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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Altar, Jonas (Jonathan ha-Levi)
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—Biblical Data:

In the book of Genesis it is often said that altars were erected (8:20, 12:7, 13:8, 26:25, 33:20, etc.). These altars were usually heaps of stones such as Laban and Jacob built to sacrifice upon (Genesis 31:52 et seq.), for they are said to be "built" () in several instances (e.g., 8:20, 12:7, etc.). Once (33:20), the Altar is said to have been "erected" () and hence must have been a "pillar" (). Dillmann (Com. to Gen. xxxiii, 20), believes that here mizbeaḦ has been substituted for maẓẓebah. In the law of Exodus 20:24 et seq., the Altar which is preferred is an Altar of earth. Probably it is this kind of Altar which is referred to in Genesis 35:1,3, which was said to be made (). The same law permits stone altars (Exodus 20:25), but provides that they shall be made of unhewn stone and prohibits (5:26) that they be ascended by steps. According to this law also altars may be built (or earthen altars made, ) wherever there is a theophany. Those referred to in Genesis mention as a rule no special theophany, though the pillar at Bethel (Genesis 28:18-22), which was closely allied to an Altar, was erected in consequenceof such a theophany; and hence all were thought probably to be so built.

The Altar for the tabernacle (Exodus 27) was made of acacia wood overlaid with bronze. It was five cubits square and three cubits high. It had a grating or network below (5:4) and a ledge (5:5), intended perhaps for the priests to stand upon. It had horns at the corners and also four brazen rings in which to insert poles for carrying it. The utensils for it are also described—pans for clearing away ashes, shovels, basins or saucers for catching blood, flesh-hooks and fire-pans for removing coals. According to Leviticus 6:12, fire was to burn on it perpetually.

Altar in Tabernacle.

An Altar of incense, also for the tabernacle, is described in Exodus 30 It, too, was to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. It was to be square, a cubit each way, and two and a half cubits high. There was a molding () around it, and four rings at the corners for the insertion of poles for transportation—all overlaid with gold. The tabernacle was also provided with a table for showbread, made of acacia wood, with a crown or molding of gold around it (Exodus 25:23 et seq., 37:10 et seq., Leviticus 24:6, Numbers 4:7). In Deuteronomy 12 the liberty of building altars in more than one place is withdrawn, but the form of the Altar which is favored is not specified.

In the period covered by the books of Judges and Samuel sacrifice was offered in many places as in the book of Genesis; especially where a theophany occurred (Judges, 6:11 et seq., 13:3 et seq.; 2 Samuel 24:16 et seq.). These sacrifices were in the first instance offered on the natural rock (Judges, 6:20, 13:19). A rock might do also when in stress for want of a better Altar (1 Samuel 14:33,34). Altars were afterward built on such spots (Judges, 6:26; 1 Samuel 14:35; 2 Samuel 24:18 et seq.). The altars of the period were probably for the most part made of stone (see 1 Kings, 18:31,32) and also had horns (1 Kings, 1:50,51).

Altar in Solomon's Temple.

The principal Altar in Solomon's Temple appears to have been of bronze (1 Kings, 8:64; 2 Kings, 16:14; 2 Chronicles 4:1 et seq.). If we may trust the chronicler it was of immense size—twenty cubits square and ten high (2 Chronicles 4:1). If these dimensions are not exaggerated (Benzinger, "Archäologie," p. 388, accepts them), an ascent of steps must have been necessary for this structure. It was made, like all the furniture of Solomon's Temple, by workmen sent from Phenicia, and doubtless represented an innovation. The Temple seems also to have contained an Altar or table of show-bread (1 Kings, 6:20 et seq., 7:48 et seq.), as did an earlier temple (1 Samuel 21:6,7), and the tabernacle. Ahaz modified the arrangements (2 Kings 16:10 et seq.). While at Damascus he saw an Altar that pleased him, and he sent the pattern of it to Urijah, the priest, commanding that one like it be made for the Temple—a command which was carried out. It is inferred that this Altar was of stone since it was built (5:11), and since the chief Altar of the temple was ever after of stone. Upon this Altar the daily sacrifices were offered thereafter, while the bronze Altar was reserved for the king. This stone Altar is called "the great Altar" (2 Kings, 16:15). At the time of Josiah all the altars in the land but this were abolished, and the Temple became the sole place of sacrifice (2 Kings, ), so that the history of the Altar is merged in that of the Temple.


In Ezekiel's ideal Temple the Altar of burnt offering was to be built as follows: a base eighteen cubits square and a cubit high to be surmounted by a platform sixteen cubits square and two high; on this another platform fourteen cubits square and four higharose. Above this was the Altar hearth (), twelve cubits square and four high. This at each corner was surmounted by a horn a cubit in height (see Toy's "Ezekiel," S. B. O. T. p. 191). In the opinion of many scholars this description holds good for the Temple of Jerusalem, in which probably Ezekiel had served; perhaps therefore it was such an Altar as this which Ahaz saw at Damascus. Ezekiel is also in like manner a witness to the presence of the table-altar of showbread in the Temple (Ezekiel 41:22).

Postexilic Days.

In the postexilic temple the principal Altar was of stone (Haggai 2:15, I Macc. 4:44 et seq.), while the table of showbread or "golden" Altar and Altar of incense also found places (I Macc. 1:21, 4:49 et seq.; Josephus, "Ant." 12:5, § 4; "Contra Ap." 1:22). When these implements were defiled by the heathen sacrifice of Antiochus Epiphanes they were replaced by new ones (I Macc. 4:44 et seq., 49 et seq.).

All these formed a part of Herod's temple. The main Altar was of stone, and according to Josephus ("B. J." 5:5, § 6), fifty cubits square and fifteen high, though the dimensions are differently given in the Mishnah (Middot, 3:1). It was approached by a gradual ascent.

G. A. B.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

"The Altar is the means of establishing peace between the people of Israel and their Father in heaven; therefore, iron, which is used as an instrument of murder, should not be swung over it. What a guaranty for those that endeavor to establish peace between man and man, and between nations and nations, that no evil shall befall them!" said Johanan ben Zakkai (Mek., Yithro, 11; Tosef., B. Ḳ. 7:6). And in the same spirit he said: "If the altar of the Lord must be built of whole stones (according to Deuteronomy 27:6), all the more should the men that perform the peaceful work of divine instruction be whole-souled and peaceful" (ib. 7). In a similar strain: "If the very stones of the altar are to be treated with respect and with decorum, how much more living man!" (Mek. c., end).

Metaphorical Meaning of Name.

The Hebrew name for Altar () is explained as signifying, "It wipes away sin; it nourishes the higher man; it fosters love for God; and it atones for all guilt" (Ket. 10b): its four letters (initials of meḦilah, zekut, berakah, Ḧayyim), point to Forgiveness, Justification, Blessing, and Life (Tan., Terumah, 10). It was considered a miracle and a proof of the manifestation of the Shekinah that the continual fire upon the Altar did not destroy the copper with which the stones were overlaid (Lev. R.; Tan., Terumah, 11).

The Altar was made a special object of venerationon the seventh day of the festival of Tabernacles, when the people made a circuit around it seven times, and addressed it on departing: "To thee belongeth beauty, O Altar! To Him, the Lord, and to thee, O Altar!" (Suk. 4:5). The belief was that the Altar on Mount Moriah was the same that Noah built, and that Adam had already brought his first sacrifice to this identical spot (R. Ishmael, in Pirḳe R. El.; Targ. Yer. Genesis 8:20; 22:9). For "upon sacrificial worship rests the world" (Ab. 1:2; Ab. R. N. (A); (B); Yer., Ta'anit, 4:68a; Bab., Ta'anit, 27b; Meg. 31b).

Still this regard for the Altar was not universal among the Jews. A version to it was manifested not so much by the Ḥasidim (Essenes), whose opposition was directed rather against the illegally appointed high priests than against sacrifices in general, as by the priests themselves, among whom the cry was raised by Miriam, the daughter of Bilgah (who became an apostate in the time of the Syrian invasion of the Temple): "O thou wolf who swallowest all the wealth of Israel, and yet failest to give relief in time of need!" (Suk. 56b; Yer., Suk. end; Tosef., Suk. 4:28). But this very expression "wolf," applied to the Altar, came into later popular use without any allusion to its voraciousness (Gen. R.; Targ. and Jerome on Genesis 49:27).

Altars in the Temple.

Of the two Altars in the Temple, the golden one for the incense is said to symbolize the devotion of the soul, whose nourishment is of a finer nature; the bronze Altar for animal sacrifice, that of the body, which is fed on flesh (Midr. Tadsheh ).

When the destruction of the Temple with its Altar filled the people with alarm as they thought of their unatoned sins, Johanan ben Zakkai comforted them saying: "You have another means of atonement as powerful as the altar, and that is the work of charity, for it is said: 'I desired mercy and not sacrifice'" (Hosea, 6:6); and he referred to Daniel 10:11, "the man of desirable virtues" (ish Ḧamudot, translated also by the Codex Sis. Eleeinos, "the merciful one"), who served God by almsgiving and prayer (Ab. R. N. (A) after Daniel 10:11). The Altar being called, also, the "table before the Lord" (Ezekiel 41:22; Malachi 1:7,12), the Altar of incense placed before the ark of the covenant is said to be only the symbol of the study of the Law by the wise, while the Altar of sacrifice represents the charity offered by the rich, who spread their bounties for the poor on the table in front of their houses (Targ. Yer., Ex. 5, 6; compare Ab. 3:3; Men. 110a; Ber, 55a; Ḥag. 27a; Yoma 71a). Paul applied the same idea of the Altar as the table of the Lord to the Communion meal (1 Corinthians 10:18-21). And while among the rabbis indigent and non-resident students of the Law were the chief ones chosen as partakers of the meal in order to render it a "table of the Lord" (see Ber. 10b), according to the Apostolic Constitutions (2:26, 4:3), widows and orphans were called "the altars of the Lord," the widows representing the Altar of burnt-offering, and the virgins the Altar of incense. Even the law concerning the exclusion of impure gifts from the Altar of God (Deuteronomy 23:19) was applied to the Church charity. In striking contrast to the Church view of the superior merit of virginity, Tan. (WayishlaḦ, 6) says: "The pious wife, remaining modestly within her domestic circle, is like the altar, in that she is an atoning power for her household."

But the Altar was also taken as symbolic of the sacrifice of one's life in the cause of God. The celebrated mother who saw her seven sons die a martyr's death (according to the Talmudic legend, in Hadrian's time, and not in that of Antiochus Epiphanes), cried out: "O my sons, go forth and tell Abraham your ancestor (supposed to sit at the Gate of Gan Eden): 'Thou didst build one altar whereon to offer thy son as sacrifice: I have built seven altars!'" (Giṭ. 57b). In IV Macc. 6:29, 17:22, we also read that the blood of these saintly martyrs (the seven sons) was an atonement for Israel's sins; an idea often repeated in the Talmud (M. Ḳ. 28a). The death of the righteous has the same atoning power as the Red Heifer. On this idea rests Paul's doctrine of the atoning power of Jesus' death (Romans 3:25, and elsewhere) and the identification of Jesus with the Altar in Hebrews 13:10.

Its Archetype in Heaven.

The Altar with its sacrifices on earth has, according to the ancient Gnostic view, its archetype in heaven; Michael, the archangel, as high priest offering (the souls of the saints) upon that Altar (Ḥag. 12b, Zeb. 62a, Men. 110a; Seder Gan Eden, and Midr. 'Aseret ha-Dibberot in Jellinek's "B. H." 3:137). The same heavenly Altar is referred to constantly in the Church liturgy. Under this heavenly Altar the saints rest after death (Ab. R. N. (A) and ). Similarly the souls of those slain for the word of God are said in Revelation 6:9, 8:9, to rest under the heavenly Altar.


Forms of Altar.

—Critical View on Forms and Origin:

A glance at the above material makes it clear that in form the simplest Altar was a natural rock or stone. A stone with a large flat top, in which were natural depressions for receiving the blood and natural channels to act as conduits for it, was usually selected. Several such have been identified (see "Biblical World," 9:229 et seq.). The first advance toward complexity was the substitution of a heap of earth or of stones for the simple rock. This heap was sometimes surrounded by a trench (1 Kings, 18:32), evidently for the purpose of carrying off water and blood, as was the case with the ghabghab in the sanctuary at Mecca (Wellhausen, "Reste des Arabischen Heidenthums," p. 105). A great departure from this is found in the Altar of Solomon's Temple and the Altar of the Tabernacle. The former was of bronze and of Phenician workmanship. Its form is in doubt. The Chronicler (2 Chronicles 4:1) makes it an enormous square ten cubits in height, but there is no mention of it among the utensils of the Temple in 1 Kings, It is mentioned in 1 Kings, 8:64 (a late insertion, see Kittel in Nowack's "Hand-Kommentar"). Wellhausen ("Proleg," 5th ed., p. 45), and Stade ("Gesch." 1:333) hold that it was omitted by a late redactor, who thought that the bronze Altar of the Tabernacle must have been moved into the Temple by Solomon. Robertson Smith ("Religion of the Semites," 2d ed., p. 487) objects that no separate bronze Altar is mentioned as having been carried away by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings, ), and seeks to show that the pillars Jachin and Boaz had ariels or fire-pans in them, in which fire was kept burning by fat of the sacrifice. Thus they became huge candlesticks or cressets (compare also Toy, "Ezekiel," in Haupt's "S. B. O. T." p. 186, who accepts this view). If this be so, the two ariels of Moab which Benaiah smote (2 Samuel 23:20, Heb.) were similar pillars before a shrine (compare "C. I. S." 1:281, for a cippus on which pillars or posts before a shrine are figured). We learn from the inscription of Mesha (lines 11, 12, 17 et seq.), that an ariel was a structure which could be carried off. Most scholars, however, hold that the Altar ofSolomon was a real bronze Altar (compare Benzinger, "Arch.," p. 388; Nowack, "Arch." 2:41, and Stade, "Gesch." 1:333), and that Wellhausen's explanation of its excision from 1 Kings, is correct. In favor of this rather than the view of Smith is the fact that according to Ezekiel (43:16), an ariel was part of a very different structure. Probably the reason that it was not carried away by Nebuchadnezzar is that in times of stress it had been previously disposed of (compare 2 Kings, 16:17,18). A large channel in the Temple rock at Jerusalem is thought by some to mark the site of the Temple Altar, and to have acted as a conduit for the blood from the Altar (see Nowack's "Hebräische Archäologie," 2:41).

That the form of the Altar of the Tabernacle differed still further from the primitive type than that in the Temple is evident from what has been said already of its form. The form of Altar introduced by Ahaz is probably given in Ezekiel's description (43:13 et seq.), already noted. The later altars in the Temple were evidently built on this general plan, though they differed in detail and in size.

Origin and Development.

Among the early Semites deities were identified with natural rocks or trees, and when an offering was presented to them it was placed upon the rock or suspended from the tree (see W. Robertson Smith, c., pp. 185, 209 et seq., and Doughty, "Arabia Deserta," 2:515). This custom of sacrifice prevails in all essential features in parts of Arabia to the present time (Doughty, op. cit. 1:449 et seq.). Natural rocks, in which were channels and depressions for conducting and receiving the blood, served as Altars in Israel, at least in places, till the period of the Judges (compare Judges, 6:21 et seq.; 13:19 et seq.; "Biblical World," 9:328 et seq.). A great advance was made over the religious thought of this early period when it was considered possible to persuade the god to come and reside in an object selected by the worshiper. Such objects among the Semites were usually stones, and were called by the Arabs anṣấb (sing. nuṣb), and the Hebrews maẓẓebot (sing. maẓẓebah). They served not only as a residence of the deity (a beth-El, Genesis 28:17), but also as an Altar. Oil was poured on the Altar (Genesis 28:18), and the fat of sacrifices was smeared on it to bring it as closely as possible into contact with the deity (see Anointing and Maẓẓebah, also W. Robertson Smith, c. pp. 204 et seq., and Wellhausen, "Reste des Arabischen Heidenthums," 2d ed., pp. 101 et seq.). The conception of sacrifice at this time was, as Smith has shown, commensal (see Sacrifice), and the god was able to dispose of his portion if thus brought into physical contact with it.


The transition to fire-altars came, first, from the custom of cooking the meal, and, secondly, from a more elevated conception of the deity which made men believe that the god inhaled the smoke of the burning offering and so took his part in that way. This necessitated the addition of a fire-hearth to the maẓẓebah. This transitional form has actually been found in Abyssinia in monoliths with fire-hearths attached (see Theodor Bent's "Sacred City of the Ethiopians," pp. 180 et seq.). Where sacrifice was offered on a natural rock, it could easily be burned there. After a heap of stones had been substituted for a natural rock the addition of a fire-hearth as in the Altar of Ezekiel would be necessary. Naturally it was placed at the top of the structure in imitation of the natural rock, and not at the side as in case of those which grew out of the maẓẓebot.

Bronze and Stone Altars.

Solomon's bronze Altar was an innovation of civilization and gave way later, through the revival of an earlier form, to the stone Altar.

The Altar of acacia wood overlaid with bronze is mentioned only by the Priestly writer and those dependent upon him. It would not have endured a sacrificial fire, and it is the opinion of modern scholars that it never had actual existence.

The Altar of incense belongs to the secondary elements or additions to the Priestly writer, and its existence before the time of Ezekiel is even more problematical.

The table or Altar of showbread is a survival in a different way of the commensal idea of sacrifice. The story of Bel and the Dragon in the Greek book of Daniel shows that the idea that the god actually consumed the food lay at the bottom of this part of the ritual. With advancing civilization the table increased in splendor till it was called the golden Altar.

Horns of Altar.

The origin of the horns of the various kinds of altars is shrouded in obscurity. Stade ("Gesch." 1:465) suggests that they arose in an attempt to carve the Altar into the form of an ox, while Robertson Smith held ("Religion of the Semites" 2d ed., p. 436), that they were substituted for the horns of real victims which had at an earlier time been hung on the Altar. At all events they were regarded as a most sacred portion of the Altar (1 Kings, 1:51; 2:28, and Lev.8:15; 9:9; 16:18).

  • Smith, Religion of the Semites, 1894;
  • Stade, Gesch. Israels, 1881-88, and in his Zeit. 3:129 et seq.;
  • Wellhausen, Reste des Arabischen Heidenthums, 2d ed., 1897;
  • Kittel's Königs-Bücher and Kraetzschmar's Ezekiel, both in Nowack's Hand-Kommentar;
  • Benzinger's Könige and Bertholet's Hesekiel, both in Marti's Kurzer Hand-Kommentar;
  • Toy's Ezekiel, in Haupt's S. B. O. T.;
  • Nowack, LehrbuchHebräischer Archäologie, 1894;
  • Benzinger's Hebr. Arch., 1894;
  • Greene, Hebrew Rock Altars in Biblical World, 9:329 et seq.
G. A. B.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Altar'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/altar.html. 1901.
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