Masechet Zevachim 58a-64b

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Mishkan Shilo Shul
06 Jan 2011

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 58a-b: Slaughtering a sacrifice on the altar

We have already learned (see, for example, daf 48) that kodshei kodashim – the holiest of sacrifices – must be slaughtered and prepared in the northern part of the Temple courtyard, while kodashim kalim – sacrifices that are on a lower level of holiness – can be slaughtered and prepared anywhere in the Temple courtyard. In the Mishnah on today’s daf, Rabbi Yossi teaches that if kodshei kodashim were slaughtered on the altar itself, that would be permissible, while Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Yehuda rules that only the northern half of the altar would be acceptable; the southern part is not considered “north” and only kodashim kalim could be slaughtered there.

In explanation of these two opinions, the Gemara refers to the passage in Sefer Shemot (20:20) that teaches that the earthen altar is the place where olot — burnt-offerings (kodshei kodashim) – as well as shelamim –peace-offerings (kodshim kalim) — are sacrificed. Rabbi Yossi understands the pasuk to mean that the altar is a place where both types of sacrifice can be slaughtered; Rabbi Yossi b’Rabbi Yehuda understands the pasuk to mean that half the altar is available for olot and the other half is available for shelamim.

From the Mishnah it sounds as if sacrifices that were slaughtered on the altar were considered valid ex post facto, but that the preparation really should not have been done there. Tosafot point out that based on the Torah passage itself, it appears that slaughtering the animal on the top of the altar is appropriate even le-khathilah — in the first instance. They argue that the Mishnah reflects the common practice to avoid doing that because of the concern lest the altar be defiled by the animal, for example, if the animal defecates on it while being prepared for slaughter.

Zevachim 59a-b: How many sacrifices can one altar hold?

According to the description of the navi in Sefer Melachim, (Kings 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’ach HaNechoshet — 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 Yossi 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 Taharat ha-Kodesh, Rabbi Yitzchak 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 Yossi 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 Melakhim I:8:63).

Zevachim 60a-b: Does the holiness of the Temple remain even in its state of destruction?

Among the terumot and ma’asrot – the tithes that the Torah requires be separated from fruits before eating – we find the commandment to set aside ma’aser sheni (see Devarim 14:22-26). Ma’aser sheni – “the second tithe” – is separated after the first tithes have been set aside for the kohen and the levi. This produce is taken by the owner and eaten in Jerusalem. In the event that there is too much for him to bring, he can redeem the fruit and purchase food in Jerusalem that he will eat there.

Does the requirement to set aside ma’aser sheni remain even when the Temple is no longer standing?

While the Gemara first attempts to answer this question by drawing a comparison to the laws of bechor – a first born animal that is brought to the Temple – ultimately the Gemara suggests that it is dependent on the question whether kedusha rishona kidshah l’sha’atah v’kidshah l’atid lavo – does the holiness of the Temple remain in place even after its destruction. If there is no longer any holiness, then what would the purpose be to set aside ma’aser sheni?

The simple reading of the Gemara appears to view the holiness of the Land of Israel and that of the city of Jerusalem as being the same, so if the destruction of the Temple removes the holiness from the Land, it does so for Jerusalem as well. This, in fact is the approach that is taken by Tosafot. The Rambam, on the other hand, sees the two as distinct and rules that even if the holiness of the Land is removed, kedushat Yerushalayim – which stems from the presence of God – can never be removed. With the return of the Jews to Israel under Ezra ha-Sofer and the building of the second Temple, the center of the kedusha was the rebuilt Temple – the seat of the Almighty – and the rest of the Land derived its holiness from Jerusalem. Thus the Rambam rules that even with the destruction of the Temple, kedushat Ezra remains forever.

Zevachim 61a-b: A transportable Temple

While traveling through the desert, the Children of Israel were commanded to build a collapsible Tabernacle complete with implements for sacrifice. Upon entering the Land of Israel they were commanded to build a Temple — a permanent structure where sacrifices would be brought — although this mitzvah was not fulfilled until the time of King Solomon, hundreds of years after the land was settled. During the interim, the altar was set up on a semi-permanent basis in places like Shilo, Nov and Giv’on.

According to Sefer Yehoshua (18:1), the first established resting place for the Tabernacle was Shilo, where it stood until the war with the Plishtim during the time of Eli the High Priest, as described in Sefer Shmuel (I, Chapter 4). As the Mishnah explains (Zevachim 112b), this was a permanent structure made with a stone foundation and the Tabernacle coverings as a roof. Following the destruction of the Tabernacle in Shilo, its remains were erected in Nov, as we learn from the story during King Shaul’s reign (see I Shmuel 21:7), and later we find that King Solomon sacrificed at the great altar  in Givon (see I Melakhim, or Kings 3:4).

Rav Huna quotes Rav as teaching that when the altar was established in Shilo, it was constructed of stones, quoting a baraita where we find Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov teaching that the word avanim — stones — appears three times, once in Sefer Shemot (20:21), and twice in Sefer Devarim (27:5, 6), to teach that the altar must be built out of stones in Shilo, in Nov and Givon, and in the permanent Temple.

A number of explanations are offered for this teaching. Rabbi Natan, for example, understands that the altar in Shilo was the original hollow copper altar from the Tabernacle, but that it was filled with stones. Rav Papa suggests that there were two altars — the original copper one and the new stone altar — both of which received Heavenly fire at different times.

In the modern town of Shilo today the remains of the Tabernacle have been found, and a modern synagogue has been built commemorating it.

Zevachim 62a-b: Who knew how to build the Second Temple?

After the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the Jewish people were given permission to return to their land and rebuild the Second Temple by Cyrus the Great of Persia seventy years later. The Gemara on today’s daf discusses how the returnees knew what to do.

With regard to the placement of the Temple itself, it is essential that the building was in the proper place. Nevertheless, the Gemara suggests that it was a simple matter of locating the original foundation of the First Temple and building in that place. The altar also had to be in a specific place, but it had no foundations upon which to base the plans for it. How did they know where it was to be placed?

Several theories are related by the Gemara, ranging from prophetic visions, to physical evidence of the ashes of the Binding of Isaac — which is understood to have taken place on Mount Moriah (actually the ashes of the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac). Another suggestion is that is was based on smell, and the place of the altar had the smell of the burning of the meat of the sacrifices — as opposed to the smell of incense that was found elsewhere on the mountain.

Ultimately, Rabbah bar bar Hanna quotes Rabbi Yochanan as teaching that there were three prophets who returned with the exiles and testified about three things related to the Temple:

According to Rashi, the prophets mentioned here are Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi whose Second Temple period prophecies are recorded in the book of Trei Assar.

Some commentaries point out that the Gemara does not say that these prophets used their prophetic abilities since halacha cannot be decided based on prophecy (see the Rambam‘s Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah). The Tiferet Yisrael, however, argues that with regard to the details of the laws of the Temple, prophecy is essential, since the navi attests that the Temple was prepared by King David with Heavenly direction (see Divrei HaYamim I:28:19).

Zevachim 63a-b: Climbing up to the altar

According to the Torah, the kohanim cannot climb up to the altar using steps, since that would allow the possibility of “uncovered nakedness,” given the way the uniforms are worn by the kohanim (see Shemot 20:22). To avoid this problem, the kohanim climbed to the altar by means of a kevesh – a ramp that led to the top of the mizbe’ach.

The Gemara on today’s daf offers some details regarding the kevesh. Rami bar Hama taught that all kivshei kevashim were three amot length for every amah in height, while the main kevesh was a little more than three-and-a-half amot for every amah in height.

Many of the commentaries understand that kivshei kevashim referred to in this teaching are the smaller ramps next to the main kevesh. These smaller ramps lead to the soveiv – the walkway that ran around the altar that the kohanim would use to sprinkle blood on the corners of the mizbe’ach. Since the main ramp was used by the kohanim to carry heavy pieces of the animal up to the mizbe’ach to be burned, the more gradual incline allowed the kohanim to do so more comfortably and safely. According to this approach, the term kivshei kevashim indicates that it refers to a smaller keveshRashi, however, suggests that the plural term kivshei kevashim refers to all of the ramps that were in the Temple, aside from the main ramp to the altar, and the three-to-one ratio was simply the engineering standard of the time.

Regarding the length of the main ramp, Rashi teaches that it was 32 amot long. There is, however, a Mishnah in Masechet Middot that teaches that the beginning of the kevesh was 32 amot away from the altar, which would make the incline a bit longer than that. Several explanations are offered to this problem. In his Panim Me’irot, Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt argues that at floor level the kevesh was 30 amot and that the ramp was 32 amot. Furthermore, the two amot closest to the altar were flattened out in order to offer a place at the end of the ramp to allow the kohanim to stand comfortably when they threw the pieces of the sacrifices on the altar to be burned.

Zevachim 64a-b: Which is the most difficult service in the Temple?

Beginning with the Mishnah on today’s daf we move from the place of zevachim – animal sacrifices – to the place of sacrifices brought from fowl – doves or pigeons.

Sacrifices brought from fowl are not formally zevachim, which are limited to animals that are slaughtered in an ordinary fashion. These sacrifices are prepared for sacrifice by means of melikah, where the kohen will pierce the neck of the bird with his fingernail (see Vayikra 1:14-17 and 5:8-10). The Mishnah on today’s daf describes this preparatory service, and the Gemara quotes a baraita that describes it as the most difficult service that was performed in the Temple.

What was involved in the service of melikah?

Rav Zutra bar Tuvia quotes Rav as teaching that the kohen would hold the wings with two fingers and the legs with two fingers stretching out the bird’s neck, and the bird would be killed by means of the kohen‘s thumbnail. According to the baraita, the bird’s body was held in such a way that it was outside the hand of the kohen, and – while holding the wings with two fingers and the legs with two fingers – the kohen would kill the bird with his thumbnail.

According to Rav Ovadia mi-Bartenura, as well as the Rambam, the kohen would hold the bird in his left hand according to one of the two opinions, and would perform melikah with the thumb of his right hand. This parallels cases of slaughter in the Temple, where both hands are used. The Shitah Mekubetzet quotes Tosafot as suggesting that the entire melikah service was done with the right hand (as depicted in the above illustrations). According to this approach we can easily understand why this service is considered to be the most difficult one, since the bird had to be held and killed with a single hand.

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.