The Precise Location of the Altar

It is possible to explain the Rambam’s intent in the first two halachos of the second chapter of Hilchos Beis HaBechirah1 as fol­lows: In the first halachah, the Rambam emphasizes that the location of the altar must be on Mount Moriah, for this is the place where Yitzchak was pre­pared to be sacrificed.

Afterwards, the Rambam seeks to support his statement: “The altar [is to be constructed] in a very precise location; it may never be changed.” This implies that there is an emphasis, not only on Mount Moriah as a whole as the site of the altar, but that the altar be constructed on a particularly precise loca­tion on Mount Moriah. As evidence for the unique importance of this location, the Rambam points to the “universally accepted tradition” that Adam, Cayin, Hevel, and Noach all offered sac­rifices on this exact site.2 Significantly, a requirement for such a specific location is not found in regard to any other dimensions of the structure of the Beis HaMikdash.3

Sacrifices: The Purpose of the Beis HaMikdash

There is a slight difficulty with this conception: In the first halachah, the Rambam re­lates how “Yitzchak... was prepared to be sacrificed on [the fu­ture site of the Beis] HaMikdash.” If the halachah concerns the place of the altar, why does the Rambam refer to the Beis HaMikdash as a whole4 and not to the altar in particular?

It can, however, be explained that in doing so, the Rambam is referring to the central role the altar played in regard to the Beis HaMikdash as a whole. For the Rambam sees the sacrificial worship performed on the altar as a fundamental purpose of the Beis HaMikdash. Indeed, he defines5 the mitzvah of building the Beis HaMikdash, as to “make a house for service where sacrifices will be offered.”6

In the second halachah, by contrast, the Rambam speaks of the altar’s site alone. For in this halachah, the emphasis is on the altar, not as the central focus of the entire Beis HaMikdash, but as an individual entity in its own right.

The Beis HaMikdash, a Sanctuary for Israel; the Altar, a Center of Worship for All Mankind

On this basis, we can ap­preciate why in the first ha­lachah, the Rambam men­tions only the preparation of Yitzchak as a sacrifice and not the other historical points he cites in the sec­ond. For the fun­damental aspect of the Beis HaMikdash — that of a dwelling for G‑d established through man’s service — is relevant only to the descendants of Yitzchak.

In the second halachah, by contrast, the Rambam also men­tions the sacrifices of Noach, Cayin and Hevel, and Adam, for the concept of offering sacrifices to G‑d is relevant to all man­kind.7 Indeed, as the Rambam continues, Adam was created from this spot to emphasize how, from the very beginning of man’s creation, G‑d had selected this as the place for him and all of his descendants to secure atonement.

The above explanation enables us to appreciate several unique nuances in the wording employed by the Rambam: In the first halachah, the Rambam mentions “Yitzchak our Patriarch,” focusing on Yitzchak as father of the Jewish people. Because the content of the second halachah refers to mankind as a whole, when it mentions Avraham and Yitzchak, it does not use such a modifier. Similarly, the second halachah refers to the “universally accepted tradition” regarding the holiness of the altar’s pointing to the reverence with which the site was re­garded, not only by the Jewish people, but by all mankind.

The Contribution of Avraham and the Contribution of Yitzchak

Developing the above con­cepts, we can understand why in the first halachah the Ram­bam refers to the site where “Yitzchak our Patriarch was prepared to be sacrificed,” while in the second halachah, he mentions “the location on which Avra­ham built the altar on which he prepared Yitzchak for sacrifice.” There are two fun­damental differences between these two phrases: In the first halachah, Yitzchak is mentioned and not Avraham, and a passive verb is used. The second halachah, by contrast, although it mentions both Avraham and Yitzchak, puts the emphasis on Avraham, and it uses active verbs.

The first halachah which is associated with the Beis HaMik­dash as a whole highlights the preparation of Yitzchak as a sacri­fice, because when Yitzchak was prepared as a sacrifice, his per­son became sanctified.8 This process of sanctification, in turn, conveyed holiness upon Mount Moriah as a whole, preparing it to be the site of the Beis HaMikdash.9 This sanctity was, how­ever, conveyed to the place by G‑d, and thus the preparation of Yitzchak was merely a catalyst, and not in itself a direct cause. Therefore, the Rambam employs a passive form.

The second halachah, by contrast, focuses on the site of the altar in particular, showing how Avraham and Yitzchak came to a place that was holy by nature — and not by virtue of their activities — for the sake of performing their spiritual service. It uses an active verb to indicate how Avraham — the active par­ticipant in the binding of Yitzchak — recognized and utilized the holiness which G‑d had already invested within the site.

This conception is further reflected by the fact that in the first halachah, the Rambam quotes a prooftext: “Go to the land of Moriah,”10 while he does not do so in the second halachah. In the first halachah, a prooftext is necessary, because the Rambam must show how the sanctification of Mount Moriah as the site of the Beis HaMikdash came about through G‑d’s direct com­mand. In the second halachah, he need not bring a prooftext, for the holiness of the site of the altar had been established from creation.

The Manifestation of the Divine Presence, Holiness that Surpasses All Human Service

The distinction of the Beis HaMikdash is not merely that it is a place for sacrifice, but that it is “a house for G‑d,” in which His presence is mani­fest.11 This dimension is related to Yitzchak who became sancti­fied as an offering, i.e., was infused with a holiness that tran­scended his individual existence. Hence, when speaking of the Beis HaMikdash as a whole, the Rambam refers to Yitzchak.

When, however, referring to the altar — and thus to the spiritual service of offering sacrifices — the Rambam places the emphasis on the service of Avraham. For although Yitzchak willingly offered his life as a sacrifice, the binding of Yitzchak is considered as primarily a challenge of Avraham’s devotion. For he was aware of the nature of the command from the moment it was given — as opposed to Yitzchak, who became aware of it only while ascending Mount Moriah. Moreover, Avraham had to overcome the natural feelings of a father’s love for his son, and this is a more severe challenge than offering one’s own life.

* * *

Our Rabbis associate12 the First Beis HaMikdash with Avra­ham, the Second Beis HaMikdash with Yitzchak, and the Third Beis HaMikdash, to be built in the Era of the Redemption, with Yaakov, in whose person the services of both Avraham and Yitzchak were combined and synthesized. This synthesis reflects an infinite Divine influence. Similarly, the Third Beis HaMik­dash will reflect infinite G‑dliness, for it will be an eternal struc­ture.

May we merit the coming of the Redemption and the con­struction of the Beis HaMikdash. And then we will offer sacri­fices on the altar which will be built on its original location. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Parshas Terumah 5750