“The Earthen Altar: Reaching up to Heaven”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
At the very end of this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, immediately following the Ten Commandments, the Torah provides a formula for human beings to reach up to heaven.
In Exodus 20:21 the Torah states, מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה תַּעֲשֶׂה לִּי, וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלָמֶיךָ אֶת צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת בְּקָרֶךָ , an altar of earth shall you make for Me and you shall slaughter upon it your elevation offerings and your peace offerings, your flock and your herd.
The מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה , the Earthen Altar, is the only one of the Tabernacle vessels that is mentioned before the instructions are given to build the Tabernacle, that are found later on in parashat Terumah (Exodus 27:1-8). The Earthen Altar was located outside the Tabernacle itself, in the courtyard, and was used for offering animal sacrifices. A second, much-smaller, altar called the Golden Altar, מִזְבֵּחַ הַזָּהָב , was located inside the Tabernacle itself and was used for incense offerings that often accompanied the animal offerings.
Although the permanent altar in the Temple that Solomon built 486 years later in Jerusalem was constructed out of stones, the stones of Solomon’s Temple had to be cut in a natural way without using any metal implements. Legend has it that it was cut by a special worm, the שָׁמִיר —“Shamir.” The stones of the permanent altar thus paralleled the earth and sand of the Tabernacle’s Earthen Altar. So that the Earthen Altar of the Tabernacle could be moved from place to place, it was manufactured with a wooden frame covered with copper that was then filled with sand.
Rashi citing the Talmud in Zevachim 58a, states that the altar in the Tabernacle had to be positioned directly on the ground, not on a platform or on stilts, so that it would be directly connected to the earth.
The Da’at Sofrim points out that the description of the altar as an “Earthen Altar” and the fact that it was made out of earth, underscores the humility of the spiritual service that is required of the human being. The altar’s primary ingredient–-earth, is also intended to serve as an extension of the prohibition of making idols or worshiping all forms of gold or silver.
Thus, this highest level of service, the sacrifices offered to G-d Himself, while bringing the human being closer to the Al-mighty, demands the greatest possible simplicity. To that end, the altar of choice is one of earth and dust. The only reason that the structure is covered with copper is to allow it to be transported and to serve as a vessel to contain the earth. The copper is only a shell, the essence of the altar is the earth and the dust, from which humans themselves were formed (Genesis 2:7).
Da’at Sofrim adds another dimension to the meaning of the Earthen Altar. As stated in the Ten Commandments and in the words following the Ten Commandments, Jews are prohibited from making images, any form of the likeness of the sun or moon, or anything that is in the heavens or seas. Jews, G-d says according to Rabbi Hirsch, are not to bring heavenly things down to earth, “but [are] to elevate all earthly things up to Me…The altar that you build up to Me should represent the earth raised up to G-d by men’s deeds and men’s actions.”
Here we see how Judaism departs profoundly from Christianity. Judaism tries to elevate the human being up to G-d. Christianity tries to bring G-d down to the human being. This is reflected in the idea of the “Son of G-d,” the many icons and idols that are found in Catholic houses of worship. The early Christian church purposely incorporated many pagan ideas, in order to make the pagans feel more at home in their new spiritual setting.
The Earthen Altar is meant to serve as a paradigm to teach that it is only through genuine modesty that Jews become more spiritual and are drawn closer to G-d. It is not through pageantry, pomposity or the display of much gold and silver that spiritual relationships are formed. It is rather through simplicity, through the natural elements of earth and dust that have not been defiled by metal.
The Earthen Altar is intended to remind us that it is through the dust from which we were formed, that we establish sincere spiritual relationships–-not by bringing heaven down to earth, but by bringing earth up to heaven.
May you be blessed.