Contributed by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis

A surface used for sacrifices, usually elevated upon a pillar of stone(s). Throughout the Bible, altars are erected at the sites of divine appearances or revelations,1 which were considered numinous places from that time forward. The presence of an altar therefore constituted a shrine.

Israelite altars were made of a pillar of un-hewn stones supporting a square platform with "horns," or projections rising at each corner. The word itself, mizbeach, is regarded to be an acronym for mehila, zachut, berachah, chayyim, "forgiveness, merit, blessing, and life."

Once found on innumerable high places across the land, such altars disappeared when licit sacrifice was centralized in Jerusalem as part of a reform measure to curb idolatry and syncretistic practices. Licit sacrifices in the cult of the God of Israel, according to the Bible, included incense, kosher animals, meal, oil, salt, and even water. Israelite practice featured two different kinds of altars, one for the animal and meal offers, and another for the burning of incense.

There is evidence that Jews living far from their homeland erected altars to the God of Israel, despite the prohibitions stipulated in the Bible. For example, the Jewish garrison in Elephantine, Egypt, had one — but also engaged in syncretistic worship of local deities alongside the God of Israel. Over time this practice was extinguished and anything even remotely resembling an altar in form or function was purged from Jewish practice. Thus any use of an altar from that period forward involves occult or illicit rituals. The use of such an unsanctioned altar is mentioned, for example, in Sefer Ha-Razim.

Article copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.