The Torah in Parashat Teruma describes the altar that stood in the courtyard outside the Mishkan, and then later, in the courtyard outside the Beit Ha-mikdash. The altar’s dimensions are listed here in the Torah as being five amot long, five amot wide, and three amot high (27:1).
The Gemara in Masekhet Zevachim (59b-60a) cites different opinions among the Tanna’im, between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi, regarding the meaning of this verse, and one of the points of dispute is the height of the altar. While Rabbi Yehuda accepts the plain meaning of the verse, that the altar stood just three amot tall, Rabbi Yossi contends that it was, in truth, ten amot tall. When the Torah lists the altar’s height at three amot, Rabbi Yossi claims, this refers to the height of the top section of the altar, which extended beyond the soveiv – the “walkway” surrounding the altar where the kohanim would stand when offering the sacrifices. The soveiv stood six amot above the ground, and according to Rabbi Yossi, the altar extended three amot above the soveiv. The protrusions at the corners of the altar extended an additional ama, for a total height of ten amot.
In challenging Rabbi Yossi’s view, Rabbi Yehuda points to the fact that if, indeed, the altar stood this high, then the kohen’s service on the altar was visible outside the Temple courtyard. The curtains encircling the courtyard stood just five amot high (Shemot 27:18), and so if the altar extended higher than five amot, then the kohen’s service would be seen by the people outside. Rabbi Yehuda argued that this is inconceivable, and thus necessarily, the altar could not have been this tall. Rabbi Yossi responded that the curtains were also higher, and when they are described as standing just five amot tall, this means that they extended five amot beyond the height of the altar.
Rav Menachem Kasher, in Torah Sheleima (vol. 22, appendix 20), notes the significance of the fact that both Tanna’im found such a prospect – of the kohen’s service on the altar being visible to people outside – unthinkable. It was taken as an unchallenged assumption that the service was visible only to the people assembled in the Temple courtyard, and not to people outside. Apparently, Rav Kasher writes, it was presumed that the service in the Mikdash had to maintain a private quality, and was not to be publicized for all to see. Those who wished to visit the Mikdash to observe the service were able to, assuming they were in the required state of purity, but the service could not possibly be made into a public spectacle visible even to those outside the Mikdash.
This discussion reminds us of the critical importance of privacy in our avodat Hashem. Our service to our Creator should remain private, and not put on public display. Certainly, as Rav Kasher notes, there are certain communal mitzvot which are meant to be performed in public in order to bring glory to God. Generally speaking, however, if we approach mitzva observance with honesty and sincerity, then we should avoid turning them into public spectacles, and keep our avodat Hashem as a private matter between us and the Almighty.