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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Mitzvah 41 – No Big Steps

Posted by rabbiart on May 22, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of their appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover Mitzvah 41: Not to stride by steps to the altar

Let’s start by confessing puzzlement as to how this mitzvah might be observed in our day. Shemot 20:23 says not to climb in steps on the altar, so as not to expose “nakedness”.

וְלֹא-תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ, עָלָיו.

It might be helpful to picture the people wearing robed or toga-like garments in order to understand what is meant. We no longer have the un-hewn altar, nor do we wear clothes that would expose our nakedness should we climb up any kind of steps.

According to Rashi there is no concern for actual exposure, but only the suggestion of it from taking too wide a steps. So the design of the steps should allow for narrower footsteps as one ascends or descends. In other words – tzni-ut (modesty). The immodesty of wide steps in turn detracts from the attitude of awe and reverence the altar requires. Sefer HaHinuch specifically states that there should be no levity whatsoever.

According to Rashi there is no concern for actual exposure, but only the suggestion of it from taking too wide a steps. So the design of the steps should allow for narrower footsteps as one ascends or descends. In other words – tzni-ut (modesty). The immodesty of wide steps in turn detracts from the attitude of awe and reverence the altar requires.

The midrash says the proper way to walk is with a demure heel to toe pace, undoubtedly with a respectful attitude. The Shulchan Aruch describes the proper posture for the Amidah. While reciting the Amida, one should place his right hand over his left hand, and place them over his heart. He adds that one should stand in a manner that reflects fear, awe and trepidation. The Shulchan Aruch further notes that it is improper to place one’s hands on his hips as he prays the Amida, as this posture would be an expression of arrogance.

All of this would seem to suppress an important mood and emotion – joy. If we have to reflect fear and trepidation, and avoid levity, and walk demurely, how can we rejoice?

Rashi’s concern is not for actual exposure, but improper appearance. The Shulchan Aruch similarly warns against improper expression or attitude. Sefer HaHinuch warns against any levity. But look at the content of the siddur, perhaps especially on Shabbat. Many prayer texts speak of joy; take the easy example, the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat. HaShem’s gift of the Torah is interpreted as an act of love. There is plenty of room for expressing our joy – and in rejoicing with each other. We need only take care to not let it get out of hand.

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