Lecture #244: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (LIV) – The Prohibition of Bamot (XXXI)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy


This shiur is dedicated to the refua sheleima of our alumnus

Rabbi Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut Beller.


After having dealt with the reality of the Mishkan from the destruction of Shilo until the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and after having understood the stations of the great bama in Nov and in Giv'on, and the stations of the ark in Sedeh-Plishtim, Bet-Shemesh, Kiryat-Ye'arim, and the City of David, and after having discussed the relationship between "the rest" and "the inheritance," and between Shilo and Jerusalem, and before we actually examine what is described in the verses during the period, I wish to dedicate the first part of this shiur to understanding the concepts themselves from a halakhic perspective: What is the difference between a great bama – a public bama - and a private bama?[1]

After that we will examine the spiritual and religious reality during the time that the Mishkan stood in Nov and in Giv'on.

A Great Bama and a Minor Bama

The Tosefta in Zevachim (13:19) states as follows: "Which is the great bama when bamot are permitted? The Tent of Meeting is pitched in its usual manner, [but] the ark is not put there." The communal offerings are offered on the bronze altar located alongside it.

We have seen that the great bama, the public bama, stood during the periods that the Mishkan was in Gilgal, in Nov and in Giv'on.

Anyone can build a minor bama for himself. The Tosefta writes (13): "Which is the minor bama when bamot are permitted? A person erects a minor bama at the entrance to his courtyard or at the entrance to his garden, and offers sacrifices on it, he, his son, his daughter, his man-servant and his maid-servant."

The Gemara in Zevachim (108b) records a Tannaitic dispute over whether a bama must be built in a particular way, or whether, as in the story of Manoach, one can offer a sacrifice even on a rock ("And he offered it upon the rock"; Shoftim 13:19). This disagreement depends in turn on the question whether or not during those times that bamot are forbidden, one who offers a sacrifice on a rock outside the Temple is liable. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 120a) states that there were five differences between a great bama and a minor bama: Horn, ramp, base, and squareness were required at the great bama, but not at a minor bama, and there were a laver and its base at the great bama, but not at a minor bama.

Sacrifices Offered at the Great Bama

At the great bama both public sacrifices and individual sacrifices were offered.

As for public sacrifices, the Tannaim disagree in the Gemara in Zevachim (117a; and so too in the Tosefta, chap. 12): The Sages maintain that all public sacrifices were offered at the Tent of Meeting in Gilgal, whereas Rabbi Shimon says that only obligatory sacrifices having a fixed time, similar to the Paschal offering, were offered there (daily offerings and the Musaf offerings which are burnt-offerings, and Paschal offerings which all year long are peace-offerings).

Sacrifices Offered at a Minor Bama

Public sacrifices were not offered at a minor bama. As for individual sacrifices, only that which could be vowed or offered as a freewill-offering, e.g., burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, could be offered at a minor bama.

The Difference Between a Great Bama and a Minor Bama[2]

Offering a sacrifice on a great bama includes the following elements, which are not found at a minor bama: Laying of hands on the offering, slaughtering in the north, blood applications round about the altar (on the horn of the altar from two sides), waving and presenting meal offerings, the priesthood, priestly garments, service vessels, sweet savor, a line of demarcation for sprinkling the blood, the washing of hands and feet, libations,[3] and the qualification of women, slaves, and converts.

The main reason for these differences is the absence of "before the Lord," "altar," and "in the holy" in the case of a minor bama (Zevachim 119a).

Sacrifices During the Period that Bamot are Prohibited

The Mishna in Zevachim (112b) states:  

All sacrifices consecrated while bamot were forbidden and offered while bamot were forbidden, involve a positive and a negative injunction, and one is liable to karet on their account.

This is a double prohibition:

1. Positive commandment: "But only in the place which the Lord shall choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt-offerings, and there you do all that I command you" (Devarim 12:14).

2. Negative commandment: "Take heed to yourself that you offer not your burnt-offerings in every place that you see" (Devarim 12:13).

Non-Jews are permitted to offer sacrifices at bamot even when bamot are forbidden. This is a brief summary of the laws that distinguish between public bamot and minor bamot.[4]

The Spiritual Reality During the Period of Nov and Giv’on

Let us consider the period between the destruction of Shilo and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the various events connected to the offering of sacrifices during that period.

After the ark was returned to Bet-Shemesh by the Pelishtim and then moved to Kiryat-Ye'arim, the prophet Shemuel eradicated idol worship and assembled all of Israel in Mitzpa, where he drew water and poured it before God (I Shemuel 6:6).

It is clear that the purpose of the assembly was to foster repentance and try to repair the difficult spiritual reality that revealed itself in Israel's battle against the Pelishtim at Even-ha-Ezer. In this framework, the people observe a fast, understanding that they had sinned to God.

Rashi in his comment about the drawing of the water writes:

Targum Yonatan writes: "And they poured out their hearts with repentance like water before God." According to the plain meaning, this was a sign of submission, as if saying: Behold, I am before You like this spilled water.

The Radak (ad loc.) cites Targum Yonatan and explains:

It is possible to explain that they poured water before God as a symbol of atonement for their sins.

We find that pouring water was a customary practice in the worship of God. David observed this practice (II Shemuel 23:16), and similarly in the Mikdash water was poured on the Festival of Sukkot.

Afterwards Shemuel offers a sacrifice: "And Shemuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt-offering wholly to the Lord: and Shemuel cried to the Lord for Israel; and the Lord heard him" (I Shemuel 7:9). The Radak explains:

Our Rabbis expounded this verse, saying (Avoda Zara 24b): The word is written: Vaya'ala ("and he offered her"), as it was a female animal. From here they found support that a female burnt-offering is valid at a private bama.

They also received as a tradition that a non-priest may offer a sacrifice at a private bama, for from the time that the Mishkan in Shilo was destroyed and they came to Nov, bamot were permitted the entire time that the Tent of Meeting was in Nov and in Giv'on until the Temple was built, for then bamot were forbidden and were never permitted again. And they said (Vayikra Rabba 22, 9): "A bama is only permitted by way of a prophet.

For Shemuel was the first to offer a sacrifice at a private bama after the Mishkan in Shilo was destroyed, and similarly at Gilgal Yehoshua was the first to offer a sacrifice at a private bama, as it is stated: "Then Yehoshua built" (Yehoshua 8:30).

The Radak, based on Chazal, highlights three points here:

1. A female burnt-offering may be offered at a private bama.

2. A non-priest may offer a sacrifice at a private bama.

3. A bama is only permitted by way of a prophet.

The Midrash cited by the Radak states as follows:

Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Chanina said: A bama is only permitted by way of a prophet… Did Eliyahu offer sacrifices [at a bama] when bamot were forbidden? Rabbi Simlai said: The Holy One, blessed be He, told him [to do so], as it is stated: "I have done at Your word" (I Melakhim 18:36), i.e., at Your command.  

Where do we know about Shemuel? As it is stated: "And Shemuel took a sucking lamb" (I Shemuel 7:9). Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Three transgressions were committed with Shemuel's burnt-offering: It and its hide, before its time, and a Levite. (Vayikra Rabba 22, 9)

There is an allowance to offer sacrifices on a bama by way of a prophet. This is apparently based on the wording of the verse: "But only in the place which the Lord shall choose." This command is expounded by Chazal as a general prohibition to offer sacrifices on a bama while the Mishkan was in the wilderness, in Shilo, or in Jerusalem.

A distinction should be made between the various stations:

1. Eliyahu's offering on Mount Carmel occurred while the Temple stood in Jerusalem, which is clearly a time when bamot were forbidden, and it was possible only as a temporary ruling.

2. The altar built by Gid'on was built while the Mishkan stood in Shilo, and so bamot were forbidden. This altar was built as a temporary measure on God's instruction.

3. As for Yehoshua's altar, although this was the first altar built outside the Mishkan in Eretz Israel, it was clearly built while the Mishkan was in Gilgal, a period during which bamot were permitted. This is in addition to the fact, that with the very building of the altar, Yehoshua fulfilled an explicit Torah commandment (Devarim 27:1-8).

4. As for the sacrifice offered by Shemuel, this sacrifice was offered while the Mishkan was in Nov, and therefore bamot were permitted. Shemuel wanted to assemble the entire people of Israel prior to another campaign against the Pelishtim; they fast, pour water, pray and repent. There was certainly a national and spiritual component of this action that occurred during the period when bamot were permitted.

The Midrash adds that beyond the allowance itself to slaughter and offer a sacrifice outside the Mishkan, Shemuel's action involved three prohibitions that were temporarily permitted by God:

  1. "Its hide" – Shemuel offered a burnt-offering. A burnt-offering is burned in its entirety on the altar together with its hide, without the usual flaying and cutting up of the carcass.
  2. "Before its time" – the verse mentions a "sucking lamb," a lamb during the first seven days after it was born, which is ordinarily disqualified as a sacrifice.
  3. "A Levite" – Shemuel was the son of Elkana, a descendant of Kehat the son of Levi (I Divrei Ha-yamim 6:18-23), and not a priest who is fit for the sacrificial service. But nevertheless, God accepted his offering with favor.

We see in the continuation of the verse cited by the Midrash that Shemuel builds an altar to God, and we are dealing with a time when bamot were permitted, when the Mishkan was in Nov. It could, however, be argued that the sacrifice was offered during a time when bamot were forbidden, and that Shemuel adopted a temporary measure at God's instruction.[5]

Prayer, fasting, pouring water before God and offering a special sacrifice were part of Israel's repair, a preparation for another campaign against the Pelishtim. From here we see that turning to God by offering a sacrifice was part of the spiritual preparation for war.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] This section is based on Encyclopedia Talmudit, s.v. bama.

[2] The practices which apply to both a great bama and a minor bama are as follows: Slaughter, flaying and cutting, permitting the meat for consumption by sprinkling the blood, the time for eating the sacrificial meat, the laws of notar and piggul. One who is ritually impure is disqualified from offering a sacrifice at a minor bama or to eat of sacrificial meat. A person with a physical defect is also disqualifed from offering a sacrifice, and similarly a sacrifice with a blemish may not be offered.

[3] According to Rabbi Yishmael and the Sages (Zevachim 111a) libations are not offered at a minor bama, but Rabbi Akiva disagrees.

[4] We have not expanded on all the details; we merely wished to provide a general framework for understanding a public bama and a private bama.

[5] This possibility is unlikely, since the ark was in Kiryat-Ye'arim, and it was not removed from there before it was moved up to the City of David.