LECTURE 190: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ALTAR (MIZBEI’ACH) AND A PILLAR (MATZEVA) (I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

In the framework of our shiurim about the prohibition to plant an ashera next to the mizbei’ach (altar), we indirectly touched upon the issue of a matezva (pillar made of one stone). In this shiur, we will examine the issue of matzevot and attempt to understand the differences between them and mizbechot. We will also examine why the Torah permits the use of a mizbei’ach but forbids the erection of a matzeva, even though the Canaanites used both of them in their sacrificial rites.

 

The Uses of a Matzeva

 

            In Scripture, we find a matzeva being used for three different purposes:[1]

 

1. As a stone commemorating a deceased person. Yaakov erected a matzeva over Rachel's grave: "And Yaakov set a pillar upon her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel's grave to this day" (Bereishit 35:20). Similarly, Avshalom erected a matzeva for himself already in his lifetime: "Now Avshalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's valley, for he said: I have no son to keep my name in remembrance" (I Shemuel 18:18).

 

2. To commemorate an agreement. This use is found in several places. For example, a matzeva is used to commemorate an agreement establishing a boundary, as in the case of the matzeva that Yaakov erected before separating from Lavan:

 

And Yaakov said to his brothers, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap; and they did eat there upon the heap. And Lavan called it Yegar-Sahaduta, but Yaakov called it Galed… And Lavan said to Yaakov, “Behold this heap and behold this pillar, which I have set between me and you; this heap be witness and this pillar be witness that I will not pass over this heap to you and that you shall not pass over this heap and this pillar to me for harm. (Bereishit 31:46)[2]

 

The matzeva serves here both as testimony to the agreement between Yaakov and Lavan and as a boundary marker.

 

            When God and the people of Israel enter into a covenant at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moshe erects twelve matzevot and a mizbei’ach. The purpose of the matzevot is not stated explicitly, but it stands to reason that they were meant to serve as reminder of the covenant, and their proximity to a mizbei’ach alludes that they played a certain ritual role in the service of God.[3]

 

            In a messianic prophecy regarding God's future dominion over Egypt, the prophet Yeshaya declares:

 

In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar at its border to the Lord. And it shall be for a sign and for a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they shall cry to the Lord because of the oppressors, and He shall send them one that shall save them and plead for them and He shall deliver them. And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and Egypt shall know the Lord on that day and shall do sacrifice and meal offering; and they shall vow a vow to the Lord and perform it. (Yeshaya 19:19-23)

 

Yeshaya states explicitly that there will be a mizbei’ach to God in the midst of the land of Egypt and a matzeva to God on its border. Both of them will be “a sign and for a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt.” The mizbei’ach and the matzeva will serve, as it were, as a sign for God that He should answer Egypt when they cry out to Him because of their oppressors.

 

3. In most instances in the Early Prophets, a matzeva denotes idol worship (I Melakhim 17:10), along with bamot and asherim. The people of Israel are commanded to destroy the matzevot of the seven Canaanite nations (Shemot 23:24) together with their mizbechot and asherot (Shemot 34:13) and their carved images (Devarim 7:5; 12:3). Our discussion below will relate to a matzeva as a ritual vessel and as a reminder of the covenant; it will not relate to its function as a commemoration of the dead or as a border marker.

 

The History of the Use of Ritual Matzevot

 

A matzeva makes its first appearance when God reveals Himself to Yaakov at Bet-El:

 

And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he has put under his head, and set it up for a matzeva, and poured oil on the top of it.(Bereishit 28:18)

 

According to the plain sense of the verses, Yaakov took of the stones of the place and put them under his head. In his dream, he saw a ladder set up on the earth, with the top of it reaching to heaven. In his dream, Yaakov saw God standing above the ladder,[4] promising to give him the land and the blessing of descendants and telling him that He will watch over him and return him to this land. When he wakes up, Yaakov understands that God revealed Himself in this place, and he says: "This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." In response, he takes the stone that he had placed under his head and sets it up as a matzeva. He closes by saying that the stone that he set up as a matzeva will be God's house.

 

            It is clear from the verses that there is a direct connection between that fact that God stood (nitzav) above the ladder and the term matzeva. Indeed, in light of this fact, Yaakov set up the stone as a matzeva.

 

            The matzeva is mentioned once again when Yaakov returns to Bet-El:

 

And God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. And Yaakov set up a matzeva in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. (Bereishit 35:13-14)

 

Here a matzeva is directly connected to a divine revelation, to God's talking with Yaakov. Yaakov sets up the matzeva in the place where God spoke with him. It is important to emphasize that when Yaakov returned to Bet-El, he first builds a mizbei’ach. Thus, there is both a mizbei’ach and a matzeva in the same location.

 

            It is important to note that the earlier verse stated that Yaakov took “of the stones” of the place and put them under his head, whereas in the morning, the verse describes, he took “the stone” that he had placed under his head. Rashi (ad loc.) cites the midrash:

 

"And put them under his head" – They [the stones] began quarreling with one another. One said: Upon me let this righteous man rest his head, and another said: Upon me let him rest it. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, straightway made them into one stone. This explains what is written: "And he took the stone that he had put under his head." (Rashi, v. 11, s.v. va-yasem)

 

            The Rashbam, following his usual approach of accepting the plain sense of the verse, writes:

 

And he took one of the stones of the place, as it is written: "And he took the stone that he had put under his head." (ad loc.)

 

            What does it mean that Yaakov set up the stone as a matzeva? According to the plain sense of the verse, there was no change in the stone itself, but only in the meaning attached to it – the fact that it was set up as a matzeva.

 

            The Netziv writes in his commentary, Ha'amek Davar:

 

He did not set it up, but rather he slightly adjusted its position in the place where it stood. (Bereishit 28:18, s.v. va-yasem ota matzeva)

 

Similarly, in Shemot 40:4, the Netziv writes that “sima”(setting up) implies adjusting as needed. In Bereishit 2:8, he writes that it denotes precise setting, and in Bereishit 6:16, he writes that it denotes setting with intelligence.[5]

 

            The Seforno (ad loc.) writes:

 

He consecrated it that it should be a matzeva when he erects it upon his return, as Scripture testifies that he did when he went there, as it says: "And Yaakov set up a matzeva in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it" (Bereishit 35:14) (v. 18, s.v. va-yasem)

 

            According to the Seforno, setting a stone up as a matzeva means consecrating it, and the Radak (ad loc.) explains that Yaakov set the stone up in its position.

 

            R. Samson R. Hirsch notes the spiritual significance of taking a stone and setting it up as a matzeva, comparing a matzeva to a mizbei’ach:

 

It is evident from many places in the scriptures that a mizbei’ach is an elevation of the earth towards God built by the hands of man, so that in Yechezkel,the mizbei’ach is simply called the Mount of God. More, it is extremely likely that the fire on its summit corresponded to the "consuming fire at the top of the mountain" (Shemot 24:17). Thus, we find in Tehillim (68:18): "The Lord is among them, Sinai in holiness." God came down from heaven and restricted His Shekhina in the human domain: "The Lord is among them, and Mount Sinai in the Temple." It stands to reason that this is also the way to understand what is written in the passage dealing with the daily offering: "It is a continual burnt-offering, which was offered at Mount Sinai" (Bamidbar 28:6).

In this respect, it is characteristic that one of the things in which the Jewish sanctuary of the Torah differs from the Noachide conceptions is that there the altar on which we are allowed to bring offerings had to be a mizbei’ach built up of stones, but not a matzeva, not made of one single stone or rock presented for it by nature. We have to build the mizbei’ach ourselves. It must not be standing on an arch or pillars (Mekhilta 20:24). The mizbei’ach is called "an earthen altar" (Shemot 20:21); it must be attached to the earth (Zevachim 58a) – as a continuation of the earth. Only thus does the altar express the elevation of the earth towards God by human activity. To take a single slab of stone and sacrifice thereon would mean recognizing God from the standpoint of nature; whereas the built mizbei’ach expresses the conception of first working oneself up above the bound character of nature to the godlike free-willed standpoint of man, and from that point of view, strive upward to God. So that inasmuch as Noach built an altar to God on the fresh gift of the earth, he, as the ancestor, dedicated this newly-gifted earth to be a place on which the future activity of mankind is to add stone to stone until ultimately the whole becomes a holy mount of God.

When other nations tried, and try, to get near their God, they get away from human surroundings and believe they can find God nearer to them out in nature. Certainly one can find God there too, but He is much nearer in all His glory in the sphere of human life. There, in nature, His omnipotence, His infinite power is revealed; here, His infinite love. This is why the mizbei’ach is the more dedicated altar in comparison with the stone set up from nature as a matzeva. This thought is such an essential one for the Jewish sanctuary of the Torah that in all the surroundings of the mizbei’ach, or in the building that encloses it, no tree or any board that reminds one of a tree was allowed to be visible. (Bereishit 8:20)

 

            Later in his commentary, R. Hirsch writes:

 

A matzeva consists of a single stone; a mizbei’ach is an elevation built up by many stones. A matzeva is presented by nature; a mizbei’ach is made by man. Before the giving of the Torah, God's rule was manifest primarily only in the ways of nature and in man's fate, accordingly in what man gets from the hand of God. A matzeva corresponds to that, a stone taken from God's creation as a memorial for something which He has done. But with the giving of the Torah, God wishes to be revealed, not so much in what man receives from Him, as in what man does with what he gets from Him; not with God's gifts, but with man's deeds is God to be glorified. That indeed is the purpose of the lawgiving, since then a matzeva is rejected. (ibid. 28:18)

 

            R. Hirsch takes note here of a profound point that distinguishes between a mizbei’ach and a matzeva. A mizbei’ach is built by man, and with this building the entire earth is elevated towards God. In this way, the mizbei’ach symbolizes Mount Sinai. Therefore, the mizbei’ach must be built of several stones, and by virtue of man's deed, the earth is elevated to God. Through man's action, he is elevated above nature, and this elevation through a creative act allows man to rise up to God.

 

            A matzeva, as opposed to a mizbei’ach, retains its natural status. Setting up a stone as a matzeva means taking a stone in its natural state and leaving it in that state without touching it. R. Hirsch understands that this state characterized the world until the giving of the Torah, until which time God's rule manifested itself in the ways of nature and in man's fate, in what man got from God. A matzeva corresponds to that state, as it is a stone taken from creation as a memorial for something that God has done. After the giving of the Torah, this was forbidden. Since the giving of the Torah, however, God reveals Himself less in what He gives man and more in what man does with what he has received. Man's actions testify to God's glory, and for this a mizbei’ach is more appropriate.

 

It is clear that according to R. Hirsch's explanation, a matzeva poses the danger that man will come to serve nature itself or that the matzeva will be seen as representing God Himself.

 

The Ramban offers another explanation:

 

Our Rabbis have already explained (Yerushalmi, Avoda Zara 4:5) the difference between a matzeva and a mizbei’ach, that a matzeva is a single stone and a mizbei’ach is many stones. It seems also that a matzeva is made for pouring wine and oil on it, and not for a burnt-offering or a sacrifice, whereas a mizbei’ach is made for offering burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. When they came to the land of Israel, a matzeva became forbidden to them because the Canaanites had made it a statute for themselves, more so than a mizbei’ach, even though it says with regards to them: "You shall destroy their mizbachot" (Shemot 34:13), or because He did not want to forbid everything, and so He left a mizbei’ach which is fit both for libations and for sacrifices. (Bereishit 28:12, s.v. va-yasem)

 

The first difference noted by the Ramban relates to the form of a mizbei’ach, which is made of several stones, in contrast to a matzeva, which is a single stone. But the more essential difference relates to the purpose of each of them. A matzeva is meant for oil and wine libations rather than sacrifices, whereas a mizbei’ach is meant for sacrifices. According to the Ramban, from the time of Israel's entry into the land of Israel, the matzeva was forbidden and the mizbei’ach was used for both sacrifices and libations.

 

            The Ramban disagrees with the Rashbam, who writes:

 

He anointed it to consecrate it in order to offer sacrifices on it upon his return, as it is written regarding the Mishkan and its vessels: "And he anointed them and sanctified them" (Bamidbar 7:1). And so it is evident before us: "I am the God of Bet-El, where you did anoint a pillar" (Bereishit 31:13), which shall be "God's house" (28:22) for sacrifices. (Rashbam, Bereishit 22:18, s.v. va-yitzok)

 

According to the Rashbam, a matzeva also serves as a site for offering sacrifices, and not only for pouring oil.

 

What is the meaning of pouring oil on the top of the Matzeva?

 

            The Radak offers a simple explanation of the purpose of the anointing:

In order to recognize it upon his return through that place, so that he can build an altar and offer sacrifices on it, because an oil stain is not removed with rain water. Or else the pouring of oil was a service like the libation of wine. And so he did upon his return, for about the matzeva that he built it says: "And he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it" (38:14). All this was a sign that his descendants would inherit the land, as we wrote regarding Avraham and Yitzchak, for they did in the land as they pleased. For Yaakov took that stone and set it up as a matzeva, and nobody took it for his own needs, not even the owner of the field. And just as he set it up, so he found it, and he built there a mizbei’ach upon his return, like a person who builds on his own property, and no one can object. (Radak, ad loc.)

 

            R. Hirsch (ad loc.) also explains the pouring of oil on the top of the matzeva:

 

"Oil on the top of it" – either as consecration of the stone, as the vessels of the Sanctuary were anointed with oil by which – as oil does not mix with other liquids – the anointed object is set apart from and raised above the others. Or in the sense of libation. Just as later on, wine was poured out to express the acknowledgement that all joy in life comes from God and remains dedicated to Him. Or in the highest national libation, water was poured out on the altar to express that not only exceptional gifts, but that every drop of water is a gift from God, and with every drop of water we feel allied with God. So here oil – at later offerings, the expression for health and well-being – demonstrates that he awaits his continued existence and well-being from God's hand and would use it always regarding it as a continuous gift of God. (Bereishit 28:18)

 

            In addition to the idea of consecrating the stone mentioned earlier, R. Hirsch adds that libation expresses the idea that everything that man has belongs to God, even the simplest and most natural things, like oil and water.

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] For the various uses of a matzeva, see Encyclopedia Mikra'it, vol. V, pp. 222ff, s.v. matzeva, written by Magen Baroshi.

[2] There is room to discuss the relationship between the heap and the pillar, but this shiur is not the forum for such a discussion.

[3] The twelve stones erected by Yehoshua in the Jordan, which corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel, were meant to serve as a reminder of miracle of the parting of the Jordan (Yehoshua 4:4-9), as were the twelve stones erected by Yehoshua in the Gilgal (Yehoshua 4:20-24). However, the term matzeva is not mentioned in that context.

[4] According to the plain sense of the verse, God stood over the ladder. So writes the Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed I:15: "'And, behold, the Lord stood over it’ – that is, was stably and constantly upon it – I mean, upon the ladder, one end of which is in heaven, while the other end is upon the earth. Everyone who ascends does so climbing up this ladder, so that he necessarily apprehends Him who is upon it, as He is stably and permamently at the top of the ladder." But it is also possible to understand that He stood above him, i.e., above Yaakov. R. Saadya Gaon, s.v. ve-hinei Hashem, explans: "And, behold, the glory of God stood above him – stood before him [i.e., before Yaakov]."

[5] These references to the commentary of the Netziv regarding "setting" are taken from the notes in R. Cooperman's edition of the Ha'amek Davar.