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Mitzvah 40 – No iron on the altar

Posted by rabbiart on May 14, 2008

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

This week we cover Mitzvah 40: Not to use any tools on the altar
A mitzvah fraught with metaphoric implications. A good thing, since we no longer have altars in the sense meant here, so it would be difficult to observe this commandment; even harder to violate it.

וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, לֹא-תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית: כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

When you make Me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use your tool upon it, you have profaned (spoiled) it.

The kernel of this mitzvah is that the altar both conforms to and symbolizes its purpose; to be an instrument of forgiveness, blessing and peace. Therefore no “tools of war” are used in its design and construction. Even during its maintenance, the priests exercised care in the twice of year whitewashing of the altar, using a neither a tool nor a mixture that contained iron.

The mitzvah is in effect in all time and places when the Holy Temple is in place.  Since the Temple is no longer standing, this has become a mitzvah that cannot be observed as originally understood.  But are there ways we might bring this mitzvah alive?  Yes.  In our day we build not only altars, but bimot, sanctuaries, even entire synagogues.  We could “look to our tools” and see whether we have engaged in any design or construction practices that cause workers (or contributors) to become ground-down; to suffer from any deviation in “living up to the altar”.

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