Lecture #220: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXX) – The Prohibition of Bamot (VII)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

The Prohibition of Bamot After the Destruction of the Temple

In this shiur, we will continue our analysis of the position of the Meshekh Chokhma, who suggests that the role of the sacrifices offered on bamot was to distance people from idol worship, whereas the role of the sacrifices offered in the Temple was to draw the upper and lower worlds together and connect between Israel and their Father in heaven.

This is what the Meshekh Chokhma writes about the reasons for the sacrifices according to the Rambam and the Ramban:

This is what I discovered from the novel position advanced by Rabbeinu Chayyim Kohen in Megilla 10a, that even according to the one who says that [the first sanctity] was not conferred for all time, one is nevertheless forbidden to offer sacrifices [today] at a bama. Since the Men of the Great Assembly nullified the passion for idol worship (Yoma 69b), there is no need to offer sacrifices at a bama to protect the people from idol worship, and God has no desire for the cattle or flocks offered at bamot, which are not for a sweet savor, but only to protect them that they should not offer sacrifices to idols. If so, after the passion for idol worship was nullified, it was forbidden to offer sacrifices at a bama. And it is well what the gemara brings as a dispute among the Tannaim that the one who says that they would offer sacrifices even when there was not [yet] a Temple, at the beginning of the Temple's construction, maintains that it was then forbidden to offer sacrifices at a bama. And according to R. Eliezer, who says that then they needed the Temple, before the passion for idol worship was nullified, it was permitted to offer sacrifices at a bama. If so, that which it says in Zevachim 112b: "From when they arrived in Jerusalem, bamot were prohibited… and there was never again an allowance," is subject to a Tannaitic dispute. But that which it says that after the sanctity of Jerusalem, there was no further allowance is according to all opinions. And R. Yitzchak retracted, saying that today according to all opinions one may not offer sacrifices at a bama because the passion for idol worship was nullified. See Tosafot, Zevachim 61a, s.v. mai kasavar (end).

This explains the verses in Tehillim 51: "For you desire not sacrifice, or else I would give it; You delight not in burnt offering" (v. 18). This means: At a bama, where the sacrifices are not for a sweet savor. "Do good in Your favor to Zion; build You the walls of Jerusalem. Then shall You be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering" (vv. 20-21).  Then the sacrifices themselves will truly be the desire of the Creator for the distinguished purpose of drawing the worlds together and benefiting the entire world.

Why were bamot not permitted again after the destruction of the Temple, just as they were permitted before it was built? According to the Meshekh Chokhma, who distinguishes between a bama and the Temple, the answer to this question is clear.

He refers us to a talmudic passage in Tractate Megilla which discusses various aspects of the Tannaitic dispute regarding whether the first sanctity was conferred only for the time being or for all time. (This relates to the Temple of Chonyo, the sanctity of Jerusalem after which there is no allowance of bamot, and sacrifices offered even when there is no Temple). Rabbeinu Chayyim explains that according to the view that the first sanctity was conferred only temporarily, but not for all time, it is impossible to offer sacrifices today even on the site of the altar on Mount Moriya, and all the more so at a bama. In contrast, according to the view that the first sanctity was conferred for all time, one is permitted to offer sacrifices at the site of the altar, but one may not offer sacrifices at bamot outside of Mount Moriya.

The Meshekh Chokhma adduces the words of Rabbeinu Chayyim in support of his position. Even if the first sanctity was conferred only for its time and not for all time, bamot are forbidden because their role has come to an end. The Men of the Great Assembly nullified the passion for idol worship, and there is no longer any need to keep the people away from idol worship by allowing them to offer sacrifices on bamot. According to Rabbeinu Chayyim, the prohibition of bamot is not connected to the question of whether the sanctity of Jerusalem was conferred only for its time or for all time. Rather, it is an absolute prohibition resulting from the nullification of the passion for idolatry and thus the nullification of the role of bamot.

The Meshekh Chokhma uses his distinction to explain the verse in Tehillim: "For you desire not sacrifice, or else I would give it; You delight not in burnt offering" (51:18). This verse deals with offerings brought on a bama which are not for a sweet savor, but only to keep the people away from idol worship. Since such sacrifices come only to distance people from sin, it is possible to say: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (ibid. v. 19).

In contrast, the verses which follow – "Do good in Your favor to Zion; build You the walls of Jerusalem. Then shall You be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering" (vv. 20-21) - refer to sacrifices offered in the Temple. The purpose of these offerings is not to distance people from idol worship. Rather, God desires these sacrifices in themselves in order to draw the worlds closer and to bring benefit to the entire nation.

The Prohibition of Meat of Desire in the Wilderness

Let us continue with the remarks of the Meshekh Chokhma:

This explains that which is stated in Chullin 17: "Why at first was [meat of desire] prohibited? Because they were close to the Mishkan. And why in the end was it permitted? Because they were far from the Mishkan" (17a). And all the more so now when they are even further away. The Tosafot ask: Surely bamot were permitted, and so they were even closer. Aside from the fact that today bamot are forbidden, as I explained [see Turei Even (Megilla 10)], the very argument is not valid. Granted regarding the Mishkan, where God is pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings, He forbade meat of desire so that they should come to the Mishkan. But regarding bamot, where the sacrifices are not loved by God and are not for sweet savor, but only to keep people away from idol worship, there is no reason to forbid meat of desire so that people should come to the bama. On the contrary! Because man wishes to perform sacrificial acts, He commanded that one should offer the sacrifices on a bama.

The Meshekh Chokhma refers us to the position of R. Yishmael in Chullin (16b), according to which the allowance of meat of desire depends on Israel's entry into the Land. When the people of Israel camped in the wilderness, they were forbidden to eat meat of desire, but when they entered the Land and settled their tribal territories, which were located far away from the Temple, meat of desire was permitted.

According to the Meshekh Chokhma's explanation, God was pleased with the sacrifices brought in the Mishkan, and meat of desire was forbidden in the wilderness so that people would come to the Mishkan, as argued by R. Yishmael. But as for offering sacrifices at the bamot, where the sacrifices served only to keep the people away from idol worship, they are not loved by God and are not of sweet savor. It would be inappropriate to prohibit meat of desire so that people should bring sacrifices to the bamot. On the contrary, it was only because man desires to engage in sacrificial service that God commanded that sacrifices be brought at a bama at all.

The Difference Between the name EloHim and the TetraGrammaton

The Meshekh Chokhma continues:

And in tractate Menahchot (110a): "Ben Azzai said: In the chapter of the sacrifices, it is written neither El nor Elohim, but only the Lord [the Tetragrammaton], so as not to give sectarians any occasion to rebel." This is understandable based on reason, for it was customary among all the nations to offer sacrifices to spiritual forces attributed to various forms. This was not the case with God's portion, His nation, for they have no connection or submission to any force, but only to God, the true being, who brought everything into being from absolute nothingness - only to the unique name of the Tetragrammaton. And so too with each element, the Creator noted the difference between the sacrifices of the nations and the sacrifices that He commanded His people Israel: "To sacrifice to the Lord" (Shemot 8:25); "to burn offering made by fire to the Lord" (Shemot 30:20). This is the intention, because "the Lord" does not refer to a particular force, as we find with the name Elohim in connection with an angel or a judge, but only to the force of all forces, the cause of all causes, and the reason for all existing things. Therefore, regarding the nation whose hearts were not yet clean of the false and imaginary feelings, for which reason they sinned with the golden calf, Pharaoh said: "Therefore they cry saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God’" (Shemot 5:8). In contrast, the officers – who were great in their wisdom – were careful with their words. Therefore, he said to them: "Therefore you say, ‘Let us go and do sacrifice to the Lord’" (Shemot 5:1).

The gemara in Menachot emphasizes the fact that in the chapter dealing with sacrifices, the Divine name that is used is the Tetragrammaton. Rashi explains (ad loc., s.v. le-ba'al ha-din):

For those who say that there are multiple forces, as is proven by the fact that this one whose name is such-and-such commanded that a meal-offering be brought for Him, and that one whose names is such-and-such commanded that cattle be offered to Him, and that one commanded that rams [be brought]. Therefore, it states by all of them: "A sweet savor to the Lord."

Had the chapters dealing with sacrifices included different names of God, one might have mistakenly understood that the forces of nature are forces that are separate from God. Therefore, the Torah writes in connection with all the sacrifices that they are a "sweet savor to the Lord." In this way, the Torah precludes us from thinking that God bestowed power or authority to some of the natural forces and that He wants us to worship them. There is no other Divine force in the world apart from the one and only Lord.

The Meshekh Chokhma distinguishes between the people of Israel and the rest of the nations of the world. While the other nations attribute spiritual powers to such forms, the people of Israel submit themselves exclusively to the one God Who brought all things into being from absolute nothingness. The name Elohim refers to a specific force, whereas the name "the Lord" gives expression to the force of all forces, the cause of all causes, and the reason for all existing things. The Meshekh Chokhma notes that the people who later sinned with the golden calf cried out: "Let us sacrifice to our God" (Shemot 5:8), whereas the officers, who were wiser, used the name of the Tetragrammaton: "Let us sacrifice to the Lord."

An Altar of Stones and The Prohibition to Plant a Tree

The Meshekh Chokhma relates to Ben Azzai's comments on the verse: "You shall not plant for yourself an ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make for yourself" (Devarim 16:21):

This is what Ben Azzai meant (Menachot 110a) when he said: "Come and see what is written in the chapter of the sacrifices. Neither El nor Elohim is found there, but only the Lord, so as not to give sectarians any occasion to rebel." What he means is that the name Elohim refers to the force of all forces that exist from God, and that the name El indicates the strength of His actions and kindness to all flesh. Had these names been used in the chapter dealing with sacrifices, the sectarians would have occasion to say that God must derive sustenance from the sacrifices. Therefore, it says in all places, "the Lord," the name that indicates God's necessary existence and the fact that He brings everything else into being. This being the case, it cannot be said that He is sustained by beings who are dependent on His will and who are created ex nihilo only by His desire.

Now it is known that inanimate objects are not fed and do not grow. If a stone is found to have increased in size, it is because particles of dust stuck to it and hardened until they turned into stone, but they did not grow from it [Bava Metzia 64a]. This is not the case with plants and animals, which eat and grow and constantly add to their perfection, as is known.

And to demonstrate this, God commanded the building of an altar of stones and that there be no tree there, so that one should contemplate that just as the altar – the site of the sacrifices – is something that does not eat and does not need water and food, so too the entire matter of sacrifices is not for God's nutrition or adding to His perfection. Therefore, it says: "You shall not plant for yourself and ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord, which you shall make for yourself." For the entire matter of the altar is not for a need of His, God forbid, and is not for His nutrition. Rather, it is for your need and for your benefit, and building it is for you and for your perfection.

The name Elohim reflects the forces coming from God and the strength of God's actions. Using the name of the Lord in connection with the sacrifices teaches that God's existence does not require sustenance or addition from those created by Him, for He brings everything into being. Inanimate objects do not eat or grow, as opposed to plants and animals which eat, grow, and constantly add to their perfection.

This is the way he explains why God issued the command to build an altar of stones with no trees: "You shall not plant for yourself an ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make for yourself" (Devarim 16:21); and "An altar of stones You shall make to Me" (Shemot 20:22). Just like the altar, the site of the sacrifices, is something that does not eat and does not need food or water, so too the entire matter of sacrifices does not involve the eating or addition of perfection of God. God does not require sustenance; everything is meant only for man's needs and benefit.

With this, we have completed our explanation of the words of the Meshekh Chokhma, who teaches that the difference between offering sacrifices at bamot and offering sacrifices in the Mishkan or Mikdash is not just a difference between one place and many places or between priests performing the service and firstborns doing so as representatives of their families, but rather an essential difference regarding the purpose of the sacrifices brought in the respective places.

Bamot are intended to keep people away from idolatry, in the sense of "turn away from evil," whereas sacrifices offered in the Temple are intended to draw the upper and lower worlds together, in the sense of "do good."

With this, we have completed our examination of the bamot. In the coming shiurim, we will examine in practical terms where and in what context we find sacrifices being offered outside of the Mishkan, as well as the practical and spiritual significance of this. We will then examine the attitude of the Torah and the Prophets to the issue of bamot from the time of Israel's entry into the Land until the end of the First Temple period.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)