Taamei Hamitzvos - The Sacrificial Altar and Its Ramp
Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: The Sacrificial Altar and Its Ramp
By Rabbi Shmuel Kraines
“Study improves the quality of the act and completes it, and a mitzvah is more beautiful when it emerges from someone who understands its significance.” (Meiri, Bava Kama 17a)
(Mitzvos #40 and #41 in Sefer HaChinuch)
“Do not make with Me [idols]; gods of silver and gods of gold do not make for yourselves. Construct for Me an earthen altar, and you shall offer on it… in every place I shall mention My name, I shall come to you and bless you. If you construct an altar of stones, do not build them with hewn stones, for it will become profaned if your blade is waved over it. And do not ascend with steps upon My altar, upon which you may not expose yourself.” (Shemos 20:21-23)
Hashem commands us to build “an altar of earth,” meaning that it must be set upon the ground and not upon pillars. In addition, the Sages derive from this that the altar in the Wilderness, which was made out of copper-plated wood, had to be filled with earth whenever the people encamped (Rashi). Alternatively, we may build “an altar of stones,” which may not be hewn. The altar is to be accessed using an adjacent ramp.
EARTH OR UNHEWN STONES
The idol-worshippers used to make their idols out of silver and gold in order to harness spiritual forces symbolized by these metals that would serve as conduits to bring down blessings. For example, they may have used gold to symbolize the sun and silver to symbolize the moon. They would build fancy altars that they would decorate with idolatrous designs. In contrast, Hashem commands to sacrifice to Him directly, upon a simple and inexpensive altar of earth or stone. He does not need conduits to bring down blessings, and His honor is not dependent upon our constructs and designs. He therefore commands services that are readily available and inexpensive because He does not want to impose upon us (Ibn Ezra). The stones may not be hewn with a chisel or any metal tool, since metal is the material of weapons, which shortens lives, while the altar grants atonement and lengthens lives. Furthermore, the altar brings peace between us and Hashem, and it is unfitting to strike it with something that causes destruction (Rashi). In addition, Hashem wanted us to use whole stones, because if we would cut them in two, half of a stone would go to the altar and the other half would be thrown away, which would be disrespectful to the altar (Ibn Ezra). In prohibiting the use of metal tools, Hashem also intended to discourage the ways of idol-worshippers, who would chisel out designs on their altars (Rambam).
We are commanded to treat the altar with great reverence since it provides atonement for our sins. Ascending or descending steps involves the spreading of one’s legs, and even though the Kohanim wore pants beneath their tunics, this would suggest disrespect to the altar. We are therefore commanded to build a ramp, upon which the Kohanim must ascend foot-by-foot (Rashi and Baal HaTurim). In addition, it is haughty to walk with large steps, and haughtiness causes conflicts and destroys relationships. This is not the way a person should ascend the altar, whose purpose is to bring peace between us and Hashem (Moshav Zekeinim). Accordingly, after commanding us to build a simple and inexpensive altar, which increases the possibility that a worshipper may ascend haughtily and disrespectfully, Hashem instructed us to ascend meekly upon a ramp. The Sages remark that Hashem commanded us with this mitzvah not only so that we would treat the altar with respect. He wants us to realize that if it is necessary to avoid suggesting slight disrespect to mindless earth and stones, then we must certainly avoid being disrespectful to sensitive people, who are created in Hashem’s image and deserve the utmost respect.
We may further suggest that the altar had to be made out of earthly materials and set down upon the earth to symbolize that the offerings we bring upon it provide atonement for the entire earth (see Sukkah 55b). It had to be accessed specifically by a ramp for it to be considered an extension of the earth.