An Equal Partner – Rav Ari Shames
(My thanks to Ronit Don, Shana Bet this year, who helped me articulate some of the questions that were raised in our chavruta on this issue.)
In the end of this week’s parsha we find two mitzvoth that relate to the mizbeach:
“When you build a stone altar for Me, you should not use hewn stones, as you have drawn your sword upon them and have defiled them. You should not ascend the altar by steps lest you expose your nakedness upon it.”
I would like to focus upon the second issue here, the prohibition of steps. Rashi notes that the rationale given by the Torah is meant to teach us an important lesson. If we need to be sensitive to the inanimate altar and not conduct ourselves in a manner that would be deemed to be degrading to it, how much more so must one be careful not to behave to our fellow man in a manner that would be insulting or degrading.
This mitzvah creates a challenge that seems to have a simple solution to it. How are we supposed to reach the top of the altar, which is at least three amot tall, if not much taller (see the passuk in Shmot 27:1 and Rashi there), if we are not allowed to use steps? The obvious solution is to use a ramp, which is exactly what was done.
If we examine the parshiot in the next few weeks looking for a description of the ramp we will be disappointed as it does not exist. This, of course, is easily explained by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a mitzvah to actually make a ramp; rather the Torah has disqualified the steps leaving us no other choice. The ramp is a solution to a problem and not an independent required structure in the Mishkan/ Mikdash.
The simplicity of the ramp becomes quite complicated in the codification of the Rambam in Hilchot Bet Habechira. In chapter 1 he lists the essential elements of the Mikdash; amongst the list are “…the altar for the sacrifices and the ramp to ascend the altar…”. Based on what we have established above it would seem that the altar itself should be listed but not the ramp as it is a simple technical solution to the elevation problem.
The problem is increased when we continue reading and get to Halacha 14 – “any rock that has a crack in it…is disqualified for use in the ramp or the altar” and similarly in Halacha 15 – “any rock that was touched by metal, even though it has no crack is disqualified for use in the altar and the ramp as it says ‘you have drawn your sword upon them and have defiled them’ and anyone who builds with such a rock in the altar or the ramp receives lashes…”. The Rambam continues the parallel in Halacha 16 – “a rock that was damaged or metal touched it after it had been built into the altar or the ramp…”
In all of these cases the ramp is treated just as the altar itself and all of the halachot relevant to the construction of the altar apply to the ramp.
This phenomenon is found in other contexts as well, for example the halacha states that under certain circumstances sacrifices which have become disqualified and cannot be offered on the altar, should not be removed if, despite the disqualification, they were placed on the altar. We are taught that this applies if they are place on the ramp as well. Once again we see the qualities that seem to be unique to the altar are extended to the ramp as well.
This elevated status (pun intended) of the ramp whereby it achieves the status of the mizbeach itself is expressed in the most radical form in a debate between Tosfot and the Rambam. The debate revolves around the status of blood that should have been sprinkled on the mizbeach and instead was sprinkled on the ramp. Incredibly enough, in such a scenario the Rambam feels that the korban is kosher. Our simplistic view of the ramp would clearly not fit as an explanation of any of these halachot.
It seems that the ramp is to be viewed in a dual manner. On the one hand it serves simply as an engineering solution to the step problem, while on the other the ramp is viewed as an integral part of the mizbeach itself.
If we go back to our reading of the Rambam we can note that not only the content of the halachot is strange but the order is as well. All of the halachot that we quoted above, detailing the restrictions involved in the construction of the ramp actually precede the introduction of its existence. It is only in Halacha 17 that the Rambam tells us that we are not allowed to have steps leading to the altar and we therefore require a ramp!!
I must admit that I have trouble in explaining why this would be the case and I would be interested in feedback from the readers for any insights on the matter. I would like to share two possible attempts at understanding this anomaly.
One suggestion that comes to mind is that the actual function of the ramp is simply as an auxiliary to the actual altar however we do have a precedent for preparatory elements adopting the full status of the primary one. The Mishna and Gemara in Mesechet Shabbat have a long discussion as to the possibility that the preparatory stages of Brit Milah may take precedence over the halachot of Shabbat just as the circumcision itself. The Gemara goes on to compare and contrast many mitzvoth and it tries to pinpoint which ones support a more limited allowance vis-à-vis Shabbat and which ones have a more expansive scope. In this approach we would phrase it thusly – “The ramp is merely a lead up to the actual altar but nonetheless it takes on some of its Halachik qualities”.
Rav Re’em HaKohen (Rosh Yeshiva of Otniel) has an extensive discussion of our subject matter in his book dedicated to the altar. (The entire volume “Derech Shaar HaElyon” Gilui 5768 deals with the altar and he has a chapter, pages 211-232, that focuses on the ramp.) Rav Re’em claims that the ramp, or more specifically ascending the ramp, fulfills the same function that the altar itself is designed to fill. The entire system is meant to open the human being up to the world of the Divine and raise his level of spirituality. There are many symbolic acts done in order to accomplish this goal. As the Kohen walks up the ramp he is transformed from the realm of the mortal to that of the immortal, from the mundane to the holy. Accordingly, it is very fitting for the ramp to take on many of the same characteristics as the altar itself, not merely as a lead up to, but rather as an equal partner in the same spiritual endeavor.
Once again I would be interested in your thoughts and comments.