Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
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Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Terumah (Shabbat Zakhor) 5761/ March 3, 2001
An Altar of Earth or Golden Cherubs?
Dr. Hayyim Borgansky
Department of Talmud
The commandment to build the Tabernacle and its
to which this week’s and
next week’s reading is entirely devoted, is not the first commandment in
the Torah that deals with worship. At the end of Parashat Jethro, immediately
after the Theophany at Mount Sinai, the Torah commands that an altar be built on
which to offer sacrifices. The passage reads as follows:
Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to
you from the very heavens: With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of
silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold. Make for Me an
altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of
well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be
mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of
stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you
have profaned them. Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may
not be exposed upon it. (Ex. 20:19-23)
When this passage is compared with the commandments about the Tabernacle in
Parashat Terumah numerous differences are to be noted:
1. Parashat Terumah speaks of an altar that is part of an organized and
established Tabernacle, whereas Parashat Jethro speaks of an altar that is not
part of a complete ritual complex. Parashat Jethro gives the impression that
the altar may be erected anywhere,
solely at the designated site.
2. According to Parashat Jethro, the altar is to be made of earth or
unhewn stones, whereas Parashat Terumah speaks of an altar made of wood and
3. In Parashat Jethro there are no restrictions regarding who may serve at
the altar, whereas only the Kohanim may serve in the Tabernacle.
4. Parashat Jethro forbids ascending the altar by steps, “that your
nakedness may not be exposed upon it,” whereas according to the
parashot on the Tabernacle, the priests are to wear linen breeches
“to cover their nakedness,” thus their nakedness would not be
revealed due to their clothes.
5. Parashat Jethro implies that silver and gold are not to be used for
worshipping the Lord,
yet in the
on the Tabernacle these materials are used
6. Lastly, when and where is the altar described in Parashat Jethro to be
erected, if two parashot later the Torah commands us to build the
To resolve the questions raised by these differences one must understand
the essential distinction between the two passages. One could experience a
spontaneous urge to worship the Lord, out of a strong desire to commune with
G-d, to thank Him for His daily kindness, or to request an answer to personal
needs. Such worship occurs in the story of Cain and Abel, in Noah as he leaves
the ark, in the patriarchs, who thank the Lord for His promises and who publicly
call on His name. Such worship of the Lord, stemming from inside the person, is
not to be restricted in time or place, insofar as it involves a spontaneous
expression of feelings and cannot be bound to the service of priests and
levites, rather must be the worship of the specific individual. Such worship
can be of great value precisely because of its authenticity, because it
expresses the deepest feelings of a person for his Creator, and does not stem
from compulsory performance of a duty, which may be executed without any true
emotion or desire for closeness to G-d.
This mode of worship, however, contains great inherent danger, for it can
come remarkably close to pagan observance; the person has but to think that the
offerings given on the altar constitute a sort of present to G-d and that the
Holy One, blessed be He, derives “pleasure” from them. The person
might think that he is finding favor with G-d by his presents, and therefore
might build Him a magnificent altar, adorned with silver and gold; and he would
select offerings from the finest delicacies enjoyed by human beings. Ultimately
it would be one’s personal pride that is worshipped, and not the Lord.
Worshipping the Lord would imperceptibly be converted into worshipping the
person, which ultimately leads to the moral degeneracy that always goes
hand in hand with paganism. Inebriation would take the place of spiritual
elation, and rejoicing of body and spirit in the Living G-d would be replaced by
fervent celebration of the flesh, various forms of which accompany
The passage on the earthen altar in Parashat Jethro concerns this
individual form of worship which is free of priests and priestly vestments, of
obligatory measurements and procedures, and is not restricted in time or place.
It arises spontaneously from the person who wishes to sacrifice offerings from
his flock and herds to the Lord. Because of the inherent danger which we
described, the passage which mandates building an altar in Parashat Jethro is
introduced by the words, “You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the
very heavens,” words that serve as a guide for all that follows and from
which the commandments that ensue are derived.
The Lord who dwells in heaven shall not be represented as a god of silver
or gold, for He has no representation at all. An altar of the most primal
materials, one that has not been molded by the hands of human beings with their
pride – such an altar properly expresses the position of the human being
vis-à-vis G-d, for “G-d is in heaven and you are on earth,”
and therefore your altar should be built of earth and unhewn stones. Therefore,
later we are also commanded to season every offering with
and conversely not to give offerings of
for making offerings of a natural
substance will prevent priding oneself on the gifts one makes to Heaven.
It seems that the proscription which is later given against offering
leaven on the altar should be understood along the same
Also the duty not to ascend the altar
by steps, “that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it,” stems
from the fact that the text concerns a private altar which involves no priestly
vestments and at which a person might worship without wearing special garb that
covers one’s nakedness. Moreover, one can hardly ignore the redundancy in
the phrase, “that your nakedness not be exposed” – a warning
against the sensuous ways of pagan worship that were so common in the ancient
Parashat Terumah, in contrast, is not concerned with private worship of the
Lord. The essence of the Tabernacle is summed up in the purpose stated at the
beginning of the passage: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may
dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). The elaborate structure, with its wide
variety of implements and materials, is a dwelling place for the Divine
Presence; and when it is made according to all its divinely ordained fine
details, then the Glory of the Lord will dwell in it. The Holy One, blessed be
He, commanded us things that we do not comprehend, precisely because the Lord
would abide in this specific structure whose implements are well-defined and
made of precious materials, and whose dimensions are set by Him. Furthermore,
the Lord would speak to the Israelites precisely from between two golden
The Tabernacle is the site of divine revelation in the world and the
continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Compare the words, “Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of
the Israelites as a consuming fire on top of the mountain” (Ex. 24:17),
with the words, “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by
day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of
Israel” (Ex. 40:38). The fire and cloud that appeared to the Israelites
in the revelation at Mount Sinai, after erection of the Tabernacle would move
from the top of the mountain to the Tabernacle. In this place, where human
beings encounter the Presence of the Lord, there the Lord is to be worshipped.
Human encounter with Divine Revelation places an obligation on human beings to
bring offerings, not because of the feelings in their heart, but because of the
duty to worship the Lord who reveals Himself. As at Mount Sinai we read of
“the regular burnt offering instituted at Mount
(Num. 28:6), so in the
Tabernacle: “Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two
yearling lambs each day, regularly... a regular burnt offering throughout the
generations” (Ex. 29:38-42). The fact that the offering mentioned in the
passages on the Tabernacle in Exodus is a regular burnt offering, and not a
private offering, reinforces what we said above, that the altar in the
Tabernacle was not a place for expressing spontaneous feelings towards G-d, but
the opposite – an expression of the constant duty to worship the Lord who
shows His presence to us.
It is fitting that the place where the Presence of the Lord will abide
should be magnificent – “in His temple all say,
‘Glory!’” (Ps. 29:9), or, as the Rabbis expressed it,
“there is no poverty in a place of riches.” Nor would it be proper
for all persons to approach it, but only G-d’s chosen priests, who
sanctify themselves before their service as they were commanded at Mount Sinai
(Ex. 19:22): “The priests, also, who come near the Lord, must stay pure,
lest the Lord break out against them.” Even they are not allowed to
approach the very place of revelation in the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies,
just as at Mount Sinai they were restricted: “but let not the priests or
the people break through to come up to the Lord” (Ex. 19:24).
Thus far we have seen that these two passages (Jethro vs. Terumah) –
so different from one another – express altogether different type of
divine worship. Parashat Jethro concerns worship of the Lord that stems from
human desires and is addressed to the Holy One, blessed be He, in His
concealment, speaking to us from heaven; the passages in Terumah concern worship
of the Lord which becomes obligatory by virtue of His glory being revealed to
human eyes and His word being heard from between the two cherubs (or from within
the fire, as at Mount Sinai). These two types of worship are characterized by
entirely different guidelines, for the essence of the worship is different;
hence the distinctions between the two passages.
Both these approaches to worship essentially deserve to exist side beside.
Obligatory sacrifices can be made on the copper altar in the Tabernacle, and the
burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being made voluntarily upon the earthen
altar in one’s yard. For even though the glory of the Lord dwells in His
Tabernacle, and worshipping Him there is obligatory, His Presence also fills the
entire world, so that worshipping Him anywhere is also fitting. To this end we
are commanded concerning the earthen altar in Parashat Jethro. Now, however,
the danger is redoubled: the inadequacy of human intellect might lead us to
think that since the Holy One, blessed be He, dwells in the Tabernacle, a person
who sacrifices in one’s own yard might, Heaven forfend, be worshipping
another god who dwells in the field and not in the Tabernacle. Therefore, in
Leviticus both ways of worshipping the Lord are combined, and also spontaneous
desire to serve the Lord is to be expressed only where His glory is revealed
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the
camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the
Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord, before the
Lord’s Tabernacle, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed
blood; that man shall be cut off from among his people. This is in order that
the Israelites may bring the sacrifices which they have been making in the open
– that they may bring them before the Lord, to the priest, at the entrance
of the Tent of Meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the
Lord... and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons
after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the
In later years the Israelites would return to sacrificing on high
), sometimes with permission but mostly without. The
altar discussed in Parashat Jethro
sort of high place, a site for spontaneous worship of the Lord. These altars
were permitted when the Tabernacle did not exist and the Lord did not yet dwell
When the Lord would
establish His dwelling in Jerusalem, the prohibition against sacrificing outside
His dwelling place would be reinstated with redoubled force, as is stated in
Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like, but
only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories.
There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all
that I enjoin upon you.
Today we have neither altar nor sacrificial worship, but the tension
between obligatory worship, which often does not lend full expression to the
individual’s feelings, and alternative expressions of service of the Lord
continues to reverberate in our world. It is yet unclear whether we shall find
the courage to combine the two and bring personal worship into the established
Some of the ideas contained herein come
from a conversation I had with Rabbi Mordechai Breuer. Observe that I do not
follow a Talmudic approach in my interpretation of the passages from Scripture;
more on this later. This article is but part of a far broader investigation,
touching on the attitude to sacrifice in Leviticus as compared with the
Tabernacle in Exodus as well as the significations of the revelation at Mount
Sinai; but time for this later.
See Nahmanides on verse 21, s.v.
. Compare Rashi’s commentary on verse 20, s.v.
be-khol makom asher azkir et shemi
Of course the Sages noted this
contradiction. Cf., for example, Mekhilta de-R. Yishmael
, ch. 11, Horowitz ed., p. 242. Also see Rashi on Ex. 20:21,
s.v. mizbah adamah
associated the injunction, “you shall not make any gods of silver, nor
shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold,” with the restrictions
placed on using these materials in worship of the Lord. Cf. Mekhilta de-R.
, ch. 10, Horowitz ed., p. 241. Also cf. Rashi on verse 19, s.v.
and s.v. ve-elohei zahav
. Many of the classical
commentators, it seems, associate the prohibition against making gods of silver
and gods of gold with matters concerning worship of the Lord.
See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Ex.
20:21, s.v. mizbah avanim
, associating the passage on the earthen
altar with the altar that Moses built at the foot of Mount Sinai at the time of
the covenant in Parashat Mishpatim. Also see below.
Lev. 2:13. Even though this passage
refers to the alter in the Tabernacle, both meanings given to worship of the
Lord, as expressed by the two types of altars, are combined in the book of
Leviticus (see below). This is also how one should understand the obligatory
personal sacrifices in Leviticus, which are apparently a composite of private
sacrifice on the earthen altar and obligatory public sacrifice on the altar in
the Tabernacle. One must distinguish between obligatory burnt offerings that
were made before the Theophany at Mount Sinai, to which the priests tended, and
the burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being that were made with the
assistance of “young men among the Israelites,” after the Theophany,
when the covenant in Parashat Mishpatim was being sealed. Cf. Ibn Ezra’s
commentary, note 5 above.
 Loc. sit
. Also cf. Sefat
, Passover 631, first Night, s.v. matzah zo
, and elsewhere there.
Also see Rabbi Yoel bin Nun’s comprehensive article, “Hametz
u-Matzah be-Fesah, be-Shavuot, u-be-Korbanot ha-Lehem
13 (March 1991), pp. 25-45.
See Nahmanides on Exodus 40:34, s.v.
va-yekhas he-anan et ohel mo’ed
Regarding the interpretation that the
words, “instituted at Mount Sinai,” refer to the burnt-offering that
was made on the mountain itself, cf. Hagigah
6b, and Tosafot, loc.
sit., sv. R. Akiva
. Also cf. Rashi, Numbers 28:6, s.v. ha-asuyah
In contrast, note Nahmanides’ interpretation of Leviticus 7:38, s.v.
Cf. Mishnah Zevahim
For example, see there, Mishnah 10:
“Public sacrifices are offered in the Tabernacle, and private sacrifices
on a high place.”