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Altars in the Judaic Tradition


I was born in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, the Holy Land. I learned Hebrew as my mother-tongue, and Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures was not only my religion text. It was also the text of my geography, history and citizenship classes in grade school. On short day trips our class would follow the footsteps of David son of Jesse in the land of Ephrath, or trace the passage of David as he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Often, we would come upon archeological sites, and our teacher would enlist the local dig expert to tell us about the history of the place. Consistently, these men and women would inform us that, "here, early man, in this or that period of ancient history, made an altar and offered sacrifices to the god or gods he believed in."

Altars are found in many, many places where ancient men lived. In the Middle East, the cradle of civilization and the birth place of Judeo-Christianity, they abound everywhere and date back to the beginning of civilization. Indeed, who is to say that civilization did not begin around an altar somewhere. Many years ago I read an anthropological account suggesting that society was brought together by fear. Primitive man was afraid of his environment. Fear drove him to observe his environment, to seek to find a pattern in the circumstances around him. He noticed that day follows night follows day, that hot days are followed by cold days, that the trees shed leaves and it time get new leaves. In time he came to know and feel comfortable with his predictable, cyclical experiences -- but he still feared wild animals, earth quakes, floods and lightening and many other events that existed in his natural environment but were rather spontaneous, and did not follow a routine -- and therefore were not predictable. Man lived alone because he did not have the most rudimentary social graces. He lived by his wits and by his raw strength. He trusted no one, especially no other humans who were at least as smart as, and possibly more powerful than, himself. Men banded together because they somehow got the idea that they can be protected -- by something, not by one another, since they didn't yet learn to trust one another. This something was a belief in some supernatural power. Thus, we can build a hypothetical model of "the first human to discover religion," who noticed that he behaved in a certain specific manner when he was not harmed by a beast or by lighting (while some other humans were), and thereafter repeated this behavior in the belief that it will help him to avoid harm. Now, if he succeeded in staying out of harm's way, and if his "peculiar" behavior was observed by others, who recognized this as a "ritualistic" behavior, possibly something such as offering a gift to a power he believed to be protecting him from "supernatural" harm — possibly "place" related (such as a tree or a large rock), the others would want to join him under the umbrella of this "protection." He would be free of supernatural harm for no particular reason, of course — but you could not convince him or his followers of it. We call this kind of ritual superstitious behavior. However, that man would have become the first "priest" — his superstition the first religion, and his followers the first "society."

There are many names for that place where the hypothetical offering was made: altar, mound, platform, reliquary, sacrificial table, sanctum, and shrine. The term "altar" comes from old English, possibly also related to a Latin word ADOLARE that means to burn up. In the Hebrew tradition, which is our roots, the word is MIZBE’AKH - and its root is ZAVAKH, which means slaughter, as in a sacrifice. In Genesis 22 we read of Abraham binding his son on the altar and getting ready to perform the slaughter with his knife — when he is stopped by the Lord. However, most often we read of the altar as being the place where the animal that has been slaughtered and dressed is actually either burned to ashes or parts of its carcass is burned while the rest is cooked for a meal for the priests, the Levites and the person who made the offering. It is interesting to note and important to keep in mind that an altar, in the Hebrew tradition, was not strictly the place of the slaughter or the burning of the sacrifice animal (or its parts), but could also be a "table" where grain offerings, wine offerings, and bread offerings could be placed before God. It could also have been the place, a pedestal, where the incense offering would be made. Finally, we need must keep in mind that altar also had non-sacrificial functions, such as testimony and sanctuary. In fact, the account of the "first" offering does not speak of where the offering was made. In Genesis 4:3,4 we read, " And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat of it."

Altars, in the Hebrew Scriptures, were constructed of earth, stone, wood and/or metal. With all the archeological work going on in the Holy Land in recent decades, many stone altar have been found, some predating the Judaic tradition, such as the altars found in Gezer, Megiddo, and Arad. Also in the Sinai, Nabbatian altars were found predating the Hebrew tradition. No earth altars have been discovered, probably because of the fact that they were so susceptible to the ravages of time, weather, and beast. However, Exodus, 20:21, specifically orders building earth altars: "An altar of earth you shall make to me, and shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings, and your peace offerings, your sheep, and your oxen; in all places where I cause my name to be pronounced I will come to you, and I will bless you."

The first record of an altar being built, in the Torah, is in Genesis 8:20 -- predating the beginning of the Jewish tradition. It reads, "And Noah built an altar to the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar." This was, indeed, a sacrificial altar. Next we come upon the different kind of altar, a place of witnessing for God. This is the beginning of the Abrahamic tradition. Genesis 12:7-8, "And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, To your seed will I give this land; and there he built an altar to the Lord, who appeared to him. And he moved from there to a mountain in the east of Beth-El, and pitched his tent, having Beth-El on the west, and A'ye on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord."

The Abrahamic tradition continued with his son, Isaac, as we read in Genesis 26:24,25 "And the Lord appeared to him the same night, and said, I am the God of Abraham your father; fear not, for I am with you, and will bless you, and multiply your seed for my servant Abraham’s sake. And he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well." And in Genesis 33:19,20 "And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shekhem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it El-Elohe-Israel [meaning ‘Lord God of Israel]." This altar was more a monument than an altar, altogether.

In Exodus 17:15,16 we read, "And Moses built an altar, and called its name Adona'i-Nissi; For he said, Because the Lord has sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." This, also, would have been a monument, a memorial.

In Exodus 24:4-6 we read for the first time in the Hebraic tradition of an offering that was consecrated on an altar: "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar."

The first place of Jewish worship was the Tabernacle, built in the Sinai desert by Moses after God’s specific instructions. Ask any expert what was the core, the essence of the Tabernacle built by the Israelites in the desert — and I’ll bet you that ninety nine out of a hundred will say that it was the altar, the place where the sacrifices were offered to God. But, if you consider the order in which things are mentioned to be an indication of what is essential and what is secondary, consider the text in Exodus 25:8-11 "And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it. And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about." So the Hebrew scriptures tell us to build an ark (which is not what No'ah built - or is it?), describing the measurements and construction of this ark in great detail. A close examination of the text makes it clear that this "ark" was not a cabinet or closet, but rather a big box (ah-hah!), as the Ark had no legs. (Of course, some armoirs have no legs, either...)

This ark was called "the Holy Ark" or "The Ark of Witness" — and is the same item that became such a big mysterious hit with Steven Spielberg’s film, "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Now, to be sure, there was also an altar in the Tabernacle — in fact there was more than one of them, as we read in Exodus 27:1-8, " And you shall make an altar of shittim wood, five cubits long, and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square; and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make it horns upon its four corners; its horns shall be of the same; and you shall overlay it with bronze. And you shall make pans to receive its ashes, and its shovels, and its basins, and its forks, and its firepans; all its utensils you shall make of bronze." And in Exodus 30:1-6, we read about another altar, one that was not for animal sacrifices: "And you shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of shittim wood shall you make it. A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth; square shall it be; and two cubits shall be its height; its horns shall be of the same. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and the sides around it, and its horns; and you shall make for it around a rim of gold. And two golden rings shall you make for it under its rim, by its two corners, upon its two sides shall you make it; and they shall be holders for the carrying poles. And you shall make the poles of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the Testimony, before the covering that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you."

Joshua (8:30) built an altar to the Lord, as did Gideon (the army chief of the judge Deborah), King Saul, and many others. Only the priests were commissioned to offer sacrifices on the altar, but, of course, this rule, like so many others, was not always obeyed. King Solomon built the first Temple of God in Jerusalem, and that became the permanent place of the Altar of the God of the Hebrews.

After the split between the followers of the Davidic line and the majority of the Israelites who chose not to follow the son of king Solomon, the Israelites established a new "capital" where they built their own Temple, with altars and with priests that were obviously not "approved" by the God who made His name to reside in the Temple of Jerusalem. When the Northern kingdom was conquered and its people exiles to the east - to Sumer, Akad, and Babylonia, they tried to establish altars in their new habitations. However, this practice was no longer attractive to the majority of Jews, most of whom began to attend a new institution, which would later become known as "House of Study" (beit midrash), "Beit T'fila" (house of prayer) - and more often than not "beit knesset" - House of assembly. The admonitions of the prophets against the sacrificing of flesh, the corruption of the priesthood and the destruction of that one special place - the Temple in Jerusalem, made the altar obsolete.



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