The Mizbeach

THE MIZBEACH (ALTAR)

The Slaughtering Area

The slaughtering area was situated north of the mizbeach. This is because offerings of higher levels of sanctity, such as the burnt and sin offerings, must be slaughtered in the north. Here the offerings were slaughtered, skinned and prepared to be brought upon the altar. The rings, tables and small pillars facilitated this. One of the ten constant miracles of the Mikdash relates to this area: A fly was never seen in the slaughtering area and there was never an unpleasant smell from the offerings. (Source: Chapters of the Fathers, Ch. 5).

The slaughtering area included the area north of the mizbeach and extended up until the wall of the Court. In this area, there were twenty-four rings used for holding the animals in preparation for slaughtering, eight small pillars used to skin the offerings and eight tables upon which the offerings were washed and prepared to be brought upon the altar.

The level of sanctity of the slaughtering area was equivalent to that of the Priests' Court. An Israelite was only allowed entry to this area for Temple-related duties, such as: the laying of hands, slaughtering and waving. Entry was also permitted on Yom Kippur and festivals. (Source: Kelim 1:8.)

The Mizbeach (Outer Altar), Pt. 1

The Temple offerings were made on the mizbeach and hence its name Mizbeach Ha'ola, "the altar of the burnt-offering." The exact location of the mizbeach has important halachic, spiritual and historical significance. According to tradition, Adam, the first man, was created from earth taken from this spot. Adam later built his altar here; after the flood, Noach built an altar on this same spot, and this was the location of the binding of Yitzchak.

The mizbeach must stand upon earth, and is referred to as the "earthen Mizbeach." This altar may not stand over tunnels or elevated arches as do the other floors of the Temple Mount and the Mikdash. The mizbeach was whitewashed twice a year, on Passover Eve and on Sukkot eve. It was cleaned every Shabbat eve.

The outer mizbeach, situated in the Court outside the Heichal (Sanctuary) was built of whole stones that had been gathered from an area that had never been disturbed. These were stones untouched by iron tools, because it was not fitting that iron - which is used for making tools of war, that shorten man's life - should be used on the mizbeach, which prolongs man's life by atoning for his sins.

The Mizbeach (Outer Altar), Pt. 2

The mizbeach was constructed as a square on top of a square. The bottom square, which was the base of the mizbeach, was thirty-two cubits long, with a height of one cubit. The base surrounded the mizbeach only on the western and northern sides. On top of it was another square of thirty cubits squared with a height of five cubits. Finally, on top was another square of twenty-eight cubits squared with a height of three cubits. On each of the four corners of the mizbeach a square "horn" of one cubit protruded. The total height of the mizbeach was ten cubits from the floor of the Court to the horns of the mizbeach. The difference in size between the middle and top sections of the mizbeach created a walkway for the priests called the "sovev."

During the time of the Mishkan, (Tabernacle), the outer mizbeach was initially sanctified with the anointing oil. When the anointing oil was no longer attainable, the newly-built mizbeach was sanctified by being used for the Divine service in the Mikdash. Only priests were allowed to go up to the mizbeach, and only for the purpose of performing Temple duties. All priests would ascend the mizbeach from the right side and circle the mizbeach, descending from on the left side. In contrast, the High Priest would go up and down from the center of the ramp. (Source: Yoma 3:5).

The primary purpose of the mizbeach was to fulfill the commandments concerning the offerings - dashing of the blood against the side of the mizbeach, and burning the offerings on top. In addition to the woodpile used for burning the offerings, there were two other woodpiles. The second was designated to provide fire for the Incense Altar, and from here coals were taken and brought to the Incense Altar. The third woodpile was kept perpetually burning, as it is written, "The fire shall be burning upon the mizbeach; it shall never be extinguished." (Source: Leviticus 6, 6).

The Altar Ramp

The priests ascended to the mizbeach by means of a ramp, to a height of ten cubits (5 meters). A ramp was used instead of stairs, because of the Biblical prohibition: "Do not go up by stairs to My mizbeach, that your nakedness be not exposed on it." (Exodus 20, 23). Between the ramp and the mizbeach was a small space, to enable the parts of the offering to be tossed from the ramp into the flame.

The ramp was located at the southern end of the Mizbeach. Its length on the floor of the Court was thirty two cubits and the length of the incline was about thirty three cubits. On the western side of the ramp was a small opening the size of one square cubit called the revuva in which the fowl sin-offerings, which were deemed unfit during their melika were placed. (The ritual slaughtering of fowl-offerings, as performed by the priest, using his thumbnail and forefinger to snap the neck of the offering, is known in Hebrew as melika.)

The ramp provided ascent to the Mizbeach. All the priests walked up on the right side of the ramp, which was the eastern side. At the top, they circled around the Mizbeach and then descended on the western side. Halfway up the ramp, a pile of salt was placed on its western side. The priests placed the parts of the Tamid offering near this pile in order to salt them before placing them on the Mizbeach.

The Rings

North of the Mizbeach twenty four rings were affixed to the floor - one ring for each priestly watch. These rings were designed to aid in slaughtering the offerings by holding the animal's neck. According to the Rambam it was designed to hold the limbs. During the era of the Second Temple period, the ring of the priestly shift known as Belga was sealed closed as punishment to the family for the act of Belga's daughter, Miriam, who abandoned the Jewish faith during the time of the Greeks.

The twenty four rings were arranged in six rows of four rings each, parallel to the north of the Mizbeach. (A different opinion states that there were four rows of six rings).

The rings were designed to assist in the slaughter of offerings. Each priestly watch used its designated ring for the slaughter of the offerings brought during their shift, with the exception of the Tamid offering, which was slaughtered daily using a specific ring. In the morning, the second ring on the northwest side was used and in the evening, the second ring on the northeast.

The Tables and Small Pillars

The tables and the small pillars stood in the Slaughtering Area. The small pillars aided in skinning the offering, since all the offerings must be skinned (with the exception of the inner sin-offerings). The burnt-offering was cut up and its parts were washed on the tables. Additionally, the innards of other offerings were placed on these tables prior to their being brought up on to the mizbeach.

There were eight small pillars of stone with blocks of pine wood on top of them. Steel hooks, arranged in three rows, protruded from the wooden blocks, upon which the offering was hung for skinning. The eight tables between the pillars were made of marble. (Source: Tamid: 3:5.)

The Eastern Small Ramp

On either side of the ramp were smaller ramps. Using the small eastern ramp the priests ascended to the sovev (the walkway), to perform duties such as the melika of the fowl offerings. After encircling the mizbeach, the priests descended using the small western ramp.

The width of the small ramp was one cubit and it reached the height of the sovev (the walkway) - six cubits.

The Western Small Ramp
On either side of the ramp were smaller ramps. Using the small western ramp, the priests descended the sovev, after passing the revuva.

The width of the small ramp was one cubit and it reached the height of the sovev - six cubits.

The Yesod: The Base of the Mizbeach

The base of the mizbeach was called the Yesod (foundation). It ran along the northern and western sides of the mizbeach. In addition, the base protruded one additional cubit on the northeastern and southwestern corners. The section of the mizbeach that had the base was situated in the tribal portion of Binyamin, and the section of the mizbeach that had no base was located in Yehudah's portion.

The length of the base was a total of sixty - four cubits; thirty two cubits along the northern side of the mizbeach and thirty two cubits along the western side. The base was one cubit wide.

The blood of the first-born cattle, tithes and Passover offerings was dashed once upon the base of the mizbeach. This could be done at any spot along the western or northern base. On the southwestern corner of the base, were two small holes into which the remnants of blood were poured after the dashing of the offering's blood. In the western hole the blood from the inner sin-offerings was poured, and in the southern hole the remnants of blood from the other offerings. This blood drained out along the aqueduct that led to the Kidron River base. Jerusalemite farmers redeemed the holiness of the blood by purchasing it. They would use it as fertilizer for their fields.

Pictures: Top left: The Yesod can be seen during the Water Libation ceremony on Sukkot.
Top right: The Yesod can be seen as the kohanim clean up the Azara courtyard after the slaughtering of the Korban Pesach (Passover offering) on the eve of Passover.
Bottom left: Kohanim pouring blood from offerings into the two drainage holes in the southwestern corner of the altar.
Bottom, second and third from left: Shavuot pilgrim with his first-fruit offerings, standing next to the Yesod of the altar.
Bottom right: Kohanim cleaning out coagulated blood from the drainage system next to the altar Yesod. The blood was purchased by farmers whom used it to fertilize their fields.

The Sovev

The sovev (literally, "surrounding") was a ledge surrounding the mizbeach. Its height was six cubits from the floor of the Court. The sovev was reached using the smaller ramp on the eastern side of the large ramp.

The sovev was one cubit in width. It was created as a result of the difference in the width between the upper part of the Mizbeach - which was twenty eight square cubits - and its middle part which was wider - thirty square cubits.

The priests would ascend the sovev in order to apply the blood of the outer sin-offerings on the four corners of the mizbeach and to perform the melika (The ritual slaughtering of fowl-offerings, as performed by the priest, using his thumbnail and forefinger to snap the neck of the offering.) of the fowl burnt-offering on the southeast corner.

Hut Hasikra: The Crimson Line

The Crimson Line was a thin red strip that ran all along the mizbeach and divided its height into two. The upper part was five cubits, including the height of the horns. The bottom half was five cubits, including the base. Some offerings, such as the burnt and peace offerings, required their blood to be dashed upon the bottom half of the mizbeach. The priest performing this service would stand on the floor of the court. For other offerings, such as the outer sin offering, the blood was required to be applied to the upper part of the mizbeach. The Mishna states that the line was de

The Three Woodpiles

Three woodpiles were arranged at the top of the mizbeach: the large wood pile, the incense woodpile and the woodpile for the perpetual fire. On Yom Kippur, an additional woodpile was prepared for the incense burned in the Holy of Holies. All types of wood were fit to be used for these fires, with the exception of olive and grapevine wood. However, in practice, wood of fig, walnut and pine trees were used, for these burn well.

In the beginning of the First Temple period, a fire descended from heaven to the altar. The fire atop the altar during that era was described as being as "strong as a lion" - it burned with great strength. However, the woodpile was still kindled with twigs, from which the fire spread to the entire woodpile. This is according to the halacha which states that fire must be brought by human agency, despite the fact that fire had fallen from heaven. Source: Yoma 21:B)

The large woodpile was arranged on the southeast side of the mizbeach. Parallel to it, on the southwest side, the woodpile for the incense service was arranged. Anywhere else on the top of the mizbeach the woodpile for the eternal fire could be arranged. The woodpiles were constructed in a crisscross fashion. This ensured that air could circulate and kindle the fire.

All of the offerings were brought on the large woodpile. This included the animal offerings such as the burnt and peace offerings, as well as those of vegetation, such as the meal offerings. A shovel was used to carry coals from the incense woodpile, inside to the Heichal (Sanctuary) where they were placed atop the incense altar for the burning of the incense. The third woodpile was used to fulfill the commandment, "a perpetual fire should be lit on the mizbeach, which is never extinguished." (Leviticus 6,6) There is an opinion that fire was taken from the third woodpile for the large fire in the event that the fire extinguished.

The bottom left picture depicts the dedication ceremony of the first Holy Temple, with the heavenly fire upon the altar.

The second from the top picture on the right depicts a kohen holding a shovel filled with coals from the incense fire as he carries them into the Heichal, where he will use them to burn the incense upon the Incense Altar.

The Two Libation Cups

Two small cups were located on top of the mizbeach, next to the horn on the southwest corner. These cups were used to receive the libations. The wine libation was poured into one of the cups, and this was done daily at the completion of the sacrifice of the burnt and peace offerings. The other cup was for the water libation which was done during the Sukkot festival. Near the cups a pile of salt was kept, used for salting the libations and for the meal-offerings before their sacrifice.

These two silver cups had a type of "nozzle" on the bottom - a small hole for the water and wine to drain through. The opening in the wine cup was wider than that of the water, because wine is thicker than water and flows more slowly. In this way, during the Sukkot festival when the wine and water libations were poured simultaneously, the contents of the two cups were drained at the same time, as halachically required.

The Kohens' Walkway

The kohens' (Temple priests') walkway was on the top of the mizbeach (altar). All the priests that ascended the mizbeach would do so from the right (east), encircle the mizbeach and descend from the left,(as seen in second from right, bottom picture). There were three exceptions to this rule, and in those cases the priests would ascend and immediately turn left: for the wine libation, for the water libation, (as seen in second from left, bottom picture), and for the salting of the fowl offering when there were many such offerings being brought at once. Under those circumstances, the melika of the fowl was performed on the southwestern horn, and not the southeastern horn).

The priests' walkway was a square path on the top of the mizbeach. It was situated within the area of the horns. It looked like a path of one cubit width and its length was 26 cubits on each of the four sides. (Source: Midot 3:6).

The Four Horns of the Altar

On the four corners of the mizbeach were four horns - each horn had an area of one square cubit and was one cubit in height. The horns protruded from the mizbeach and were an integral part of it; if a horn was damaged the mizbeach was deemed unfit for use.

Top of the Mizbeach (Altar)

The priests performed their duties and brought the offerings on the top part of the mizbeach. On the top of the mizbeach there were three woodpiles: the large woodpile, the incense woodpile and the woodpile for the perpetual fire. The ash pile was in the center. On the southwestern horn, there were two cups for the wine and water libations and a pile of salt for the libations and for the meal offerings.

The area of the top of the mizbeach was twenty eight square cubits. Since the horn of the mizbeach took up a one cubit-sized area, the space remaining for the priests to perform their duties was about twenty seven square cubits.

The Sides of the Mizbeach and The Place of the Ashes & the Silver Shovel

The Place of the Ashes was a hole in the floor of the Mikdash the size of one square cubit. Its exact location was on the east, three handbreadths from the eastern side of the ramp and a distance of 20 cubits south of the mizbeach. Here, the ashes collected from the mizbeach were placed, as well as the ashes from the menorah and the incense altar, and the feathers and craw of the fowl burnt-offerings. There was never a need to clear the "place of the ashes" since its contents became reconstituted with the soil of the Mikdash.

In this place the ash from the incense and the menorah as well as the ashes collected at dawn were placed. The digestive organs of the fowl burnt offering and the feathers and craw were also thrown into the Place of Ashes.

On the western side of the ramp, close to the mizbeach, a silver shovel was kept for the collection of ashes. A priest would carry this shovel to the top of the mizbeach, collect the burnt coals from the large woodpile and place them in the Place of the Ashes.

The Sides of the Mizbeach: The Marble and Silver Tables

On the western side of the ramp adjacent to the mizbeach, two tables were placed, one of marble and the other of silver. On the silver table the sacred vessels that were used for the Tamid service were placed. On the marble table the parts of the offerings were placed before they were brought to the mizbeach. Following the Tamid service, two priests would stand on this table and blow trumpets as a sign for the Levites to begin singing. (Sources: Shkalim 10:4: Tamid 7:3).

The Sides of the Mizbeach: The Tablet of Marble

In the floor of the Court, near the southwest corner of the mizbeach, was an opening of one square cubit that lead to the drainage duct. Periodically, this duct needed to be cleared from the coagulated holy wine, This opening was covered by a marble tablet which had a ring embedded in it, enabling it to be lifted out. (Sources: Midot: 2:3. Succah 49).

The Area between the Ulam and the Mizbeach (The Sanctuary Entrance Hall and the Altar)

The area between the Ulam and the Mizbeach (The Sanctuary Entrance Hall and the Altar) was the area from which the Heichal (Sanctuary) was approached. This was also known as the Court of the Kohanim (Temple priests). The laver was positioned here to remind the priests that prior to performing all their duties on the mizbeach and inside the Heichal, they must sanctify (wash) their hands and feet with the water of the laver.

The distance between the Ulam and the Mizbeach was twenty two cubits, (including the area of the 12 steps leading to the Heichal), with a width of one hundred and thirty five cubits, which was the width of the Court.

The level of sanctity of the area between the Ulam and the Mizbeach was a higher level than that of the Priests' Court. Priests with blemishes or with uncovered heads were forbidden entry. (Source: Kelim 1:9).

In this area, those people bringing the offering of first fruits would stand, confess and prostrate themselves "before G-d." This area also figures in the Yom Kippur service. Here the High Priest laid his hands on the bull's head while making the first confession, pertaining to his family members, as well as the second confession, regarding his fellow priests. The people also prostrated themselves here on Yom Kippur. According to some opinions, large multitudes encircled the mizbeach here on Sukkot while holding the willow branches.

The Area between the Ulam and the Mizbeach: The Laver

The laver stood between the Ulam and the Mizbeach. Every priest, before beginning his duties, was required to immerse himself in a ritual bath, don the priestly garments, and sanctify his hands and feet from the water of the copper laver. During the era of the Mishkan, the laver had two faucets. During the Second Temple Period, a priest by the name of Ben Katin, modified the laver equipping it with twelve faucets so that all the priests performing the Tamid offering of dawn could sanctify their hands and feet simultaneously.

The copper used for the construction of the laver in the Mishkan was donated by the Jewish women who had exited Egypt. They contributed their shiny copper mirrors. The women had used these mirrors for a holy purpose during the years of bondage; to enhance their beauty, thereby strengthening their marital bond and fortifying and enlarging the nation. The laver was made from these mirrors.

The laver and its base were made of copper. The laver was placed between the Ulam and the mizbeach, towards the southern side, so that the mizbeach was situated directly across the entrance to the Heichal, without any division. (Zoom in.) The position of the laver reminds the priest that both before performing the service inside the Heichal and when performing his service on the mizbeach, he must first sanctify his hands and feet.

The laver is a service (sacred) vessel, as are the other vessels in the Mishkan. In the Mishkan, it was initially sanctified by anointing with oil. In the Mikdash, it was "dedicated through its service." From this we derive that it cannot be used for ordinary, (non-holy), purposes.

The copper laver was filled with water, which was used to sanctify the hands and feet of the priests before proceeding with the service. The manner of laving was as follows: the faucet was opened and water was poured on the right hand and the right foot and afterward on the left hand and foot.

The Parts of the Laver: The Faucets, Pedestal and Muchni

The Faucets

The "dadim" were the faucets of the laver. During the era of the Mishkan, the laver had two faucets. During the period of the Second Temple, a priest by the name Ben Katin constructed a laver with twelve faucets. This enabled all twelve priests who were chosen during the second lottery to bring the Tamid offering of dawn to sanctify their hands and feet simultaneously.

The Pedestal

The copper laver stood upon a copper base called the "pedestal" ("ken"), as commanded by the Torah. The pedestal was designed to elevate the laver to a proper and convenient height for the priests to sanctify their hands and feet.

The Muchni

The "Muchni" was constructed to solve the halachic problem of water invalidated by "staying overnight" in the laver ("posul b'lina"). Anything that was left all night in a sanctified vessel, was deemed unfit for use. In order to solve this problem Ben Katin invented the Muchni, a kind of pulley. With this pulley the laver was lowered into a nearby water cistern at dusk and the water inside was drained. At dawn the laver was refilled with water and with the help of the pulley, placed in its proper spot. The Mishnah tells us that sound of the Muchni could be heard as far away as Jericho.

In their description of the Muchni, the commentaries have differing opinions: According to Rashi there was a water cistern into which the laver water was drained. In this manner, the water in the laver was connected to the water in the cistern and so it was not deemed unfit because it had not stayed in the laver overnight. The sound of the pulley that would lift the laver into the cistern was heard as far away as Jericho.

According to the Rambam, the Muchni, was a separate, unique vessel which was not a sanctified vessel of service. Since the law of water becoming unsuitable for use in the Mikdash applies only to water that was stored overnight in a sanctified vessel, a vessel that was not sanctified could be used for water storage. This opinion maintains that the muchni was an unsanctified vessel that was installed on top of the laver. At dusk the water in the laver was transferred into it so that the laver water would not become unfit by staying in it overnight. At dawn the water was transferred back into the laver for use during the day.

The purpose of the Muchni was to solve the problem of surplus water that remained in the laver overnight, because such water would be deemed unfit (posul) for use the next day. This was due to the rule that anything left in a sanctified vessel overnight was deemed unfit for use.