Why Our Sanctuaries Remain Pure

The conclusion of the tractate of Chagigah and the entire Order of Mo’ed (Festivals) records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages as to why the Golden Altar and the Copper Altar of the Sanctuary1 were not susceptible to ritual impurity.

Rabbi Eliezer explains that the altars are considered as earth.2 Just as earth cannot contract ritual impurity, so too, these altars. Our Sages, by contrast, state that the reason is that the gold or copper coverings were merely an overlay. As such, they were subordinate to (and considered an extension of) the altars’ inner material, which was not susceptible to ritual impurity.3

The Torah, which was given by an infinite G‑d, is itself infinite. Its lessons are equally relevant at all times and in all places. It has the same strength now, in the darkness of exile, as when it was given to Moshe on Mount Sinai.

One hallmark of the Torah’s infinity is that every concept in it has endless interpretations. In general, these are divided into four categories: pshat the simple meaning, remez an extended meaning or allusion, derush a homily, and sod the underlying mystic concept.4

An allusion derived from the teaching mentioned above provides us with lessons relevant to our daily lives, for in his own place, every person serves as a “sanctuary in microcosm” in which the Divine Presence rests.

There were several sacred articles in the Sanctuary and the Beis HaMikdash. Similarly, within our individual “sanctuaries” there are “sacred articles”: our intellect, our feelings, and the like. In these matters, there is the possibility for “ritual impurity;” selfish intent, secular influence, or an unholy thought may creep in. There is even the possibility of sin, doing the opposite of G‑d’s will, and acting in conflict with the directives of the Torah and its mitzvos.

Continuing the analogy, sin makes a person’s “sacred articles” his thoughts or feelings impure. It thus becomes necessary to devise a means whereby that “sacred article” can be returned to G‑d’s sanctuary. For G‑d’s sanctuary every Jewish man, woman, and child must be pure.

With regard to material matters, and similarly with regard to spiritual potential, mankind is divided into the rich and the poor. Gold serves as an analogy for the rich,5 while the poor are associated with copper.6

The core of every Jew’s Jewishness, the pintele Yid, remains intact, regardless of the inner or outer dimensions of his personality. And this aspect of his being has one desire: to fulfill G‑d’s will. As my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, would say:7 “No Jew desires to nor can he sever his bond with G‑d.”

Accordingly, every Jew can be considered an altar for G‑d. For what is an altar? A place where one slaughters one’s yetzer hora and brings a sacrifice for G‑d.

This concept is relevant to all Jews: both the rich (who can be compared to the Golden Altar), and the poor (who are likened to the Copper Altar). The true desire of every one is to slaughter the yetzer hora and fulfill G‑d’s will.

As mentioned, the altars are not susceptible to ritual impurity. The two rationales given can also be interpreted in the context of our Divine service. The first rationale holds that the altars are considered like the earth. This refers to the quality of humility, as we say in our prayers:8 “May my soul be as dust to all.” Just as everyone treads on the earth, so too a humble person has no self-concern, and no desire other than to fulfill G‑d’s will as expressed in the Torah and its mitzvos.

This is the rationale taught by Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenus. Rabbi Eliezer was referred to as “Rabbi Eliezer the Great,” and was considered “equivalent to all the other Sages of Israel.”9 Nevertheless, he remained so humble that he “never mentioned a teaching that [he] had not heard from [his] teachers.”10

This approach enabled him to see the inner dimension of every Jew’s character, appreciating the level of which it is said:11 “Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are all one,” i.e., a Jew’s entire life consists of the observance of Torah and mitzvos. Rabbi Eliezer taught his students that intellect and bittul (self-transcendence) are not opposites, and indeed complement each other, as reflected in his own Divine service: “never mention[ing] a teaching that [he] had not heard from [his] teachers.”

The Sages offer a second rationale, for they feel that Rabbi Eliezer’s approach is too difficult for the general public. They instead thought about a Jew’s external dimension. For it may happen that a person will stumble within his path of Divine service. This is particularly true with regard to a Jew who can be compared to a Golden Altar. Since he is involved with matters concerning gold, he may be distracted, and for a brief time may ignore the fulfillment of G‑d’s will. Similarly, a Jew who can be compared to a Copper Altar may be confronted by financial straits that cause him to violate G‑d’s will. Nevertheless, our Sages maintain that these occasional transgressions cause neither the rich Jew nor the poor Jew to become impure.

The reasoning is that both the gold and the copper are superficial coverings. The inner dimension of every Jew remains immune to impurity. Moreover, this inner dimension is so powerful that the external dimension becomes subordinate to it. In other words: every person will ultimately turn to G‑d in teshuvah and appreciate the Truth. He will grasp that a Jew’s life is solely G‑dliness, and that this G‑dliness can be tapped only through the study of the Torah, and observance of the mitzvos.

Moreover, such conduct is the medium which enables us to receive the blessings which G‑d promises, as it is written:


In contrast, the Altars are associated with the middle vector (see also Likkutei Torah, Bamidbar, p. 51a and 60a), and the middle vector “ascends to the inner dimensions of Kesser. ”

This also relates to the Ark, located in the Holy of Holies, which contained the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. The ark was entombed because it is not possible that gentiles would attain power over it.

Nevertheless, a reason must be given why the altars cannot contract impurity. For although they are represented by the middle vector, they are represented by attributes which are limited in nature.

The reason given by Rabbi Eliezer is that they are considered like earth, i.e., they reflect the utter selflessness that characterizes the quality of Kesser (Hosafos l’Torah Or, the beginning of Megillas Esther). There is indeed an explicit verse which identifies the external altar with earth, as it is written: “You shall make an altar of earth for Me.” This is stated explicitly only with regard to the external altar, the level of Malchus, because “the end is rooted at the beginning, and the beginning at the end (Sefer Yetzirah 1:7).” Therefore, in the destruction of the vessels of the World of Tohu, “the earth (alone) became nullified.”

With regard to the altars themselves, the inner altar is identified with Tiferes d’Zaer Anpin, and is thus considered “rich” when compared to the external altar identified with Malchus, of which it is said (Zohar I, 33b): “It has nothing of its own.”

The reason that the altars did not require tevilah (טבילה), which is identified [Siddur Im Dach, p. 159d] with bittul (הביטול), is because they themselves are expressions of bittul. Two reasons are given for this: they are considered like earth, and their surface is subordinate to their inner substance.

Rabbi Eliezer refers to the essence of G‑d, as reflected by the association (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:7) of his name with the verse (Shmos 18:4): אלה-י אבי בעזרי “The G‑d of my father provided assistance for me.” He is called “the Great,” and it is said (Megillah 31a): “In the place of His greatness, there you find His humility.” While looking at the external dimensions of existence, he was able to perceive the inner dimension. Thus the fact that the external substance of the altar was subservient to its inner substance was not significant for him, so he gave another rationale. For according to his conception, the external substance was always batel, for “There is nothing, [but Him] (Devarim 4:39, see the explanation in Tanya, Shaar HaYichud, ch. 6).”

The Sages differ, and the halachah follows their opinion, for “[Torah law] is not in the heavens (cf. Devarim 30:12),” but rather is determined according to the principles which prevail within the spiritual cosmos (Seder HaHishtalshelus). On this level, the external surface of the altar could be susceptible to ritual impurity, except that since it is batel to its inner substance, it is not. This is not the place for further elaboration concerning this matter.

“And if you walk in My statutes and observe My commandments… the land will provide its yield, and the trees of the field will give their fruit.”

(Adapted from a letter, 15 MarCheshvan, 5711)