The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Weekly Shiur In Halakhic Topics
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #17: The Place of the Altar in the Temple
Can Sacrifices be Offered before
the Temple is Rebuilt?
By Rav Shlomo
Translated and adapted by Rav
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
There are, however, two indications that Rabbi Yehuda does not in fact
take as radical an approach as the Sages of the
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
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 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
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
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
a. that though it is preferable (a "mitzva min
ha-muvchar"), no harm is done by building the altar in the wrong
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
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
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
(Originally appeared in Daf Kesher #110, Cheshvan 5748,
vol. 1, pp. 450-452.)