LECTURE 203: THE HISTORY OF THE DIVINE SERVICE AT ALTARS (XII) – THE PROHIBITION OF BAMOT (I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

The previous shiurim were devoted to various aspects of the covenant entered into at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the subsequent parashiot, the Torah deals with God's command to Moshe regarding the building of the Mishkan, and afterwards with the sin involving the golden calf and its repair. The actual building of the Mishkan is described in detail in the parashiot of Vayakhel and Pekudei.[1][1]

 

            The existence of the Mishkan directly affects the nature of Israel's service of God in many senses: upon the centralization of the service specifically in the Mishkan, upon the prohibition to slaughter sacrifices outside the Mishkan, and upon the role of the slaughtered animal's blood, which must be sprinkled upon the altar. In the coming shiurim, we will deal with these issues, some of which are interconnected.

 

            Our goal is to examine the significance of the building of the Mishkan with respect to the Divine service at private altars (bamot). In order to understand the development of the Divine service at altars, we will first consider the prohibition to perform the service at bamot.[2][2]

 

            The basis of our discussion are a series of mishnayot in Zevachim. After comprehensively reviewing the history of the Divine service at bamot in order to understand the general system, we will consider each period with the help of the relevant verses. The mishnayot state:

 

Before the Mishkan was set up, bamot were permitted…

After the Mishkan was set up, bamot were forbidden…

When they came to Gilgal, bamot were [again] permitted…

When they came to Shilo, bamot were [again] forbidden. The Mishkan there had no roof, but consisted of a stone edifice covered with curtains, and that was the "rest" (Devarim 12:9)…

When they came to Nov and to Giv'on, bamot were [again] permitted…

When they came to Jerusalem, bamot were forbidden and were never again permitted, and that was the "inheritance" (ibid.) (Zevachim 14:4-8)

 

            The Mishna distinguishes between different periods: before the Mishkan was set up; after the Mishkan was set up and Israel wandered in the wilderness; the Mishkan in Gilgal after Israel entered the land; the Mishkan in Shilo; the Mishkan in Nov and Giv'on; and finally, the Mikdash in Jerusalem. Offering sacrifices outside of the Mishkan or Mikdash was permitted only before the Mishkan was set up and while the Mishkan was in Gilgal, in Nov, and in Giv'on; the rest of the time, bamot were forbidden.

 

            In the coming shiurim, we will present and examine the various periods in the development of the prohibition. As we will see, the Mishna's periodization is proven by Scripture and faithfully reflects what is described in the Torah and the Prophets.

 

I. Before the Mikdash was set up

 

            According to the Mishna, "before the Mishkan was set up, bamot were permitted." Indeed, after God appears to Moshe at the burning bush, and proclaims, "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain" (Shemot 3:12), Moshe repeatedly asks of Pharaoh that Israel be permitted to sacrifice to God (ibid. v. 18), to worship Him and to hold a feast to Him (ibid. 4:23; 5:1; 7:16, 26; 8:4, 16, 21-25; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 8-9, 24-26). After the exodus from Egypt, we find two instances of building altars. The first  follows the war against Amalek:[3][3]

 

And Moshe built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai Nissi (the Lord is my banner). (Shemot 17:15)

 

Note that the Torah does not mention any sacrifices; the altar was built as an expression of gratitude and as a remembrance for future generations, and in this way it is similar to most of the altars that were built in the days of the Patriarchs.

 

            A second altar was built by Moshe at the foot of Mount Sinai:

 

And Moshe wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings of oxen to the Lord. (Shemot 24:4-5)

 

            Thus, we see that the revelation at Mount Sinai had no effect upon the possibility of building altars and offering sacrifices upon them – as this took place prior to the building of the Mishkan, as stated in the Mishna. The sacrifices were offered by the young men of Israel, who apparently were training themselves to serve in the Mishkan. Chazal understand that these "young men" were firstborns (Mekhilta de-Rashbi, ad loc.; Bamidbar Rabba 4:8; ibid. 12, 7), as the mishna in Zevachim states: "Before the Mishkan was set up… the service was performed by the firstborns." It is possible that it was at this altar that God's words to Moshe - "You shall serve God upon this mountain" (Shemot 3:12) - were fulfilled.

 

            These two altars reflect the allowance of bamot and sacrificial service being performed by the firstborns, and they continue the tradition of the Patriarchs regarding the building of altars and offering of sacrifices, as is described in the book of Bereishit.

 

II. After the Mishkan was set up – the Mishkan in the wilderness

 

Much can be learned about the nature of the Divine service while the Mishkan and the camp of Israel were in the wilderness from a passage in Vayikra 17. The passage is divided into two parts. The second part, which will not be discussed here, deals primarily with the prohibition to eat blood. The first part is itself divided into two sections:

 

Whatever man there be of the house of Israel, that kills an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that kills it outside the camp, and brings it not to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, to offer an offering to the Lord before the Mishkan of the Lord; blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people. To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord, to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, to the priest, and offer them for peace-offerings to the Lord. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood upon the altar of the Lord at the door of the Ohel Mo'ed, and burn the fat for a sweet savor to the Lord. And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to the demons, after whom they have gone astray. This shall be a statute for ever to them throughout their generations. (Vayikra 17:3-7)

 

And you shall say to them; Whatever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among you, that offers a burnt-offering or sacrifice, and brings it not to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed to offer it to the Lord; that man shall be cut off from among the people. (ibid. vv. 8-9)

 

            The plain sense of the text is provided by the Ramban, who says that we are dealing here with two different prohibitions. The first prohibition (vv. 8-9) is the prohibition to offer a sacrifice outside the Mishkan, which is known in Halakha as the prohibition of "slaughtering outside." This essentially is the first source of the prohibition of bamot. The first part of the passage (vv. 3-7) prohibits slaughtering an animal for eating outside the Mishkan, and permits the eating of meat in only one way – by bringing it to the Mishkan as a peace-offering. Here is part of what the Ramban says on the matter:

 

What seems correct in the wording of the verse is that it first assigns liability for karet to anyone who slaughters [an animal] outside the Mishkan, even non-consecrated animals. This is the prohibition of "meat of lust," and it gives a reason – so that one should consecrate them to God, and the priest should sprinkle the blood on God's altar and burn on it the fat.

Then it warns that one should not make an altar to God outside [the Mishkan] and sacrifice upon it the aforementioned peace-offerings or burnt-offerings, as is done with consecrated animals during a period when bamot are permitted. Rather, he should only offer them to God at the door of the Ohel Mo'ed. (Vayikra 17:2)

 

In this way, Scripture forbids all slaughter of animals outside the Mishkan.

 

Thus, two issues arise along with the building of the Mishkan:

 

1. The slaughter of non-consecrated animals in the wilderness outside the Mishkan, and everything that stems from it regarding the Torah's attitude toward the slaughter of animals and blood.

 

2. As the Mishna states: "Bamot were forbidden" – the prohibition to offer sacrifices outside the Mishkan is the prohibition of bamot.

 

The slaughter of non-consecrated animals in the wilderness outside the Mishkan

 

            The Torah forbids for the entire period that the Mishkan is in the wilderness all slaughter of non-consecrated animals when the animal is not brought to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed. What is the reason for this prohibition, to which the Torah relates with such severity that it imposes the punishment of karet for its violation?

 

A. To prevent idolatry – sacrificing to the demons in the wilderness

 

            One reason is explicitly stated in the Torah:

 

To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the Lord… And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to the demons, after whom they have gone astray. This shall be a statute for ever to them throughout their generations. (ibid. vv. 5-7)

 

            The wild nature of the wilderness is liable to bring those living there to offer sacrifices to the forces found in the wilderness, in this instance to the demons "after whom they have gone astray." This is the idolatry that is characteristic of life in the wilderness.

 

            According to this reason, requiring that the animal be brought to the Mishkan did not stem from the need or desire to centralize the slaughter of animals in the Mishkan, but rather was meant to prevent animals from being sacrificed to the demons, the idolatry that is typical of the wilderness.

 

B. The Blood of a slaughtered animal is meant to be offered on the altar

           

In the continuation, the Torah explains the prohibition to eat blood as follows:

 

For the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul. Therefore, I said to the children of Israel; No one of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourns among you eat blood. (ibid. vv. 11-12)

 

The prohibition to eat blood stems from the fact that the fitting place for blood is the altar, and therefore eating blood is forbidden as this prevents the blood from being "eaten" by the altar.[4][4]

 

Owing to this consideration, during the period of the wilderness when there was a Mishkan, even the slaughter of a non-consecrated animal necessitated that the blood be brought to the altar.

 

C. Slaughtering an animal outside the Mishkan is considered murder

 

The Torah's formulation regarding the slaughter of a non-consecrated animal without bringing it to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed is exceedingly surprising:

 

Blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood. (ibid. 17:4)

 

Shedding blood means murder. This idea appears for the first time after the flood when the Torah permits the eating of animal meat, while forbidding the killing of a human being, with the following explanation:

 

Whoever sheds man's blood by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man. (Bereishit 9:6)

 

According to the plain meaning of the verse, slaughtering an animal to eat its meat without bringing the animal to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed involves bloodshed – i.e., murder. When the blood of the animal is brought to the altar in the Mishkan, it atones for the soul of the person offering it. The blood of the person himself should have been sprinkled on the altar and the animal's blood serves as a substitute. Therefore, the blood of an animal is meant to atone for a person's soul, and it is unimaginable that the slaughterer should eat the blood.

 

Summary

 

Thus, the Torah offers three reasons for bringing the animal that is to be slaughtered to the door of the Ohel Mo'ed in the wilderness and for the prohibition to slaughter non-consecrated animals outside the Mishkan: 1) to prevent the slaughter of animals to the demons in the wilderness as part of idol worship; 2) the blood of an animal is meant to be brought to the altar, for there it brings atonement; and 3) slaughtering an animal outside the Mishkan is viewed as murder.

 

In order to fully understand the idea that slaughtering an animal outside the wilderness is tantamount to murder, we must examine the issue from the beginning, from the time of creation, to after the flood, to the situation in the wilderness following the erection of the Mishkan.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1][1] We dealt with many aspects of the building and dedication of the Mishkan in the past, and we will not deal with those aspects here. 

[2][2] We dealt with the prohibiton of bamot in the past. We will bring here the gist of what was said in order to preserve the continuity of our presentation of the history of the Divine service at altars.

[3][3] We dealt with these two events at length in a previous year and in the beginning of this year.

[4][4] My colleague R. Yoni Grossman dealt with this issue in his study of Parashat Acharei Mot for the Virtual Beit Midrash. Our words here accord with his. R. Grossman adduces additional proof to the fact that the blood is meant to be offered on the altar from the verse: "You must not eat fat or blood" (Vayikra 3:17). There it is clear that the prohibition to eat fat and blood stems from the fact that they are offered on the altar and do not belong to the person.