Yitro: An Altar of Earth is Enough

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (Shmot/ Exodus 20:22)

Good morning!

Well, it’s one of those days when I thought I knew what I wanted to drash in the Torah portion, and then Sforno, a commentator from Renaissance Italy, came along and completely changed my direction. The most famous part of this week’s Torah portion is the revelation and “Ten Commandments” given at Sinai, but after the drama of that story, the people withdraw from the mountain and a few more commandments are given regarding building altars and worshipping.

One of those rules, quoted above, is a prohibition on building an altar of hewn or carved stone. The previous verse says that an altar of earth is fine for the sacrifices, but this verse clarifies: if you want to make a stone altar to God, don’t use tools to carve or shape the rocks. I’ve always understood this verse to teach the separation of iron tools, which are reminiscent of iron weapons of war, from the stones of a place of worship. To wit: you can’t build an altar of God, a place of peace, with tools of war (or symbols of tools of war.) The means must be appropriate to the ends: one can’t build a peaceful or holy community using weapons, be they words, policies, attitudes, theologies or anything else that can be used for cruelty or domination.

On the third hand, as it were, Sforno says this verse isn’t about the iron tools, it’s about the intentions of the builders. He connects this verse to the previous one, which says simply, “make an altar of earth,” to emphasize that we do not need to make elaborate, expensive spaces for prayer and worship. The prohibition on hewn or carved stones is about redirecting the people’s attention to the spiritual focus of their offerings rather than building an externally impressive altar.

Let me be clear: there is a value in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah (I wrote about it a few years back), or making the commandments beautiful, which is a great thing. It’s why we have a colorful prayer shawl or a silver kiddush cup or decorated candlesticks, for example. This verse isn’t saying that our ritual objects or prayer spaces should not be pleasant and attractive- they should. The verse is rather saying that connecting with the Holy is a function of the intentionality of the people, not the ornamentation of the prayer space. We should also compare this with the cultures of other ancient peoples, who built huge temples and ziggurats and pyramids for the glory of their gods, but who treated their slaves as less than nothing. In contrast, the God of Israel: my people who were slaves will be free. For them, an altar of earth is enough, and they will find great blessing there.

Sforno reminds us to put first things first: we can and should certainly make our mitzvot beautiful, but we should never make things glorious for reasons of ego or vanity. Simplicity and humility can also be beautiful; better an altar of earth than the greatest architecture on earth if the point of prayer is misplaced.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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