Altar Options

In this week’s parashah, Yitro, we read the famous 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14).  Witnessing the thunder and lightening atop Mount Sinai was enough for the Israelites to ask Moses to speak to them in God’s stead.  Moses reassured the people not to be afraid, for God was only testing them that they not go astray  (Ex 20:15-17).

When Moses approached God again, God spoke to him with the instructions regulating proper worship.  These included such things as (1) do not make gods of silver or gold; (2) make an altar, upon which to offer sacrifices; and (3) do not ascend said altar lest one unwittingly expose one’s genitals (Ex 20:19-23).

Curiously, these regulations are not without some wiggle room.  One can make the altar out of earth (mizbeaḥ adamah) (v. 21), or it can be made of stones (mizbeaḥ avanim) (v. 22).  If one opts to use stones, they should be unhewn, untouched by tools.  The reason for this is that the very act of wielding tools against them renders them profane, they’d become no longer adequate for the altar’s holy work (v. 22).

This set of instructions regards altars made “in every place (b’chol-hamakom) where I [God] cause My name to be mentioned” (v. 21).  That is, altar-based worship of God would occur in multiple locations.  And while there are limits to what that kind of worship might look like (no gods of metal, for example), the local people are given the freedom to choose the specifics of their altar: they may choose to make it an earthen or a stone altar.

In short, diversity, at least in worship infrastructure, is both expected and respected; note that this this teaching abuts the 10 Commandments!  Israelites are not bidden to worship the exact same way in all places.  Auspicious, then, that the modern state of Israel has just now permitted diversity of worship at the Kotel.

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