The Bronze Altar (1)
The latter half of Sefer Shemot concerns a single topic: the construction of the Mishkan or Tabernacle. Stretching over five lengthy parashiyot, the involved narrative of the Mishkan's fabrication is divided into two main sections. The first, comprising the parashiyot of Teruma (25:1-27:19) and Tetzave (27:20-30:10), is phrased in the imperative and relates God's commands to Moshe; the second, composed of parashiyot Vayakhel (35:1-38:20) and Pekudei (38:21-40:38), describes the execution and fulfillment of those detailed provisions by the artisans and by the people of Israel. Unusually, there is almost perfect symmetry between the two sections, so that all of the descriptions concerning the vessels, building elements and priestly garments related at the outset as part of the Divine directives are repeated almost verbatim in the narratives of implementation.
There is, of course, the parasha of Ki Tisa (30:11-34:35) that jarringly bifurcates the otherwise perfectly balanced accounts, and although that parasha begins with topics that are germane to the Mishkan undertaking (30:11-31:17), its focus quickly shifts to the debacle of the golden calf and the smashing of the tablets of the Decalogue. In years past, we have considered the placement of the golden calf passage precisely at the pivot point between the sections, and concluded that the Torah intends to provide us with a looming caution: the noble desire to provide the absolute and transcendent Deity with a physical abode in real space, a tangible location where we might encounter and worship Him, is one that is fraught with real danger. How easily can potent but material expressions of profound truths become garish and crude vehicles for self-serving and shallow ritual, once they have been disconnected from their Divine moorings!
THE BRONZE ALTAR AND ITS PLACEMENT
But no other vessel cold match the bronze altar for continuous use, for upon its summit were presented not only the daily sacrifice morning and evening but also any of the other myriad offerings brought by individuals at all times of the day, as well as the additional communal sacrifices associated with Shabbat, New Moon, and holidays. In fact, the Rabbis relate that for this vessel to be idle at all was inauspicious, and if there were situations in which there were no sacrifices that were slated to be brought, then special communal offerings would be presented only in order that the bronze altar would never be inactive (see Mishna Shekalim 4:4 and Talmud Bavli Tractate Sukka 56a).
CONSIDERING THE PASSAGE
You shall fashion the altar out of acacia wood, it shall be five cubits in length and five cubits in width, so that the (area of the) altar shall be square, and three cubits in height. You shall fashion its projections on its four corners so that they are part of it, and you shall cover it with bronze. You shall prepare its shovels to clear its ashes, its sweepers and its basins, its forks and its firepans, all of its vessels shall be fashioned out of bronze. You shall make for it a screen after the manner of a bronze network, and you shall make four rings upon that network at its extremities. You shall place it (the network) below the molding of the altar, so that the network extends to half of its height. You shall prepare staves for the altar, staves of acacia wood, and you shall cover them with bronze. The staves shall be brought into its rings, so that the staves shall be on both sides of the altar when it is borne. You shall fashion it hollow out of boards, as He showed you upon the mountain, so shall you do (Shemot 27:1-8).
As we alluded to above, the section of the bronze altar is introduced in the larger context after the descriptions of the Ark, Table and Menorah, as well as the accounts of the Mishkan's fabric coverings, boards and dividing curtains. In other words, the altar is described only after the vessels and the building elements associated with the Mishkan proper are spelled out. As a general rule, the narratives of the parasha are arranged in descending order, as if the reader was tracing in space the central axis that moves out from the Holy of Holies to the exterior courtyard and beyond. Though in accordance with this reading we were earlier tempted to regard the service of the bronze altar that took place in the courtyard, the animal sacrifices that were its mainstay, as somehow secondary to the rituals of the Mishkan building itself, the two areas and their associated elements could perhaps be interpreted as distinct and different realms. The world of the Holy Precinct was characterized by one form of service, while in the world of the outer enclosure, a different but equally valuable type of worship unfolded. Of course, the pure gold of the inner vessels as well as the gilding of the building boards and the silver of the sockets that upheld them, all outshone the alloyed bronze altar in brilliance, but none of the other things could compare to it in prominence. Alone, save for the small laver from which the ministering priests would wash, the bronze altar presided over the volume of the courtyard, its lengthy ramp extending southwards towards the linen curtains that marked the perimeter of the space.
CONSIDERING THE ALTAR PROPER
When we begin to analyze the altar proper, we discover that it is in fact composed of a number of discrete members, all of them comprehensible at least in outline. First there is the housing itself, composed of boards of acacia wood covered with bronze sheeting. Then there are the four curious projections on each of the four corners, and the screen-like ornamental network that divides the altar's height into two. It is this network that is the most difficult component to reconstruct from the text, and the early Rabbis as well as the classical commentaries struggled mightily in attempting to clarify its appearance, placement and purpose. Finally, there are the extraneous appurtenances such as the shovels and sweepers to remove the ash, the basins to receive the blood, the forks to turn the sacrificial meats and the firepans to collect the glowing coals.
But most remarkable of all is the last provision, mentioned at the very conclusion of the section: "You shall fashion it hollow out of boards, as He showed you upon the mountain, so shall you do" (27:8). In other words, while we may have surmised that the bronzed boards of the altar covered it on all sides as well as on top, so that the sacrificial fire was kindled upon the bronzed surface and there the sacrifices were consumed by the flames, it actually emerges that the altar had no top at all, save for the projections on each of the four corners! Instead, the bronzed boards enclosed the sides of the altar while the top was left exposed, so that the entire construction was actually hollow in form and left wide-open. How then was the altar utilized and how were the sacrifices presented upon it? Here, Rashi (11th century, France) quotes an early Rabbinic tradition insisting that: "they would fill its hollowness with earth when the people would encamp…" (commentary to 27:5).
FILLED WITH EARTH
This provocative interpretation that considers the bronzed acacia boards to be nothing more than a sort of shell for the real altar that consisted of earth, is adopted with minor variations by the majority of the classical commentaries. As the Rashbam (12th century, France) states: "when they would encamp, then they would fill it with earth and sacrifice upon it…" (commentary to 27:8). Even more thought-provoking are the words of the Seforno (15th century, Italy) on the same verse, who says that the form of the altar was like "a chest with neither a bottom nor a top…for they would fill its cavity with earth at the time of their encampment and upon that very earth 'the perpetual fire would be kindled'" (Vayikra 6:6). For the Seforno, then, the "bronze altar" was in fact nothing more than a bronzed wooden frame without top or bottom, a sort of mold placed directly upon the ground into which earth would then be poured. Of course, all of these interpretations have the decidedly practical advantage of obviating the otherwise serious difficulty of preventing the bronzed boards from becoming scorched by the searing sacrificial flames, for it now emerges that the flames were in fact never in contact with the boards at all.
The inspiration for all of this is not only the verse in our parasha that describes the altar as consisting of "hollow boards," for that could just as easily have indicated a top as well, placed upon a sturdy frame of four bronzed sides. Rather, the Rabbinic sources direct us to another context, for, unlike the other vessels of the Mishkan that are mentioned for the very first time in our parasha, the altar has already been described elsewhere. In the aftermath of the revelation at Sinai, immediately succeeding the pronouncement of the Decalogue and the consequent trepidation of the people of Israel, the following passage occurs:
God said to Moshe: Thus shall you say to the people of Israel – you saw that I addressed you from the heavens. You shall not fashion besides Me gods of silver or gods of gold, do not make them for yourselves. YOU SHALL FASHION FOR ME AN ALTAR OF EARTH, and you shall sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle, for at whatever place that I shall cause My name to be mentioned, there shall I come to you and bless you. And if you fashion for Me an altar of stones, then you shall not build it out of hewn stones, for by lifting up your sword upon it you have defiled it. You shall not ascend to My altar by stairs, so that your nakedness not be uncovered upon it (Shemot 20:18-22).
Here, the Torah enjoins the construction of an earthen or stone altar, and the designation of a "place" for the mentioning of God's name as well as for the securing of His blessing accords well with the later introduction of the Mishkan, concerning which God proclaims: "You shall fashion for Me a holy place, so that I shall dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8). The tradition concerning a coverless frame of bronzed boards therefore comes in order to reconcile this earlier command for an earthen altar with our Parasha's insistence upon a hollow altar made of bronze.
Thus far, we have seen that the bronze altar of the Mishkan courtyard was exceptional for a number of reasons. First of all, it alone among all of the Mishkan's elements had been mentioned earlier in a free-standing context that highlighted its unique role in securing Divine favor. Second of all, the bronze altar occupied its own special space, towering over the otherwise all-but-empty courtyard with its ornamented boards and corner projections. Thirdly, the bronze altar was in almost constant use during the day, for sacrifices were continually brought to its summit, while during the night the perpetual fire always roared (see Vayikra 6:1-6). And lastly, of all the vessels of the Mishkan that were positioned UPON the ground, only the bronze altar was actually somehow organically ATTACHED to it, for it alone was completely filled with the earth.
Next time, we will continue to ponder the significance of these things, acquiring in the process a more profound grasp of this underappreciated vessel.
TO BE CONTINUED