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The Place of the Altar in the Temple or Can Sacrifices be Offered before the Temple is Rebuilt?

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Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass



            With the Jewish people's return to the Land of Israel in modern times a literature on the renewal of the Temple service has emerged.  In the pamphlet "Drishat Tzion" (published at the end of his "She'eilat David"), Ha-gaon Rabbi David of Karlin explores at length the possibility of once again offering sacrifices in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount.


            One possible obstacle to the bringing of sacrifices today is the need for the altar to be standing in its proper place.  This requirement is emphasized by the Rambam (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 2:1): "The altar is located in a very specific place.  Its place should never be changed."


            In the Commentary on the Mishna (Midot 3:1), as well, he warns against moving the altar: " ...Precision with regards to the dimensions of the altar as they are spelled out in the Torah is very crucial.  So it is with regards to its location."


            What are the ramifications of this requirement?  We will attempt here to clarify the following basic issues with an eye towards determining the feasibility of offering sacrifices today.


1. The relationship between the altar and sacrifices: Is there really a need for an altar at all in order to offer sacrifices?

2. The relationship between the Temple building and sacrifices: Can sacrifices be brought on an altar built in its correct location while the Temple is not standing?

3. The importance of the altar's correct position: Is it essential or just preferable?

4. The relationship between sacrifices and the altar's correct location: Is a dislocated altar flawed only with regards to itself or does it also invalidate sacrifices offered on it?


[Our discussion relates to the "mizbe'ach ha-chitzon," the altar on the Temple Mount, outside the entrance to the Temple building itself.]


1. Sacrifices Without An Altar?


            Before one can tackle the question of the correct location for the altar (which might demand knowledge unavailable to us today) it is worthwhile to examine the assumption that an altar is essential for the offering of sacrifices.  The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim 4:2) records a dispute about this issue:


"Rabbi Yehuda quotes a beraita: 'The table and the candelabra and the altars (inside and outside the Temple) and the curtain are essential for the sacrifices to be valid,' says Rabbi Meir.  The Sages say, 'Only the laver and its pedestal invalidate sacrifices.'"


[Note the commentary of the Korban Ha-eida here, which offers as one explanation of this dispute the idea that it relates to the importance of the vessels' location.  This means that R. David of Karlin was preceded in his question by these Jerusalemite Tannaim.]


            A seemingly related dispute is quoted by the Talmud Bavli (Zevachim 59a), but does not clearly present an opinion that validates offerings brought without an altar.  Tannaim there argue about the correct interpretation of the verse in I Melakhim (8:64) referring to Shlomo's dedication of the Temple:


"On that day the king sanctified the courtyard in front of the House of God because he offered the ola [burnt-offerings], the mincha [meal-offerings], and the fats of the shelamim [peace-offerings], because the bronze altar was too small to contain the ola, mincha and the fats of the shelamim."


            Rabbi Yehuda interprets this verse in a straightforward manner and believes that King Shlomo sanctified the floor of the Temple in order to expand the space available for offering sacrifices at that time.  Based on this, he concludes that one can always offer sacrifices on the floor of the Temple courtyard (if it were sanctified for that purpose).  Rabbi Yossi differs, adopting a reading further away from the simple reading of the verse, and maintains that one can only offer sacrifices on the altar itself.  Rabbi Yehuda's opinion seems to be in line with that of the Sages quoted in the Yerushalmi, ruling that one can offer sacrifices without an altar, and certainly on an improperly placed one.


            There are, however, two indications that Rabbi Yehuda does not in fact take as radical an approach as the Sages of the Yerushalmi:


A. Rabbi Yehuda, according to the Tosafot (Zevachim 59b, s.v. Ad), holds that even a sacrifice brought on the floor of the courtyard of the Temple would be invalidated if the altar were itself imperfect in some way: "It is logical that Rabbi Yehuda permitted this only when the altar is valid, but not when it is defective."


            We can safely extrapolate to our case and assume that Rabbi Yehuda would disqualify any sacrifice brought when the altar is incorrectly situated.  Just as an imperfect altar invalidates an offering brought on the floor, so would an improperly placed one.  Even Rabbi Yehuda, then, requires the altar to be in its proper place for sacrifices to be valid.


            B. Rava, in the above-mentioned passage in the gemara, limits Rabbi Yehuda's ruling to the burning of the fats and innards of sacrifices alone.  Any sacrifice whose blood was not spilled on the altar, however, is still considered invalid.  Even if one wanted to accept the suitability of the Temple courtyard for sacrifices in the absence of a proper altar (rejecting the Tosafot's approach), this dispensation would apply only to a small portion of the sacrificial process.


            The sprinkling of the blood, which is the act that brings atonement, remains invalid in such a case, even according to R. Yehuda.  This opinion of Rava's is unopposed in the gemara.


            The limitations placed by Rava and the Tosafot on Rabbi Yehuda's opinion permitting the Temple courtyard floor to be used for sacrifices indicate that they adopt the following conceptual understanding of his approach: The altar is composed of a number of elements, each with its own function - including (among others) the "yesod" (base), the "sovev" (strip surrounding the middle of the altar), the "ma'arakha" (where the wood is set up and the fire burns), and the "karnot" (posts at its corners).  When Shlomo sanctified the floor of the Temple for the purpose of offering sacrifices, he did not dispense with the need for an altar, but only enlarged the place of the ma'arakha until it included the whole Temple floor.  The yesod of the modified altar was still precisely where it always was; only the ma'arakha was changed.


            Rava accordingly holds that "Rabbi Yehuda agrees with regards to the blood," that it must be spilled on the yesod as usual, as it says, "All of its blood should be spilled on the base of the ola altar" (Vayikra 4:30).  Even sacrifices whose blood is sprinkled on the corner posts of the altar are invalid if there is no yesod to support them (Zevachim 51a, b; 53b).  The yesod is essential to offering the blood of a sacrifice.


            Perhaps the rule requiring the altar to be in its proper place focuses on the altar's YESOD.  Shlomo was not able to expand the place of the altar entirely to the floor of the Temple, for this would have created an improperly placed altar.  He simply expanded the arena in which sacrifices can be burnt.


            Any sacrifice burnt on the floor of the Temple was, even according to Rabbi Yehuda, really offered on the altar itself.  Tosafot's statement that a flawed altar invalidates even a floor sacrifice is a logical corollary to Rava's position.  It follows that all sacrifices require not only a complete altar but an altar in its proper place; Shlomo never waived the requirement for an altar.  Rav Yehuda, therefore very likely also requires an altar in its proper place, for this is one of the requirements applying to the yesod of the altar.


2. Sacrifices Without a Temple


            The Talmud's position on this issue is clear.  The mishna (Eiduyot 8:6) states, "Sacrifices can be offered even if there is no Temple."


            An altar is essential according to the Bavli; the Temple is not.  Even with the Temple in its current ruined state, an altar can (in theory) be erected, and sacrifices offered.


3. A Mispositioned Altar


            The Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive Mitzva 20) counts the building of the altar as a mitzva, and this would not be fulfilled if it was built in the wrong place.  The Ramban in his glosses to the Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Positive Commandment 33) counters that the construction of each of the individual elements of the Temple like the table, the candelabra, and the altar does not itself constitute a mitzva, but only a "hekhsher mitzva," a preparation for a mitzva.  One could then assume that building in the wrong place does not invalidate a non-existent mitzva.


            It is possible that, according to the Ramban, the law requiring the altar to be built in its proper place describes an ideal, but is not truly essential - either for sacrifices or for the mitzva of building the altar.  This can be formulated in one of two different ways:


a. that though it is preferable (a "mitzva min ha-muvchar"), no harm is done by building the altar in the wrong place.

b. that there is still a transgression involved in building such an altar or using it to offer a sacrifice, even though the building is only a hekhsher mitzva.


            For our purposes, the practical difference between these two approaches is whether one could today purposely initiate the building of an altar in the wrong place and use it to offer sacrifices.  According to the first formulation, this is legitimate; according to the second, it is not..


            What about the last crucial element of our investigation?  Does an incorrect placement of the altar render sacrifices brought upon it invalid?  Until now, we have determined that an altar is essential for sacrifices (according to the Bavli), that a standing Temple is not and that even if there is no independent mitzva to build an altar, it might or might not be prohibited to build it in the wrong place.  Our final question is: According to the Rambam, for whom the proper location is an essential component of the independent mitzva of building an altar, might the possibility exist that an incorrect situating of the altar nevertheless does not invalidate sacrifices brought upon it?


4. Sacrifices on an Improperly Placed Altar


            This issue is raised by the She'eilat David, who asks whether the Rambam holds that sacrifices brought on an altar in the wrong location are completely invalid or "bedi'avad" (after the fact) acceptable, even though the altar has been improperly constructed.


            A clear position is taken by the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Halevi Soloveitchik (Griz) in a letter at the end of his book on the Rambam.  The Rambam, according to the Griz, equates an analogy between the selection of the place of the Temple on Mount Moriah with the selection of the place of the altar.  King David chose both in the threshing floor of Aravna the Jebusite.  The verse (Divrei Ha-yamim 22) states: "David said, 'This is the House of Hashem our God and this is the altar for burnt offerings and for Israel.'"  The Rambam in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira quotes this verse with regards to both the place of the Temple (1:3) and that of the altar (2:1-2).


            Both the Temple and the altar were sanctified by King Shlomo and fixed in a unique unalterable place (the passage in Zevachim based on the simple reading of the Tanakh, see Rambam Beit Ha-bechira 6:14).  Each of the two is an independent unit.  In this, as we stated above, the "outside" altar differs from the inner one, and the table, and the candelabra; whereas the mizbe'ach ha-chitzon has an independently fixed place, the others are part of the inner set up of the Temple.


            It is clear that according to the Griz's reading of the Rambam the mitzva of building the altar cannot be fulfilled in the wrong place.  Though the possibility does exist that sacrifices offered on it would be valid, it seems farfetched, that, at least according to the Griz, to say that the Rambam would be open to such a position.


(Originally appeared in Daf Kesher #110, Cheshvan 5748, vol. 1, pp. 450-452.)





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