> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

The Pillar and the Altar

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Devarim, 16:22: “You shall not set up any pillar, which HaShem, your God hates”.

The Torah forbids setting up a pillar (matzeivah) as a way to worship God. Instead, one should use an altar (mizbayach) for offerings. The problem arises that the Patriarchs themselves used to use matzeivot in their Divine service1, so why now does the Torah forbid it? Rashi explains that at the time the Torah was written, it was common for idol worshippers to use a matzeivah in their idol worship, whereas at the time of the Patriarchs, this was not a common practice.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a different explanation2. He begins by elucidating the differences between a matzeivah and a mizbayach. A matzeivah is one stone in its natural form which is a symbol of God’s control over nature. In contrast, a mizbayach comprises of a number of stones that a human assembles into an orderly structure. This symbolizes the idea that man’s purpose is not just to see God in nature, but to subjugate man to God through man’s actions. With this introduction, Rabbi Hirsch explains that in the time of the Patriarchs, before the Torah was given, the main purpose of man was to recognize God in the world through nature, but there was no requirement to direct one’s actions to Divine service because the Torah had not yet been given3. God loved these matzeivot because they achieved what was required at that time. However, after the Torah was given, it was insufficient to simply recognize God in nature without also living one’s life in the way require by the Torah. Accordingly, the mizbayach became the optimal means with which to serve God, because It symbolized man’s active submission to God. Moreover, the matzeivah was now transformed from being beloved to God to being hated by Him, because only recognizing God in the world, without an accompanying commitment to live according to the Torah, is considered a sin in God’s eyes.

A person who recognizes God in nature, and even believe in Divine Providence, fulfils two of the three foundations of belief that the Sefer HaIkrim outlines, but the third is that God gave us the Torah to fulfil it. If he does not follow that third foundation, even if he believes in the other two, then he is fundamentally flawed, because man’s purpose is to take his recognition of God and Divine Providence and live his life according to God’s instructions, as outlined in the Torah.

It is possible to discern a similar idea in explanation of a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. The Mishna states: “One who is going on the way and is learning, and stops learning, and says, ‘how pleasant is this tree, how pleasant is this bush’, the verse considers it as if he is obligated for his life4.” A number of commentaries understand that when the person notes the pleasantness of the tree, he is seeing it as a creation of God and is marveling at God’s creation. Accordingly, they ask what is so bad about observing the wonders of God’s creations, even if one stops learning to do so56? This is all the more difficult given that the Rambam writes that one of the ways of fulfilling the mitzvot of Ahavat Hashem (love of God) and Yirat Hashem (fear of God) is by seeing God in nature7. They also note that the Mishna can’t simply be coming to teach the severity of bittul Torah (stopping learning), because this was already expressed in an earlier Mishna8. This is all the more difficult given that the Rambam writes that one of the ways of fulfilling Ahavat Hashem and Yirat Hashem is by seeing God in nature.

One explanation given is that learning Torah is a higher method of seeing God than observing nature, accordingly, one who stops seeing God through his learning in order to see God through nature, is erring, because Torah is the optimum way to come to love and fear God. However, it is perhaps possible to suggest a slightly different approach, based on the above principle of Rav Hirsch. Learning Torah is one of the optimum ways of fulfilling the ‘mizbayach’ form of Divine service, of doing actions in this world as a way of expressing recognition of God. Stopping learning in order to see God through nature is akin to rejecting the mizbayach form of Divine service and returning to the ‘matzeivah’ form of acknowledging God in nature, because the ultimate purpose of contemplation of God in nature is to bring a person to action. In this instance, he is doing the opposite – foregoing action for contemplation, hence the severity of this behavior.

Rabbi Hirsch wrote his monumental commentary on the Torah at a time when non-Orthodox movements were arising, that accepted the general idea of God’s existence but rejected active Torah observance, hence his message was very pertinent. Even today, there are certainly many people who have no qualms about acknowledging the Divine imprint on the world, but are far more reluctant to live their lives according to the Torah’s dictates. Even for the ‘observant’, Rabbi Hirsch’s lesson seems to be pertinent. It is quite easy for a person to go through the mundane activities in his daily life without an awareness that every action can constitute a type of Mitzva when done with the right intent. Actions such as helping one’s wife, paying a taxi driver, being honest in work, and even crossing the road carefully9, can all constitute Mitzvot with the correct intention (kavannah). However, without kavannah, the majority of a person’s actions are not expressions of submission to God, even though the person will readily acknowledge God’s presence. Rabbi Hirsch’s lesson teaches us that we must never forget that the purpose of our lives is to bring God into the world through our actions.


  1. Bereishis, 28:18.
  2. Peirush Al Hatorah, Devarim, 16:22.
  3. It is true that the Avos observed the Torah before It was given, but this was not out of strict obligation.
  4. Avos, 3:9. In some versions, this is found in Mishna 7 instead of Mishna 9.
  5. Others hold that the person is observing the pleasantness of the tree without noting that HaShem created it. According to this understanding, it is easier to comprehend the seriousness of this behavior.
  6. Another significant question on this Mishna is the language of ‘it is as if he is obligated for his life’ The reason for this specific language is not addressed in this essay.
  7. Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2.
  8. Avos, 3:5.
  9. It can be a fulfilment of the Mitzva to guard one’s life.

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