Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Terumah

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 under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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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 implements,[1] 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,[2] and not 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 brass.[3]
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,[4] yet in the parashot on the Tabernacle these materials are used extensively.
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 Tabernacle?[5]

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 idolatry.

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 salt,[6] and conversely not to give offerings of honey,[7] 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 lines.[8] 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 world.

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 cherubs.

The Tabernacle is the site of divine revelation in the world and the continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai.[9] 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 Sinai”[10] (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 (Lev. 17:3-7):
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 ages.

In later years the Israelites would return to sacrificing on high places(Heb. Bamot), sometimes with permission but mostly without. The altar discussed in Parashat Jethro[11] is a 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 in Jerusalem.[12] 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 Deuteronomy (12:13-14):

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 Tabernacle.

[1] 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.
[2] See Nahmanides on verse 21, s.v. ve-ta’am ve-im. Compare Rashi’s commentary on verse 20, s.v. be-khol makom asher azkir et shemi.
[3] Of course the Sages noted this contradiction. Cf., for example, Mekhilta de-R. Yishmael, Tractate -ba-Hodesh, ch. 11, Horowitz ed., p. 242. Also see Rashi on Ex. 20:21, s.v. mizbah adamah.
[4] Halakhic midrashim have 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. Yishmael, ch. 10, Horowitz ed., p. 241. Also cf. Rashi on verse 19, s.v. elohei kesef 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.
[5] 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.
[6] 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.
[7] Lev. 2:11.
[8] Loc. sit. Also cf. Sefat Emet, 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,” Megadim 13 (March 1991), pp. 25-45.
[9] See Nahmanides on Exodus 40:34, s.v. va-yekhas he-anan et ohel mo’ed.
[10] 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. ve-yitakhen ki.
[11] Cf. Mishnah Zevahim chapter 14.
[12] For example, see there, Mishnah 10: “Public sacrifices are offered in the Tabernacle, and private sacrifices on a high place.”