The Location of the Ark and the Altar in the Temple in Jerusalem

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

 

 

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LECTURE #121: THE LOCATION OF THE ARK AND THE ALTAR IN THE TEMPLE IN JERUSALEM

 

BY RAV YITZCHAK LEVI

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            The Mishkan accompanied the people of Israel in the wilderness through all their wanderings, from the time of its original construction in the second year until the people's entry into the Land of Israel in the fortieth year. Each time the people moved, they disassembled the Mishkan and then rebuilt it at the next station. Beyond the sanctity of the place when the Shekhina rested at each station, there was no special relationship between the structure of the Mishkan and the specific place in which it was actually found.[1] In sharp contrast, the Mikdash in Jerusalem was located in a fixed place on Mount Moriya.

 

            In previous shiurim, we discussed the location of the sacred vessels and their position in relation to the structure of the Mishkan based on the verses in the Torah and the words of Chazal.

 

            In this shiur, we will turn our attention to the fixed and permanent Mikdash and discuss its location and that of its vessels. We will examine not only the relative position of the various vessels within the structure, but also the connection between the structure as a whole and all of its vessels, as well as the specific place where it stands. In this shiur, we will consider the location of the ark and the outer altar.

 

THE LOCATION OF THE EVEN HA-SHETIYA (THE FOUNDATION STONE AND THE LOCATION OF THE ARK IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES

 

            It is reasonable to suggest that the primary anchoring point of the entire Mikdash is the connection between the Holy of Holies and the site of the creation of the world. The mishna teaches:

 

After the ark had been taken away, there was a stone from the days of the earlier prophets, called the Shetiya, three fingers above the ground, on which he would place [the pan of burning coals]. (Yoma 53b)

 

            The gemara expands upon what is stated in the mishna:

 

And it was called Shetiya - A Tanna taught: [It was so called] because from it the world was founded [hushtat]. We were taught in accord with the view that the world was created from Zion on. (ibid. 54b)

 

            Rashi explains (ad loc.):

 

The world was created from Zion – Zion was created first, and clods of earth were attached all around it until the end of the world on all sides.[2]

 

            According to the gemara, there is a connection between the Holy of Holies and the site of the creation of the entire world. Thus, there is an exceedingly important relationship between the structure and the place in which it is situated.

 

            This idea is expressed in greater detail in the Tosefta:

 

There was a stone there from the days of the earlier prophets, called Shetiya, three fingers above the ground. At first, the ark rested upon it. After the ark had been taken away, they burned the incense that was brought into the innermost chamber on it. R. Yose says: From it the world was founded, as it is stated: "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth" (Tehillim 50:2). (Yoma 2:14)

 

            The same idea is found in several midrashim:

 

When the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world, He created it like one born of a woman. Just as one born of a woman, begins from his navel, and is stretched this way and that, so too the Holy One, blessed be He, began to create His world from the Even Ha-shetiya. And why is it called Even Ha-shetiya? Because from it the world was founded.[3] (Tanchuma, Pekudei 6)

 

THE LOCATION OF THE EVEN HA-SHETIYA

 

            The Rishonim disagree about the precise location of the Even ha-Shetiya in the Holy of Holies, and as a result they also differ about the location of the ark in the Holy of Holies.

 

            1) The stone was located in the center of the Holy of Holies. This seems to be the position of the Radak (I Melakhim 8:8), as well as that of the Tosafot (Menachot 98b, s.v. dochakin). As proof, Tosafot cite the gemara in Megilla (noted in the previous shiur), according to which the ark rested in the center of the Holy of Holies, there were ten cubits on each side, and the ark itself did not take up any space.

 

            2) The ark was located in the eastern part of the Holy of Holies, close to the entrance. This view is cited by the Ritzba in the Tosafot (Bava Batra 25a, s.v. ve-tzava). The stone was located there in order to allow for maintenance work on the ark, in which a Torah scroll rested, without necessitating excessive walking about the Holy of Holies.[4]

 

            3) The ark was located in the western part of the Holy of Holies. This is the view of the Rambam in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira (4:1). The reasoning underlying this position is apparently that since the Shekhina rests in the west, and for this reason the Holy of Holies is in the west, the ark – the primary site of the resting of the Shekhina - was certainly drawn close to the western end of the Holy of Holies.

 

            I am not aware of a source for the position that the Even Ha-shetiya was in the eastern part of the Holy of Holies, or for the view that it was in the western part, even if the reasoning underlying the Rambam's position appears correct and convincing. The only view among the Rishonim that is based on a source in the words of Chazal is that of the Tosafot in Menachot, who maintain that the ark was located in the center of the Holy of Holies.

 

            Furthermore, according to the view that the ark was located in the center of the Holy of Holies, it turns out that the location of the ark in the First Temple was identical to the location of the ark in the Mishkan. According to the other two positions, however, there seems to be a fundamental difference between the Mishkan and the Mikdash, and this requires explanation.

 

            We suggested in the past that the Mishkan is connected to the revelation at Mount Sinai, whereas the Mikdash is essentially connected to the creation of the world. Perhaps one can argue that with the transition from a temporary Mishkan to a permanent Mikdash on Mount Moriya, there was a change in the location of the ark because the essential quality of the location demanded it. A factor external to the ark itself – the fact that it was now located on the site of the creation of the world - required that it be repositioned in the Mikdash.

 

            It is also possible to suggest that the fact that a Torah scroll was located in the ark affected the ark’s location in the Holy of Holies. According to the Zohar, the Torah was the “blueprint” that God studied before He created the world. Thus, at the location of the creation of the world, the position of the ark containing the Torah must be altered.

 

            This idea is, of course, merely a suggestion that tries to explain why the location of the ark within the Holy of Holies might have changed with the transition from the Mishkan to the Mikdash (according to the viewpoints that the ark was situated in either the western or eastern part of the Holy of Holies). The more fundamental question relates to the location of the Even Ha-shetiya, from which the world was founded, within the Holy of Holies.

 

THE LOCATION OF THE OUTER ALTAR

 

            As we saw in previous shiurim, the Torah fixes the location of the altar at the door of the Ohel Mo'ed. We saw that there is a Tannaitic dispute regarding whether the altar stood in the north of the courtyard, the middle, or the south. In this section, I wish to consider the Rambam's view regarding the location of the altar for future generations on Mount Moriya.

 

            In continuation of what we said in the first part of this shiur, it is interesting to note that the Rambam does not relate in any way to the idea that the Even Ha-shetiya is the site of the creation of the world. When he addresses the location of the ark, he states: "There was a stone in the western portion of the Holy of Holies, and on it the ark rested" (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 4:1). The Rambam does not mention the name of the stone, nor does he relate to the fact that it is the site of the creation of the world.

 

            In contrast, regarding the outer altar, the Rambam writes as follows:

 

The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed, as it is said (I Divrei Ha-Yamim 22:1): "This is the altar for the burnt-offerings of Israel." Yitzchak was prepared as a sacrifice on the Temple's [future] site, as it is said (Bereishit 22:2): "Go to the land of Moriya," and in Divrei Ha-Yamim (II 3:1), it is said: "Then Shelomo began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mt. Moriya, where [the Lord] appeared to David, his father, in the place that David had prepared, in the threshing floor of Ornan the Yevusite."

It is universally accepted that the place on which David and Shelomo built the altar, the threshing floor of Ornan, is the location where Avraham built the altar on which he prepared Yitzchak for sacrifice. Noach built [an altar] on that location when he left the ark. It was also [the place] of the altar on which Kayin and Hevel brought sacrifices. [Similarly,] Adam, the first man, offered a sacrifice there and was created at that very spot, as our Sages said: "Man was created from the place where he [would find] atonement."

The dimensions of the altar must be very precise. Its design has been passed down from one to another [over the course of the generations]. The altar built by the exiles [returning from Babylon] was constructed according to the design of the altar to be built in the future. We may not increase or reduce its dimensions. (ibid. 2:1-3)

 

            There are several striking points in the words of the Rambam which require explanation:

 

            First of all, the Rambam's formulation regarding the location and dimensions of the altar is striking: "The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed," and similarly: "The dimensions of the altar must be very precise. Its design has been passed down from one to another [over the course of the generations]." Why is the location of the altar so very precise? Why does the Rambam note that there is a special prohibition to change its location?

 

            Second, what is the significance of the fact that in the context of a purely halakhic code, the Rambam goes on at great length in his description of the history of the offerings brought at the site of the altar? In halakha 1, the Rambam cites the events that occurred at the site and are mentioned in Scripture, the Akeida in Eretz Moriya and the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by Shelomo.[5] In halakha 2, mention is made of events described by Chazal, as well as events mentioned in the Torah, but without any designation of the place where they took place.

 

Let us first cite several passages which may have served as the Rambam's sources:

 

When the Holy One, blessed be He, saw him [David] in distress about [the fact that he would not build] the Temple, He immediately sent him Gad the prophet, and he showed him the site of the Temple, as it is written: "And Gad came that day to David, and said to him, ‘Go up, rear an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Aravna the Yevusite’" (II Shemuel 24:18). David immediately went. This is what is written: "And David went up, according to the saying of Gad" (ibid. v. 19). And he found there the altar on which Adam brought a sacrifice, and on which Noach brought a sacrifice, and on which Avraham brought a sacrifice. When he found it, he began to measure, saying: From here to here is the courtyard, from here to here is the Holy of Holies. As it is written: "Then David said, ‘This is the house of the Lord God’" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:1). And from where? "This is the altar of the burnt-offering" (ibid.). (Pesikta Rabbati 43)

 

            And similarly:

 

R. Shimon said: The Holy One, blessed be He, showed Avraham our father the altar with [His] finger, saying: This is the altar. And this was the altar upon which Kayin and Hevel brought offerings, and this was the altar upon which Noach and his children brought offerings, as it is stated: "And Avraham built there." It is not written "altar" [without the definite article], but rather: "And Avraham built there the altar," the same altar upon which the earlier ones brought offerings. (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 30)

 

            Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer notes that the altar that God showed to Avraham was the altar of Adam, Kayin, Hevel, and Noach. In addition, Pesikta Rabbati, which describes how the prophet Gad showed David the altar, also connects that altar to the altar of Adam. Furthermore, the Pesikta notes that it was from the site of the altar that the entire Mikdash was measured.

 

            In other words, according to the Pesikta, the clear and fixed location from which the entire site of the Mikdash was determined was the place of the altar - not that of the Even Ha-shetiya.

 

            If indeed this is the Rambam's source, this would explain his statement that the altar was to be built "in a very precise location" and that it may never be changed, and it was therefore there that all the events mentioned in the midrashim and in the Rambam took place.

 

            According to this understanding, we can well understand why the Rambam does not relate at all to the Even Ha-shetiya, neither by name nor as the place from which the entire world was created. From the Rambam's perspective, the pivotal place is the site of the altar, and therefore its location must be most precise.

 

            In this way, we can also understand what the Rambam says in his commentary to Tractate Middot:

 

The precision regarding the dimensions of the altar in the Torah is very strict, and so too its place. It says in Divrei Ha-yamim, when the site of the altar was designated: "Then David said, ‘This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel’" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 22:1). And [the Sages] said: R. Elazar said: See the altar is built, and Michael, the great officer, stands and brings offering on it. And they said: Three prophets went up with them from the Exile. One who testified about the altar, one who testified about the location of the altar, and one who testified that we may bring sacrifices even if there is no Temple. And that which they said: "about the altar" – that he testified about its precise measurements, as I shall explain. (Commentary to the Mishna 5:1)

 

            Both the dimensions and the location of the altar are exceedingly precise, and the verses emphasize that precision.

 

            In this context, the Rambam has an interesting comment on the words of the mishna in Yoma (5:2), “After the ark had been taken away, there was a stone from the days of the earlier prophets, called the Shetiya…” The Rambam writes:

 

The meaning of the word "Shetiya" is foundation. And in truth, the site of the service is the foundation of the world, as was mentioned at the beginning of Avot (1:2).

 

            The Rambam disagrees with the mishna and writes that the site of the service is the foundation of the world, and not the Even Ha-shetiya in the Holy of Holies.[6] He supports his words based on what is stated in Avot: "The world stands on three things: On the Torah, on service, and on acts of lovingkindness." "Service" here refers to the sacrificial service that is performed on the outer altar.

 

            For this reason, the altar is to be constructed in a very precise location, which may never be changed, and this is the reason that all of the most important events from the creation of Adam at the site of the altar, through Kayin, Hevel, Noach and Avraham, occurred there.

 

This idea is essentially connected to the Rambam's fundamental position regarding the purpose of the Temple, as he defines it both in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot and in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira:

 

It is a positive commandment to make a house unto the Lord, designed for the offering of sacrifices and for making thereto a pilgrimage three times every year.[7] (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 1:1)

 

            This also explains the Rambam's nearly total disregard of the ark (save for 4:1, where mention is made of the place where the ark was hidden away), as well as his failure to mention the Even Ha-shetiya and the site of the creation of the world. In the Rambam’s view, what is most important is man's service of God.

 

This point is also strongly highlighted by the order of the laws in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira in the Mishneh Torah:

 

·           In 1:6, the Rambam describes the sacred vessels from the outermost to the innermost - i.e., from east to west. He starts with the burnt-offering altar, and them moves on the laver and its pedestal, and then the incense altar, the candlestick and the table.

·           In the continuation, in 1:12-17 and in all of chapter 2, he discusses the laws governing the altar in detail.

·           In chapter 3, he describes the candlestick, the table, and the incense altar.

 

R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (the Griz), in a letter published at the end of his novella on the Rambam, draws an inference from the following words of the Rambam:

 

Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, it became forbidden to build a sanctuary for God or to offer sacrifices in any other place. There is no Sanctuary for all generations except in Jerusalem and [specifically,] on Mount Moriya, as it is stated: "And David declared, ‘This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel’" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 22:1), and it is stated: "This is My resting place forever" (Tehillim 132:14). (Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira 1:3)

 

That is to say, according to the Rambam, the proof that the Mikdash must be built in Jerusalem on Mount Moriya is the verse in which the site of the Mikdash is revealed to David in the threshing floor of Aravna the Yevusite at the end of the plague.

 

Interestingly, at the beginning of chapter 2, the Rambam writes as follows:

 

The altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location, which may never be changed, as it is said (I Divrei Ha-yamim 22:1): "This is the altar for the burnt-offerings of Israel." (2:1)

 

The very same verse that the Rambam cited in chapter 1 as proof for the everlasting choice of Mount Moriya is brought here in connection with the altar's position being very precise. It is clear that regarding the Mikdash as a whole, the critical part of the verse is its first half, "This is the house of the Lord God," whereas regarding the site of the altar, the important part is the second half, "And this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel." These two parts of the verse relate to the two main parts of the Temple – the part of the resting of the Shekhina and the part of man's service of God at the altar.

 

            In light of this, the Griz infers that the selection of the site of the Mikdash and the selection of the site of the altar are rooted in the same verse; they are two parts of a single law, according to which the selection of the site of the Mikdash includes the precise selection of the site of the altar.

 

BEGINNING WITH THE ALTAR

 

            It might be possible to connect what was stated above to the fact that the service of God began precisely with the altar. The midrash states as follows:

 

"You shall make to Me" (Shemot 20:21). Wherever it says "to Me," it is preserved forever. Great is [the sacrificial] service, for Scripture began with: "An altar of earth you shall make to Me" (ibid.). And similarly you find with the Ohel Mo'ed that Scripture began with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "And the Lord called to Moshe, and spoke to him out of the Ohel Mo'ed, saying… If any man of you bring an offering to the Lord" (Vayikra 1:1-2). And similarly, you find when they entered the land, that they began with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "Then Yehoshua built an altar" (Yehoshua 5:31). And similarly, you find when they returned from the Exile that they began with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "And they set the altar upon its bases" (Ezra 3:3). So too, in the future, they will begin with the [sacrificial] service, as it is stated: "I will go into Your house with burnt offerings" (Tehillim 65:13). (Midrash Ha-gadol, Shemot 20:21)

 

            The service at Mount Moriya began with the building of an altar. According to Chazal and the Rambam (cited above), the sacrifices brought by Adam, Kayin and Hevel, and Noach were on Mount Moriya.

 

            This is true according to the plain sense of Scripture as well. "One of the mountains which I will tell you of," upon which Avraham built an altar at the Akeida in the land of Moriya, is identified in II Divrei Ha-yamim (3:1) as Mount Moriya in Jerusalem.

 

            In later generations, both in the First Temple period and the beginning of the Second Temple period, a prophet points to the location of the altar. This took place with David in the wake of the plague that followed the counting of Israel: "Then the angel of the Lord commanded Gad to say to David, that David should go up, and set up an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Yevusite. And David went up at the saying of Gad, which he spoke in the name of the Lord" (I Divrei Ha-yamim 21:18; see also II Shmuel 24:18-25)). In the wake of the acquisition of the threshing floor, David's builds the altar and offers burnt-offerings and peace-offerings – "And he called upon the Lord, and He answered him from heaven by fire upon the altar of burnt-offering" (ibid. 26).

 

            The prophetic pointing to the site of the altar and, in its wake, God's response by way of the fire from heaven upon the burnt-offering altar, is in many senses a revelation of the site of the Mikdash to David. Thus, this altar constitutes the beginning of the Mikdash – once again through service by way of the building of the altar.

 

            The gemara writes regarding the return to Zion at the beginning of the Second Temple period:

 

Rabba bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan: Three prophets went up with them from the Exile: One testified to them about [the dimensions of] the altar; another testified to them about the site of the altar; and the third testified to them that they could sacrifice even though there was no Temple. (Zevachim 62a)

 

            Rashi explains:

 

Three prophets – Chaggai, Zecharya, and Malachi. One testified to them about [the dimensions of] the altar – that there is room to add up to sixty cubits. About the site of the altar – where it was. That they could sacrifice even though there was no Temple – for the Temple was sanctified for its own time and for the future. (Zevachim 62a)

 

            In other words, Zerubavel ben Shealtiel and Yehoshua ben Yehotzadak began the building of the Second Temple with the building of the altar. Here, too, there is a prophetic pointing to the precise location of the altar.

 

            It turns out that in addition to the fact that the service began with the building of the altar – at the time of the Akeida, in the First Temple, and in the Second Temple - the building of the altar began after God pointed to its site.

 

            Perhaps these are the Biblical proofs upon which the Rambam bases his statement that the altar is to be constructed in a very precise location, which may never be changed. It is not by chance that the Rambam cites the verse in Divrei ha-Yamim, in which the site is revealed to David, who then says: "This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar for the burnt-offerings of Israel" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 22:1).

 

            Thus, we have seen that in addition to the relative positions of the ark and the altar with respect to the structure of the Mishkan and the Mikdash as a whole, there is great significance to the connection between these two vessels and the physical place where they are found on Mount Moriya.

 

·           The ark is connected to the Even Ha-shetiya, the site of the creation of the world.

·           The altar is connected to the site of the creation of man, and to the specific place where an altar was build by Adam, Kayin and Hevel, Noach and Avraham at the Akeida. The site where man was created is the place where he can achieve atonement.

 

These two anchors on the ground of Mount Moriya come to express two complementary aspects of the Mikdash:[8]

 

On the one hand, the site of the resting of the Shekhina, the site of the creation of the world, the site of the meeting between human and Divine, the place where God, as it were, dwells in His house. The ark is not a vessel that was used in the service; its essence is the resting of the Shekhina, the written Torah resting in it, and the oral Torah through which God met with Moshe from between the two keruvim.

 

On the other hand, the Mikdash is the site where man comes to serve God in His house – the site of the sacrificial service on the altar. Beyond the daily service in the Holy - the lighting of the lamps and the burning of the incense - and beyond the weekly service with the showbread, the sacrificial service is the primary service in the Temple.

 

We have referred in the past to the disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban regarding the question of what the primary objective of the Mikdash is – the resting of the Shekhina and the encounter between man and God or man's service of God. As we have seen above, not only does the Rambam view the Mikdash as the site of human service, but the truth is that he sees the site of the altar as the place that is the foundation of the world.

 

According to the Rambam's approach, our main concern should be our obligation to serve God, and there is therefore an essential connection between the site of the foundation of the world and the site of the creation of man, the site of human activity and human service.[9]

 

Similarly, these two focuses, the site of the ark and the site of the altar, which are anchored in the physical reality outside the structure of the Temple itself on Mount Moriya and which emphasize the two most essential elements of the Mikdash as the site of the creation of the world and the resting of the Shekhina and the site of the creation of man and his atonement, sharpen the meaning of the expanse that lies between them, the essence of the Holy, the Heikhal.

 

The Holy is a place that is twice as big as the Holy of Holies, and it constitutes an intermediate space where the vessels represent the resting of the Shekhina in the house of God and where the priests may enter in order to serve God in His house.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] We have dealt with the sanctity of the site of the Mishkan as opposed to the sanctity of the site of the Mikdash in the past, and we will not expand upon it in this context.

[2] The gemara later brings a disgreement between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua regarding whether the world was created from the center or from the sides, and afterwards it brings the view of the Sages according to which both were created from Zion. The Tosafot write (s.v. eilu ve-eilu mi-Tziyon nivra'u): "This means that the center of the world and the sides were created from Zion."

[3] It may be understood from the gemara and midrashim that this stone was found there from the time of creation. So explains the author of the Tif'eret Yisrael in his commentary to the mishna – the stone was there from the time of creation, and in the days of the early prophets (refering to David and Shemuel), it was revealed.

[4] This explanation is not found in the Tosafot, but rather in the Minchat Chinukh (commandment no. 95, “The building of the Mikdash”), who cites and discusses the various opinions.

[5] As may be recalled, these are the only two instances in the Bible where the term "Moriya" is used as a place name.

[6] Of course, the Rambam cannot disagree with an explicit Mishna. It may be suggested that either the Rambam does not mention the stone by the name by which it was called (as I heard from R. Zvi Shalva in a personal conversation)or that when the Rambam uses the term "yesod," he is not referring to a physical place, but to a spiritual idea.

[7] Unlike the Ramban, who understands that the primary purpose of the Mikdash is to serve as a resting place for the Shekhina and as a meeting place from between the two keruvim between man and God.

[8] We expanded upon these topics in the past in our shiurim on the functions of the Mikdash and in our shiur dealing with the novelty in the erection of the Mishkan as opposed to an altar or pillar.

[9] It is interesting that it is precisely the ark and the altar that are positioned on a north-south axis, as opposed to the rest of the vessels in the Mishkan. There is a significant correspondence between the ark and the altar with respect to this issue, above and beyond the other correspondences between the two mentioned in previous shiurim. We shall expand upon this in our shiur dealing with the directions of the vessels.