• Rav Yitzchak Levy

The Reason for the Prohibition to Plant a Tree Alongside the Altar


1. Pagan practice


            The Rambam writes:


A person who plants a tree near the altar or anywhere in the Temple courtyard - regardless of whether it is a fruit-bearing tree or not - is [liable for] lashes, as it is stated (Devarim 16:21): "You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God." [This prohibition applies] even when he did so to beautify the Temple and make it more attractive. [The reason for this prohibition is] that this was a pagan practice. They would plant trees near their altars so that people would gather there. (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 6:9)


            In his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, the Rambam writes:


It is prohibited to us to plant trees in the Temple or alongside the altar for the sake of adornment and beauty, [even] with the intention that it be for the service of God, blessed be He, for this is what the idolaters would do. They would plant for themselves trees that are beautiful and a delight to the eyes in their houses of worship. This is what it says: "You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God." One who transgresses this prohibition is liable for lashes… for planting is forbidden in the Temple. (Negative commandment, no. 13)


The Sefer Ha-Chinukh adds:


And in order to distance anything similar from the minds of the people who come to worship God (blessed be He) in that chosen place, it is prohibited to us to plant any tree there. This is close to the plain meaning of the verse. (Commandment 492)


2. Turning the spiritual forces toward God, as opposed to deifying the physical world.


R. S. R. Hirsch identifies the very close relationship between idolatry and the forces of nature. He understands this prohibition as demanding that we not be enslaved by the forces of nature:


"You shall not plant." We have already explained on Shemot 34:13 that Ashera was a tree which was supposed to be under the special protection of a god or goddess whose presence and influence could be obtained by tending and making it thrive and showing it honor. This is entirely in keeping with the nature of the heathen gods, whose godheads were, above all, forces of nature, whose rule manifested itself in the development and the phenomena of the physical world. But to that the Jewish conception of God is in complete contrast. Not only the physical world, but in a much higher, more intimate and direct manner is the spiritual-moral world of humanity the sphere of the rule of its God, and only by submitting the whole of his spiritual being, his desires and his actions under the authoritative order of his God has the Jewish man to obtain also his participation in the thriving of the physical world. He has not to plant an Ashera, no tree whatsoever, next to the altar of his God which he erects for "himself." He has to erect his altars for "himself," for submission and dedication and elevation of himself towards God, and with this submission, dedication, and elevation of his morally free human nature to God he has also submitted his material physical world to the blessing-giving and protective rule of God. No "tree" has he to plant next to his "altar." With the moral "altar-dedication" and devotion of his human nature to God he has everything, without it, nothing. This is the pure result of the preceding "Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live," and this sequence makes our Sages say in Sanhedrin 7b: "He who appoints an incompetent judge over the community is as though he had planted an Ashera in Israel, for it is written: 'Judges and officers shall you appoint unto you,' and soon after it is said: 'You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree,'" and gives the saying more than just superficial reference. The national authorities who appoint a judge who is not really a person who should be entrusted with such an office express thereby an indifference to the national high standard of moral life being the condition on which national prosperity depends, which is similar to the idea expressed by planting an Ashera, which also tries to obtain material physical prosperity by means other than a consciously lived life of duty. A "tree" next to the Jewish altar is such a clouding of the Jewish conception of God and life that an extension of its symbolic meaning by our Sages banned by Rabbinic law any wooden structure from the architectural surround of the altar (Tamid 28b; and see Rambam, Hilkhot Avoda Zara 6:10).


In contrast to idol worship, which relates to physical forces as divine powers, when a person subordinates his human and moral essence to God, his sensual and physical world also become subordinated to the world of God. In this way, R. Hirsch also explains the relationship between this matter and the pursuit of justice mentioned immediately before it.


3. Not to join anything else to the altar


            The Maharal cites the position of the Rambam and disagrees with it:


The reason is not as explained by the Rambam, because it was the way of idolaters to act in this manner in order to gather the people underneath it. Rather, the reason for the prohibition is that it is like joining one thing to another. It is fitting that the altar be special, in order to indicate about Him for whom the altar was built that He is unique. But one who plants a tree or [builds] a structure next to it, surely joins something else to it. (Gur Aryeh, Devarim 16:21).


According to the Maharal, one must not join anything to the altar because the very building of the altar means turning exclusively to God, "in order to indicate about Him for whom the altar was built that He is unique." Therefore, one must not plant a tree or build a wooden structure near the altar, as this would involve joining something else to it.


The editor of the Gur Aryeh compares this understanding of the Maharal to his understanding of the prohibition of a pillar. In Netiv Ha-Din, the Maharal writes as follows:


"You shall not set you up any pillar, which the Lord your God hates." For God (blessed be He) embraces everything, and therefore the Torah said: "An altar of stones you shall make Me" (Shemot 20:21). For an altar of stones has many stones, and such an altar is fitting for God who embraces everything. But [in the case of] idol worship, in which one worships fire and the other water, and they are all individual rather than universal powers, they had a single pillar.


In other words, the altar points to the Almighty who is universal, and one should not include anything else with it, neither tree nor wooden structure.


In the continuation of the passage cited above, the Maharal says:


I learned this from what the Sages said in the first chapter of Sanhedrin: "He who appoints an incompetent judge over the community is as though he had planted an Ashera, and [if he appointed him] where there is a Torah scholar, it is as if he planted an Ashera next to the altar, as it is stated: "You shall not plant you an Ashera near the altar of the Lord your God" (7b). Just as there the primary violation is that he likened one who is incompetent to one who is competent, so too one who plants an Ashera next to the altar of God joins the idol to He who is unique in His world. Even a house or a tree is forbidden, because in the end, even though he did not make it into an idol, he likened the house to the altar. Similarly, a tree, which is something that is planted, he likens to an altar, and this is forbidden. This is the main reason. Now both a tree and a house are forbidden and subject to a negative prohibition.


The Maharal emphasizes that the very combining of something else with the altar, even if it not made into an idol, e.g., a tree or a house, is contrary to the essence of the altar, which involves absolute and universal devotion to God.


This understanding is connected to what the Maharal says in his commentary to the Aggadot in explanation of the mishna: "If a man divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears" (Gittin 90b). The Maharal there explains:


The altar is the connection between God and Israel, with Israel being called God's wife, and the altar upon which sacrifices are offered is the connection and closeness that God has with Israel. When one divorces his first wife… it is as if he also nullifies the connection between God and Israel. These are the tears that the altar sheds over this.


Since the altar expresses the connection and closeness to God, one cannot join to it or next to it any tree or structure, as this would impair the exclusive connection that Israel has with God.


Hence, both an apartment building and a tree stand in opposition to the altar, and there is therefore a prohibition to join planting to the altar. In his Chiddushei Aggadot on Sanhedrin,the Maharal writes:


An Ashera involves growing one thing from the ground, and when one would plant an Ashera, he would raise it. Idolaters would therefore choose an Ashera, because they would grow a force that they would worship. And the Torah said (Shemot 20:21): "An altar of earth you shall make to Me," because there is no worship of God that involves making Him grow. Therefore, to God it is fitting to build an altar of stones, and nothing else. Therefore, the Torah says: "You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God," as they are two opposites. This is haughtiness and He (blessed be He), His humility transcends all His good qualities. (7b)


4. No perfection can be added to god.


            The Meshekh Chokhma proposes an interesting explanation of the prohibition to plant a tree next to the altar:


"You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make you." The idea is that the sacrifices, even though they comprise a great part of the Torah and the Torah many times calls them "the provision of My sacrifices made by fire," nevertheless, we know by reason that the Creator does not feed on anything, nor is any perfection added to Him, God forbid, through the actions of His creatures. He in His essence is without change, as He was before he brought the existent beings into existence. So said the prophets: "If you are righteous, what give you Him?" (Iyov 35:7); "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams" (Mikha 6:7). All agree that the matter of the sacrifices is a mystery, a matter of law that activates sublime movement in the human soul, adding perfection and cleaving [to God] when he contemplates his action, as it would have been fitting to befall his own soul. You can find similar ideas in the book of Beliefs and Opinions of R. Saadya Gaon….

The divine Ben Azai had this in mind. This is what he said (Menachot 110a): "Come and see what is written in the chapter of the sacrifices. Neither E-l nor E-lohim is found there, but only the Lord, so as not to give sectarians any occasion to rebel." What he means is that the name E-lohim refers to the power of all the powers of the things that exist because of God, and E-l indicates the strength of His actions and His kindness to all flesh. If [these names] would have been written in the chapter of the sacrifices, the sectarians would have occasion to rebel, [saying] that He, God forbid, needs the nourishment of the sacrifices. Therefore, it says everywhere “the Lord” (the Tetragrammaton), which indicates that His existence is necessary and that He brings everything into existence. If so, it is impossible to say reasonably that He receives nourishment and additions from those beings whose existence depends on His will and who were created ex nihilo.

Now everyone knows that inanimate objects do not eat or grow… When you find that a stone grows, it is because particles of dust stuck to it and hardened until it became a stone. But it did not grow from itself (Bava Metzia 64a). This is not the case with plants and animals; they constantly eat and grow and add to their perfection while they are alive, as is known. And to indicate this, God commanded to build an altar of stones and that it should have no wood, so that we may contemplate that just like the altar – the site of the sacrifices – is something that does not eat and does not need food and water, so too the whole idea of sacrifices is not for the purpose of feeding and adding to His perfection. Therefore, it says: "You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree." And it is precise with the word Ashera as they said in Torat Kohanim (parasha 11): "Ten names of contempt were given to idols. Asherim, because they are put up [mitasherim] by others."   This is like what we wrote: "near the altar of the Lord God, which you shall make you." For the whole idea of the altar He does not need, and there is no feeding with Him. It is only your need and your benefits, and making it is for your sake and for your perfection.


            The Meshekh Chokhma opens with the assumption that God does not eat anything, no perfection is added to Him, and He remains without change, and therefore the sacrifices are a mystery that impact on man's soul, but not on God. In this context, he brings the words of Ben Azai, who notes that the names E-l and E-lohim are not used with respect to the sacrifices, but rather the name “the Lord.” The Tetragrammaton means “God who brings all of existence into being.” Plants and animals add to their perfection, and therefore the Torah commands to build an altar of stones that should contain no wood, to teach that the altar is whole and does not need to feed on something external.


            While the Maharal emphasizes the idea of not joining anything to the altar over and beyond the altar itself, the Meshekh Chokhma focuses on the fact that the altar and the sacrifices do not come to nourish God, and therefore a tree should not be planted alongside the ark.


5. The Ashera and the pillar as symbols of God's presence


            Is there a special connection between the prohibition of an Ashera and the prohibition of a pillar? R. Mordechai Sabato considers what is common to both of these prohibitions:[1]


It seems that we should adopt the position that in Canaanite culture, this tree, called an Ashera, represented the presence of this goddess, and that placing it near the altar was meant to define the goddess to whom the sacrifices were being offered.

In similar fashion, we should interpret the role of the pillar in Canaanite ritual. We find in two places the expression "the pillar of the Ba'al" (II Melakhim 3:2, 10:27). It seems then that just as the Ashera tree expresses the presence of the goddess Ashera, so too the pillar of the Ba'al expresses the presence of the god Ba'al.[2] Both of them are placed alongside the altar to symbolize the gods to whom the sacrifices are being offered.[3]

According to the plain meaning of the text, our verses do not deal with prohibitions of idolatry, but with prohibitions against imitating heathen practices in the worship of God. The wording of the verse, "which the Lord your God hates," implies that there is an inherent flaw in these modes of worship, just as there is a moral flaw in the sacrifice of one's sons and daughters, about which it also says: "which He hates."

Scripture turns to the Jew who wishes to serve God and thinks that it would be good if he took the customary practices of the heathens and turned them into the service of God: "How did these nations serve their gods? Even so will I do likewise" (Devarim 12:30).[4] That person believes that in order to highlight and publicize that he is offering his sacrifices to God, it is better that he set up articles in their image, but in a sense that fits in with the service of God. The pillar and the Ashera, which in the Canaanite ritual symbolized the Canaanite gods, should from now on symbolize the presence of God. Our verse comes to negate this idea outright. These things and this understanding are described as something that God hates.

It seems that the fundamental flaw in this perception is the attempt to give a form to God, even if only by way of imitation. This prohibition is rooted in the words of Scripture: "Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you in Chorev out of the midst of the fire; lest you become corrupt, and make a carved idol, the similitude of any figure" (4:15-16). Our verse goes further in that it prohibits setting up objects even if they merely symbolize, as it were, God's presence, and not God Himself, and even if this is done to clarify to whom we are offering our sacrifices. The importance of the abstract perception of God allows no room for compromise.[5]


Now we can even offer an explanation for the fact that during the period of the patriarchs the pillar was loved, whereas at the time of their descendants it is hated. To explain the matter, we shall adopt the principle outlined in the commentaries of R. Hirsch and R. Kook that there is a difference between the service of God during the period of the patriarchs and His service at the time of their descendants. The role of the patriarchs was to publicize the name of God in the world and emphasize His presence, even by way of objects that symbolically represent His presence. At a second stage, after God's name became known in the world, emphasis had to be placed on the abstract dimension of the God of Israel, and therefore the pillar and the Ashera were prohibited.[6]


As opposed to a pillar, which we find among the patriarchs, we do not find that any of the patriarchs planted an Ashera. Indeed, Chazal, in the Sifre, mention only the pillar that was loved in the days of the patriarchs, but as for the Ashera, they say there[7] that it was hated also in the days of the patriarchs. However, since the Torah put the Ashera and the pillar together, and since we find that Yaakov set up a pillar and we explained the reason for the change, there is room to examine whether or not we can find a positive parallel to an Ashera by the patriarchs. In this context, we should consider the meaning of what is said about Avraham: "And Avraham planted a tamarisk [eshel] in Beer-Sheva, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God" (Bereishit 21:33).


The commentators disagree about how to understand the first part of the verse, and especially about the connection between it and the second part of the verse. Already in Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 54; Sota 10a), we find different interpretations of the term eshel. Some say that Avraham planted an orchard in order to have a supply of fruit for his guests; others say he set up an inn. What is common to both understandings is that Avraham's calling on the name of God was done by way of welcoming guests, feeding them, and bringing them to bless God. These explanations do not accord with the plain meaning of the text, for the simple reason that according to them, the main point is missing. The Rashbam writes: "There was an orchard there from which to pray." but he does not explain the connection between the orchard and prayers. The Ibn Ezra explains: "Eshel – tree," and this seems to be simple meaning of the text.[8] He too, however, fails to explain the connection between the tree and calling on the name of God. It seems reasonable, therefore, to adopt the view of those who say that the planting of a tree comes to note the sanctity of the place as expressing the presence of God.[9]


We can now give new meaning to the words of Rashi (following Chazal): "Although it was pleasing to Him in the days of the patriarchs, now He hates it because these [the Canaanites] made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character." During the days of the patriarchs, the pillar (and perhaps also the parallel to the Ashera, the tamarisk [eshel]) was pleasing to God, since it served only to symbolize God's presence in the world and to publicize His name, but in no way to indicate the corporeality of God. However, since the heathen nations made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character, i.e., they saw in it a materialization of the divine, it became hated.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] R. Mordechai Sabato, Issurei Ha-Ashera Ve-Ha-Matzeva, Parashat Shoftim, Shiurim on Parashat Ha-shavua, Virtual Bet Midrash, Yeshivat Har Etzion.

[2] See the summary in Encyclopedia Mikra'it, s.v. matzeva.

[3] It stands to reason that this combination of Ashera and Ba'al was perceived by those who worshipped them as a combination of the male and female elements. It should also be noted that the Ashera is made of wood, while the pillar is stone, and there is a combination of the elements of wood and stone. Perhaps this combination is alluded to in the Torah's words prohibiting the worship of wood and stone.

[4] This idea, which sees in idol worship a positive element that should be purified and integrated into the worship of God, is alluded to in a number of midrashim (see, for example, Megilla 6a, on the verse: "And I will take away his blood out of his mouth, and his detestable things from between his teeth; and he too shall remain for our God" [Zekharya 9:7]). This idea is very much developed in kabbalistic and chassidic literature.

[5] This seems to be what the Seforno says here: "The pillar, even though it was pleasing prior to the giving of the Torah, as it says: 'And twelve pillars' (Shemot 24:4), and this is because the idea was that is as if the person bringing the sacrifice was standing continually before the Holy, in the sense of: 'I have set the Lord always before me' (Tehillim 16:8) - they fell from this level because of the golden calf, as it says: 'For I will not go up in the midst of you' (Shemot 33:3)." But a closer examination of his words, and especially of the end of the verse that he cites as a proof – "And twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel" – teaches us that according to him, the pillar represents the person bringing the sacrifice, and not God. Nevertheless, we can learn from what he says the importance of the desire to give expression to the principle of "I have set the Lord always before me," which fits in also with what we have said.

[6] It is possible to suggest another explanation for the change from the time of the patriarchs to the period of their descendants: The patriarchs, individuals who reached a very high level of faith, could be relied on not to make a mistake regarding the meaning of the symbols, but the same cannot be said about the entire nation, with all its different streams. Compare with the Ramban's explanation of the sin involving the golden calf with respect to the difference between Aharon's attitude toward the calf and that of the people.

[7] According to most reports regarding the text. See Finkelstein's notes in his edition, p. 200.

[8] See I Shmuel 22:6; 31:13. Compare the last source to I Divrei Ha-Yamim 10:12.

[9] See, for example, Y. Kaufman, Toledot Ha-Emuna Ha-Yisraelit, vol. 2, pp. 126-127.