in a dignified manner, but on the altar it is because of the priest's nakedness and in the courtyard it is because of fear. In both cases, special precaution is required that necessitates a certain type of walking before God.

 

To Establish in our Souls the Fear of the Place

 

In the course of his discussion of the prohibition to take large steps on the altar, the author of the Chinukh writes:

 

At the root of this commandment is what we wrote in the preceding mitzva, to set in our souls the fear and importance of the place. Therefore, we were warned not to behave there in frivolous fashion whatsoever. Now everyone knows that the stones do not care about their disgrace, as they neither see nor hear. Rather, the whole matter is to place a picture in our heart of the fear of the place and its importance and its great dignity. For the heart goes after the action, as I have written. (Commandment no. 41)

 

            In his usual manner throughout the book, the author of the Chinukh attempts to show that many of the Torah's mitzvot are based on the idea that a person's actions influence his mind. The Torah wishes to bring a person to certain states of mind or feeling, which will shape the right and proper attitude toward God. The commandment not to take large steps on the altar is meant to establish in our souls the fear and importance of the place.

 

            This understanding is interesting because there is also a separate commandment to fear the Mikdash:

 

You shall keep my Sabbaths and revere my sanctuary, I am the Lord. (Vayikra 26:2)

 

This commandment governs the thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions of a person about to enter the Temple and while he is walking in the Temple.

 

In his explanation of the commandment to fear the sanctuary, the Chinukh refers us to the commandment to build the sanctuary (commandment no. 95), where he writes that the whole objective of the Temple is to train our bodies. By performing good actions many times and in constant manner, our thoughts become purified and refined. All the particulars of the sacrificial service are intended to establish in the heart of the person bringing the sacrifice the evil of his sin, so that he will avoid committing that sin in the future. The Chinukh expands on how the various actions associated with the sacrifices affect the mind.

 

It turns out according to this approach that beyond the commandment of fear itself, which obligates a series of actions (e.g., entering the Temple Mount only for the performance of a mitzva, retreating backwards after completing the service), the Torah commands certain additional commandments regarding the entire Temple, as well as the altar, the purpose of which is to fix in our minds the fear and importance of the place. Thus, with respect to the specific commandment not to take large steps on the altar, the Chinukh writes that one should not act in a frivolous manner in any way. In this way, we will establish in our hearts the fear of the place, its importance, and its great dignity.

 

We can conclude from here that this idea that one's heart and soul are affected by one's actions is of central importance throughout the entire Torah, and with respect to the Temple in particular. The dimension of fear, the importance of the place, and the place's dignity are fundamental both in direct commandments, such as that governing the fear of the Temple, and in additional commandments, such as the prohibition to take large steps on the altar and the prohibition to build the altar with stones hewn with iron implements.

 

This reason joins with the reason offered by the Mekhilta cited earlier, obligating walking in the house of the Lord with fervor, which the various commentators understood to mean walking in a dignified manner and remembering that one is standing before God.

 

Not to Treat the Stones of the Altar in a Scornful Manner

 

The Mekhilta cites another position:

 

"That your nakedness not be exposed on it." Surely there is an a fortiori argument for this: If stones which have no mind for good or evil, the Holy One, blessed be He, said that one should not treat them with scorn, your fellow, who is in the image of He who spoke and the world came into being, it is not right that you should not treat him with scorn. (Shemot 20:23)

 

            Even though the stones are inanimate and have no intelligence, the Torah demands that one not treat them in a scornful manner. According to this understanding, exposing one's nakedness while going up steps to the altar would disgrace the stones. Even though the stones have no understanding, it is inappropriate that they should be exposed to the priest's nakedness. This is similar to the idea that it is inappropriate that an iron tool that sheds blood should be raised over the stones that are to be used in the building of the altar.

 

It is interesting that the a fortiori argument referred to by the Mekhilta relates to one's fellow, who was created in the image of God: if such care is needed with respect to inanimate objects, all the more so with respect to human beings.

 

Two other a fortiori arguments could have been proposed:

 

• If such caution is needed with respect to inanimate objects, perhaps similar caution is required regarding animals.

 

• If such caution is needed with respect to the stones of the Mikdash, then all the more so is such caution required regarding God Himself.

 

In any event, the Mekhilta does not mention these two possibilities.

 

            Another issue connected to the possible disgrace of the Mikdash is discussed in the gemara in Nazir (45a), which deals with one of the Nazirite's obligations that is explicitly mentioned in the Torah.

 

And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the door of the tent of meeting, and shall take the hair of his consecrated head, and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace-offerings. (Bamidbar 6:18)

 

How are we to understand the Torah's command that the Nazirite should shave his head at the door of the tent of meeting? Initially, the gemara says that the verse should not be taken at face value. Rather, it means that he should shave it after the slaughter of his peace-offering, which is performed at the door of the tent of meeting.

 

            The gemara then asks: Perhaps the verse is meant literally that the Nazirite should shave his head at the door of the tent of meeting? The gemara answers that were the Nazirite actually to shave his head at the door of the tent of meeting, this would be a show of contempt for the sanctuary. R. Yoshiyahu brings a proof that one is forbidden to shave at the door of the tent of meeting:

 

It is unnecessary [to rely on a mere assertion], for the Torah says: "You shall not go up by steps upon My altar." How much more so should it be forbidden to show contempt!

 

With respect to going up on the altar, even though the priests are dressed in their breeches, the Torah prohibits taking large steps; in order to prevent a small disgrace the Torah commands to build a ramp. All the more so must a Nazirite not shave his head at the door of the tent of meeting!

 

Distancing Ourselves from Idolatry

 

The Rambam in his Guide for the Perplexed writes:

 

You know likewise how widespread was the worship of Peor in those times, and that it consisted in the uncovering of the nakedness. Therefore, it commands the priests to make themselves breeches to cover the flesh of their nakedness during the divine service. Nevertheless, they were commanded not to go up to the altar by steps: “That your nakedness not be exposed on it." (III:45)

 

            The Rambam, in keeping with his approach throughout his Guide, explains that the primary reason for the mitzvot lies in opposition to idolatry.

 

            In similar fashion, regarding the prohibition to build the altar with hewn stones, the Rambam first cites the reason appearing in the Mekhilta that the altar comes to lengthen life, whereas iron tools come to shorten it, and it is not right that that which shortens life should be raised over that which lengthens life. He then writes that this is a fitting explanation in keeping with the midrash, but the true reason is that the altars used in idol worship were built of hewn stones, and God therefore commanded us not to be like the idolaters, but rather to build the altar with mortar or exclusively with natural stones.

 

            According to the Rambam, the immediate context of the prohibition to make steps to go up to the altar is the service of Peor, which involved exposing one's nakedness to the idol. This is exactly what the Torah wished to prevent at the altar.

 

R. Kasher writes in his commentary to our verse:

 

I also found a source for the Rambam in the book of Jubilees, chap. 3, 30-31: "And to Adam alone did He give the wherewithal to cover his shame, of all the beasts and cattle. On this account, it is prescribed on the heavenly tablets as touching all those who know the judgment of the law, that they should cover their shame, and should not uncover themselves as the Gentiles uncover themselves." Perhaps he refers to the aforementioned verse that it was the way of the Gentiles to expose their nakedness in the course of their idolatrous worship, and the Torah explicitly warned about this. And it is brought that with respect to "several peoples in the ancient Near-East, such as the Sumerians, the priests would perform their rites naked, and similarly the Egyptian priests." (Torah Sheleima, notes, no. 571)

 

            He later cites from a manuscript of the work Chem'at Ha-Chemda, who writes as follows:

 

"That you not expose your nakedness on it." This is against the corrupt, who expose their nakedness to their idols, like Peor, and like the Arabs in their houses of worship, who worship a hewn stone, and they are forbidden to conceal their nakedness before it or to wear a sewn garment, so that they may expose their nakedness before it. Similarly, those who worship Kamosh do not wear sewn clothing. You are forbidden to do such a thing, as you are a holy nation to the Lord your God. And I wish to write here: why do not we kneel and bow down and fall on our faces in prayer, but rather we bow a little in our prayer, and lean on the left side and recite supplications? Know that they [the Sages] distanced themselves and us from idol worshippers, for there are those who expose themselves before Peor in two ways. First, he lies on his back and raises his legs so that his nakedness faces the idol, and he might defecate before it. Or else he crouches on his knees, and puts his head on the ground, with his rear end raised toward the idol. For this reason, our Rabbis said that the Gentiles worship their idols while they are naked, and therefore they said that the measure for bowing is head against the heart. And so it is appropriate to do.

 

According to this understanding, there is a reality that is completely opposite the reality that is fitting for the Temple itself and for the altar in particular. One of the clearest expressions of the sanctity of the altar is the prohibition to expose one's nakedness before it, the exact opposite of the way idols, such as Peor, were worshipped.

 

The Uniqueness of the Altar

 

As with the prohibition to build the altar with hewn stones, with respect to this prohibition as well, it is explicitly stated that it applies only to the altar, but not in the Holy or in the Holy of Holies. Even if we find a certain similarity regarding "We would walk in the house of the Lord with fervor," with respect to walking in the Temple courtyard, the Torah's primary concern is specifically with the altar. From here we see the supreme importance attached to the place that more than anything else expresses man's activity and service of God. It is specifically the altar, which represents man's turning to God rather than the resting of the Shekhina in this world, that is accompanied by special commandments and requirements that come to counter idol worship, illicit sexual relations, and bloodshed, and that are connected to the service of God, holiness, and peace.

 

[Translated by David Strauss]

 



[1] The gemara in Zevachim 88b and in Arakhin 16a states that "the breeches atone for illicit sexual relations, as it is stated: 'And you shall make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness.'" In this context, it is interesting that the breeches are not mentioned together with the rest of the priestly garments that were made "for honor and for beauty," but only afterwards, seeing that their primary function is "to cover their nakedness." Regarding this, the Rashbam writes (Shemot 28:4): "According to the plain meaning, it was not necessary to mention the breeches here, but only the garments made for honor." (See also the Chizkuni, Shemot 28:42).