Tuesday, June 15


Altars in Exodus

In Exodus there are several mentions of altars built for the Lord.  They vary widely in their construction, description, and meaning.  However, the consistent theme seems to be a trend from a simple construction towards a more elaborate construction.

Exodus 17:15-6

And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. 16He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”

Exodus 20:19-22

The LORD said to Moses:  Thus shall you say to the Israelites:  You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens:  20With Me, therefore, you shall not make any G-ds of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any G-ds of gold.  21Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.  22And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. 

Exodus 24:4b-6

Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.   5He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD.  6Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar.

Exodus 27:1-9 (Sacrificial Altar described again in Exodus 38:1-7)

You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide—the altar is to be square—and three cubits high.  2Make its horns on the four corners, the horns to be of one piece with it; and overlay it with copper.  3Make the pails for removing its ashes, as well as its scrapers, basins, flesh hooks, and fire pans—make all its utensils of copper.  4Make for it a grating of meshwork in copper; and on the mesh make four copper rings at its four corners.  5Set the mesh below, under the ledge of the altar, so that it extends to the middle of the altar.  6And make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with copper.  7The poles shall be inserted into the rings, so that the poles remain on the two sides of the altar when it is carried.  8Make it hollow, of boards.  As you were shown on the mountain, so shall they be made. 

9You shall make the enclosure of the Tabernacle.

Exodus 30:1-6 (Incense Altar, described again in Exodus 37:25-29)

 You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood.  2It shall be a cubit long and a cubit wide—it shall be square—and two cubits high, its horns of one piece with it.  3Overlay it with pure gold:  its top, its sides round about, and its horns; and make a gold molding for it round about.  4And make two gold rings for it under its molding; make them on its two side walls, on opposite sides.  They shall serve as holders for poles with which to carry it.  5Make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.  6Place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Pact—in front of the cover that is over the Pact—where I will meet with you. 

Jewish Thoughts on Tabernacle and Altars

In approaching the text from a popular Jewish standpoint, there are varying interpretations of the altars and the Tabernacle containing it.  Below are a few approaches to the scripture surrounding altars and the Tabernacle.  It is not, by any means, a complete compilation of Jewish thoughts on the subject.

Reform Judaism

Rabbi Irwin Kula[1] summarizes historical, competing midrashim regarding the Tabernacle’s purpose.  Under one approach, G-d gives Moses the Torah but then cannot quite part with it.  Therefore, G-d asks for the Tabernacle so G-d may live among the people and the Torah.  Here, it is a “place of love, intimacy and deep connection among G-d, Israel and Torah.”[2] 

In contrast, another Midrash emphasizes the immediate preceding event of the Golden Calf.  In this Midrash, the Tabernacle becomes a place where G-d must keep the divine eye on errant Israel.  We are presented with G-d’s loving presence and G-d’s authoritative presence.  Rabbi Kula does not resolve the differences, but leaves his audience sitting in the tension left to decipher for themselves which role is consistent with their G-d.

Rabbi Laura Geller[3] approaches the text through the creation of the Tabernacle and all of its principle parts.  Her first noticing is that the gathering of materials is prompted by the command to “take for Me an offering” rather than to give Me an offering.[4]  She offers a folk saying and explanation by Rebbe David of Kotzk:

A folk saying explains:  “A fool gives and a wise man takes.  This refers to a person who gives tzedakah.  A fool who gives tzedakah thinks that he is giving, while a wise man who gives realizes that he is taking.  He is the one who will benefit most by his action.

Under this approach to the text, the creation of the altar is not for the benefit of the average Israelite because as they give, they are taking the fulfillment of a mitzvah and taking the blessing of G-d.  G-d is responding to the human need, not G-d’s need.  Clearly G-d does not need a place to dwell, but that the Israelites need a place to take part in the divine.

Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Joshua Heller[5] brings two thoughts.  First, he notes that G-d has a love of regularity and order as exemplified in the details surrounding the Tabernacle and rituals.  It shows that “there is no room for the novel [such as the Golden Calf] amid the routine.”[6]  In creating routine, G-d is standardizing the human factor as much as possible.

Second, Heller specifically addressed the small incense altar.  He follows the question, “why would this small acacia-wood altar, covered with beaten gold, be listed separately from the others?”[7]  His review of Jewish literature including the Meshekh Hokhman and Rambam offers two points.  The incense altar is not necessary and that it has a functional difference between it and all the other items in the Tabernacle.  All the other implements bring G-d closer to the Jewish people while the incense fills the role of “assuaging G-d’s anger at ritual infractions taking place in the divine presence.”[8]  In Heller’s explanation, using the incense in this role is sensible as no human is perfect in his encounter with the divine and that the role of the incense will also limit the desire to try something new.  In creating the incense, he notes that changing even one ingredient can result in the death penalty.  On the other side of stability in worship, it is also noted that having the incense to mediate human error and G-d in worship will allow humans to occasionally offer new and creative modes of worship.  Heller creates a tension between tradition and innovation.

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs[9] brings out the connection between the Tabernacle and the cosmos.  He points out the similarity in language between the Tabernacle narrative and the creation narrative.  He also notes that the account itself says that the purpose of the Tabernacle was so that G-d may dwell among them.  The key words here are may and dwell among them.  This shows that G-d is encouraging the Israelites to make room for G-d in their hearts, not in the literal dwelling of the Tabernacle.

Orthodox Judaism

In Orthodox Judaism, I found a small trend between two Rabbis concerning the reason for the altar and the Tabernacle.  Both Rabbi Boruch Leff[10] and Rabbi Zvi Belovski[11] state that the Tabernacle was to be the combined effort of all the Jews.  Rabbi Leff additionally says that the Tabernacle is “to be the collective soul of the Jewish People.”[12]  Community is a very strong thread.  Rabbi Belovski expands on this idea by incorporating a discussion of the altar having a symbolic connection to the twelve tribes of Israel and that the altar, specifically, “represents klal Yisrael functioning as one.”[13]  Again, united community is prominent in their thoughts.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons[14] connects the Tabernacle to Shabbos.  In the Tabernacle and in Shabbos, he says that we find ourselves immersed “in a new dimension, a dimension of time.”[15]  His thought is that directly preceding the description of how to build the Tabernacle and its contents is the command to keep the seventh day holy (Exodus 35:2-3).  He reasons that thoughts of Shabbos and Tabernacle are juxtaposed against each other because the Tabernacle and Shabbos are the same.  Taking some freedom, I would extend Rabbi Simmon’s thoughts further speculating that Shabbos is very much a communal event and that, in this way, it does tie back to a unified communal experience of Tabernacle, of the Cosmos, and of Shabbos.

Christian Thoughts

Christian thoughts are widely divergent as to the meaning and symbolism of altars.  In my opinion, many churches would deny that they even have altars disregarding the communion or Eucharist table sitting in their midst.  In truth, the community that has the most to say about altars are the Roman Catholics.

 Prior to Vatican II, Roman Catholics churches had altars that were elaborate and encouraged a mystical, almost magical approach to priestly service.  Priests would conduct mass with their backs to the congregation at times whispering “secret prayers.”[16]  After Vatican II, altars were brought forward and priests would say mass facing the people and no secret whisperings were allowed.  However, there is now a movement afoot to return to pre-Vatican II style of worship.  I can only hope it fails.

 The meaning of the Christian altar as defined by Roman Catholic orthodoxy is that it represents the figure of Christ.  Peter Riga[17] tells us that the scripture referencing Christ as the Cornerstone (Matt. 26:44, Eph. 2:22, 1 Peter 2:1-10) correlates to the altar.  The Christian altar replaces both the Temple’s altar and the pagan “table.”[18]  The Christian altar adds five crosses engraved and saturating the altar with sacred Chrism.  Chrism is an oil made of myrrh which is referenced both in the making of the Tabernacle and in the story of Christ’s birth.  The Chrism replaces the blood and symbolizes unity with Christ, “the only true and spiritual sacrifice acceptable to G-d.”[19]  The body of Christ becomes the cornerstone of the Christian worship style metaphorically in the presence of the altar.  Riga tells us:

The temple, the altar, the sacrifice, the priest are all now the glorious Body of Christ—Christ Himself resurrected and glorified.  Such is the teaching of the sacred scripture.[20]    And Since our sacrifice and victim is Christ Himself and since the priest is also Christ, a fortiori, the altar can only be Christ himself.[21]

Protestant Thought

Roman Catholic Christians have one advantage over Protestant Christians—they have one voice speaking for them.  Although there is wide divergence in individual thoughts in the Roman Catholic Church, the organization as a whole has a unified voice.  For Protestants, there is not a unified voice and thoughts on altars and sacrifice are wildly divergent.  A traditional conservative point-of-view has the Tabernacle and the Temple functioning as “a type of Christ.”[22]  This viewpoint allows all religions to be mediated through Christ.  Karl Rahner had this idea when he proposed the idea of the Anonymous Christian.

A typical Lutheran approach is that the altar is the Communion table and the Lord’s Supper is presented upon it.  In the Lutheran understanding, the “real presence of G-d’s forgiveness and mercy” is experienced through the act of communion.  In other Protestant communities, Christ is experienced at the table in the act of communion, but it is not defined as the “real presence.”  My own church would say that it is a mystery.  Somehow Christ and God are present, but we cannot know how.  In general, Protestant altars have a Bible, candlesticks, collection plates, linens, and possible flowers.[23]  They can be elaborate or simple.  There is as much variety in Protestant churches as there are churches.


In looking at all the altars across time from the earliest altar made of earth and stone to the elaborate altars of the Tabernacle and of pre-Vatican II churches, I believe that in each instance, these altars are expressions of who we think G-d is.  In other words, they are full expressions of the community.  For the early Israelites, a G-d intricately connected to the divine creation and the cosmology of the earth makes sense.  As time goes by, it also makes sense that as the Israelites experience other cultures and other rituals, they begin to have a desire to create a unique space for the divine that reflects their values and their growing community.  This was carried forward into altars, the Tabernacle, and the Temple.

After the Temple was destroyed, I can only extrapolate that altars became an entirely different experience.  For early Christians during this period, altars looked like simple dinner tables. [24]   Since Jewish and Christian communities were very connected, I imagine that Jewish altars also began to look like simple dinner tables. A return to basics was required for both communities.  It was not quite as simple as earth and rocks, but the dinner table does connote a need for the community to stay together, to nurture each other, to sustain each other, and to rely on G-d.  Eventually, the altar evolved into Torah Scroll Tables for Jews and Communion Tables for Christians.  If we think of what mediates G-d for each community, I think it is profound that the table takes on the presence of the most valued gift of G-d for each:  Torah and Christ.    

After Constantine converted to Christianity, Christian ritual and expressions of ritual began to flourish.  Once the community was grounded and safe, the ability to create elaborate expressions of the divine was present in the building of churches and their altars.  It is interesting that, for Christians, this developed into essentially turning their back on the community in order to serve G-d when altars are firmly grounded in sustaining the community.  Platonic Christianity so disembodied the divine from humanity that we could not even be present to each other in community during church services. After Vatican II, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches began to move their altars so that the community was once again involved in the sacrifice of praise.

In this recognition of evolving nature of altars, of thoughts of G-d, and of thoughts of the community, I believe there is a fundamental lesson that can be captured.  The first altar offered in Exodus and sanctioned by G-d is of earth and stone.  Not just any stone—stone untouched by human hands.  In this unification of the divine, the cosmos, and community, we can see the hope of the world. 

We are in an ecological mess because we have divorced ourselves from connection to the land, to each other, to the cosmos, and to the divine.  By segregating divine ritual to the magic hands of the priest with his back to us (as G-d turned His back to Moses),[25] by segregating altars to artisans beyond compare, by segregating from each other, by isolating rather than communing, we have lost touch with the essential building blocks of creation.  If we image G-d through our altars, we must return to the image of G-d as all of the divine creation, from the altar of earth and stone to the altar of the dining room table. 

This neatly ties in with the Orthodox Jewish expression of community to be found in the Exodus text.  Only by tapping into Jewish wisdom and bringing it into context alongside the Christian teachings and Scripture, can the point of the inter-connectivity and inter-dependence of community be made. 


Rabbi Shraga Simmons tells us “Shabbos and the Tabernacle are one and the same.”[26]  As the altar is contained within the Tabernacle, I am connecting the altar to Shabbos.  A Jewish prayer used during Shabbos is the Sim Shalom.  When the sacrificial system ended (sacrifices taking place on the altar in the Tabernacle and then Temple), it was replaced with the Amidah.  The Amidah is the central prayer of the daily prayer services including Shabbat.[27]  Sim Shalom can be a part of the Amidah depending on the context of the Jewish community.  An alternate to Sim Shalom that is often used in Reform communities is Shalom Rav.[28]  Traditionally Sim Shalom is used during Shacharit and Musaf (morning prayer and additional prayers such as Shabbat and Festivals) while Shalom Rav is used during Mincha and Maariv (afternoon and evening prayer).[29] 

Sim Shalom

Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace, kindness and mercy,
to us and to all Your people Israel.
Bless us, our Creator, all of us together, through the light of Your Presence.
Truly through the light of Your Presence, Adonai our G-d,
You gave us a Torah of life –
the love of kindness, justice and blessing, mercy, life, and peace.
May you see fit to bless Your people Israel
at all times, at every hour, with your peace.
Shabbat Shuvah – Inscribe us for life, blessing, peace, and prosperity, remembering all Your people Israel for life and peace.  Blessed are You, Adonai, Source of peace.
Baruch atah, Adonai, oseih hashalom.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who blessed Your people Israel with peace.
Baruch atah, Adonai, ham’vareich et amo Yisrael bashalom.[30]

A Christian tradition that utilizes imagery from the altar is the many musical settings using and expanding on Psalm 141.  This psalm is embraced and reverenced in the Evening Prayer tradition.    This Psalm specifically references the incense altar as a metaphor for prayers.  The musical setting by Marty Haugen[31] is:

Let my prayer rise up like incense before you,
The lifting up of my hands as an offering to you.

Verse 1
O G-d, I call to you, come to me now;
O hear my voice when I cry to you. (Chorus)

Verse 2
Keep watch within me, G-d,
Deep in my heart may the light of your love be burning bright.  (Chorus)

Verse 3
All praise to the G-d of all Creator of life;
All praise be to Christ and the Spirit of love.  (Chorus)

Regardless of our religious context, Jewish or Christian, both communities rely on imagery from the ancient altars of Israel.  This speaks to a larger community above and beyond our particular religious context to one of an all-encompassing embrace that can be found at the foot of the altar.


Belovski, Rabbi Zvi. Pillars and Altars. http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sms/100247889.html. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Frishman, Elyse D., ed. Mishkan T'Filah: A Reform Siddur. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007.

Geller, Rabbi Laura. Building with the Gifts of Our Hearts. 20 February 2010. http://urj.org/learning/torah/archives/exodus/?syspage=article&item_id=35182. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Haugen, Marty. "Holden Evening Prayer." Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, Inc., 1990.

Heller, Rabbi Joshua. T'tzavveh 5763, Exodus 27:20-30:10. 15 February 2003. http://www.jtsa.edu/PreBuilt/ParashahArchives/5763/tetzaveh.shtml. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

History of the Christian Altar. http://www.catholicity.com/encyclopedia/a/altar,history_of_christian.html. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Jacobs, Rabbi Dr. Louis. The Tabernacle: A Makeshift Sanctuary in the Wilderness.  http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/yitro_index.shtml. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Jewish Study Bible.  Oxford:  Jewish Publication Society, 1999. 

Kol Ami.  "Simchat Torah."  Woodinville, WA.  http://www.kolaminw.org/index.cfm? (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Kula, Rabbi Irwin. The Role of the Tabernacle: Is the Tabernacle a Sacred Center of Intense Love or an Outgrowth of Our Sins? http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/pekudei_clal.shtml. (Accessed 11 November 2010)

Leff, Rabbi Boruch. A Tedious Tabernacle? http://www.aish.com/tp/i/ky/48949076.html. (Accessed 11 November 2010)

Pendleton, Philip Y.  A Brief Sketch of the Jewish Tabernacle.  1902. http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/ppendleton/sec/ABSJT.HTM (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Protestant Communion Services. http://www.tpub.com/content/religion/14229/css/14229_176.htm. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Real News 24/7.  Who's Been Changing the Inside of Roman Catholic Churches?  And Why?   http://ww.realnews247.com/altar_comparison_pictorial.htm (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Riga, Peter J. Origins and Meaning of the Christian Altar. http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=2787&repos=1&subrepos=0&searchid=325269. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Schoenberg, Shira. The Amidah. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/amidah.html. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. Shabbos: Tabernacle of Time. http://www.aish.com/tp/b/sw/48951861.html. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Stewart, Terri.  "Bear Creek UMC Altar."  Woodinville, WA, 2006.  Private Collection.

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. 1965. http://www.christusrex.org/www1/CDHN/v1.html. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

Wagner, Jordan Lee. The Transliterated Siddur. http://siddur.org/learn-to-sing-jewish-prayers/112.

Walt, Pastor. The Rent in Twain Veil in the Temple. HubPages. (Accessed 20 November 2010) http://hubpages.com/hub/THE-RENT-VEIL-OF-THE-TEMPLE. (Accessed 20 November 2010)

[1]Kula, Rabbi Irwin. The Role of the Tabernacle: Is the Tabernacle a Sacred Center of Intense Love or an Outgrowth of Our Sins?

[2] Ibid.

[3] Geller, Rabbi Laura. Building with the Gifts of Our Hearts. 20 February 2010.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Heller, Rabbi Joshua. T'tzavveh 5763, Exodus 27:20-30:10. 15 February 2003.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Heller, Rabbi Joshua. T'tzavveh 5763, Exodus 27:20-30:10. 15 February 2003.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jacobs, Rabbi Dr. Louis. The Tabernacle: A Makeshift Sanctuary in the Wilderness.

[10] Leff, Rabbi Boruch. A Tedious Tabernacle?

[11] Belovski, Rabbi Zvi. Pillars and Altars.

[12] Leff, Rabbi Boruch. A Tedious Tabernacle?

[13] Belovski, Rabbi Zvi. Pillars and Altars.

[14] Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. Shabbos: Tabernacle of Time.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 1965.

[17] Riga, Peter J. Origins and Meaning of the Christian Altar.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Walt, Pastor. The Rent in Twain Veil in the Temple.

[23] Protestant Communion Services.

[24] History of the Christian Altar.

[25] Ex. 33:22-23

[26] Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. Shabbos: Tabernacle of Time.

[27] Schoenberg, Shira. The Amidah.

[28] Wagner, Jordan Lee. The Transliterated Siddur.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Frishman, Elyse D., ed. Mishkan T'Filah: A Reform Siddur. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007, p. 140, from the Shabbat Morning Prayer.

[31] Haugen, Marty. "Holden Evening Prayer." Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, Inc., 1990, p. 10-15.


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