Masechet Zevachim 51a-57b

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Border Between Yehuda & Binyamin
30 Dec 2010

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Zevachim 51a-b: A person should not miss an opportunity to perform a mitzvah

According to the Mishnah (47a), the remnants of the blood of a korban chatat – a sin-offering – that was brought in the inner sanctum of the Temple, was poured out on the foundation of the altar that stood outside of the Temple, in the Temple courtyard.

Of the various sin-offerings, those that were brought by the High Priest (see Vayikra 4:3-12) and those that were brought by the Sanhedrin on behalf of the entire community (see Vayikra 4:13-21), as well as those brought on Yom Kippur (see Vayikra 16:3, 15) were brought on the inner altar; the others were brought on the altar that was outside in the Temple courtyard (see, for example, the sin-offering of the king, Vayikra 4:22-26 or an individual sinner, Vayikra 4:27-35). In the case of the korbanot that were brought on the inner altar, sprinkling the blood – which, as we have learned, was an essential part of the sacrificial service – took place within the confines of the Temple. Nevertheless, what was left over after the blood was sprinkled was poured out on the altar that stood outside of the Temple, in the courtyard.

In searching for a source for this law, the Gemara on today’s daf quotes a passage from Sefer Vayikra that appears regarding both inner sin-offerings and outer sin-offerings (see 4:7, 18 and 25), which teaches that this is where the blood should be poured as it is the first place that the kohen reaches when he leaves the inner sanctum.

Some manuscripts of the Gemara do not include this last explanation, that the outer altar is the first place that the kohen reaches when he exits the inner sanctum, and it appears that Rashi did not have these words in his Gemara. Tosafot explain that Rashi understood that the source for this law is the language of the biblical passages themselves, and that it is not because ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot – that a person should not miss an opportunity to perform a mitzvah. Tosafot argue that the idea of ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot only applies in situations where two mitzvot need to be fulfilled and we need to determine which should be done first. In cases where there is a single mitzvah to do, we need separate instructions about what should be done.

Zevachim 52a-b: Walking around the altar

The Mishnah that begins on today’s daf discusses the placement of both communal and individual sin-offerings. They are slaughtered on the northern side of the Temple courtyard, where the blood of the sacrifice is collected. That blood is taken by the kohen to the altar where it is placed on each of the four corners of the mizbe’ah. The Mishnah specifies that the kohen is to walk up the ramp and walk along the sovev – the edge surrounding the altar – beginning with the southeastern corner, and continuing to the northeastern corner, the northwestern corner and finally the southwestern corner, placing the blood on each one of the corners in succession.

The outer altar was ten amot (cubits) high, and at six amot above ground level the top of the altar became thinner, so that there was an amah-wide “step” at the edge of the mizbe’ach. This was the sovev upon which the kohen walked as he placed the blood from the sacrifice on the corners of the altar, as required. Later on in the next perek (see daf 62b), the Gemara explains that the ramp upon which the kohen climbed up to the sovev was not the main ramp leading to the altar itself, rather it was a smaller ramp that led to the sovev in the southeast corner where the kohen began his service.

In contrast to other sacrifices whose blood was usually sprinkled on the lower half of the altar, below a line called the hut ha-sikra, the blood of the sin-offerings was placed only on the upper part of the altar, which was at least five amot (about two-and-a-half meters or eight feet) above the yesod – the foundation – of the mizbe’ach. For this reason it would have been impossible for the kohanim to sprinkle the blood of the sin-offering while standing on the floor; it could only be done while walking along the sovev.

Zevachim 53a-b: Dividing the altar between tribes

Somewhat surprisingly, the yesod ha-mizbe’ach – the foundation of the altar – is found only on the Northern and Western sides. The Eastern and Southern sides had no yesod.

Rabbi Elazar explains that this is because that area of the altar did not fall in the area belonging to the tribe of Binyamin, rather it was in the area belonging to the tribe of Yehuda. Rav Shmuel bar Yitzhak explains that this is because one amah (cubit) of the altar cut into the area that belonged to the tribe of Yehuda.

A quick review of a map indicates that Jerusalem was split between the tribes of Yehuda (to the south) and Binyamin (to the north). The Gemara in Masechet Yoma (12a) teaches that there is a disagreement between the Tanna Kamma who believes that Jerusalem was a separate entity – that it was not divided between the shevatim and Rabbi Yehuda who argues that Jerusalem was divided. According to this opinion the border between Yehuda and Binyamin ran through the Temple itself, with the Temple Mount offices on Yehuda’s side and the sanctuary and Holy of Holies on Binyamin’s. A baraita that is brought describes how there was also a “panhandle” of sorts that encroached northward and included the area of the altar within the official boundaries of shevet Yehuda.

The Si’ah Yitzhak explains that all opinions agree that the area where the city of Jerusalem was built had originally been split between Yehuda and Binyamin. The disagreement between the tanna’im is whether when the decision was made to make Jerusalem the spiritual center of the Jewish people the entire city became a separate entity, or perhaps Jerusalem remained within the confines of the two shevatim, and only the area of the Temple itself had extraterritorial status.

Our Gemara suggests that the altar was not entirely within the boundaries of shevet Yehuda, rather it was in shevet Binyamin, with the exception of the south-eastern corner that was in Yehuda. Even so, the Gemara relates a tradition that Binyamin himself “saw” (apparently in a prophetic vision) that the altar — or a significant part of it — would not be in his portion, and was so disturbed by this that as a consolation prize he became the host (ushpizikhan) to the Almighty in that the Holy of Holies was built in his portion.

(For a more detailed picture of the Temple, click here.)

Zevachim 54a-b: How did the Mount Moriah become designated as the Temple Mount?

How did the Mount Moriah become designated as the Temple Mount?

According to the straightforward reading of Sefer Shmuel (II:Chapter 24), King David was directed to that place by Gad, the prophet, who instructed him to build an altar to God that would end the plague from which the people were suffering. The Gemara on today’s daf offers a much more detailed description of the long-term planning that went into arriving at this decision.

Rava quotes a passage from Shmuel Alef (19:18-19) where we find Shmuel the prophet sitting with David in Nayot in Ramah. This pasuk is difficult since Nayot and Ramah are two different places, so Rava interprets this homiletically as meaning that they sat together in Ramah and discussed noyo shel olam – the beauty of the world – i.e., the Temple. It is clear that the Temple was supposed to be among the highest places in Israel, since the commandment to visit the Temple on the pilgrimage holidays states ve-kamta ve-alita – that people must “go up” to the place chosen by God (Devarim 17:8). In order to determine the place that is considered highest, they studied Sefer Yehoshua (Chapter 15) and found that when the borders of the different tribes were discussed, most of them had their borders described with the words ve’alah – and the border rose up – ve-yarad – the border moved down – and ve-ta’ar – the border was drawn. Regarding the tribe of Binyamin, the word ve-yarad does not appear.

Having determined that the Temple Mount would be in the tribe of Binyamin, they considered placing it in Ein Eitam, which is the highest spot – Rashi identifies Ein Eitam as Mei Nafto’ah based on Yehoshua (15:10) – which, according to the Sages, was one of the springs from which water flowed to the Temple. This was rejected because the Sanhedrin was to be situated in the tribe of Yehuda, which was just to the south of Binyamin, but far from Mei Nafto’ah. This led to the decision to establish the Temple on the border between these two tribes (see Devarim 33:12).

Rashi points out that the source for placing the Sanhedrin in the tribe of Yehuda stems from his blessing in Sefer Bereshit (49:10), where he is promised to serve the role of mehokek, or legislator. The placement of the Sanhedrin near the Temple is derived from Sefer Devarim (17:9) where we learn that a complicated problem is to be brought to the kohanimlevi’im and to the judges. Thus the Temple was arranged so that it was situated in the tribe of Binyamin with the area of the Sanhedrin in Yehuda.

Zevachim 55a-b: Opening the Temple doors to sacrifice

Must the doors of the Temple be open when sacrifices are brought?

The Gemara on today’s daf juxtaposes two passages written regarding the korban shelamim – the peace offering. In one it says that the sacrifice must be brought petah ohel mo’ed – in the opening of the Tent of Meeting (Vayikra 3:2) – while in the other it says that the sacrifice must be brought lifnei ohel mo’ed – before the Tent of Meeting (Vayikra 3:8). In answer the Gemara points to the teaching of Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmu’el who rules that a korban shelamim that is slaughtered before the doors of the Temple have been opened is invalid, based on the passage that requires that the sacrifice is petah ohel mo’ed, which he understands to mean that the Tent of the Meeting must be open. Rashi explains that the word petah must mean “open” because a closed entrance would be called a delet (door) or sha’ar (gate).

Many of the rishonim ask why this teaching is necessary, since the korban tamid – the daily sacrifice – could not be brought before the doors to the Temple had been opened, and no sacrifice was brought before the morning korban tamid or after the korban tamid of the afternoon. The answer that is given is that sacrifices brought before the korban tamid may be valid, at least ex-post facto and that this rule may only be rabbinic. The Rosh says simply, that these are the same issues, and that the source for the fact that the korban tamid could not be brought before the doors of the Temple had been opened is this very passage – petach ohel mo’ed.

The question of whether this rule based on petach ohel mo’ed is limited to shelamim or if it may be applicable to other sacrifices, as well, is raised by the Sefer Har Tzvi, who argues that this is a disagreement between Rashi and Rabbeinu Baruch quoted in Tosafot. Rabbeinu Baruch rules that it applies to all sacrifices; Rashi limits it to a korban shelamim. Rabbeinu Elyakim explains Rashi’s position by saying that a korban shelamim is a gift to God, and it is inappropriate to bring a gift to someone when the doors to his home are locked up.

Zevachim 56a-b: Sizing up the Temple courtyard

The Temple was situated on a large rectangular platform on the Temple Mount that was divided into a large open area to the east called the Ezrat Nashim and a large area to the west called the Ezrat Kohanim, where the Temple itself was located, together with an open area which was where the animals were slaughtered and prepared for sacrifice. This area also contained the outer altar. Between the Ezrat Nashim and Ezrat Kohanim there was a much smaller area called the Ezrat Yisrael.  (See this diagram of the Temple.)

The Gemara on today’s daf relates that the following baraita was taught before Rav Nachman – that the azarah, the Temple courtyard to the east where the Temple was situated, was 187 amot by 130 amot. Rav Nachman responded by quoting his father who taught that it was only in this area where kodshei kodashim – the meat from the holiest sacrifices – were eaten by the kohanim, and it is here that kodashim kalim – the ordinary sacrifices – were slaughtered, and that someone who was ritually impure would be held liable for entering the Temple precincts.

From the Talmud Yerushalmi we know that Rav Nachman’s father’s name was Yaakov – in the Babylonian Talmud this Rav Nachman is referred to simply by his own name. In the Gemara Bava Metzia (16b) Rav Nachman identifies his father as one of the judges in the court led by the amora Shmuel, and that as a child Rav Nachman would accompany his father to his work and study. It appears that Rav Nachman’s foundational learning was acquired from the time that he spent with his father, and we find in Masechet Beitzah (24b) that he asks questions based on his father’s teachings. Although we do not find Rav Nachman’s father appearing anywhere in the Talmud as a participant in discussions of halacha or aggadah, nevertheless it is clear from our Gemara and from other stories that he not only taught his son straightforward Mishnah, but also the concepts upon which they were based, even in areas like kodashim.

Zevachim 57a-b: The “vineyard” in Yavneh

According to the Mishnah on today’s daf, the bechor – a first-born animal – which is given to the kohanim is eaten by them anywhere within the city of Jerusalem, and it must be consumed within two days after its sacrifice.

The Gemara asks for a source for the law that allows the bechor to be eaten for two days, and quotes a baraita that relates that this question was raised before the Sages in Kerem B’Yavneh – in the “vineyard” in Yavneh – and that Rabbi Tarfon responded that the source was in Sefer Bamidbar (18:18) where Aharon and his sons are instructed to treat the bechor the same way that they treat the meat that they receive from a korban shelamim – a peace-offering. Just as the korban shelamim can be eaten for two days, similarly the bechor can be eaten for two days.

The baraita continues that there was a new student in Yavneh on that day – Rabbi Yossi HaGalili – who argued that instead of comparing the bechor to shelamim – both being kodashim kalim, ordinary sacrifices, as Rabbi Tarfon argued – perhaps bechor should be compared to a chatat and an asham – a sin-offering and a guilt-offering, since all of them are given to the kohanim (as opposed to the shelamim, which is eaten by the owner of the korban), and those sacrifices are only eaten for a single day. Rabbi Tarfon was unable to respond to Rabbi Yossi HaGalili’s question, and Rabbi Akiva offered other suggestions. Ultimately Rabbi Yishmael concluded that Rabbi Tarfon’s explanation was best.

Following the destruction of the Second Temple, the center of Jewish life moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh under the direction of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. The Talmud refers to the yeshiva there – the center of Torah study at that time – as Kerem B’Yavneh. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, this is not because there was a vineyard there, rather because the students sat in rows one after another like rows of grapevines. Given the precarious situation of the Jewish community at that moment in history, the discussions and laws that were established there were essential for the future of the Jewish People and were given special status. It is interesting to note that even after the destruction of the Temple the topics of discussion still focused on the Temple service.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.