The Temple and the Altar: Two Structures – One Goal


Moshe Ben-Chaim


Parshas Vayikra commences the Torah’s laws of sacrifices. When studying Maimonides’ laws of the Selected House (the Temple) we come across many astounding findings, and much philosophy, not usually found in his formulations of Jewish law:


Law 1:1:

“It is a positive command to make a House to God, prepared to offer the sacrifices in it.”


Law 1:3:

“Once there was built the Temple in Jerusalem, all other places became completely prohibited to build a House to God, and to sacrifice in them sacrifices. And there is no House for all generations except in Jerusalem alone, and on Mount Moriah that is there, as it states, ‘And David said, ‘this is the House of God and this is the altar of sacrifice to Israel.”


Law 2:1:

“The Altar’s place is exceedingly precise, and it may not be exchanged fro its place forever, as it states, ‘this is the Altar of sacrifice to Israel.’ And in the Temple (here, Maimonides exchanges Altar for “Temple”), Isaac our father was bound (for sacrifice by Abraham) as it states, ‘and go for yourself to the land of Moriah’, and it says in Chronicles, ‘and Solomon commenced to build the House of God in Jerusalem in Mount Moriah that was shown to David his father, that was prepared in the place of David, in the threshing floor of Arnan the Jebusite.”


Law 2:2:

“And the transmission is in the hands of all, the place where David and Solomon built the Altar in the threshing floor of Arnan, it is the (same) place that Abraham built the altar and bound on it Isaac. And it is the (same) place that Noah built (his altar) when he exited the Ark. And it is the (same) Altar that Cain and Ebel sacrificed upon. And on it Adam the First sacrificed a sacrifice when he was created, and from there, was he created. The Rabbis stated, ‘Adam, from the place of his atonement was he created.”



Genesis 28:17, 19:

(Jacob fled from his brother Esav who sought his life for taking the birthright. Jacob arrived at a place where he slept. After Jacob awoke from his famous dream of the ladder with ascending and descending angels, he made this statement)

“And he was afraid and he said, ‘How awesome is this place. This is no other than the House of God, and this is the gate to heaven.”  “And he called the name of that place Beth El (God’s House)…”

Genesis, 35:1: (Many years after the previous quote) “And God said to Jacob, ‘arise and ascend to Beth El, and dwell there, and make there an altar to the God Who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esav.” (After Jacob’s troubles were terminated, God commanded him to return to the House of God (Beth El) and offer a sacrifice.)


Chronicles I, 22:1:

“And David said, ‘this is the House of God and this is the altar of sacrifice to Israel.”





Immediately, a distinctly clear theme forces itself upon us: God’s House (Temple) and the Altar are inseparable. From Maimonides’ formulations, to the very Scriptural verses, in every case, the Temple is tied to the Altar! What is this relationship?


Let us outline all our questions, as there are many:

1) What is the concept of each, the Temple and the Altar?


2) What is the relationship between Temple and Altar? Is one more ‘primary’? Does one precede the other, as a basis for the other? We notice Maimonides’ formulation of Temple as “a place prepared to offer sacrifice. And they celebrate to Him three times a year, as it says, ‘And make for Me a Temple...”

Temple and Altar are clearly bound up with each other. How? (Maimonides includes “celebrate to Him three times a year” perhaps to focus on the significance of a location, to visit.)


3) Maimonides’ formulation seems out of order: In chapter one, he discusses the laws of the Temple, and even describes some of the Temple’s vessels, such as the Menorah. We would assume that he would complete his laws of the Temple (Menorah and other vessels) prior to discussing the Altar. But he does not. After commencing chapter one with laws of the Temple, he introduces his laws of the Altar in chapter two. In chapter three, he picks up with the Menorah. It would seem that laws of the Altar interrupt an unfinished discussion of the Temple and its vessels. Why does Maimonides discuss Temple, then prioritize Altar by positioning its laws right after laws of the Temple, and then return to the Temple’s vessels?


4) In law 1:2 Maimonides describes the historical sites of the Temple and the Altar. In law 1:3, Maimonides teaches that once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, no other place was fit for it, or for sacrifice. What is the reason behind this law?


5) Once I know from law 1:3 that both the Temple and sacrifice can never be relocated from Jerusalem, why does Maimonides seemingly repeat in law 2:1 that we can never change the Altar’s location?


6) One point astonishes us: While discussing the Altar in law 2:1, Maimonides teaches that the Altar can never be relocated. But he brings a proof from the location of the Temple! How is the Temple’s location a proof that the Altar cannot be relocated? Proof for the Altar’s location should be from a source relating to the Altar, not the Temple! Why are the two interchanged?


7) What is significant about the location of our forefathers’ sacrifices, all offered at the identical location, and that Adam was actually created from that very spot? This is truly amazing, but what is the idea?


8) When Jacob arose from his prophetic dream, what is the concept of his referring to that place as the “House of God” and the “gates of heaven”? What do these two terms mean?


9) Why did God command Jacob to return to Beth El, the House of God, to offer a sacrifice? Why was this required?


10) A question that underlies all we have asked this far is the following: Why is “location” so integral to the Temple and the Altar? Isn’t the act of sacrifice i.e., Temple worship, more essential than ‘where’ they are performed?




Defining the Temple

Let us begin to answer these questions. First, we require a definition for both the Temple and the Altar. And what is the distinction between the two?


Temple is a fixed location for the sacrifices of the Altar, as Maimonides stated, “It is a positive command to make a House to God, prepared to offer the sacrifices in it”. We learn that Temple is subordinated to Altar, as it modifies sacrificial practice by confining it to a select place. Why is such a confinement necessary? Perhaps in part, this addresses the unbridled, religious emotion in man, seen rampant in the sin of the Golden Calf. Sforno teaches that Temple was in fact a response to the sin of that Calf. A restricted “location” for sacrifice contains man’s religious emotion. As stated by the Rabbis, Temple endangers man to unbridled “religious expression”...the primary avenue where man’s emotions lead him furthest from the truth, furthest from God.


But the main reason is found in the fact that Adam, his sons, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon sacrificed at the same, exact location: they testified to the significance that this place held. But significance of a location must hearken back to an event. What happened here?

As Maimonides taught, its initial significance is that God created Adam there. From that point forward, all of these great individuals recognized the role of God, as man’s Creator – their primary focus. By sacrificing to God at this location, they emphasized the importance of this concept. Each sacrifice on this Altar highlighted and reiterated the fundamental of God’s existence, and His position as the Creator of the universe, and man. Adam’s original sacrifice at this location underlined his place of creation, and the act of sacrifice, as recognition of the Creator. Therefore, we may define Temple as the “fixed location whose identification with fundamental truths properly directs man’s approach to God.” As the central focus of Temple is the Ark that houses the Torah, Temple functions to embody truth. 


Sacrifice had always been associated with a “significant location”. Man’s “approach to God” is not free, religious expression. It must be guided by precise, fundamental concepts, primarily the correct notion of God, i.e., the Creator. Sacrificing at the same location of Adam’s creation reiterated this idea.




Defining the Altar

Altar is man’s approach to God. That is, man sacrifices to draw near to his Maker. We learn from Maimonides that Altar and sacrifice existed from the time of Adam. Altar preceded Temple. (But as you will see from the next paragraph, this is true only in structure.) After he was created, Adam responded to his Maker with sacrifice.

Adam was also “created from the place of his atonement”, from the place of his sacrifice. What does this mean? It means that even before Adam was created, there was a “place” for his sacrifice. This means that inherent in man’s design is the need for sacrifice – atonement. So, we can speak of Adam’s place of atonement predating him in this respect: sacrifice is integral to man’s existence. This means that man has no option; he requires atonement, via sacrifice. Why does man require atonement? It is due to his very nature, as a being that possesses free will and instincts. It is impossible that man never sin: "For man is not righteous in the land who does good and does not sin (Ecclesiastes, 7:20)." Therefore, we say that Adam was created with an inescapable need for atonement, or “man was created from the place of his atonement.”


But not all sacrifice was for atonement. Some were for thanks, as in Noah’s case, being saved from the Flood. Some were out of recognition for God, as is the case with Adam, upon his creation, prior to sin. Even without sin, sacrifice is part of man’s required function. We derive from this that man’s existence must include approaching God, i.e., sacrifice. Man does not have an option in this respect. As a created being, possessing intelligence and instincts, God designed man with the purpose of studying the works of his Creator. It is in this pursuit that man will achieve the most profound fulfillment, and be awed by his studies. If man does not seek out his Maker, he will live unfulfilled and never approach his purpose or true happiness. His central faculty of intelligence will go unused – his purpose, lost. No other being was offered this gift of intelligence. And as a Rabbi taught, such a precious gift, that man’s soul is stamped with God’s name, the “Tzelem Elokim – Form of God”.


We arrive at a dual nature contained in sacrifice: personal atonement, and recognition of God. However, both share equally in man’s approaching God, man’s purpose.



Temple and Altar – Ancient Partners

Earlier, we asked what is the relationship between Temple and Altar, and is one more primary. Even before the Temple existed, Jacob said, “How awesome is this place. This is no other than the house of God, and this is the gate to heaven.”  Before the Temple existed, Jacob already understood the fundamentals underlying these two structures-to-be: “House of God” refers to a “significant location”, and “Gates of heaven” mean man’s approach to God, or sacrifice as stated by Ramban. Even before our two structures existed in the Law, the concepts of an “instructional location” (Temple) and “approaching God” (Altar) already existed, as all true ideas are eternal. (Torah is a "formalization of eternal truths into a system for man." –Rishonic commentary on Proverbs) 


This prophetic event of Jacob’s is a paramount model for Temple and Sacrifice. It embodies both institutions, while also teaching of their complimentary natures. It is quite a find!  Jacob was awed by the realization of alighting upon a location wherein God’s providence expressed itself. Arriving at such a place demands that man call out to God. Perhaps this is why God commanded Jacob to return to this place, named Beth El at that time, and offer a sacrifice. Jacob had not sacrificed there on his first visit, so perhaps he was lacking a perfection realized only through sacrifice at Beth El.


Can we derive any lesson from the very nature of Jacob’s dream? Genesis 28:12 describes the dream as a ladder based on the ground reaching heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending, and God standing at the top. I would humbly suggest that the ladder’s position and connection between Earth and heaven teaches a relationship between man and God. This relationship also has God at its “destination”, or goal. This is man’s purpose, to “approach God”.  The relationship between man and God can only exist via knowledge, i.e., the angels. Cherubim are affixed to the Ark that houses Torah knowledge for the same reason; the relationship between man and God is based on man’s knowledge of God, the system of knowledge is conveyed by the cherubim. With no accurate knowledge of God and His Torah, man has no relationship with God; he has no means by which to comprehend God. We may suggest, based on this interpretation, that the very concepts verbalized by Jacob, i.e., “House of God” (Temple) and “gates of heaven” (Altar) are derived from the nature of the dream. Jacob’s words are in fact a response to this dream.


The Temple and the Altar go hand in hand. For this reason, Maimonides discussed the Temple in chapter one, and then the Altar in chapter two, before completing all the details of the Temple’s vessels. This teaches that Temple exists on par with the Altar. And for this reason, Maimonides formulates his very first law, as “It is a positive command to make a House to God, prepared to offer the sacrifices in it.”


We now come to Question 4. “Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, no other place was fit for it, or for sacrifice.” Perhaps a Temple, built on Mount Moriah, the location of our forefathers’ sacrifices, now embodies what all previous Temples did not: man’s perfected approach to God, prior to the Golden Calf sin. Our forefathers’ sacrifices were untainted with improper, religious expression. Ironically, perhaps the Temple on Mount Moriah reaches its zenith of perfection: it reminds us of the era in which a formal Temple was not required, an era prior to sinful religious expression. On Mount Moriah, the Temple carried with it a never-before achieved status. A new, halachic designation was achieved which could not tolerate relocation. Therefore, relocation is prohibited, as sacrifice now achieved its initial undiluted form displayed by our forefathers. Temple was now synonymous with sacrifice of the most perfected status. It must be retained. Keeping the Temple on Mount Moriah means retaining the significance of approaching God out of a pure recognition of His role as Creator, and not from a subsequent concession to man’s Gold Calf sin.


This complimentary relationship of Temple and Altar explains why Maimonides exchanges their terms. Both function together as one unit. Temple has no meaning without Altar, and without the words of the prophet (law 2:4) Altar cannot exist without Temple. This complimentary relationship is also seen by the specific location of the Altar: it must be lined up with the opening of the Temple. This close proximity and alignment conveys their close relationship.


The Torah says, (Exod. 25:8) “And make for Me a Temple, and I will dwell in it.” God cannot “dwell”, nor can He be “in” anything! Kings I, 8:27, “…the heavens, and the heavens of heavens cannot hold You, how much less this Temple”. What does this verse in Exodus mean? Perhaps it embodies our idea: God will associate His name with a location: “in it” means God permits us to view the Temple with a distinct designation associated with Him exclusively. He allows man to use a place to remember Torah fundamentals. “I will dwell in it” means that man may identify the Temple, a location, with true concepts of God.


Discussing this area with Rabbi Reuven Mann, he reminded me of the famous Talmudic saying. Today, although we do not have the Altar, and the Temple does not stand, prayer replaces sacrifice, “Tefilah bimakome karban – Prayer is in place of sacrifice (Talmud Brachos, 26a).” Rabbi Mann added that even without a quorum, man benefits more when praying in temple. My friend Rabbi Burstein told me of a Gemara where two Rabbis selected to pray where they learned. What do these two Talmudic sections teach? They teach us this very idea that our approach to God must be associated with, and directed by truth, which both our temples and places of learning represent. Just as our ancient Temple and Altar worked together to purify our approach to God, basing it on truths, so too today, our prayers in place of sacrifice are to be directed by our temples, and our Torah study halls.



As Sforno taught, Temple is a concession to man, and his need to relate to life as a physical being. It is strictly prohibited to have any physical relationship with God, as God is not physical. A physical relationship with God via practices like the Golden Calf is both prohibited, and impossible. However, man is a sentient being requiring physical expression. The concession? Temple and Altar are created as the vehicles through which man uses the physical to obtain true ideas, and express his attachment to God. Unguided, with no sacrifice or location of significance, man created the Golden Calf. However, via the Temple and Altar, man is directed by God’s wisdom with precise laws that guide man to true concepts.


The fact that God revealed a prophecy to Jacob, and that He gives prophecy in general, teaches the most primary lesson of our existence: man’s purpose goes unrealized without God’s intervention i.e., God’s instruction. Man makes his most grave error when assuming he is autonomous. Without Temple to define the vital fundamentals of truth, and Altar to relate to our Creator, man is a fish out of water, doomed to failure.



Temple and Altar are co-dependent: The knowledge of God acquired through Temple demands that man relate to God, and this is via Altar. Conversely, Altar, as a means to relate to God, requires that our thoughts are refined, and our knowledge of God, true. Temple is a prerequisite for Altar, and Altar is an expression of our perfection obtained via Temple.