Private Altars after Building the Mikdash?
Melakhim I 18 describes the contest between Eliyahu and the Baal Prophets at Mt. Carmel, designed to prove to the nation that only Hashem is the true God. After the false prophets offer a sacrifice to the Baal but fail to elicit a response, Eliyahu prepares his offering. His first step is to build an altar:
(ל) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלִיָּהוּ לְכׇל הָעָם גְּשׁוּ אֵלַי וַיִּגְּשׁוּ כׇל הָעָם אֵלָיו וַיְרַפֵּא אֶת מִזְבַּח י"י הֶהָרוּס. (לא) וַיִּקַּח אֵלִיָּהוּ שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה אֲבָנִים כְּמִסְפַּר שִׁבְטֵי בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר הָיָה דְבַר י"י אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ. (לב) וַיִּבְנֶה אֶת הָאֲבָנִים מִזְבֵּחַ בְּשֵׁם י"י וַיַּעַשׂ תְּעָלָה כְּבֵית סָאתַיִם זֶרַע סָבִיב לַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
(30) And Elijah said unto all the people: 'Come near unto me'; and all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was thrown down. (31) And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying: 'Israel shall be thy name.' (32) And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord; and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.
The verses suggest that Eliyahu did not build his altar from scratch, but rather fixed a preexisting one which had been ruined ("מִזְבַּח י"י הֶהָרוּס"). Why, though, was there a private altar for Hashem on Mt. Carmel, if such altars were prohibited after the building of the Beit HaMikdash?1 What does its presence suggest about the people's observance of Torah law and their relationship to Hashem? Finally, how could Eliyahu himself engage in such a prohibited activity?
- "מִזְבַּח י"י הֶהָרוּס" – Why, and by whom, had the altar been destroyed? Did this occur long before our story or only more recently?
- "אֶת מִזְבְּחֹתֶיךָ הָרָסוּ" – How does Eliyahu's later complaint in Melakhim I 19:10 regarding the nation's destroying of Hashem's altars relate to the presence of this broken one on Mt. Carmel?
- Repair or build? While verse 30 explicitly states that Eliyahu repaired a destroyed altar, his gathering of stones and the language of "וַיִּבְנֶה אֶת הָאֲבָנִים מִזְבֵּחַ" in verse 32 might suggest that Eliyahu constructed a new one. How should the seemingly contradictory verses be reconciled?
- "וַיְפַסְּחוּ עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה" – Earlier in the story, when describing the Baal prophets' attempts to call on their god, we are told that they danced or trod ("וַיְפַסְּחוּ") on "the altar that he built" ("אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה"). Should not the verse have read "אשר עשו" in plural? Does the verse refer to the altar built by the prophets or by someone else?