“The Outer Altar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we begin to read a cycle of five Torah portions that extensively describe the building and furnishings of the Tabernacle. The furnishings of the Tabernacle are not simply room decor. Each of the furnishings of the Tabernacle is intended to convey a profound life message that is of vital importance for all times. (Terumah 5763-2003)

Because it was significantly larger than any of the other furnishings in the Tabernacle, the outer altar was the most prominent of all the ritual items. The Tabernacle actually contained two altars, one inside the sanctuary, known as the Golden Altar or the Incense Altar (Tetzaveh 5770-2010), and one that was located outside the Tabernacle in the courtyard, in front of the Tabernacle doorway.

Although it is often simply referred to as the Mizbay’ach, the altar actually had four other descriptive names: Mizbach Ha’oh’lah, the altar of the burnt offering, because of the sacrifices that were burnt upon this altar. It was also known as Mizbach Ha’n’cho’sheht, the copper or brass altar, because although the inner frame of the altar was made of acacia wood, the outside was coated with a copper surface. It was also known as Mizbach Ha’chee’tzohn, the outer altar, because of its location outside the Tabernacle in the Tabernacle courtyard. In another context, it is also referred to as Mizbach Ha’ah’dah’mah, the earthen altar, because under the copper surface that covered the wooden frame, the altar was filled with earth.

The outer altar played a key role in Israel’s life, because it was upon this altar that the elaborate blood service was conducted through which atonement was achieved.

Although there is an opinion that maintains that the height of the altar was only three cubits, Rabbi Yosi (Zevachim 59a-60b) argues forcefully that the altar’s total height was, in reality, ten cubits. The altar’s width and depth were five cubits each. Included in the ten cubit height of the altar were the four horns atop the altar, each one cubit tall, on the four corners. Also important to note was that included in the altar’s height was a base, as well as a Michbar, a one cubit high lattice work and a Karkov, a one cubit high border around the midsection of the altar.

Among the supplementary implements that were utilized by the priests who served at the altar were the See’roht, the pots that were used to clear the ashes, the Ya’oht, shovels, Miz’r’koht, basins, Miz’l’goht, forks and Mahch’toht, the fire pans. The altar was transported by means of staves made of acacia wood covered with copper, which were inserted into rings that were affixed to the sides of the altar. The Michbar, the copper lattice work, marked the midpoint of the altar’s height. This midpoint played a crucial role in the altar’s ritual, because certain bloods of the offerings were required to be placed on the lower half of the altar, while bloods of other offerings were to be placed on the upper half. According to some opinions, the Karkov,the border platform, was wide enough for the priests to stand on, allowing them to easily officiate.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the upper third of the altar is called the Har’El, literally, the mountain of G-d, while the top of the altar is called the Ariel, the lion of G-d, implying that offering a sacrifice is a way of reaching up toward heaven. Thus, the primary purpose of the Tabernacle is an attempt to bring earth up to heaven, rather than bring heaven down to earth. This may explain why images (Cherubs) are permitted in the Tabernacle. Indeed, the service on the altar was intended to subtly recreate the revelation experience of Mount Sinai.

The lattice work on the altar served the same purpose as the Choot Ha’sikrah, the red thread, that divided the upper and lower halves of the altar in Solomon’s Temple. The blood of the sh’lamim, ah’shamim and oh’loht, the peace, guilt and burnt offerings were cast below the midpoint, while the blood of the cha’taht, the sin offering, was smeared by the Kohen on the horns. Placing blood below the midpoint of the altar was intended to symbolically convey that what is cast below has the potential to rise upward toward perfection. Whereas, what is placed on top of the altar, represents steadiness and support, which sinners need and deserve.

The commentators explain that if sinners were told, that as a result of their trespasses, they are forever damned, they would soon despair and give up hope. However, by symbolically conveying that even sinners are created in the image of G-d, and that the blood that is placed on top of the altar can help them rise even higher, sinners are given hope and assurance that they too are as spiritual and redeemable as anyone else.

Two important laws regarding the outer altar are found at the end of parashat Yitro. In Exodus 20:20 the Torah states, “Mizbach ah’dah’mah ta’ah’seh lee,” You shall make for me an altar of earth. And when you make for me an altar of stones do not build them hewn, for you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it. When the temporary Tabernacle was replaced with the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, a new altar was erected to replace the earth-filled copper/wooden one. This new altar was to be manufactured entirely of stone. However, the stones of the permanent altar may not be cut with iron tools, for iron is used in the manufacture of swords and spears. These tools represent the shortening of life, while the altar represents lengthening people’s lives through repentance and atonement.

The Ramban notes that the Hebrew word for sword, cherev, is related to the Hebrew word for destruction, churban. Such a tool has no place in the Tabernacle.

The second law that is recorded in Exodus 20:22, “V’loh tah’ah’leh v’mah’ah’loht ahl miz’b’chee,” You shall not ascend my altar using steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered. Instead of steps, there was a long ramp leading up to the altar that the priests would climb. By walking up the ramp, rather than up steps, the priests legs would move evenly and their naked legs would not be exposed, possibly embarrassing the sanctity of the altar.

Although we have no altar today, the powerful symbolism of the altar lives on. We must continue to study the details and nuances of the altar and of the entire Tabernacle, because their lessons are eternally and profoundly relevant.

May you be blessed.