• Rav Yitzchak Levy



In the previous shiur, we addressed, among other things, the two matzevot erected by Yaakov in Bet-El. We saw that in both instances, the construction of the matzeva was preceded by God's speaking with Yaakov and followed by Yaakov's naming the place Bet-El.


To enhance our understanding of the matzevot erected by Yaakov, I would like to relate to the issue of the matzeva being turned into the house of God, as well as to the question of why Yaakov built a matzeva and not a mizbeach.


The Stone Being Turned into God's House


And this stone, which I have set up for a pillar (matzeva),         shall be God's house. (Bereishit 28:22)


How does the stone placed by Yaakov turn into God's house? How are we to understand Yaakov's words regarding this? The commentators offer various understandings of the matter:


1) Some commentators do not draw a connection between the stone itself and God's house, but rather between the place and God's house. Thus, for example, the Chizkuni (ad loc.) states:


Its place shall be God's house.


The Netziv (ad loc.) offers a similar explanation:


To consecrate the entire surrounding area as God's house, because everything in it is holy. Therefore, it is not the stone that will be God's house, but rather the place of the stone.


            The Ramban and the Radak understand the verse in a similar manner. This explanation also accounts for the use of the masculine verb yihyeh, rather than the feminine tihyeh, the appropriate term for the feminine noun, even (stone).


2. R. D.Tz. Hoffman proposes a different explanation:


This explains the manner in which Yaakov wishes to serve God. The same matzeva which he had just now set up to commemorate the revelation of the Shekhina that he experienced there, he will expand into a house of God (Beit Elokim) – that is, a house in which he will serve Him. He does not want to build a house for the Lord (Beit Hashem), as that would be a house in which God is present and in which the Shekhina is revealed. Man can only build such a house on the basis of a special divine command, when God promises that He will be present in it, as it says: "That I many dwell among them." It would be highly pretentious on the part of a person to build a house for the Lord on his own, and demand that the Shekhina dwell in it. But to build a house of God, a house that was intended for the service of God, a person can and must do on his own. (Bereishit 28:20-22)


            R. Hoffman distinguishes here between a house for the Lord (Beit Hashem), in which the Shekhina is revealed, and a house of God (Beit Elokim), in which man serves God. Man cannot take the initiative and build a house for the Shekhina to dwell in, but he can build a house that is meant for the service of God, and this was Yaakov's intention here.


3. Another aspect of the stone being turned into the house of God is connected to Bet-El's becoming the most sanctified place in the days of Yaakov. The name "house of God" clearly alludes to this. This is also connected to the identification found in Chazal between Bet-El and Mount Moriya, and between the stone mentioned in our passage and the foundation stone (even ha-shetiya) in the Temple.


            "The house of God" and "the gate of heaven" give expression to the two primary dimensions of the Temple: the site of the resting of the Shekhina and the presence of God in our world and the site of human prayer and service of God.


            According to the plain sense of the verses, we are dealing here with Bet-El, which is Luz, in the northern part of the tribal territory of Benyamin, and not with Jerusalem or Mount Moriya. But the very suggestion that the reference is to Jerusalem teaches that "the place" under discussion is the place that was most sanctified during the period of the patriarchs, the place in which the encounter with God took place, both with respect to man's service and with respect to the resting of His Shekhina.


Why Does Yaakov Set up a Matzeva and not a Mizbeach?


            The Meshekh Chokhma (Bereishit 28:18, s.v. vayikakh) asks why Yaakov set up a matzeva, rather than a mizbeach. He answers that Yaakov was concerned that were he to build a mizbeach, the local inhabitants would use it to offer sacrifices to their idols. Therefore, he set up a matzeva, upon which the idol worshippers did not offer sacrifices, as is stated in the Sifrei (Devarim 16:22) that a matzeva was pleasing to God in the days of the patriarchs.


            This explanation requires further examination, for it is clear that when Yaakov returned from Charan, he built a mizbeach in the very same place:


And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Bet-El; because there God appeared to him, when he fled from the face of his brother… And Yaakov set up a pillar 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 35:7-14)


            This mizbeach was built in the wake of God's command to Yaakov to arise and go up to Bet-El, to dwell there, and to build there a mizbeach "to God, who appeared to you when you did flee from the face of Esav your brother."


            According to the simple understanding, the purpose of building the mizbeach was as stated by the Seforno:


To thank Him for fulfilling the promise that He made to him there, as the Sages say: He recites the blessing, “Blessed [are You]… who has performed a miracle for me in this place.”


            We will relate below to the relationship between the mizbeach and the matzeva that Yaakov built.


The Uniqueness and Essence of a Matzeva


To complete the picture, I wish to examine the uniqueness and essence of a matzeva, based on a comprehensive examination of the matzevot built by the patriarchs.


            We mentioned in the previous shiur that the other patriarchs did not build matzevot of any kind. We do find later that Moshe set up twelve matzevot at the foot of Mount Sinai (Shemot 24:4), but the Torah prohibited this for later generations, as it is stated:


And you shall not set up any pillar (matzeva), which the Lord your God hates. (Devarim 16:22)


            Rashi (ad loc.) explains (based on Sifrei Devarim, 146):


"Which the Lord your God hates" – An altar of stones and an altar of earth He has commanded you to make; this, however, He hates, because it was a religious ordinance among the Canaanites. And although it was pleasing to Him in the days of our ancestors, now He hates it because these made it into an ordinance of an idolatrous character.[1]


The Seforno offers an interesting explanation for the prohibition:


Mention is made of three things which are outwardly fitting, but despicable owing to their spiritual deficiency… Second, a matzeva, which was pleasing prior to the giving of the Torah, as it says: "And twelve matzevot" (Shemot 24:4), and this is because it was as if the person offering the sacrifice was standing constantly in the Holy, in the manner of: "I have set the Lord always before me" (Tehillim 16:8). And they fell from this elevated level owing to the sin of the golden calf, as it says: "For I will not go up in the midst of you" (Shemot 33:3).


This understanding accords with the connection arising from Scripture between: "And, behold, the Lord stood [nitzav] above it" (God's revelation to Yaakov) and: "And he set it up for a matzeva" (calling the place Bet-El, the house of God).


The Difference Between a Mizbeach and a Matzeva


We saw in the previous shiur that according to the Ramban, the difference between a matzeva and a mizbeach is twofold: With respect to the form, a matzeva is a single stone, whereas a mizbeach is made of many stones. With respect to the use, a matzeva is used for the libation of wine and pouring of oil, whereas a mizbeach is used for sacrifices.[2]


Below we shall follow the presentation of Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Bereishit, Pillar and Altar, pp. 391-392), who explains the difference between a matzeva and a mizbeach according to R. Kook:


Both, [R. Kook] notes, were places of worship, the pillar having fallen into disrepute, the altar remaining in favor. He quotes the Talmud's (Pesachim 88a) comment on a verse from Yeshaya (2:3): "Many peoples shall go and say: Come you and let us go up to the mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Yaakov" – not like Avraham who called it a mountain (22:14), and not like Yitzchak who called it a field (24:63), but like Yaakov who called it a house. When Avraham began to worship God, he did not practice all the specific rites and order of service associated with Judaism. Before the Torah was given, there were no detailed commandments governing every aspect of life. He simply directed the worship of mankind generally to the acknowledgment of the Creator of heaven and earth. Such a form of worship allows for no distinction between one people and another. Every human being can worship in this way and this is the implication of the word matzeva – pillar:

"But such a general approach was purely a transitional stage. The supreme aim was the emergence in the world of the specific mode of worship followed by the chosen people, Israel, to which level not all mankind could equally attain. When Yaakov foresaw the specific mode of worship that was destined to emerge from his descendants, he said that 'this stone which I have set as a pillar' will not be a center of generalized free worship, but 'a house of God,' a special place of worship bound by walls into which only the worthy can enter. None of the peoples have as yet any concept of the values of this exclusive organized ritual, the minutiae of the Torah and its precepts which distinguish Israel in all their actions.

Though we have not been granted in our time the shining of the light, and the life-giving power derived from above that informs the specific Torah-governed worship of Yaakov has not come into its own and which transcends the indeterminate 'call in the name of the Lord, the everlasting God'; in time to come, when all mankind will see what all these rites and judgments, minutiae and fundamental laws have done for this wonderful people which has existed by miracles and flourished in its specific holiness even in the days of direst misfortune, attaining the great light when their righteousness and glory will be made manifest, all shall say:

Henceforth, we realize that the generalized approach to God, the concept of disembodied ('naked') faith which we thought would satisfy all the spiritual functions is not enough for us. But we need to scale the mountain of the Lord which summons to the sacred totality of faith and intimate knowledge of Him, in order to enter the inner sanctum – 'the house of the everlasting God.'"


In other words, the difference between a matzeva and a mizbeach is that everyone can gather around a matzeva, without distinction and without specific limitations or mitzvot, whereas around a mizbeach there are precise limitations – the statutes and commandments of the Torah. A mizbeach is like a house that has walls and boundaries and differentiates between those who are inside and those who are outside, between Israel and the nations.


After the giving of the Torah, it was no longer possible to make do with the concept of disembodied faith, and in order to enter the house of God it was necessary to define man's duties toward God and his relationship with Him with precise mitzvot. It is interesting that at the point of transition from matzeva to mizbeach – the giving of the Torah – Moshe sets up at the foot of Mount Sinai a mizbeach and twelve matzevot (Shemot 24:4).[3]


As mentioned, the two matzevot erected by Yaakov, on the way to Charan and on the way back, were set up in the wake of and in response to a divine revelation, and in great measure they symbolize the revelation of the Shekhina – God's standing (hityatzvut)there, and not merely appearing to him. For this reason, the matzeva is made of a natural stone. The last matzeva that was set up in a permitted manner – the matzeva that Moshe set up at the foot of Mount Sinai – also represents the divine revelation on Mount Sinai to the people of Israel as a whole, to their tribes.


The episode involving Yaakov is also the first instance of a libation,[4] which in this context means an act of consecration of the stone. Nothing is changed in the stone itself; the act of libation involves pouring a liquid from above to below. That is to say, it is a concrete indication in the natural stone of its relationship to God.


If indeed this is the purpose of a matzeva – to symbolize divine revelation and the resting of the Shekhina – it is clear why it was prohibited for later generations. A mizbeach expresses in its very essence, already from ancient times, the place where man serves God. A matzeva, in contrast, represents divine revelation – something that in the future would be expressed by the Mishkan/Mikdash in its entirety. Mount Sinai is the transitional point between the twelve matzevot set up by Moshe and the Mishkan that replaces the matzeva, and thus prohibits it for later generations. From now on, the Mishkan is the site of the resting of the Shekhina, and the mizbeach remains the site of man's service of God.  


In this light, we can also understand why Yaakov calls the place of the matzeva a house of God, because it is precisely the house of God that will in the future serve as the continuation of the matzeva. It is precisely Yaakov, who set up the matzevot, who calls them "house." Until now, the patriarchs set up mizbachot, expressions of thanksgiving for the acts of God; Yaakov is the first to set up a matzeva, which represents divine revelation.


We have mentioned in previous shiurim the words of David in Tehillim 132:5: "Until I find out a place for the Lord, a habitation for the mighty One of Yaakov." It is specifically Yaakov whom David mentions in connection with the Temple because he reflects a perfect world. Until now, the patriarchs set up mizbachot that expressed gratitude for God's actions. Yaakov was the first to set up both a mizbeach which represents service, as well as a matzeva which represents divine revelation, and thus he represents wholeness and perfection.


It follows from this understanding that the essence of a matzeva is divine revelation, and therefore it is directly connected to God's speaking with Yaakov and also to Mount Sinai. In this context, we well understand the fact that a matzeva is a natural stone, one in which no change has been made, and thus it gives expression to divine revelation. It is possible that a libation symbolizes this as well.


According to this, we understand the prohibition of a matzeva for later generations once there was a Mishkan/Mikdash, which itself gave expression to the presence and revelation of God.


In contrast, a mizbeach is fundamentally the site of man's worship of God, and thus it remains both when it stands independently and when it is part of the Mikdash. Even though the idolaters in Eretz Yisrael made use of both mizbachot and matzevot, it was only the matzeva that was replaced, while the mizbeach remained with the people of Israel until the end of the Second Temple period.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Ramban on Bereishit 28:18: "When they entered the Land, the erection of a matzeva was forbidden to them because the Canaanites were more addicted to them than to mizbachot, although, admittedly, Scripture bade them 'break down their altars' (Devarim 12:3). Perhaps, however, God did not wish to forbid them everything outright and left them the mizbeach, which was fit for both sacrifice and libation."

[2] Mekhilta De-Rashbi (Shemot 24:4) alludes to a slightly different difference in use: "And he built a mizbeach – for service; and twelve matzevot – corresponding to the twelve tribes." This implies that only the mizbeach was used for service, whereas the matzevot merely symbolized the tribes' standing before God.

[3] The Chizkuni (following the Bekhor Shor) interestingly comments: "As it is written: 'And you shall set up bounds to the people round about' (Shemot 19:12), three tribes to the east, three to the west, three to the north, and three to the south, in the order that they were in the wilderness around the Mishkan." We see from here that the matzevot are similar to the Mishkan. Thus, from the time that there was a Mishkan, there was no longer a need for the matzevot. See also below.

[4] In a certain sense, this may resemble the anointing of the vessels of the Mishkan and the priests with the anointing oil (although here there is no anointing, but rather pouring).