Lecture 34: The History of the Resting of the Shekhina (Part XVII) - The Prohibition of Bamot Its History and Significance (Part II)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy



            In the previous lecture, we presented a general outline of the history of the prohibition of bamot.  We saw that bamot were first forbidden when the Mishkan was built (the prohibition of "shechutei chutz" in Vayikra 17).  It seems, however, that this prohibition was different from the prohibition that applied in later generations (Devarim 12), and that its primary purpose was to distance the people from worship of se'irim, conduct characteristic of dwelling in the wilderness.[1] When the people of Israel entered Eretz Yisrael – and perhaps even in the fortieth year to the exodus from Egypt when they were camped in Arvot Mo'av – bamot were permitted.  They were once again forbidden during the period of Shilo, but permitted anew when the Mishkan or great bama was in Nov or Giv'on and separated from the ark (see I Shmuel 7:1-2; II Shmuel 6).  Following the building of the Mikdash in Jerusalem, bamot were permanently forbidden and never again permitted.


            In this lecture, we will consider the essence of the prohibition of bamot for later generations and its reason; we will not deal here with sacrifices offered to the se'irim.  We will also try to explain why it is that even when bamot are permitted, offering sacrifices on a bama is not the ideal way of serving God.




            We mentioned at the end of the previous lecture that although the prohibitions of worship at bamot and idol worship are very different, there seems to be a connection between them.  This connection clearly arises from Scripture, both in the book of Vayikra and in the book of Devarim.  In the book of Vayikra, we read:


Whatever man there be of the house of Israel who 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 Tent of Meeting to offer an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle 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, and that they may bring them to the Lord, to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest… (Vayikra 17:3-5)


            A baraita in Zevachim (106b) learns from these verses that "one who offers a sacrifice when bamot are forbidden, Scripture relates to him as if he sacrificed in the open field." Rashi explains there: "As if he sacrificed in the open field – not for the sake of heaven;" in other words, as if he sacrificed to idols.


            A clearer connection emerges from Devarim 12, which draws a connection between worship "in all places" and the practices of the idol worshippers:


You shall utterly destroy all the places in which the nations whom you are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree… This you shall not do to the Lord your God.  But to the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, there shall you seek Him, at His dwelling, and there shall you come.  And there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices…  You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatever is right in his own eyes… 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, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you… (Devarim 12:2-6, 8, 13-14).


As Rashi explains there (ibid. v. 4): "'This you shall not do' – to burn offerings to God wherever [you choose]."[2]


            We see, then, that in two different passages the Torah relates to the significance of worship in one central location.  In Vayikra 17, the Torah deals with this issue in the context of the period of the wilderness, when this command was meant to prevent sacrificing to the se'irim "in the open field," and Chazal learned from this for future generations that one who sacrifices at bamot is regarded as one who sacrifices in the open field (see note 1).  And in Devarim 12 and across the length of the book of Devarim, the Torah regards this requirement as standing in opposition to the practice of idol worshippers, who serve their gods in all places.  Indeed, all of the testimony in our hands, from Scripture to modern archeological research, shows that idol worship in the land of Cana'an was in many senses similar in form to worship at bamot, including the plurality of sacrificial sites, natural service – "upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree" - and sacrificial service performed by individuals – at altars and pillars.  It is not by chance that time and time again, and especially in the book of Devarim (as in the aforementioned verses), the Torah warns about the encounter with idol worship and demands that it be eradicated at the same time that it permits the service of God only "in the place that God shall choose."[3]


            In light of this, R. Yitzchak Abravanel (on Vayikra 17:1) explains that offering sacrifices outside the Mishkan was forbidden because it might have been understood as directed toward a different god, whereas a single altar and a single Mikdash testify to the unity of God – the Lord is one and His name is one.


A person should not think to slaughter in the field and erect there a bama and offer his sacrifice on it… because the oneness of the altar and the Mishkan point to the oneness of God who governs and watches over them.  When they offer a burnt offering or sacrifice on a bama or other altar, it is as if they believe in many gods, and that God, blessed be He, is not one.[4]




            Despite what we have learned thus far, there are those who viewed bamot as an effective deterrent against idol worship, and the prohibition of bamot – as encouraging it.  Thus writes the Netziv in his commentary, Meitav Shir, on Shir Ha-shirim (6:5):


Regarding King Shlomo it says: "And Shlomo loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places (bamot)." And Rashi explains: "Scripture speaks to his disgrace, that he put off building the Temple for four years." At first glance, this is difficult: Why does Scripture speak to Shlomo's disgrace in that he offered sacrifices on bamot, which were then permitted, and not state explicitly the primary disgrace, that he was slothful about building the Temple? Rather, without a doubt, it was not owing to laziness that Shlomo reached this sin of delaying the building of the Temple, but rather because he knew that after the building of the Temple it would be forbidden to sacrifice at the bamot, and therefore there would be a decrease of the love of God in Israel, for sacrificing before God leads to love of and cleaving to Him… When bamot were permitted, it was easy for someone who wished to lovingly cleave to God to offer sacrifices on a bama anywhere he desired.  This was not the case after the building of the Temple, when it was no longer possible [to offer sacrifices] until a pilgrimage festival arrived and he went up to Jerusalem.  It is for this reason that [Shlomo] pushed off building the Temple for four years.  This is Shlomo's disgrace – that he was so deeply immersed in the love of God that he was negligent about the building of the Temple in order to offer sacrifices at the bamot.[5]


            In his Ha'amek Davar commentary to Devarim 4:21, the Netziv goes even further and asserts that the prohibition of bamot pushed the people to idol worship:


We must consider what we see that they came to… idol worship at the time of Shilo and the Temple more than at the time of Gilgal, Nov, and Giv'on!… What happened was that the masses in Israel were eager to participate in the sacrificial service that was known as a remedy for a livelihood… But it was difficult for every individual to go to Shilo or the Temple, and the bamot were forbidden, and so they sought the service of other gods.  This was not true during the period that bamot were permitted when they did not reach this desire at all.[6]


            In light of what we have seen thus far, the Netziv's understanding seems to be very novel and innovative.[7] As we have explained, the plain sense of Scripture indicates that in an atmosphere of idol worship, a plurality of sites at which to serve God is liable to lead to idol worship.  In his commentary to the verse in Melakhim cited above (I Melakhim 3:3), the Radak proposes that Shlomo's disgrace lay in his offering sacrifices at the bamot:


"Only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places" – before the Temple was built, for after the Temple was built, we do not find that he sacrificed at bamot.  Why then does it say "only?" Surely bamot were permitted before the Temple was built! Since it says, "walking in the statutes of David his father," and David only sacrificed on the altar that was before the ark in Jerusalem or in the bama at Giv'on, and we do not find that he sacrificed and burnt incense at other bamot; because having many bamot brings a person to idol worship, for it is the practice of non-Jews to build a bama on top of every mountain and hill and under every leafy tree.




            As we saw in the previous lecture, the connection between worship at bamot and idol worship is also striking from a historical perspective.  Israel served God at bamot throughout most of the first Temple period, and idol worship also continued for a significant part of that period.  On the other hand, throughout the second Temple period, from the very beginning we find no worship of God at bamot and no idol worship.


            Chazal understood this correlation as more than merely a technical connection stemming from the similarity in the manner and nature of the service, but as a deeper connection, following from what they called the "idolatrous impulse." This internal force is perhaps most explicitly illustrated in the following story brought at the beginning of chapter Chelek:


In the college of Rav Ashi, the lecture [one day] terminated at 'Three Kings' [Yerov'am, Achav, and Menashe, who do not have a portion in the World-to-Come (Sanhedrin 10:2)].  He said to the Sages: Tomorrow we will commence with our colleagues.  [That night] Menashe came and appeared to him in a dream.  You have called us your colleagues and the colleagues of your father; now, from what part [of the bread] is [the piece for reciting] the ha-motzi blessing to be taken? He said to him: I do not know.  He said to him: You haven't learned this, and yet you call us your colleagues! He said to him: Teach it to me, and tomorrow I will teach it in your name at the session.  He answered: From the part that is baked into a crust.  He then questioned him: Since you are so wise, why did you worship idols? He replied: Were you there, you would have caught up the skirt of your garment and sped after me because of the idolatrous impulse that ruled.  The next day, he observed to the students: We will commence with our teachers [so referring to the Three Kings].  (Sanhedrin 102b)


            Chazal also explain how the Anshei Keneset Ha-gedola (Men of the Great Assembly) succeeded to wipe out the idolatrous impulse, which they viewed as the primary cause of the destruction and exile, at the beginning of the second Temple period:


"And they cried out with a loud voice to the Lord their God" (Nechemya 9:4).  What did they say? Rav said, and some say it was Rabbi Yochanan: Alas, alas, this [the idolatrous impulse] is what destroyed the Mikdash, burnt the Heikhal, killed all the righteous men, and exiled Israel from their land, and still it is dancing among us! Did You not give it to us only that we should receive reward through it [for overcoming it]? We are not interested in it nor in its reward.  A note fell for them from heaven, on which was written, "Truth" [Rashi: i.e., I agree with you]… They fasted for three days and three nights, and it was delivered into their hands.  A lion cub of fire emerged from the Holy of Holies.  A prophet said to Israel: This is the idolatrous impulse, as it is stated: "And he said, This is Wickedness" (Zekharya 5:8).  (Yoma 69b)


            In both of these stories, the term, "idolatrous impulse" relates to idol worship itself.  It stands to reason, however, that we are dealing with a broader psychological force that is not directed specifically at idol worship.  This is the way it was understood by Rav Kook:


The foundation of the idolatrous impulse is an eruption of the desire for faith, and its overcoming the principle of faith-based service, perfecting the faith and nurturing of faith.  When the desire for faith grows in strength, it does not distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate faith.  And the soul that is sick with the illness of this desire wishes to fill that emotional space that should be filled by the contents of faith with something that satisfies the desirous soul.  Fundamentally, this is the source of all the desires that breach and destroy their limits, that express anger and desolation in the spiritual and practical world, in the individual and in the community.  (Shemoneh Perakim, kovetz 7, 105, p.  183)


            An outburst of the desire for faith can bring a person to ritual mania, which can express itself not only in the inability to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate (i.e., idolatrous) faith, but also in the service of God in an inappropriate manner, i.e., service at the bamot, and not in the place that God will choose.[8] This impulse was at its strongest during the first Temple period, but it was extinguished at the beginning of the second Temple period.  In this way, the Anshei Keneset Ha-gedola spared the people from having to struggle against idolatry and service of God at the bamot (for the spiritual price that this exacted, see note 8).[9]




            The lectures on the prohibition of bamot are part of the broader discussion of the transition from service at altars and pillars to service in the Mishkan, the issue that we have been discussing from the beginning of the year.  The upcoming lectures will continue this discussion from the perspective of those serving in the Mishkan.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] It should be noted that despite the clear distinction on the level of the plain sense of Scripture, Chazal and, in their wake, the classical biblical commentators, learned many details of the prohibition for future generations from the passage in Vayikra 17 (see, for example, Zevachim 106a and on and the sources cited below).

[2] The issue of "the place that the Lord shall choose" will be discussed in a more comprehensive manner in a lecture devoted to the topic.

[3] This is well formulated in the Tanchuma (Korach, sec. 5), which attributes the following argument to Moshe in his discussion with Korach's band: "It is the way of the nations to have many observances and they do not all assemble in the same temple.  We have only one God, and one Torah, and one law, and one altar, and one High Priest, and one Temple."

[4] Mention should be made of Rav Kook's understanding that bamot are forbidden not only because of a concern about idol worship, but also as an expression of the unity of the nation.  See Olat Re'iya, I, pp. 227-228.

[5] The Meshekh Chokhma in his introduction to the book of Vayikra may express the same position.  There, he proposes that offering sacrifices on bamot was meant to distance man from idol worship (his words are cited in full in lecture no. 24 in last year's series): "The early sages disagreed about the reason for the sacrifices.  The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim, III, 46) said that it is merely to distance man from idolatry, whereas the Ramban (commentary to Vayikra 1:9) and his company said that it is to draw near all the forces in the world, this being something electric-spiritual.  Through his actions, the priest does elevated things in different worlds.  Perhaps we should decide in between, that sacrifices offered on a bama were only to distance idolatry from the hearts of the people of Israel, and therefore He commanded that they offer them for the sake of heaven.  This is not the case regarding the sacrifices in the Temple – they were certainly to draw the worlds near and to join lovers….  And with this we can understand what Rav Natan said (Nedarim 22a): One who takes a vow is regarded as if he built a bama (and one who fulfills it is regarded as if he offered a sacrifice on it).  That is, a bama is used to fence himself off from idolatry.  But during the time that the Temple stands, he does evil by fencing himself off from idolatry through the building of a bama.  [For] surely God is in His holy sanctuary and he can offer a sacrifice in the Temple!"

In any event, even the Meshekh Chokhma sees the offering of sacrifices at bamot at best as a way to maintain distance from idol worship, and not as a means leading to the love of God and communion with him, as argued by the Netziv.

[6] In his commentary to Vayikra 17 and Devarim 12, the Netziv does not give a clear reason for the prohibition of bamot.

[7] The Netziv's assertion that idol worship was more prevalent during the periods when bamot were forbidden than during the periods when bamot were permitted is not self-evident, for the two sets of periods are very different in their duration.  According to Seder Olam Rabba's calculation, the periods of Gilgal, Nov, and Giv'on lasted seventy one years altogether, whereas the times during the first Temple period when bamot were forbidden – when the Mishkan was in Shilo and when the Mikdash stood in Jerusalem – total 779 years, i.e., more than ten times as long.  Any comparison between the two is therefore problematic.

[8] I have not found any explicit statement in the writings of Rav Kook that draws a connection between this idea and the prohibition of bamot.  Any reader who is familiar with such a source is invited to share it with me.  Nevertheless, Rav Kook dealt with the impact that the cancellation of the idolatrous impulse had on the service of God in Eder Ha-Yakar, pp. 30-31 (brought in lecture no. 28 of the second series of lectures on biblical Jerusalem).

[9] There is an interesting relationship between this position and the position of the Netziv.  Both deal with the problem of the limitations imposed on man's desire to serve God by the prohibition to serve Him in many places.  The difference between them lies in the initial assumptions.  The Netziv sees the bamot as leading to love of God and communion with Him, whereas Rav Kooks sees them as a lower form of service (see what he says about the superiority of service in a limited, walled-in structure over service with no limiting walls, cited in lecture no. 30).