When Were Private Altars Prohibited?

Exegetical Approaches


Exegetes differ in their understanding of the scope of the ban on private altars in the land of Israel. Some view it as a direct continuation of the similar prohibition in the wilderness which was integrally related to the struggle against idolatry. Thus, the students of R. Yishmael maintain that the injunction began immediately after the construction of the Mishkan and never ceased except for a brief period during which the Tabernacle did not exist or was inaccessible. R. Shimon b. Yochai, in contrast, suggests that the original proscription was limited to the circumstances in the wilderness and was discontinued upon entry into the Land of Israel. He suggests that the prohibition was renewed only much later, when the Beit HaMikdash was built, as Hashem's choosing of a permanent home precluded worship elsewhere. Finally, the majority opinion in Chazal (and of many commentators in their wake) distinguishes between the peaceful eras of Shiloh and Yerushalayim and the unrestful periods of Gilgal, Nov, and Givon. It maintains that centralization of worship could be expected of the nation only when they were living in relative security and could travel freely.

Immediately After the Conquest

Altars for individual sacrifice were permanently prohibited as soon as the Israelites inherited the land of Israel in the time of Yehoshua.

Where is Hashem's "chosen place"? According to this approach, the term "‏הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה'‏" refers to any site which Hashem selected, even if only temporarily. Thus, in addition to the Mikdash in Yerushalayim, it also includes almost all of the sites in which the Tabernacle was erected, i.e. Shiloh, Nov, and Givon.3
Why is the "chosen place" not named? Since different sites merited chosen status at varying times, the place could not be named.4
Reason for prohibition These sources do not address the issue directly, but they could maintain that its purpose was to either:
  • Prevent idolatry – This position might connect the prohibition to the practice's similarity to idolatrous worship.5 If so, it is only logical that there should be no significant periods of permissibility.6
  • Limit sacrifices to Hashem's dwelling – Alternatively, this approach might posit that the establishment of the Tabernacle itself precluded worship outside of its domain, and the ban began with its completion and continued thereafter.7
Multiple mentions of the obligation – This approach would likely assert that the repetition in Devarim 12 is for emphasis or other literary reasons.8
"אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה"
  • Site of Shiloh – R. Yishmael's school asserts that both terms refer to the city Shiloh, the site in which the nation rested ("הַמְּנוּחָה") after the conquest and in which the inheritances ("הַנַּחֲלָה") were given out.
  • Era of Peace – According to Yefet, the terms do not refer to a specific place but to the era of peace and inheritance which commenced following the conquest.9
"וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכׇּל אֹיְבֵיכֶם... וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח" – Yefet maintains that the enemy mentioned refers to the seven nations. The security is the status that was achieved after the wars of conquest. As proof, he points to the parallel verse of Yehoshua 21:42.10
"וַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן" – This position would suggest that the verse is emphasizing that the prohibition applied almost immediately upon entry into the land.
"אִישׁ כׇּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו" – According to Yefet, this phrase does not relate to the laws of private altars at all,11 but rather to other commandments that were not observed during the forty years in the wilderness due to their status as "commandments that are conditional upon the Land of Israel". Thus, in the wilderness, the people were not obligated to bring tithes and firstborns or to make pilgrimages; all they brought to the Tabernacle were voluntary offerings ("אִישׁ כׇּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו"). This is in contrast to the list of offerings mentioned in verse 6 which were expected of them in the Land of Israel.12
The altar of the 2½ tribes in Yehoshua 22 – The nation's anger at the 2½ tribes for setting up an alternate altar may lend support to the possibility that such private altars were already prohibited immediately after the conquest.13
Private altars throughout Neviim
  • הוראת שעה – The Bavli explicitly discusses only the case of Manoach, suggesting that he was acting in accordance with a one time command (הוראת שעה)‎14 which overrode the prohibition against private altars. This position would likely maintain that all the other cases of private altars were similarly mandated by Hashem as one time exceptions to the rule.15
  • Special dispensations in Hashem's presence – Yefet suggests that the ban on private altars had several general exceptions which are derived from Shemot 20:20.16 He interprets the verse stating that one can build a stone or earthen altar "בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי" ("in any place where I will mention My name") to refer to any of the following three cases:
    1. Any site in which there was a direct command to sacrifice.17
    2. Any place in which God's presence or an angel appears.18
    3. Any site where the Ark or another vessel from the Tabernacle or Temple is present.19
Altars of earth in Shemot 20 – R. Yishmael's school would likely suggest that the verse refers to the altar of the Tabernacle and is unrelated to permitting private altars. See Altars of Earth, Stone, and Wood for elaboration. According to Yefet, in contrast, this verse points to the specific instances in which one is allowed to build private altars despite the general prohibition.

Only Once the Beit HaMikdash was Built

Private altars were completely permitted until the period of the monarchy. Only with the building of the Beit HaMikdash were they no longer allowed.

Where is Hashem's "chosen place"? The term "‏הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה'‏" refers only to Hashem's ultimate choice20 and thus applies to the site of the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim exclusively.
Why is the "chosen place" not named? RambamMoreh HaNevukhim 3:45About R. Moshe Maimonides suggests that even though it was known already to Moshe that Yerushalayim was Hashem's chosen abode,21 the site was not named so that other nations would not wage wars over it or destroy it, and so that the various tribes would not fight over who would inherit it. Alternatively, one might simply posit that Yerushalayim had not been chosen yet, and it was only in the time of David that it was selected and sanctified.22
Reason for prohibition – This position might posit that it was the selection of a permanent site for Hashem's dwelling in the form of the Beit HaMikdash that created a need for exclusivity.23 Once Hashem chose an eternal abode, it would be disrespectful to worship elsewhere.24 According to this position, the peace and security mentioned in the verses are not the reason for the prohibition, but simply define the period in which Hashem would choose His permanent home.25
Multiple mentions of the obligation – This position would likely assert, as above, that the repetition is connected to literary concerns and does not connote any difference in obligation during different eras.
"אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה" – Both terms refer to Yerushalayim. The Bavli explains that the city is so described because it is an eternal inheritance and the resting place of the ark. Alternatively, the phrase is parallel to verse 10 and simply connotes an era of security.26
"וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכׇּל אֹיְבֵיכֶם... וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח" – According to this position, this peace was first achieved in the time of David and Shelomo and is attested to by the linguistically identical description of David's era as a time in which "וַה' הֵנִיחַ לוֹ מִסָּבִיב מִכָּל אֹיְבָיו"‎.27 After Yehoshua's conquest, in contrast, the nation was still beleaguered by war, as seen in the constant battles during the era of the Judges.
"וַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן" – As the Mikdash was built only many years after crossing the Jordan, this position might assert that the initial plan was to choose the site and build the Mikdash soon after entry, but due to sins or other circumstances, the choice and building were delayed.
The altar of the 2½ tribes – If altars were permitted until the Temple was constructed, it is difficult to understand why, in the time of Yehoshua, the nation was angered that the 2½ tribes built an altar "מִבַּלְעֲדֵי מִזְבַּח ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ". This approach would need to argue that the nation was concerned, not about the technical legality of the deed, but rather because it appeared to be a divisive act of rebellion against Hashem and the rest of the nation.
Private altars throughout Neviim – Since this position asserts that such altars were permitted until the reign of Shelomo, the altars built in prior eras were not problematic.28
Altar of Eliyahu – This approach might suggest that Eliyahu, who lived after the ban was in effect, was acting in accordance with a special one time command.29
Altars of earth in Shemot 20 – This position could easily explain that the verses in Shemot refer to the era prior to the building of the Beit HaMikdash.

Intermittent Periods

Private altars were prohibited both when the Mishkan was in Shiloh and after the Beit HaMikdash was established, but were permitted during the conquest and while the Mishkan was located in Nov and Givon.

Where is Hashem's "chosen place"? Many of these sources do not explicitly address the meaning of "‏הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה'‏", but most would likely maintain that it refers to both Shiloh and Yerushalayim.30 R. D"Z Hoffmann asserts that the phrase does not refer to any specific place31 and might have initially encompassed only the first chosen location of Shiloh.32
Why is the "‏הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה'‏" not named? As the term ultimately referred to more than one location, the name of any particular place could not be specified.33
Reason for prohibition and what distinguished Shiloh and Yerushalayim? This approach can adopt any of the following options:
  • Presence of a complete Tabernacle – R. Yosa in the Yerushalmi Megillah34 and the Meshekh Chokhmah posit that only when the Mishkan/Mikdash contained the Ark, was it considered to be the exclusive dwelling place of Hashem.35 Thus, the prohibition of private altars existed only during the eras of Shiloh and Yerushalayim when the Ark resided together with the main sacrificial altar.36 However, when the Mishkan was in Gilgal, Nov, and Givon, the Ark was separate from the rest of the Tabernacle and the Divine presence was more diffused, thus allowing for the existence of additional outside altars.
  • Permanent structure – Only the building of a permanent dwelling for Hashem mandates an exclusive worship site,37 while temporary housing is not so different from the temporary altars built by private individuals.38 Since each of the Tabernacle in Shiloh and the Beit HaMikdash existed for about 400 years,39 they were accompanied by a prohibition of other altars. Other sites of the Tabernacle, though, were much more temporary, and thus not exclusive.
  • One God, one temple – R"Y Bekhor Shor relates the prohibition to a fear of idolatry,40 while Ralbag and R. D"Z Hoffmann assert that the unitary nature of Hashem mandates a single place of worship.41 Although according to both of these reasons, the prohibition should have theoretically applied at all times, R. D"Z Hoffmann asserts that this was not feasible because of technical considerations. Centralization of worship could take place only in times of peace, when wars would not impede the nation from traveling to/constructing a permanent site of worship. Thus, only during the relatively quiet era of Shiloh and the peaceful reigns of the Davidic monarchy, was the nation expected to sacrifice exclusively in the Mikdash.42
Multiple mentions of the obligation – According to Rabbi (Yehuda HaNasi) in the Sifre,43 and Rashi, the doubling might be explained by positing that each mention refers to a different time period. While verses 5-7 refer to the period of Shiloh, verses 11-12 refer to the Mikdash in Yerushalayim.44 R. D"Z Hoffmann, in contrast, asserts that the doubling plays a literary function, with each mention highlighting a different aspect of the prohibition.45
"אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה" – Most of these sources maintain that "הַמְּנוּחָה" refers to Shiloh and "הַנַּחֲלָה" to Yerushalayim.46 The choice of two distinct terms teaches that the verse is referring to two separate places and time periods. The period in the interim had its own status, and was not included in the ban on private altars.47
"וַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן" – R. D"Z Hoffman maintains that Shiloh had the potential to be the first and final "chosen place" of Hashem, in which case the prohibition would have set in soon after crossing the Jordan, and remained permanently thereafter. Due to the nation's sins, though, Shiloh was destroyed.
"וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכׇּל אֹיְבֵיכֶם... וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח"
  • Shiloh and Yerushalayim – R. D"Z Hoffmann claims that the verse can refer to the periods of both Shiloh and Yerushalayim. Though full security was only attained with the Davidic monarchy, there was relative peace in the period after the conquest as attested to by the very name Shiloh, or tranquility.48 Both these eras are described in later Biblical verses as periods during which Hashem gave the nation rest from their enemies, using language almost identical to that of Devarim 12.49 The periods in between, in contrast, were filled with wars against the Philistines and other enemies.
  • Only Yerushalayim – Rashi, in contrast, asserts that this verse refers only to the era of David and Shelomo, in which full peace and security were attained. According to him, Shiloh is referred to only in the earlier verses (which make no mention of security).50
"אִישׁ כׇּל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו" – These commentators offer a variety of ways of explaining when the nation was allowed to do as it pleased:
  • In Gilgal – The Sifre, Rashi, and Ralbag maintain that the phrase refers to the time period mentioned in Devarim 11:31 immediately after the crossing of the Jordan. Thus, the verse is contrasting the era of the wilderness when one brought all sacrifices to the Mishkan, with the period of Gilgal when one could bring what one pleased on private altars.51 Accordingly, the verse would read: "You will not [need to] do [in Gilgal] as we do today [in the wilderness, where all sacrifices are brought to the Mishkan], [but rather] each man can do as he pleases."52
  • During the fortieth year in the wilderness
    • Private altars permitted in the fortieth year – R. D"Z Hoffmann suggests that after the conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan, the original wilderness prohibition on private altars was nullified.53 Thus, Moshe is contrasting the practice of the nation in the fortieth year who "did as they pleased" and established private altars at will, with the renewed prohibition in Israel, where they would no longer be able to do so.
    • Land-based commandments not obligatory in the wilderness – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor explains54 that the verse is not speaking about private altars at all, but is rather contrasting the obligations of the period of the wilderness when the nation was not yet required to fulfill the commandments that were conditional upon entry to the land (i.e. tithes and annual pilgrimages), with those of the era in Israel when all commandments would be in effect.
Private altars throughout Neviim
  • Altars in Sefer Yehoshua – The anger of the nation at the 2½ tribes for building an altar on the Jordan might support the idea that (at this time) when the Tabernacle was in Shiloh, such private altars were forbidden.
  • Altars in Sefer Shofetim – The altars built by Gidon, Manoach, and the nation (both in Bokhim and in Beit El) are problematic, as these were all constructed in the era when private altars were not allowed. Bavli Zevachim asserts that Manoach acted upon a one time commandment (הוראת שעה).‎55 This explanation can be used to solve the other cases as well.56 Alternatively, the Meshekh Chokhmah asserts that while the nation was in Bokhim and Beit El, the ark was temporarily outside of the Mishkan,57 and this allowed for the building of private altars.58
  • Altars in Sefer Shemuel – The altars of Shaul and Shemuel are not an issue as they were built during the period after the destruction of Shiloh when private altars were allowed.59
  • Altars of Sefer Melakhim – Eliyahu's altar on Mt. Carmel can be explained as a one-time exception (הוראת שעה).
Altars of earth in Shemot 20 – R. D"Z Hoffmann maintains that these refer to the private altars which were allowed in periods of unrest.60 Thus, the verses of Shemot complement the verses in Devarim, together giving the reader a complete picture of the laws of private altars. See Altars of Earth, Stone, and Wood for elaboration.