The Place of the Altar


Yaakov Trachtman


Rambam, Hilchos Beis Habechira 2:2,  “It is a well known tradition that the place that David and Solomon built the altar in Goren Arnona, was the same place that Abraham built the altar upon which he sacrificed Isaac, and it was the same place which Noach built an altar when he left the ark, and that was the altar which Cain and Abel sacrificed upon, and Adam brought a sacrifice there when he was created…and he was created there. The Rabbis say man was created from the place of his ‘kapara’, atonement.”


This Rambam raises numerous questions:

1. Most of the sacrifices he lists were not done for forgiveness (The Akeda of Isaac was a trial, and Cain and Abel were showing gratitude.).  So what does Rambam mean that, “man was created from the place of his ‘kapara’, atonement”?

2. Why was man created from this place, the place of his “kapara”? What does this teach?

3. What is the significance of these individuals building their altars in the “same place”?

4. What is the significance of these specific, historical examples?

5. What is ‘history’ doing in a law book?


To begin, let us define “kapara”. Kapara – or atonement – means to say that a person can relate to God, even though he is inherently a lowly being. This is an astonishing thing, as King David states (Psalms 8:5) “Ma Enosh Ki Tizkerenu?”, “What is man that You shall be mindful of him?” Man should be trapped in his mundane activities, unable to reach the metaphysical.[1] When a person offers a sacrifice, he is recognizing his state, and the ability to bring himself to closeness with God. This explains the Rabbis’ statement: “Mimakom kaparato Nivra”, “From the pace of his atonement was man created.”  It was essential to man’s creation, that there was the capacity to relate to God. If the means of attaining closeness to God was not specifically set up in his creation, man would be unable to create such a relationship; man’s existence would be worthless.

This is why all of these individuals built their altar in the same place. They all desired their sacrifice to reflect the idea that a person’s ability to relate to God is only due to God’s kindness in endowing man with that capability.

The events the Rambam lists were not merely personal sacrifices. Rather, each one of these sacrifices marked the beginning of a new period in human existence. At the beginning of each period, the person brought a sacrifice to express the fact that the nature of this existence is one of “kapara”.[2]

Adam brought a sacrifice at the first moment of human existence (even before man ever sinned). Cain and Abel (Adam’s sons) brought a sacrifice from the fruit of their labor, which was the new state of man’s existence due to Adam’s punishment. Noach brought a sacrifice at the beginning of a new period of man. God recreated the world through Noach (albeit with lesser lifespans) after man was worthy of destruction. At the Akeida, Abraham was initializing a new framework for man to operate in. Since most of man had turned to idol worship, God selected Abraham to be the progenitor of a nation whose role is to perfect the world: in contrast to the original plan, which was for the whole world to reach perfection on their own.

Each of these individuals brought a sacrifice to demonstrate that even though man is at a lower level of existence, the foundation of man’s existence must be a relationship with God (through whichever framework is currently at his disposal). This relationship is demonstrated via sacrifice.

King David knew this idea and therefore he chose this place for the altar for all generations. He desired every person who brought a sacrifice to recognize the idea of “kapara”, which is the essence of sacrifice.

What about Rambam’s insertion of history, into a law book? The Rambam placed history in a book of law in order to show that there is an entity of altar outside of the framework of Temple. The place of the altar does not stem from its identity as a vessel of the Temple, and has no designated place in the Temple’s Courtyard (like the Menora in the Heichal). Rather, that the idea of altar – sacrifice – exists in its own right, as the place of man’s “kapara”. The Rambam teaches this by including the entire history of the “Makom kapara” (place of atonement) in his definition of the “Makom kapara”, “place of the altar”.

[1] “Kapara” in the forgiveness sense means the same thing; namely that even though the person sinned and should be permanently distant due to his low level. When he does teshuva God allows the relationship to be reestablished.

[2] In other words, as mankind began a new epoch in his existence, (viz, Adam upon his Creation, Noach after the Flood, etc) this new era demarcating man’s ‘renewed existence’ demanded the characterization of man’s inherent need for atonement. Man, without the notion of atonement, is a flawed view of man.