Helping parents, teachers, and students of many faiths pursue Biblical wisdom.

Title: Pillars And Altars

Major Focus: Holy Altar

Minor Focus: Sacrificial Rituals

Abstract: On the way into exile, Jacob set up a pillar for God. On his return to Israel, he set up an altar. What is the difference?

Format: Rabbinic Argument

Beth El

"And this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be God's home."

Genesis 28:22

"He (Jacob) set up an altar there, and called it El-elohe-yisrael."

Genesis 33:20

    On the way into exile Jacob set up a pillar for God. On his return to Israel he set up an altar. Why the difference?

  1. Ramban: A Biblical "pillar" means only one stone. An altar is made up of many stones. A pillar was for pouring out oil and wine for God. An altar was for making animal sacrifices. Pillars were forbidden when the Children of Israel actually conquered the Promised Land, because the Canaanites had been using pillars for sacrifice.
    1. What are "altars" used for now? Where are they located? Are they used for animal sacrifices? Why not? When did the change from their old use to their present use occur?
    2. Why did God forbid the use of pillars for worship just because the Canaanites used to do it?

  2. Hirsch: The pillar was one single stone. It was part of God's natural world. It was fine to represent God's kindness to people. It could be used before the Torah was given. However, after the Torah was given, God wanted more than just wine or oil poured on a stone. People had to bring important sacrifices to show their love for God and willingness to do the work God wanted done in the world. After the Torah was given, pillars were no longer allowed, only altars.
    1. Why might ancient peoples pour wine and oil on a stone to show their thankfulness to God?
    2. Why did God want something more complicated after the Torah was given?
    3. How was animal sacrifice more important than using oil and wine?

  3. Abraham Kook: The pillar was for the earliest, simplest forms of worship. There was no special ritual, no prayers, no elaborate rules for how to worship God. The altar is used in the "House of God." The altar helps us climb the mountain of God, to enter into the world of holiness, the House of the Eternal God.
    1. What did Jacob call the place where he first set up a pillar and later an altar? (Beth El) What does that name mean?
    2. What does it mean to climb God's mountain? Is that really where God lives?
    3. What is the world of holiness? Where is it? Why is the earth sometimes called God's holy mountain?