Cut Stone

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Three possible reasons are offered for the Torah’s prohibition of making an altar with cut stones (Ex. 20:25). You may only use stones that have not been shaped by iron. Noting that the Torah used the word for sword, Rashi and Ramban (ad loc.) follow the Sages (Mekhilta, ad loc.) in explaining that metal, and swords in particular, are used to shorten life while the altar is designated to extend life.

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:45) says that the above is nice homiletics but the real reason for this prohibition is to avoid an idolatrous practice. Ancient idolaters would smooth their altars with metal and therefore the Torah forbade Jews from doing the same. Our religious practices may not imitate foreign practices. “The object of all these commandments is the same, namely, that we shall not employ in the worship of God anything which the heathen employed in the worship of their idols” (Friedlander tr.).

Ramban (ibid.) challenges the Rambam’s view with the following: Halakhah only forbids shaping the stones with iron; silver is fine. However, the end result would look the same, just like the idolaters’ altars.

Perhaps a greater challenge comes from history. Victor Hamilton (Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 365) argues that “Archaeologists have found Canaanite altars made of such [uncut] stone, so that would rule out any anti-Canaanite polemic.” Rashbam (ad loc.) offers a similar explanation that bypasses the historical question. He suggests that the artisans carving an altar may incorporate a statue into it. Shadal (ad loc.) agrees.

However, a 1968 doctoral dissertation on just the three verses Exodus 20:24-26 (Diethelm Conrad, Studien zum Altargesetz, Warburg) argues that the Rambam treads on solid historical ground. I do not have access to the dissertation and would not understand it even if I did. The secondary literature I have seen offers two versions of
Conrad’s conclusion.

Brevard Childs (Book of Exodus, p. 466) writes that Conrad argues “specifically directed against the adopting of Canaanite altars which were made of finished stone.” However, Joe Sprinkle (The Book of the Covenant: A Literary Approach, p. 48 n. 2) says that Conrad sees the prohibition as “forbidding ostentation by means of a particular treatment of the altar involving the chiselling out of so-called bowl-holes for libations in the Canaanite pattern known from archaeology.” Either way, Conrad seems to reach a conclusion similar to Rambam’s, validating its historical possibility.

Abarbanel (ad loc.) quotes an entirely different approach from Ibn Kaspi. An object’s natural form is more proper than an artificial form. One word for shaping is posel, as Moshe’s writing on the tablets is called (Ex. 34:4). This word also means to invalidate. Removing something from its natural form is, in some sense, lowering its status. The altar should be made from stones in their highest form–natural. This idea sounds strange to me. Certainly cut and polished diamonds are considered higher than when in their natural state. Gold and silver are also more highly valued when polished and shaped.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.


  1. It might be worth mentioning that the Israelite worship complex at Tel Dan, where Yeravam put the golden calf, is made of elegantly cut stone. The actual altar is missing, but it seems to have been an exact square/rectangle, which would be hard to achieve with uncut stone.

    There are also steps leading up to the altar, so it appears that all three of the prohibitions at the end of Yitro were violated here.

  2. (The things you notice when going on holiday in Israel…)

  3. Why would a paper written in 1968 be an “however” to a book written in 2011? This sounds backwards to me.

    There has been a lot more findings since 1968 which overturned previous conclusions.

  4. AYB: Thank you. Very interesting.

    Avi: In theory, you are right. But it’s not clear to me whether Hamilton engaged with all the evidence since that single sentence is all he provides without any citations.

  5. How do we know that the “Canaanite altars” were really Canaanite?

    Since all the nations were mixed up (I believe by Nebuchadnezzar)
    the altars might have been created by a different nationality.

    Maybe a different nation created the altars and the Canaanites imported them?

  6. Mr. Cohen, it was Sancheirev who mixed up the nations, and both he and Nevuchadnezzar lived years after this.

    AYB, it seems the first Mikdash had steps as well. (Yechezkel’s vision does.) It might be that steps are only not allowed when the kohanim are not wearing pants. (Most people didn’t wear pants; the kohanim did.) There are altars with ramps in Israel. By the second Mikdash (and perushim on Yechezkel, and some views of the Mishkan), the idea of a ramp was so established that it was used, and of necessity (it’s longer) moved to the south rather than the east.

  7. Why don’t you discuss about buildinga alter from earth? How is that even possible? Wouldnt all the usage degrade a dirt alter?

  8. ???: The Mizbeach in the Midbar was basically four copper (or bronze) plated wooden planks that were connected and filled with earth at each stop. The top, where the burning took place, was earth. (Not sure about the bottom.) They emptied it and disassembled it every time they moved. When they got to Shilo, they built a stone one.

  9. Nachum – I believe Yechezkel’s steps are at the entry to buildings and not for the mizbeach? Anyway, the mizbeach on Har Eval, which is about the oldest Israelite structure ever discovered, has a ramp.

  10. AYB: Look up the pasuk. It says “maalot.” You can kvetch that into a ramp, but it’s there.

    Har Eval is a good point. A bama, of course…

  11. Obviously Yechezkel says “maalot”, but the prohibition of “maalot” in Yitro specifically refers to the mizbeach, and IIRC the steps in Yechezkel are not to reach the mizbeach.

  12. As I wrote, steps would only be a problem if the person ascending was not wearing pants. Most men back then did not wear pants, but kohanim specifically did, so steps would not be a problem.

    Of course, this could be part of the larger pattern of instances where Yechezkel contradicts the Torah, with all that comes with that.

  13. Also, look it up: They *do* reach the mizbeach (“Ariel” is the word used).

  14. I did. You’re right :)

  15. While Nachum is correct about the simple reading of Ezekiel’s description of the altar of his vision (ma’aloteihu would normally be translated as its (the altar’s) steps), there is no indication that this also the construction of Solomon’s altar in the 1st temple. It was certainly not the construction of the altar in the 2nd temple as described by the sages of the talmud. The torah’s prohibition of using steps to ascend an altar is accompanied by a reason. That reason (tzniut) may or may not be a modification of the prohibition (this involves a general dispute among Tana’im).

    I disagree, however, with Nachum’s statements regarding the early altars in the desert and in Shiloh. He makes it seem that the copper (or bronze) clad altar was disassembled when the mishkan was being transported. In fact, the carrying poles were intended to carry the intact altar. A simple reading of the text suggests that the altar, which was a 5x5x3 ama piece of large furniture, was not filled with earth (sand) during use, and therefore had no need of being emptied (other than removing any ash). Moreover, I see no evidence of this altar being replaced by a stone one – as per Nachum’s suggestion (at least, not until the 1st temple times). In fact, we find that Solomon originally offered sacrafices on Bezalel’s copper altar then located in Gibeon.

    The torah’s mention of an earthern altar may refer to an ideal future where such worship can occur everywhere and not be confined to a central sanctuary. As it continues, “wherever I will cause My Name to be remembered..”. That, at least, is a simple reading of the text, which, however, is not how it was understood by the sages.

  16. Y. Aharon: All very good points. But:

    1. If Yechezkel said steps, then it’s likely he was reflecting on the First Bayit, which he likely would have seen and served in.

    2. You’re right about the poles. However, I don’t think there’s a mention of a top. Regardless, something had to fill the hollow box, no? I know I saw the reference to earth somewhere- can’t remember.

    3. Likewise, can’t remember the sources, but it’s generally said that the Mishkan in Shilo was made out of stone (with perhaps no roof and the Ohel covering it); the mizbeach too. Nov and Givon may have been more temporary, but it’s likely that by Shlomo’s time, little if anything actually remained that had been made by Bezalel.

  17. Nachum, I may be the last person of an OJ persuasion to object to new interpretations in Tanach, and I alluded to some thoughts of mine along such ‘heterodox’ lines. While I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the mishkan and 1st temple, I have given less thought to Yehezkel’s vision of a future temple. Your point about ma’alot in his altar is something that I had missed. It’s odd, however, that he refers to it in only 1 word, while describing all other structures in some detail. If it refers to steps, why is there no mention of their height, width, and number? On the other hand, ma’alot is a word he uses in referring to the various steps encountered in proceeding from the entrance gate to the heichal.
    As to the copper clad altar of the mishkan, that had no top. In transit it was covered over in similar manner to the other mishkan vessels. The sages do posit it being filled with earth (sand) in fulfillment of their understanding of the injunction to make an altar of earth (interpreted as attached to the earth). However, I question the burning efficiency of such an arrangement. A hollow altar with a grate and a free convective flow of air, would greatly accelerate the burning of karbonot or parts thereof (chimney effect). It would also facilitate the daily removal of ash (I envisage cutouts at the bottom through which a shovel could be inserted to remove any ash accumulation).
    The sages state that the mishkan in Shilo had stone walls in place of the gold clad wooden planks of the desert mishkan. This presumably rationalizes why the structure in Shilo was referred to as a house by Yirmiya. I am unaware of an opinion that the altar there was also of stone.

    There is more to discuss about what items were carried over from the mishkan to the 1st temple, but this may not be the venue.

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