Traveling with the Fire on the Altar – Zevachim 61


The Gemora says that the fire that came down from the heavens during the time of Moshe did not depart from the copper Altar until the time of Shlomo. The fire that came down from the heavens during the time of Shlomo did not depart until Menashe and removed it.

Kollel Iyun HaDaf <a href=””></a> poses the following question: Rashi in his commentary on Chumash (Shemos 30:3) cites the Mechilta which contrasts the Mizbe’ach ha’Ketores to the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes. The verse says that the Mizbe’ach ha’Ketores had a solid top, while, says the Mechilta, the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes did not have such a top. The Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes was transported merely as a frame, and at each stop in the desert its hollow interior was filled with dirt. The Netziv (Shemos 27:2) therefore questions Rashi’s words from the Gemora here, which states that the fire descended and stayed on the Mizbe’ach. If the earth inside of the hollow of the Mizbe’ach was removed and the Mizbe’ach dismantled each time the Jewish people embarked on a new journey, then where was the fire?

HaRav Dovid Meyers, author of the fabulous sefer on the construction of the Mishkan, Meleches HaMishkan V’Kailav, answers as follows: Firstly, according to the Malbim (Shemos 20, posuk 21) there is an argument in Mechilta whether the Mizbe’ach was carried with the dirt or not. The Malbim also brings another dispute if the fire was on the Mizbe’ach when they traveled or not. The Malbim explains that if the fire remained, then the Mizbe’ach was filled with dirt when they carried it. If it did not remain, then it was carried without dirt.

According to the Shitah Mekubetzes on our Daf (letter 6), in the time they traveled, the fire rested on the edge of the Mizbe’ach.

According to Raaviah (chelek sheini Maseches Chagigah siman 808), the fire rested on a clump of dirt carried with the Mizbe’ach.

According to Anaf Yosef on Tanchuma (Terumah 11) they put a tablet on the Mizbe’ach and it rested on it.

According to Tosafos HaSaleim (Shemos 38, 6-7, letter 1), even according to Rashi, the Mizbe’ach HaNechshes had a top.

The Kollel cites the following answers: The Netziv explains that the Gemora argues with the Mechilta and maintains that the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes did have a top on which the fire rested even during the journeys. He finds support for this assertion in the Midrash Tanchuma. He explains that the way the Mizbe’ach was filled with earth was through the bottom of the Mizbe’ach, which had no floor. Upon their arrival at a new location, the Jewish people would make a mound of earth and place the Mizbe’ach over it, effectively filling the Mizbe’ach with earth. When they would leave, they would lift the Mizbe’ach, leaving the earth in its place.

This also seems to be the opinion of the Kereisi u’Pleisi (43:5). The Gemora in Chagigah (27a) derives through a kal va’chomer from the Mizbe’ach ha’Zahav that the fire of Gehinom does not affect the transgressors among the Jewish people. Even though the gold covering the top of the Mizbe’ach ha’Zahav was only the thickness of a dinar coin, it was not diminished at all throughout the years that it had a fire burning on it. Certainly, then, the transgressors among the Jewish people — who are full of mitzvos like a pomegranate — will not be affected by the fire of Gehinom (see Insights to Chagigah 27a).

Tosfos in Chagigah there (DH she’Ein) is bothered by a question, as the Kereisi u’Pleisi explains his words. Why does the Gemora learn this kal va’chomer from the Mizbe’ach ha’Zahav, and not from the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes? The only thing offered on the Mizbe’ach ha’Zahav was the incense offering, which was burned there once at the beginning of the day and once at the end of the day. There was much more activity on the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes, which had a fire on it at all times, and it too had a coating of gold that did not diminish!

Since the Kereisi u’Pleisi says that the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes had a coating of gold on its top, it is clear that he maintains that the Mizbe’ach had a top, like its counterpart, the Mizbe’ach ha’Zahav.

The Gemora here may be understood even according to Rashi’s assertion that the Mizbe’ach ha’Nechoshes had no top, based on the words of the Shitah Mekubetzes (#6). Rashi here (DH Lo Nistalkah) comments that while the Jewish people traveled in the desert, they used to turn a certain type of vessel over the fire on the Mizbe’ach to preserve the fire. This is the opinion of Rebbi Yehudah in Toras Kohanim (Tzav 2:10; see Rash mi’Shantz), and not the opinion of Rebbi Shimon who says that the fire was removed from the Mizbe’ach. This is also the way Rashi explains in Bamidbar (4:13), where he says that the cover of the Mizbe’ach was not burned by the fire underneath it while traveling, due to the vessel which was placed over the fire. If there was no actual top to the Mizbe’ach, though (but rather its frame was filled to the top with earth), and the earth inside of it was removed when the people traveled, where could they place the vessel to contain the fire? The Shitah Mekubetzes explains that they placed the vessel “over the edge” of the Mizbe’ach. This means that the fire on the Mizbe’ach remained on top of the frame of the Mizbe’ach, covered by this vessel.