The tractate of Chagigah (lit. "festivity") details the laws of the biblically mandated thrice-yearly pilgrimage to the Holy Temple—on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The tractate also discusses at length the sacrifices offered on these occasions and the requisite ritual purification necessary to enter the Temple and partake of the sacrifices.

Nevertheless, as a precaution, after the conclusion of the festival all the utensils in the Temple were immersed in a mikvah (ritual pool) in the event that they were handled by an impure pilgrim (many of whom were not proficient in the abstruse laws of ritual purity).

The final Mishnah of the tractate explains that the altars were an exception to this rule—they did require immersion after the festival.


Rabbi Eliezer explains, "Because they are akin to earth." Rabbi Eliezer is alluding to the verse (Exodus 20:21) that refers to the altar as an "altar of earth"—and earth is not susceptible to ritual impurity.

The Sages say, "Because they are plated [with copper or gold]."

The Talmud seeks to understand the intent of the Sages' statement. For to the contrary, the fact that the altars were plated with metal is reason why they should be susceptible to impurity. The laws of purity dictate that a large stationary wooden utensil can not contract impurity, whereas metal is highly susceptible to impurity.

The Talmud offers two possible explanations:

a) The Mishnah should read: "And the Sages say that [the altars] are impure, because they are plated."

b) The Sages' statement is only part of their retort to Rabbi Eliezer: You, Rabbi Eliezer, maintain that the altars are essentially susceptible to impurity "because they are plated," and the only reason why they remain pure is because of the biblical reference to an "altar of earth." In truth, however, there is no need to resort to this biblical inference, for the metal plating is considered merely an appendage to the actual wooden utensil.

On the subject of the altar, the Talmud continues:

Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer: The fire of Purgatory has no dominion over Torah scholars. We learn this from the fire salamander, a creature born from fire, whose blood protects against fire an individual who coats his skin with it. The Torah scholar, whose entire being is fire – as is stated (Jeremiah 23:29), "'Is not My word like fire?' says G‑d" – how much more so is he protected against fire!

Reish Lakish said: The fire of Purgatory has no dominion over [even] the sinners amongst Israel. We learn this from the Golden Altar, which was constructed of wood with but a thin gold plating, but (miraculously) wasn't burnt despite years of fire burning atop it. The sinners of Israel are full of (i.e. "coated by") mitzvot like a pomegranate is full of seeds. As is stated (Song of Songs 4:29) "Your arid fields (Hebrew: רקתך) are as a pomegranate orchard." The word רקתך can also be interpreted as רקנין שֶׁבָּךְ—the "empty ones amongst you." How much more so are they protected against fire!