כ״ח בסיון ה׳תשע״ח (June 11, 2018)

Zevahim 59a-b: How Many Sacrifices Can One Altar Hold?

According to the description of the navi in Sefer Melakhim (I:8:64) on the day that the Temple was consecrated by King Solomon, the king was forced to consecrate the floor of the Temple courtyard for sacrifices, since the mizbe’aḥ ha-neḥoshet – the original altar that was brought from the Tabernacle together with the rest of the sacrificial utensils – was not large enough for all of the animals that were brought as sacrifices on that day.

Although Rabbi Yehuda accepts the simple reading of that passage, Rabbi Yosei argued that the expression used by the navi – that the altar was too small – was meant as a metaphor, and, in fact, the altar was large enough, but it had become invalid and could not be used. According to this approach, the navi was not saying that the sacrifices were brought on the floor of the courtyard due to lack of space on the altar, rather that the area of the courtyard was consecrated for the new altar that King Solomon had prepared, and that at this point the old copper altar, filled with earth, was no longer valid for sacrifice. In his Tahrat HaKodesh, Rabbi Yitzḥak Ashkenazi explains that King Solomon understood that in the Temple there was a requirement to build a permanent altar from stones, and that the moveable altar constructed of wood and copper that was appropriate for the Tabernacle was no longer usable.

To support his contention that the original altar could not have been too small, Rabbi Yosei points to the passage in Sefer Melakhim (I:3:4) that describes how, at the beginning of his reign, King Solomon went to Giv’on to sacrifice on the original altar and brought 1,000 burnt-offerings. Given the small amount of space available on the altar for burning, Rashi explains that a Heavenly fire played a role in burning the sacrifices, accelerating the procedure and allowing large numbers of sacrifices to be burned. In consecrating the Temple, King Solomon is said to have brought 22,000 oxen as burnt-offerings with an additional 20,000 sheep (see I:8:63).