Lecture #219: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXIX) – The Prohibition of Bamot (VI)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

The Explanation of the Meshekh Chokhma

To complete our comprehensive study of the allowance and prohibition of bamot, we will presently discuss the novel position of the Meshekh Chokhma in his introduction to the book of Vayikra. There, he discusses the reasons for the sacrifices and he attempts to reconcile two seemingly opposite perspectives - the position of the Rambam, who views the sacrifices as a means to wean the people of Israel away from idolatry, and that of the Ramban, who views sacrifices as a sublime and ideal service of God.

The fundamental solution that the Meshekh Chokhma proposes involves distinguishing between sacrifices offered at bamot and sacrifices offered in the Temple. The aim of sacrifices offered at bamot was to remove idol worship from the hearts of the people of Israel (as the Rambam argues), and God therefore commanded that these sacrifices must be offered for the sake of Heaven. In contrast, the sacrifices offered in the Temple were meant to draw together the different worlds (as the Ramban suggests). With this position, the Meshekh Chokhma reinforces the explanation that bamot distance people from idol worship, rather than draw them closer to it.

We will now study the novel position of the Meshekh Chokhma and examine the sources that he cites:

The ancients disagreed about the reason for the sacrifices: The Rambam says that it is to distance idolatry from the heart of man, whereas the Ramban and those who follow him say that it is to bring together all the forces in the world. This is a spiritual electrical matter, which through the actions of the priest, achieves lofty ends in various worlds, as is known.

Perhaps it should be decided that sacrifices offered on a bama come merely to remove idol worship from the hearts of the people of Israel. Therefore, the Torah commands that they should be offered for the sake of Heaven. This is not the case with sacrifices offered in the Temple. They certainly come to draw the worlds together…

A source for this is what we learned in the mishna at the beginning of chapter Parat Chatat (Zevachim 113a): "There was no sweet savor at a minor bama." You see that the sacrifices brought at a bama were not for a sweet savor. With this you can understand that which R. Natan said (Nedarim 22a): "One who takes a vow is regarded as if he built a bama; and one who fulfills [his vow] is regarded as if he offered a sacrifice on it." In other words, a bama was intended to fence a person away from idol worship. But when the Temple is standing, a person does evil when he fences himself away from idol worship by building a bama. Surely God is in His holy Sanctuary, and he can offer a sacrifice in the Temple! Similarly, one who takes a vow wishes to fence himself off with a vow, but he adds transgression, since the Torah already fenced him off with its prohibitions.

            Before we examine the words of the Rambam and the Ramban themselves, it is important to note some additional remarks of the Meshekh Chokhma about the matter at hand.

            The Meshekh Chokhma comments on the following verse: "Take heed to yourself that you offer not your burnt-offerings in every place that you see; but only in the place which the Lord shall choose in one of your tribes" (Devarim 12:13):

They explain in the Yerushalmi: "At the word [of God], like the prophet Eliyahu on Mount Carmel" (see Yerushalmi Megilla, first chapter). This means that regarding every mitzva given as a temporary measure, there is a mitzva to listen to the prophet. Only with respect to idol worship, one must not listen to him even as a temporary measure. And the prophet shall be put to death, "because he has spoken to turn you away" (Devarim 13:6). Now Scripture explains the reason for [the prohibition of] slaughtering consecrated animals outside [the Mishkan] in Parashat Acharei Mot (Vayikra 17:7): "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to the demons."

As they say in Midrash Rabba (Vayikra Rabba 22:8): "R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Levi: This may be likened to the son of king who became arrogant, and he was used to eating the meat of neveilot and tereifot. The king said: This will always be on my table, and he will refrain from eating it on his own. Similarly, since Israel had a passion for idol worship in Egypt, and they brought their sacrifices to the demons, and they offered their sacrifices thereby transgressing the prohibition of bamot… the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let them sacrifice their offerings at any time before Me in the Ohel Mo'ed, and they will separate themselves from idol worship…"

You see that the reason for [the prohibition of] bamot is that they should not come to worship idols, in the manner of all those who offer sacrifices on roofs and in the fields…

The Sages said (Kiddushin 40a): "]Idolatry is so heinous that] anyone who admits to it is as though he rejects the whole Torah and all the Prophets, and anyone who reject idolatry is as though he admits to the entire Torah." This is what it says: "Take heed to yourself that you offer not your burnt-offerings in every place that you see; but only in the place which the Lord shall choose" – by the word of the prophet, Eliyahu on Mount Carmel. "There you shall offer your burnt-offerings," and in a manner that "there you shall do all that I command you." For thereby you shall fulfill rejecting idolatry… (Devarim 12:13-14)

The Meshekh Chokhma first brings a proof to the prohibition to offer sacrifices at a bama outside the Mishkan from a midrash that describes how in Egypt the people of Israel had a passion for idol worship, and they offered their sacrifices to the demons while transgressing the prohibition of bamot. Therefore, God proposed that they offer their sacrifices in the Ohel Mo'ed and desist from idol worship. The fundamental reason for the prohibition of bamot is thus so that the people should not worship idols like those who offer sacrifices on the roofs and in the fields.

From the midrash cited by the Meshekh Chokhma, the Abravanel brings a proof for the position of the Rambam regarding the reasons for the sacrifices. In the view of the Abravanel, the Ramban's critique of the reasons offered by the Rambam is essentially a critique of the midrash of Chazal, which presents a similar position.  

In his commentary to the book of Vayikra, the Meshekh Chokhma adds:

They were granted an allowance to eat meat of desire in Eretz Yisrael, because in Eretz Yisrael the court had the power to void the desire for idol worship, by the merit of Eretz Yisrael, which helped them. As they say at the end of Arakhin… Yehoshua bin Nun should have voided the desire for idolatry. If so, there is no need to forbid meat of desire. And now that the Men of the Great Assembly voided it, there is no longer any need for a prohibition of meat of desire. And therefore "all slaughter."

The gemara in Chullin 17a offers a different reason - that they were far away from the Mishkan, because of the seventy years that they were in Babylonia, and then they could not uproot the desire for idolatry, but nevertheless they were permitted to eat meat of desire. (Vayikra 17:7, s.v. ve-lo yizbechu)

The Meshekh Chokhma explains that “meat of desire” was permitted in Eretz Yisrael because the High Court nullified the desire for idol worship, and there was therefore no concern about it. It is only the power of Eretz Yisrael that allows for the nullification of the desire for idol worship; in the exile that followed the destruction of the Temple, this was not possible. Further on, the Meshekh Chokhma explains that the allowance regarding animals slaughtered outside the Temple is conditional on the fact not only that the time and place are approved by a prophet, but also that the allowance will bring some benefit in the matter of idol worship.

The Meshekh Chokhma discusses another aspect of the issue in his commentary to the book of Devarim, drawing a comparison between David and Shelomo in light of the fact that Shelomo offers sacrifices on bamot:

I Melakhim 3:3: "And Shelomo loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; but he sacrificed and burnt incense at the bamot." The meaning is: For in I Divrei Ha-Yamim 21:26, [it says]: "And David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt–offerings and peace-offerings." That is, he himself offered the sacrifices, for a non-priest is fit at a bama, and there is no priesthood at a bama, as it says at the end of Zevachim (113a): "And He answered him from heaven by fire upon the altar of burnt-offering" (ibid.); "At that time when David saw that the Lord had answered him on the floor of the threshing floor of Ornan the Yevusi" (v. 28) – he understood that this was the "inheritance," and this was the "rest" (Devarim 12:8), and it is here that the site of His Shekhina will be established, and he began to conduct himself as in the sanctity of the Ohel Mo'ed. "And he sacrifice there" (ibid.) – he only slaughtered, but did not burn incense or burn the designated parts. "Then David said: This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel" (ibid. 22:1) – so that they should not offer sacrifices elsewhere [except for at the public bama at Givon]. Since there is a house of God, bamot are forbidden. This is what it says here (I Melakhim 3:2): "Only the people sacrifices at bamot, because there was no house built to the name of the Lord until those days. And Shelomo loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; but he sacrificed and burnt incense there" – he did not keep what his father David commanded him that they should not burn incense or offer sacrifices at bamot. (12:13, s.v., pen ta'aleh)

David was particularly careful about bamot based on his unique perspective. David saw that God answered him at the threshing floor of Arnon the Yevusite, and he therefore understood that this was the inheritance and the rest, and that in this place God would establish His Shekhina. When David says: "This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel," he means to say that the people should no more offer sacrifices at minor bamot, since God has a house. He stands in opposition to Shelomo, who did not stop the burning of incense or offering of sacrifices at the bamot, but rather permitted them until the Temple was established. He did not feel obligated to the impression received by his father, who had been answered by God answer at the threshing floor.

We will now examine the different opinions found in the Rishonim regarding the reasons for the offering of sacrifices.

The Reasons for the Sacrifices

The Rambam expresses his position on this issue in several places in his Guide for the Perplexed. In Part III, he writes:

The Torah, according to the interpretation of Onkelos, states literally that the Egyptians used to worship the sign of Aries and that they therefore forbade the slaughter of sheep and abominated shepherds. For it says: "Lo, if we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians," and it says: "For every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians." Similarly, certain sects of the Sabians worshipped the jinn and believed that they assumed the outward forms of goats and therefore called the jinn goats. This teaching was very widespread in the days of our master Moshe: "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto the goats." Hence these sects also used to prohibit the eating of goats. As for the slaughter of oxen, nearly the majority of the idolaters abominated it, as all of them held this species in very great esteem. Hence you will find that up to our time the Indians do not slaughter oxen, even in countries where other species of animals are slaughtered. Thus it was in order to efface the traces of these incorrect opinions that we have been ordered by the Law to offer in sacrifice only these three species of quadrupeds: "You shall bring your offering of oxen and of small cattle." In this way, an action considered by them as an extreme act of disobedience was the one through which one came near to God and sought forgiveness for one's sins. Thus, wrong opinions, which are diseases of the human soul, are cured by their contrary found at the other extreme. (III:46)

Earlier, in his discussion of the reason for the mitzva of sacrifices in general, the Rambam writes:

If you consider the Divine actions - I mean to say the natural actions, the deity's wily graciousness and wisdom… For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible. And as at that time the way of life generally accepted and customary in the whole world… consisted in offering various species of living things in the temples in which images were set up… His wisdom did not require… abolition of all these kinds of worship… He suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them… to His own name, may He be exalted. (III:32)

In his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban relates to and harshly criticizes the Rambam's position:

These are nonsensical words, for Scripture says that they are "the provision of My sacrifices made by fire, for a sweet savor to Me" (Bamidbar 28:2), and Heaven forfend that they are of no benefit and favor, but merely remove idol worship from the minds of fools.

It is more fitting to hear the reason stated about them, that since people's actions are determined by thought, speech, and action, God commanded that when a person sins he should bring an offering, lay his hands upon it, corresponding to the action, confess [his sin] with his mouth, corresponding to the speech, and burn the inwards and the kidneys, which are the organs of thought and desire, and the legs corresponding to a person's hands and feet which do all of his work, and sprinkle the blood on the altar, corresponding to the life in the blood, so that when he does all these things the person should think that he sinned against his God with his body and his soul, and he deserves that his blood should be spilled and his body burned, were it not for the kindness of the Creator, who took a substitute from him and this offering achieved atonement so that the animal's blood should be in place of his own blood, life in place of life, and the major organs of the offering corresponding to his own major organs, and the portions to maintain with them the teachers of the Torah so that they should pray for him… In truth, regarding the sacrifices there is a hidden mystery… (Vayikra 1:9, s.v. olah hi).

Later in the passage, the Ramban raises an objection against the Rambam from the sacrifices offered by Noach. Relating to these words of the Ramban, the Meshekh Chokhma explains that the idea of drawing the worlds together is a "spiritually electric" idea - that is, something supernal and wondrous.

To prove his position regarding the difference between sacrifices offered on a bama and sacrifices offered in the Temple, he cites the words of the Ralbag on the book of Melakhim. In order to understand the position of the Ralbag, let us examine the verse in I Melakhim 3:3: "And Shelomo loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; but he sacrificed and burnt incense at the bamot." The difficulty is that in the days of Shelomo before the building of the Temple, bamot were permitted. Why, then, does the prophet describe the sacrifices and the burning of incense at the bamot with the reservation: "But he sacrificed and burnt incense at the bamot"?

The Rishonim disagree about this point. Rashi explains:

Scripture speaks to his discredit, for he delayed the building of the Temple for four years.

In contrast, the Radak argues:

Since it says: “In the statutes of David his father,” and David only offered sacrifices at the altar that stood before the ark in Jerusalem or at the great bama in Givon. We do not find that he offered sacrifices or burnt incense at other bamot, because excessive use of bamot brings a person to idol worship, as it is the way of the heathen nations who build an altar on every mountain and hill and under every leafy tree.

The Ralbag writes as follows:

The first benefit is to inform us that the intention behind sacrifices is not the slaughter or the burning. Rather, the intention is that which will be attested about Him by those who are uniquely assigned to this service and who contemplate it over a long period of time. This benefit will only be achieved when the service is performed by priests. But the Torah permitted each person to do what is right in his eyes to offer sacrifices and burn incense at bamot until they arrived at the rest and at the inheritance, as is mentioned in the Torah, so that they may straighten themselves out for the service of God. Because of what was implanted in them from the service performed for other gods, they thought that God is not a deity unless they worship him in that manner.

And since this service is not in any way properly directed, you find that it is mentioned about Shelomo that he offered sacrifices and burnt incense in such a way that it would appear that this activity of his was not praiseworthy. This is already explained in what it says: "And Shelomo loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; but he sacrificed and burnt incense at the bamot"; it is as if it said that he did something improper.

The Meshekh Chokhma's solution is meant to reconcile between the opinion of the Rambam, who sees the sacrificial service as an activity meant to wean man away from idolatry, and the opinion of the Ramban, who sees it as an exceedingly lofty level of service. The Meshekh Chokhma explains the essence of the sacrifices offered at bamot in accordance with the view of the Rambam that sacrifices come to wean man away from idolatry. He therefore cites the gemara (Zevachim 113a) that there was no "sweet savor" at minor bamot but only in the Temple. However, the purpose of the sacrifices in the Temple was to draw the worlds together. This is expressed by the fact that it was only in the Temple that sacrifices reached the level of "sweet savor." This is what Rashi explains in his commentary that it is a sacrifice of this sort at "causes satisfaction to Me by the knowledge that I gave commands and that My will was executed" (Vayikra 1:9, s.v., re'ach).

In addition, the Meshekh Chokhma relates to the gemara in Nedarim: "One who takes a vow is regarded as if he built a bama; and one who fulfills [his vow] is regarded as if he offered a sacrifice on it." We see from here that the purpose of bamot is to distance people from idol worship.

However, to build a bama at a time when the Temple is standing is evil because God reveals Himself in the Temple and a person can offer his sacrifices there. Therefore, it is understandable why bamot were forbidden after Israel arrived in Jerusalem. There is no reason that a person should fence himself off from idol worship, in the sense of "turn away from evil,” when he can cleave to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the sense of "do good." There is no greater fencing off from idol worship than offering sacrifices to the God of Israel, and only to Him.

(Translated by David Strauss)