“The Altar for the Burnt Offerings of Israel

After defining the guide­lines pertinent to the con­struction of the Beis HaMikdash as a whole in the first chapter of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah, the Rambam devotes the second chapter to the description of the altar. He begins with two halachos re­ferring to the altar’s site:

1. The altar [is to be constructed] in a very precise loca­tion; it may never be changed; as it is written,1 “This is the altar for the burnt offerings of Israel.”

Yitzchak our Patriarch was prepared to be sacrificed on [the future site of the Beis] HaMikdash; as it is written,2 “Go to the land of Moriah,” and it is written in Divrei HaYomim:3 “And Shlomo began building G‑d’s house in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah, where [G‑d] appeared to David his father, in the place where David prepared on the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite.”

2. It is universally accepted that the site on which David and Solomon built the altar on the threshing floor of Ornan, is the location on which Avraham built the altar on which he prepared Yitzchak for sacrifice.

On this location, Noach built [an altar] when he emerged from the ark. On this location, Cayin and Hevel offered [their] sacrifices. And Adam, the first man, offered a sacrifice on this location after he was cre­ated. [Indeed,] he was created from this very spot; as our Sages said,4 “Adam was created from the place from which he [would be granted] atonement.”

The Selection of the Site of the Altar for G‑d’s Chosen House

The commentaries5 have raised questions concerning the Rambam’s statements, for they seem to imply that the site of the altar was chosen because of the holiness imparted to it by the spiritual devotion of Avraham and Yitzchak and by the sac­rifices offered there previously. This is difficult to accept, be­cause the Rambam refers to the Beis HaMikdash as Beis Ha­Bechirah, “[G‑d’s] Chosen House,” and indeed, uses that term as the title for his collection of laws describing that structure.6

G‑d’s choice is utterly free and independent, and therefore, cannot be influenced by any external factors. To explain: In the human realm, when a decision is made because of reasons, those reasons “force,” as it were, the person to make his decision. In­deed, the intellectual appreciation of the propriety of a given course of action is a far more powerful source of compulsion than mere physical might.

Similar concepts apply in regard to G‑d’s choice. It does not come as a response to the virtues possessed by the chosen entity, nor does that entity’s lack of virtue obstruct that choice. Instead, G‑d’s choice is solely a function of His own initiative.

To apply these concepts to the choice of the site of the Beis HaMikdash: G‑d’s selection of a place for His presence to be manifest cannot come as a result of reasons. To refer to the wording used by the Torah:7 He “caused His presence to dwell,” in a particular location only because, as the verse states previously, “He chose” to do so.

The same concepts apply to the selection of the site of the altar. Indeed, the prooftext employed by the Rambam8 to dem­onstrate G‑d’s choice of the site of the Beis HaMikdash1 — “This is the house of G‑d, the L‑rd, and this is the altar for the burnt offerings of Israel” — mentions specifically, the choice not only of the site of the Beis HaMikdash as a whole, but also of the site of the altar in particular.9 And significantly, it is to this verse that the Rambam refers at the beginning of the second chapter of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah when discussing the site of the altar. Therefore, by mentioning the different services which estab­lished the holiness of the site of the altar, the Rambam diverts our focus from the fact that it was G‑d’s choice that established the eternal sanctity of the altar’s site.

The connection of the concept of free choice to the selection of the site of the altar is also indicated by our Sages’ statement:10 “Until Jerusalem was chosen, Eretz Yisrael in its entirety was fit for altars to be constructed.” This implies that, in essence, there was no particular virtue possessed by Jerusalem in regard to the construction of an altar for G‑d.

Sacrifices in Anticipation of the Future

The emphasis on G‑d’s choice does not, however, rep­resent a contradiction to the Rambam’s mention of the his­torical back­ground of the altar’s site. Indeed, the mention of the different sacrifices can be seen as a corroboration of the above concepts.

Why did Avraham,11 Noach, Cayin and Hevel, and Adam offer sacrifices on the altar’s site? Because in their prophetic vi­sion, they knew that G‑d would ultimately choose this loca­tion as the place for sacrificial worship. Therefore, in anticipa­tion of this choice, they offered their sacrifices in the place where G‑d would ultimately accept the offerings of the Jewish peo­ple.12 Thus it was not their worship that caused the site to be­come holy; the converse was true. Their worship was inspired by the holiness to be conveyed on the site in the future.

Why the Rambam refers to the Sacrifices brought in the Past

One might, however, ask: Why does the Rambam cite these points of history? The Mishneh Torah is a text of ha­lachah, and halachah alone. In contrast to the Talmud which mentions many points of history, theology, mysticism, and eth­ics, the Rambam includes such concepts in the Mishneh Torah only when they also serve as halachos, directives for our actual conduct.

It can be explained that, in the instance at hand, the Rambam cites these points of history as support for the second point he makes concerning the altar’s location, that “it may never be changed.” To refer to a related issue: In Hilchos Mela­chim,13 the Rambam writes that the crown of royalty was given eternally to King David. This does not, however, preclude the possibility of a prophet appointing a king from another tribe and for that king’s sovereignty to be valid according to the Torah. Similarly, it is possible to offer the hypothesis that although Mount Moriah was chosen as the site for the altar, a different site might be chosen in the future.

Indeed, there has been a change of location in regard to the resting place for G‑d’s presence. For 369 years, the Divine Presence rested in Shiloh and it was referred to as “the place which G‑d chose.”14 Afterwards, however, that holiness departed. What prevents us from saying that there could be a similar change in G‑d’s intent in regard to Jerusalem?

The Rambam replies to this question by citing the examples of the righteous men who offered sacrifices in this place before the Beis HaMikdash was constructed. Were this not to become the ultimate resting place for the Divine Presence, these men would not have sought to build their altars there.

Complementing G‑d’s Choice through Man’s Service

There is a deeper dimen­sion to the Rambam’s state­ments. Just as holiness is not a criterion for the choice of a place for G‑d’s presence to be manifest, it does not represent a contra­diction. On the con­trary, the two qualities can be com­bined and, indeed, doing so produces an advantage.

To explain: Holiness refers to a limited dimension of sanctity which man can impart to an entity through his service. G‑d’s choice, by contrast, endows the chosen entity with the unlimited sanctity that emanates from Him. Nevertheless, His choice can be complemented by the holiness that man generates through his service. For the sanctity that emanates from G‑d’s choice does not relate to the entity as it exists within the context of worldly experience. It is — to borrow chassidic terminology — an encompassing light, that elevates the entity from above. Through his service, man generates holiness that permeates even the worldly dimensions of the entity in question.15

In these two halachos, the Rambam demonstrates how the site of the altar possesses both of these positive dimensions. In the first halachah, he quotes prooftexts which indicate that this is the site chosen by G‑d. In the second halachah, he illustrates how this location was elevated by righteous men through their sacrifices.

The Site of the Beis HaMikdash in the Era of the Redemption

The exact location of the Beis HaMikdash and the altar are significant in the present age; as the Rambam writes:16 “The sanctity of the [Beis Ha]Mikdash and of Jerusalem ema­nates from the Divine Presence and the Divine Presence can never be nul­lified.”

Moreover, these locations will become increasingly signifi­cant in the near future, for one of the Rambam’s stipulations17 concerning the establishment of the identity of the Mashiach is that he will “build the [Beis Ha]Mikdash on its place.” For as mentioned at the outset, “This is the altar for the burnt offer­ings of Israel,” and will be so forever.

May we and the entire Jewish people ascend together to Eretz Yisrael, to Jerusalem, and to the Beis HaMikdash, happily celebrating the ultimate Redemption and offering sacrifices on the altar. And may this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XIX, Parshas Re’eh