Altar – jewishencyclopedia.com

And if you make Me an altar of stone,
you shall not build it of hewn stones;
for if you lift up your tool upon it,
you have profaned it.
Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar,
that your nakedness will not uncovered on it[1].


These two verses end parsha Yitro, and they caused me to pause. The mizbeach [the altar] is discussed and two points are being made. First, the paragraph states that when one constructs the mizbeach, the stones must be natural rocks, with the stamp of G-d’s handiwork alone[2]. The word for tool is chereb, but that is a mistranslation. The translators use “tool” to give you, the English reader, a better understanding.  If it was translated correctly, you would read, “sword, axe, or destroying weapon” (actually, the text says cherevcha, which makes it the possessive your sword.). One can easily see why the word “tool” is used in translation over the word “sword,” because no one in their right mind would try to use a sword to hew stone. The blade would fail and break before any stone was shaped. However, the use of the word chereb cannot be ignored. We must ask, Why was the word used? Both Talmud Bavli and Midrash Tanchuma help provide a bit of insight.

The sword is an instrument of violence and death, a symbol of strife; it’s used to shorten life. The purpose of the mizbeach, on the other hand, is to lengthen life through teshuvah; it is a symbol of peace and restoration between a man and his neighbor and G-d. Therefore, the lesser should never be raised over the greater. R’Yochannan b’Zakkai states, “Scripture states, ‘You shall build the Altar of G-d of whole stones.’ These are stones that promote peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven. You can derive from these words a kol v’chomer[3] as follows: Just as regarding the stones of the altar that cannot see, nor hear, nor speak, yet since they promote peace, the Torah says, ‘Do not raise iron on them,’ then how much more so, one who promotes peace between husband and wife, that his days and years will be lengthened. The Holy One, blessed be He, says, ‘On account of the evil inclination, man’s years are shortened in this world,’ but in the future [in the world to come], ‘He will eliminate death forever, and my Master, G-d, will erase tears from all faces, etc.’

The last verse, “Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar so your nakedness will not uncovered,” is the real reason I find this short passage so interesting. We can create a simple understanding that a ramp is to be used, and not stairs, in order to make it less likely for someone to look up the clothing of the priests, however, that cannot be the case because the priests are already modestly dressed. Later in Exodus, in Parsha Tetzaveh, we’re given a description of the priests’ garments, and they mention a certain article of clothing:

And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the waist to the thighs[4].

The passage from Exodus 28 forces us to reconsider Exodus 20:23. The Rabbis say that the steps taken by the priest were to be shorter steps in order to save the embarrassment of the stones. If you think that’s a peculiar reason, look at your Shabbos table. The Shabbos table has two candles, a kiddish cup, and the challah. The challah is covered, but most people simply cover the bread without understanding why.

A Rebbe was invited to the baker’s home to celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening. This was a special treat because the baker was known for making the finest tasting and the most beautiful challah in the community. The Rebbe dressed in his finest clothes, rubbed the dust off his shoes, and walked with happy purpose to the baker’s home. He came to the door and the baker opened it before the Rebbe could take his knuckles and rap on the door leaf. He welcomed the Rebbe in and the warmth of the hearth and the flickering flames lit the home and the Rebbe felt quite at home. As he took off his coat, the baker noticed the Shabbos table. The Kiddush cup, the wine, the Shabbos candles, and the challah all were waiting for the baker’s wife to welcome the Shabbos. The baker noticed the challah was not covered!
The baker raised his voice in anger and walked with heavy feet toward the kitchen. “What have you done? You know full well the challah is always covered! Now the Rebbe is here and the Shabbos table is not properly prepared! Why must you embarrass me all the time?”
The wife hung her head and quickly snatched up the cover and walked to the table, but the Rebbe put his hand out and touched her arm. She stopped, still looking down.
The Rebbe asked, “Baker, why do we cover the challah?” He looked toward the baker and waited for him to answer.
“The challah is to be covered in order to save the bread embarrassment because the blessing is always given over the wine first, of course,” the baker stated.
“Yes,” the Rebbe said. “But more importantly, we cover the challah to remind us that while we treat an object that has no feelings with respect, how much more are we to treat each other, especially our wives and family, with respect and love.”

Our Shabbos ritual reveals that we have concern over the embarrassment “felt” by a piece of bread, but that in no way compares to the care we must take to protect our spouses feelings, whether in private or in public.


Commands regarding the mizbeach and sacrifice:

  1. Do not burn anything on the Golden Altar besides incense (Exodus 30:9)
  2. To offer only unblemished animals (Leviticus 22:21)
  3. Do not dedicate a blemished animal for the altar (Leviticus 22:20)
  4. Do not slaughter it (Leviticus 22:22)
  5. Do not sprinkle its blood (Leviticus 22:24)
  6. Do not burn its chelev (Leviticus 22:22)
  7. Do not offer a temporarily blemished animal (Deuteronomy 17:1)
  8. Do not sacrifice blemished animals even if offered by non-Jews (Leviticus 22:25)
  9. Do not inflict wounds upon dedicated animals (Leviticus 22:21)
  10. To redeem dedicated animals which have become disqualified (Deuteronomy 12:15)
  11. To offer only animals which are at least eight days old (Leviticus 22:27)
  12. Do not offer animals bought with the wages of a harlot or the animal exchanged for a dog (Deuteronomy 23:19)
  13. Do not burn honey or yeast on the altar (Leviticus 2:11)
  14. To salt all sacrifices (Leviticus 2:13)
  15. Do not omit the salt from sacrifices (Leviticus 2:13)
  16. Carry out the procedure of the burnt offering as prescribed in the Torah (Leviticus 1:3)
  17. Do not eat its meat (Deuteronomy 12:17)
  18. Carry out the procedure of the sin offering (Leviticus 6:18)
  19. Do not eat the meat of the inner sin offering (Leviticus 6:23)
  20. Do not decapitate a fowl brought as a sin offering (Leviticus 5:8)
  21. Carry out the procedure of the guilt offering (Leviticus 7:1)
  22. The kohanim must eat the sacrificial meat in the Temple (Exodus 29:33)
  23. The kohanim must not eat the meat outside the Temple courtyard (Deuteronomy 12:17)
  24. A non-kohen must not eat sacrificial meat (Exodus 29:33)
  25. To follow the procedure of the peace offering (Leviticus 7:11)
  26. Do not eat the meat of minor sacrifices before sprinkling the blood (Deuteronomy 12:17)
  27. To bring meal offerings as prescribed in the Torah (Leviticus 2:1)
  28. Do not put oil on the meal offerings of wrongdoers (Leviticus 5:11)
  29. Do not put frankincense on the meal offerings of wrongdoers (Leviticus 3:11)
  30. Do not eat the meal offering of the High Priest (Leviticus 6:16)
  31. Do not bake a meal offering as leavened bread (Leviticus 6:10)
  32. The kohanim must eat the remains of the meal offerings (Leviticus 6:9)
  33. To bring all avowed and freewill offerings to the Temple on the first subsequent festival (Deuteronomy 12:5-6)
  34. To offer all sacrifices in the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:11)
  35. To bring all sacrifices from outside Israel to the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:26)
  36. Do not slaughter sacrifices outside the courtyard of the Temple (Leviticus 17:4)
  37. Do not offer any sacrifices outside the courtyard of the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:13)
  38. To offer two lambs every day (Numbers 28:3)
  39. To light a fire on the altar every day (Leviticus 6:6)
  40. Do not extinguish this fire (Leviticus 6:6)
  41. To remove the ashes from the altar every day (Leviticus 6:3)
  42. To burn incense every day (Exodus 30:7)
  43. The Kohen Gadol must bring a meal offering every day (Leviticus 6:13)
  44. To bring two additional lambs as burnt offerings on Shabbat (Numbers 28:9)
  45. To bring additional offerings on the New Month (Rosh Chodesh) (Numbers 28:11)
  46. To bring additional offerings on Pesach (Numbers 28:19)
  47. To offer the wave offering from the meal of the new wheat (Leviticus 23:10)
  48. To bring additional offerings on Shavuot (Numbers 28:26)
  49. To bring two leaves to accompany the above sacrifice (Leviticus 23:17)
  50. To bring additional offerings on Rosh Hashana (Numbers 29:2)
  51. To bring additional offerings on Yom Kippur (Numbers 29:8)
  52. To bring additional offerings on Sukkot (Numbers 29:13)
  53. To bring additional offerings on Shmini Atzeret (Numbers 29:35)
  54. Do not eat sacrifices which have become unfit or blemished (Deuteronomy 14:3)
  55. Do not eat from sacrifices offered with improper intentions (Leviticus 7:18)
  56. Do not leave sacrifices past the time allowed for eating them (Leviticus 22:30)
  57. Do not eat from that which was left over (Leviticus 19:8)
  58. Do not eat from sacrifices which became impure (Leviticus 7:19)
  59. An impure person must not eat from sacrifices (Leviticus 7:20)
  60. To burn the leftover sacrifices (Leviticus 7:17)
  61. To burn all impure sacrifices (Leviticus 7:19)
  62. To follow the [sacrificial] procedure of Yom Kippur in the sequence prescribed in Parshah Acharei Mot (After the death of Aaron’s sons…) (Leviticus 16:3)
  63. One who profaned property must repay what he profaned plus a fifth and bring a sacrifice (Leviticus 5:16)
  64. Do not work consecrated animals (Deuteronomy 15:19)
  65. Do not shear the fleece of consecrated animals (Deuteronomy 15:19)
  66. To slaughter the paschal sacrifice at the specified time (Exodus 12:6)
  67. Do not slaughter it while in possession of leaven (Exodus 23:18)
  68. Do not leave the fat overnight (Exodus 23:18)
  69. To slaughter the second Paschal lamb (Numbers 9:11)
  70. To eat the Paschal lamb with matzah and maror on the night of the 15th of Nissan (Exodus 12:8)
  71. To eat the second Paschal Lamb on the night of the 15th of Iyar (Numbers 9:11)
  72. Do not eat the Paschal meat raw or boiled (Exodus 12:9)
  73. Do not take the Paschal meat from the confines of the group (Exodus 12:46)
  74. An apostate must not eat from it (Exodus 12:43)
  75. A permanent or temporary hired worker must not eat from it (Exodus 12:45)
  76. An uncircumcised male must not eat from it (Exodus 12:48)
  77. Do not break any bones from the paschal offering (Exodus 12:46)
  78. Do not break any bones from the second paschal offering (Numbers 9:12)
  79. Do not leave any meat from the Paschal offering over until morning (Exodus 12:10)
  80. Do not leave the second Paschal meat over until morning (Numbers 9:12)
  81. Do not leave the meat of the holiday offering of the 14th until the 16th (Deuteronomy 16:4)
  82. To celebrate on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot at the Temple (bring a peace offering) (Exodus 23:14)
  83. To rejoice on these three Festivals (bring a peace offering) (Deuteronomy 16:14)
  84. Do not appear at the Temple without offerings (Deuteronomy 16:16)
  85. Do not refrain from rejoicing with, and giving gifts to, the Levites (Deuteronomy 12:19)
  86. The kohanim must not eat unblemished firstborn animals outside Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:17)
  87. Every person must bring a sin offering for his transgression (Leviticus 4:27)
  88. Bring an asham talui when uncertain of guilt (Leviticus 5:17-18)
  89. Bring an asham vadai when guilt is ascertained (Leviticus 5:25)
  90. Bring an oleh v’yored offering (if the person is wealthy, an animal; if poor, a bird or meal offering) (Leviticus 5:7-11)
  91. The Sanhedrin must bring an offering when it rules in error (Leviticus 4:13)
  92. A woman who had a running issue (unnatural menstrual flow) must bring an offering after she goes to the ritual bath (Leviticus 15:28-29)
  93. A woman who gave birth must bring an offering after she goes to the bath (Leviticus 12:6)
  94. A man who had a running issue (unnatural semen flow) must bring an offering after he goes to the bath (Leviticus 15:13-14)
  95. A metzora (a person with tzaraas) must bring an offering after going to the Mikveh (Leviticus 14:10)
  96. Do not substitute another beast for one set apart for sacrifice (temurah) (Leviticus 27:10)
  97. The new animal, in addition to the substituted one, retains consecration (Leviticus 27:10)
  98. Do not change consecrated animals from one type of offering to another (Leviticus 27:26)
  99. Carry out the procedure of the red heifer (Numbers 19:2)
  100. Carry out the laws of the sprinkling water (Numbers 19:21)
  101. Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder (Deuteronomy 21:4)
  102. Excluded are the 50 commandments regarding the Temple and the priests.[5]

[1] Exodus 20:21-22

[2] Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Dr J H Hertz, The Soncino Press, p.301

[3] https://wordpress.com/post/sladehenson.wordpress.com/216

[4] Exodus 28:42

[5] I have lost my reference for this, but this list came from a website. I did not build this list.

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