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ALTAR . The English word altar, meaning "a raised structure on which sacrifices are offered to a deity," derives from the Latin altare ("altar") and may be related to altus ("high"). This ancient meaning has been further verified by the corresponding Classical Greek term bōmos (raised platform, stand, base, altar with a base, i.e., the foundation of the sacrifice). The Latin altaria is, in all likelihood, related to the verb adolere ("to worship"; originally, "to burn, to cause to go up in smoke or odor"), so that the word has come to signify a "place of fire" or "sacrificial hearth."

The Classical World and Ancient Near East

The above etymology implies both burnt offerings and incense. Nowhereneither in ancient Greece or Rome nor anywhere elseis the altar necessarily associated with a temple. It is important to distinguish between house altars and public altars, as well as between stationary and portable altars. Both classical antiquity and the ancient Near East offer a rich variety of altars having diverse uses. Attempts at systematization have resulted in a clear understanding of the basic functions of the altar.

Greeks and Romans made careful distinctions between different altar forms: the raised altar site where sacrifices to the heavenly gods were performed; the pit (Gr., bothros; Lat., mundus ) that was dug to receive the offerings to the deities of the underworld; and the level ground where gifts to the earth gods were deposited. The altar was a symbol of the unseen presence of the gods and was therefore considered a sacred spot. Used as a table, it invited the god to partake of the offering; used as a throne it bade the god take his place. The shape of the hearth reflected the transformation of the sacrifice, through fire, into matter appropriate for the spiritual world. It also reflected the role of the hearth as the hallowed and central place both within the family and in society. The altar could also take the form of a burial mound in which the hole or duct that drained the sacrificial blood to the interred bodies within corresponded to the pit formerly used in sacrifices to the dead. Homer uses the word to mean "fireplace," indicating that burnt offerings and an ash altar had been part of the cult of the dead.

The above differentiations and functions apply to altars in general, regardless of how they were constructed or shaped within different cultures and religions: whether boulders, mounds, or piles of rocks; the stepped altars of the Akkadians and Cretans; the sacrificial tables of the Minoans; the sacred hearth of the megaron, the male gathering room of ancient Greece and the prototype of the temple; the retables of the Mycenaean pit or cupola graves; or the table and grave altars of the Christian cult of the dead (Fauth, 1964). In a Pawnee house, a wealth of cosmic symbols surround the buffalo skull displayed on an earthen platforma raised place that Western scholars commonly refer to as an altar (Weltfish, 1965, pp. 63, 66f., 266; cf. Reichard, 1950, pp. xxxv, 334).

Egyptian ritual worship included both portable and stationary altars. The former had no sacred function but were simply cult accessories such as tables or stands used for holding a tray of food, an incense bowl, or a libation cup (according to the type of sacrifice involved). Such portable altars were kept in great numbers in the temple stores. Most of the extant stationary altars were used in the sun temples. These altars were surrounded by a low wall indicating the special sacred nature of their place during sun rites that were devoid of imagery. A large obelisk further underscored the importance of the place in the ancient temples dedicated to Re. Monuments of that size could only be contained in the courtyard of an ordinary temple ("the place of sacrifice"), whereas the holiest of holies, which was inside the temple and harbored the cult image, had to make do with a portable sacrificial table (Bonnet, 1952, pp. 14f.).


The Sanskrit word vedi refers to "an elevated piece of ground serving as a sacrificial altar" or "a clay sacrificial altar." It is synonymous with pīha ("seat, throne"), an altar stand or pedestal with places for several idols, each backed with a prabhāvalī, or "halo" (Liebert, 1976, p. 334). Vedi may also designate a shallow trench constructed especially for offerings.

The nomadic Indo-Aryans who invaded India around 1500 bce carried with them a portable fire altar drawn on a chariot (ratha ) and protected by a canopy that marked the holiness of the shrine. This eternally burning fire on a rolling base was eventually replaced by fires kindled for the occasion by rubbing sticks together. In the case of domestic sacrifices, the head of the family made the fire in the home hearth (āyatana ). For communal offerings, a fire was made on a specially consecrated spot (sthaila ).

There were no temples during the Vedic period, but a sacrificial hall (yāgaśālā ) could be erected on holy ground that had first been thoroughly leveled. It consisted of a framework of poles covered with thatching. The sacred area, which like the domestic hearth was called āyatana, included subsidiary enclosures and a sacrificial stake (yūpa ) to which the victim was tied. This stake, which represented the cosmic tree, constituted an intermediate station between the divine world and life on earth. The vedi was constructed either inside or outside the sacrificial hall, as a mound of bricks or as a shallow pit where the sacred fires were lit. Burnt sacrifices and libations were offered to the gods who were supposed to attend the ceremonies, sitting on sacred grass (kuśa ) spread over part of the altar or on its sides. The vedi was constructed so as to be narrower in the middle and was likened to a female torso with a womb (Walker, 1968, vol. 1, p. 30).

The śrauta sacrifice, performed by priests, was founded on Vedic śruti ("heard") revelation; it is the subject of much discussion, especially in Śatapatha Brāhmaa. The practice calls for three different fire altars arranged around the vedi, which serves to hold oblations and sacrificial utensils not in use. The circular gārhapatya altar located to the west symbolizes the earth and its fire; it holds the "fire belonging to the lord of the house" that is used for preparing the sacrificial food. The quadrilateral āhavanīya altar to the east represents the sky with its four directions. It usually holds "the fire of offering." The semicircular dakiā, or southern altar, symbolizes the atmosphere between the heavens and the earth. It wards off hostile spirits and transmits the offering to the ancestors. The fire god Agni is thus present on all three altars in three different manifestationsas terrestrial, celestial, and aerial fireuniting the three worlds on one sacred plane. The omnipresent Agni, as all gods in one, provides the link between heaven and earth by conveying the food cooked on earthly fire to the heavenly fire, the sun.

All sacrificial rites are said to be included in and summed up by the stratification of the agnicaya (fireplace) or the uttaravedi (high altar) to the north with its rich symbolism. It represents the rejuvenation of the exhausted creator god Prajāpati, "the lord of offspring," and hence of all the cosmos, his body. The Agnicayana sacrifice re-creates the cyclic rhythm of the universe: from birth or coming into being to death or annihilation, at which point life begins anew. The sacrificial ceremonies thus serve a triple purpose: at the same time they restore Prajāpati himself, the universe, and the master of the offering (yajamāna ).

The fire altar in this case is constructed of five layers of bricks, 10,800 in number (one for every hour of the Hindu year). The creator god represents the year with its five seasons. The five layers also symbolize the five regions of the universe. The basic notion behind these cosmic representations is of Prajāpati himself: his hair, skin, flesh, bone, and marrow, as well as another pentad: the god's spiritual self together with the senses. The fire, taken from the āhavanīya altar to the uttaravedi, lifts the master of the offering to heaven, making him immortal. His spiritual flight is sometimes symbolized by an altar built in the shape of a flying bird. He thus manifests himself simultaneously in time, space, and creation/creator (Gonda, 1960, pp. 141, 190ff.; Hopkins, pp. 18f.).

The Agnicayana ritual may still be studied in India as a living tradition. Its principles, as manifested in the Vāstupuruamaala, a diagram of the incarnation of Purua (Primordial Man), are found in the building symbolism of the Hindu temple (Gonda, 1960, p. 328; cf. Eliade, 1958, secs. 142, 154, 171; 1978, secs. 76ff.).

Israelite Religion and Early Judaism

The Hebrew term for altar is mizbea ("a place of sacrificial slaughter"), which is derived from zabah ("to slaughter as a sacrifice"). In time, the animal slaughter came to be performed beside, not on, the altar. Other kinds of oblations offered on the altar were grain, wine, and incense. The altar sometimes served a nonsacrificial function as witness (Jos. 22:26ff.) or refuge (1 Kgs. 1:50f.) for most crimes except murder.

The altars, if not made from natural or rough-hewn rocks, were constructed from unhewn stone, earth, or metal. The tabernacle, or portable desert sanctuary of the Israelites, had a bronze-plated altar for burnt offerings in the court and a gold-plated incense altar used within the tent. Both of these altars were constructed of wood, and each was fitted with four rings and two poles for carrying. The altar for burnt offerings was hollow, like its Assyrian counterpart, to make it lighter. Both had horns on all four corners, offering refuge to anyone who grasped them.

The description of the altars in King Solomon's temple (the First Temple) is incomplete (cf. 1 Kgs. 6ff.; 2 Chr. 4:1). Two hundred years later Ahaz replaced the sacrificial altar of Solomon with a copy of a Damascene altar (2 Kgs. 16:10ff.) that resembled an Akkadian temple tower not only in its storied structure but also in references to the top as "the mountain of God."

Ezekiel's vision of the altar of the new temple may be directly modeled on that of Ahaz, unless it refers to the postexilic altar dating from 515 bce or is a free construction. Ezekiel calls the incense altar "the table that is before the Lord" (Ez. 41:22). The Temple Scroll of the Qumran texts from the beginning of our own era contains a detailed description of the true Temple and its rites, presented as the original revelation of God to Moses that was never realized. Unfortunately, the text dealing with the altar is badly damaged (Maier, 1978, pp. 67, 76).

The function of the Israelite altar was essentially the same as in other sanctuaries of the ancient Near East but with some important differences. While sacrifices were still referred to as "the bread of your God" (Lv. 22:25) and "a pleasing odor to the Lord" (Lv. 1:17), the notion of actually feeding Yahveh was not implied. This ancient pagan idea has acquired with the passage of time a strictly metaphorical meaning, as in later references to "the Lord's table" (e.g. Mal. 1:7). Furthermore, the altars of Yahveh could be erected only in the Promised Land.

The altar itself was sanctified in extensive consecration rites culminating in a theophany described in Leviticus 9:2324: "The glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the whole-offering and the fatty parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted and fell on their faces." When, at a later stage in history, only the name of God was believed to dwell in the sanctuary, no theophany could occur. The altar nevertheless represented the place where heaven and earth met, the place from which prayers ascended to Godeven in foreign battles, provided that the worshipers turned toward the sacred land, the sacred city, and the Temple (1 Kgs. 8:44, 8:48).

The general prohibition against blood was also related to the sacrificial altar. Blood represented the life of the animal that must return to its creator. Thus the slaughter of an ox, a goat, or a sheep had to be undertaken at the altar as an offering to God, lest it be regarded merely as the taking of life (Lv. 17:3ff.; cf. Dt. 12:13ff.). The altar was the "divinely-appointed instrument of effecting expiation for taking animal life" (Milgrom and Lerner, 1971, col. 765). The sanctity of the altar forbade stepping on it and required that the priests wear breeches to cover their nakedness (Ex. 20:26, 28:42f.). Talmudic sources maintain the distinction between the sacrificial bronze altar in the Temple court and the golden incense altar in the sanctuary by referring to them as "outer" and "inner" altars.

Iron could not be used in the construction of an altar, according to rabbinical literature, since the iron sword represented disaster while the altar was a symbol of atonement and peace between Israel and God. The word mizbea resembles four other words meaning "removes evil decrees," "sustains," "endears," "atones." The four consonants of mizbea are sometimes also interpreted as the initial letters of four words meaning "forgiveness," "justification," "blessing," "life." Both the terminology and the legends associated with the altar have given rise to countless metaphors.

Abraham's binding of Isaac on the altar in the land of Moriah is considered the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God's will, and the symbol of Jewish martyrdom throughout the ages. Abraham himself was, from this point of view, the first person to prepare for martyrdom, and his offering was the last of the ten trials to which he was exposed. According to Jewish tradition, the Temple was later built on that very spot (Jacobs, 1971, cols. 480f.); hence the expression "Whoever is buried in the land of Israel is as if he were buried beneath the altar." Already in Exodus 25:9 and 25:40 we read of a heavenly pattern for the tabernacle and its furniture. Earlier still, the Sumerian king Gudea (fl. c. 2144c. 2124 bce) had built a temple in Lagash in accordance with a divinely inspired plan. Rabbinical sources have further developed this correspondence: the archangel Mikha'el, serving as high priest, is described as celebrating a heavenly rite on the altar before God, offering the souls of the saints who after death have found rest under the heavenly altar (Kohler, 1901, p. 467; cf. Rv. 6:9).

The Jewish table has been looked upon as a kind of altar ever since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. The saying "Now that there is no altar, a man's table atones for him" helps explain many of the table customs in halakhah (Milgrom and Lerner, 1971, cols. 767ff.).


Paul contrasted the Christian service with the pagan sacrificial meal by stating that we cannot partake of the Lord's table and the devil's table at the same time (1 Cor. 10:21). He thus distinguished between pagan sacrificial altars and the table at which Christ celebrated the last supper with his disciples. The New Testament constitutes the dividing point between Judaism and Christianity: Christ has, once and for all, made the full and sufficient sacrifice of himself (Heb. 810). The terminology of the sacrifice is used figuratively in reference to the dedication of Christian life (Rom. 12:1) and to the mission of Paul himself (Phil. 2:17).

The early church was thus able to refer to the Eucharist as thusia, (Gr., "sacrifice"). The table at which it was celebrated was the thusiastērion ("place of sacrifice"), the term for altar first used in the Septuagint. The commonly used term among the Christians was trapeza ("table"). We find the term bōmos used throughout the Bible to designate the altars of the pagan gods (Behm, 19641976 p. 182).

Construction of separate rooms for the divine service was a rather late development owing to the persecutions of the first few centuries. The early Christians used portable tables that possessed no special sacred or ritual connotations for the eucharistic meals. This did not change until around 200 ce, when the altar became stationary and was sanctified by a special anointment with oil (muron ). Under Constantine, Christianity became first a tolerated and later a favored religion, resulting in a rapid rise in church construction.

The Western church eventually settled on the Latin term altare ("a raised place") since it corresponded not only to the sacrificial altars of the Temple-centered Israelite religion but also to the various non-Christian cults of the Roman world. The Christians differentiated their altars from pagan ones by using the terms altare and mensa instead of ara, and by referring to their altar in the singular, reserving the plural altaria for pagan places of sacrifice. As late as the fourth century, Christian apologists listed the specific characteristics of Christianity: there were no temples, no altars, and no sacrificial rites, that is, in the pagan sense (see Stuiber, 1978, p. 309).

Following the adoption of the altar by the early Christian churches, its sacred nature became increasingly emphasized. It was the foundation of the elements of the Eucharist, and the special presence of Christ was expressed in the epiclesis of the eucharistic liturgy. A rich symbolism could therefore develop. The altar could be seen as a symbol of the heavenly throne or of Christ himself: the altar is made of stone, just as Christ is the cornerstone (Mt. 21:42). It also could be his cross or his grave. The martyr cult of the period lent yet another symbolic dimension to the altar: it was shaped like a sarcophagus, on top of which the communion table was placed. The statement in Revelation that the prophet sees under the altar the souls of those who were martyred for the Word legitimized the practice of incorporating relics in the altar. This latter development may be illustrated by Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Excavations have shown that a small funeral monument was erected on the simple earthen tomb of the apostle Peter around 150 ce. The altar in Constantine's fourth-century basilica and later the main altar of the sixteenth-century cathedral were centered on top of the original tomb. During the construction of the former, the bones of Peter were wrapped in a gold-embroidered purple cloth and deposited in a marble niche. On the wall an unknown hand has carved the following words in fourth-century Greek: "Peter inside." An altar of this kind was also referred to as confessio ("witness") after the witness to the faith or the martyr buried there.

During the Middle Ages a document giving the year of dedication was often placed along with the main relic in a hollow place in the top of the altar. This was covered with a stone and referred to as a sepulcrum ("grave"). In conjunction with the dedication ceremony it was customary to chisel a cross in each corner and one in the middle of the stone top.

The Middle Ages added little that was new to the symbolism of the altar but rather served to reiterate and sum up the thinking of the church fathers on the subject. The greatest popular preacher of the German Middle Ages, Berthold von Regensburg (c. 12201272), provides a good summary of the Christological interpretation:

The altar manifests Christ. It is built of stone, anointed in a holy way; it stands in an exalted place and serves as a container for the relics of the saints. So is Christ too a rock (1 Cor. 10:4); anointed with the Holy Ghost (Ps. 44:3); the head of the whole church (Col. 1:18), in him the life and glory of the saints lie hidden (Col. 3:3). To the extent that it is sacrificed on the altar, it signifies the cross on which Christ offered himself, not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. (quoted in Maurer, 1969, p. 36)

After the Reformation, with its opposition to relic worship and to the conception of the Mass as a sacrifice, it was primarily the Eucharist of the early church that came to be associated with the altar table. The reformers emphasized the importance of the true and pure preaching of the word of God, with the result that the pulpit gained a more prominent position, sometimes at the expense of the altar.

The altar also came to be relegated to a secondary role within the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, when the increasingly opulent ornamentation of screens, paintings, and sculptures was introduced. This development was furthered during the Renaissance and the Baroque era, when the focus increasingly shifted to the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

See Also

Agni; Fire; Hestia; Sacrifice; Shrines; Stones.


Behm, Johannes. "Thuō, thusia, thusiastērion." In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1966. A standard work; the supplementary bibliography published in 1979 contains only works on sacrifice.

Bonnet, Hans. "Altar." Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte, pp. 1417. Berlin, 1952.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1958.

Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Chicago, 1978.

Fauth, Wolfgang. "Altar." In Der Kleine Pauly, vol. 1, cols. 279281. Stuttgart, 1964. Although brief, refers to the authors of classical antiquity.

Galling, Kurt. "Altar." In Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, pp. 96100. A German Old Testament scholar summarizes his important contributions to the discussion of the altar in the ancient Near East.

Gonda, Jan. Die Religionen Indiens, vol. 1, Veda und älterer Hinduismus (1960). 2d rev. ed. Stuttgart, 1978. By the leading Dutch Indologist.

Gray, Louis H., et al. "Altar." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1908. Although largely outdated, some sections are still useful (e.g., Christian, Greek).

Hopkins, Thomas J. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont, Calif., 1971.

Jacobs, Louis. "Akedah." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 2, cols. 480487. Jerusalem, 1971.

Kirsch, Johann P., and Theodor Klauser. "Altar: Christlich." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, edited by Theodor Klauser, vol. 1, cols. 334354. Stuttgart, 1950. Well documented, with a lengthy bibliography.

Kohler, Kaufmann, and George A. Barton. "Altar." In Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Isidore Singer, vol. 1, pp. 464469. New York, 1901. Relates Jewish to Christian material.

Liebert, Gösta. Iconographic Dictionary of the Indian Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism. Leiden, 1976. Definitions with references to literature.

Maier, Johann. Die Tempelrolle vom Toten Meer. Munich, 1978. Translates and comments upon the Hebrew text.

Maurer, Gerd J. Der Altar aber ist Christus: Zur symbolischen Bedeutung des christlichen Altares in der Geschichte. Sankt Augustin, West Germany, 1969. A popular but good survey.

Meyer, Jeffrey F. Peking as a Sacred City. Taipei, 1976. Cosmic symbolism of various altars.

Milgrom, Jacob, and Bialik M. Lerner. "Altar." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 2, cols. 760771. Jerusalem, 1971. Stresses Israelite uniqueness.

Reichard, Gladys A. Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism (1950). 2 vols. Princeton, 1974. A classic.

Staal, Frits, ed. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley, 1983. Collective work of specialists on Indology.

Stuiber, Alfred. "Altar: Alte Kirche." In Theologische Realenzyklopedie, edited by Gerhard Krause and Gerhard Muller, vol. 2, pp. 308318. Berlin, 1978. A fine piece by a well-known patrologist, with an exhaustive bibliography. The preceding section contains a short introduction from the point of view of comparative religion.

Walker, George B. Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism. 2 vols. New York, 1968. Rather general, without references, and based on a sometimes antiquated literature.

Weltfish, Gene. The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture (1965). Lincoln, Neb., 1977. Based on many years of fieldwork and linguistic training.

Yavis, Constantine G. Greek Altars: Origins and Typology. Saint Louis, 1949.

Ziehen, Ludwig. "Altar: Griechisch-Römisch." In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, edited by Theodor Klauser, vol. 1, cols. 310329. Stuttgart, 1950. Well documented, with a lengthy bibliography.

Carl-Martin Edsman (1987)

Translated from Swedish by Kjersti Board

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ALTAR (Heb. מִזְבֵּח, mizbe'aḥ, derived from the root zbḥ (זבח), meaning "to slaughter [as a sacrifice]"), originally the place where sacrificial slaughter was performed (e.g., the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen. 22). According to biblical law however, animal slaughter was never upon the altar but nearby. Moreover, the altar was not restricted to animal offerings; it also received grain, wine, and incense offerings. Thus, whatever the original intention of the word altar, it was extended to designate the place for offering all oblations. Finally, this definition does not mention all the uses of the altar, since non-sacrificial functions are also attested: testimony (e.g., Josh. 22:26–29) and asylum (see below).


Altars are found everywhere in the ancient Near East. They were constructed from three kinds of material: stone, earth, and metal. The choice depended on such factors as permanence, cost, and, in Israel, on whether the altar was alone or attached to a sanctuary. This discussion will naturally be limited to Ereẓ Israel.

Stone altars are not corroded by time and archaeological excavations have unearthed abundant pre-Israelite specimens. Their form ranges from unworked, detached rocks, to slightly hollowed surfaces, to hewn natural stone, and to completely man-made structures. Some undisputed examples are at Gezer, Hazor, Megiddo, Nahariyyah, and Arad. At Arad, the Israelite sanctuary contains an altar three cubits square and five cubits high (the exact dimensions of the Tabernacle altar in Ex. 27:1) and is built of earth and small unworked stones (in accordance with Ex. 20:22; see below). The Bible also speaks of the same types of stone altars, namely, natural rock (Judg. 13:19–20; i Sam. 6:14; 14:33–35; i Kings 1:9) and artificial heap (Gen. 31:46–54; Josh. 4:2–8, 20 ff.; i Kings 18:31–32). All biblical altars, with the exception of those in sanctuaries, seem to have been built of stone.

Altars of earth are explicitly commanded in Exodus 20:24 (cf. ii Kings 5: 17), but because earthen altars would not survive the ravages of time, none have been found. Nor, for that matter, were any of the altars mentioned in the Bible built of earth. These, the simplest and least pretentious of all altars, were exclusively the creation of the common folk. Brick, technically also earth, so common a material in Mesopotamia, is not evidenced in Israel; a Canaanite brick altar, however, has been found (*Beth-Shean, stratum ix).

The shape of the Israelite stone and earth altars thus far discussed seems to have been simple, no doubt because of the prohibition against the hewn stone and steps (Ex. 20:22–23). The Arad altar, though in a sanctuary, is indicative of this simplicity. It is a square structure. In contrast to stone and earth altars, metal altars, associated exclusively with the central sanctuary of Israel, differ profoundly in shape and function.

the tabernacle

Israel's desert sanctuary had two altars: the bronze, or burnt-offering, altar standing in the courtyard, and the gold, or incense, altar within the Tent. The courtyard altar was for sacrifices. Its name, 'olah ("whole-offering"), is taken from its most frequent sacrifice, required twice daily (Ex. 29:38–43) and on every festival (Num. 28–29); it was also the only sacrifice entirely consumed upon the altar (see: *Sacrifice). The name "bronze" stems from its plating. Actually, it was made of acacia wood and its dimensions, in cubits, were 5 × 5 × 3. Its form is minutely described, though the meaning of all the terms used is not certain (Ex. 27:1–8; 38:1–7).

The most important feature of the bronze altar was its keranot (qeranot) or "horns," seen on small altars found in Israel. Refugees seeking asylum seized the altar horns. The altar was purified by daubing the blood of the ḥaṭṭ'at, or "purification offering," on the altar horns (Ex. 30:12; Lev. 4:25–30). Horns were an essential element of all the altars in the Jerusalem Temple. The origin of the horns is still unknown.

Beneath the horns was the karkov ("rim" or "border") which seems to have been a projecting rim, and is exemplified by many small altars in Ereẓ Israel. The mikhbar ("net" or "grating") was a bronze mesh that covered the upper half of the altar beneath the rim but neither its appearance nor its function is understood.

Since the altar was part of a portable sanctuary, it was fitted with four rings and two staves. Moreover, it was hollow and hence not burdensome. The altar was only a portable frame, since, in contradistinction to the incense altar (Ex. 30:3) there is no mention of a roof, and at each encampment it would, therefore, be filled with earth and rocks (in actual conformity with Ex. 20:21 ff.). The same system of hollowed altars is known from some Assyrian samples.

solomon's temple

In the account of the building of the First Temple (i Kings 6–7), there is no mention of the sacrificial altar although the building of an altar, 20 × 20 × 10 cubits in size, is mentioned in ii Chronicles (4:1). There are also allusions to the sacrificial altar in the construction account (i Kings 9:25) under the name of "the bronze altar" (i Kings 8:64; ii Kings 16:14–15). The silence of i Kings 6–7 may be due to textual corruption.

More is known about its replacement, the altar constructed by King Ahaz (ii Kings 16:10–16). It was a copy of the altar in the main temple of Damascus, probably that of Hadad-Rimmon (5:18). It was called the "great altar" (16:15), and was therefore larger than Solomon's altar. It had to be ascended (16:12); it was not made of bronze, since that name was reserved for Solomon's altar. It may have been the model for Ezekiel's altar (below). Ahaz had Solomon's altar moved to the northern part of the courtyard, where it was reserved for his private use (16:14, 15b).

Ezekiel's Altar

Ezekiel's vision of a new Temple (Ezek. 40:48) comprises a minute description of its sacrificial altar (43:13–17). It consists of four tiers, each one cubit less per side than the tier below. Since the uppermost tier had a horizontal 12 × 12 cubits, the ones underneath were respectively 14 × 14, 16 × 16, and 18 × 18 cubits. The height of the respective tiers, from top to bottom, is given as 1 + 2 + 4 + 4, to which another cubit must be added for the horns (ibid. 43:15). Thus, the total height of the altar is 12 cubits. Because the long cubit is used (app. 20½ inches), the altar was about 20½ feet tall, even higher than the altar attributed to Solomon by the Chronicler (ii Chron. 4:1). It was ascended by a flight of stairs on its eastern side. The edges of two of its tiers were apparently shaped into troughs for collecting the sacrificial blood, the one at the base being called "the ḥeik [ḥeiq; Heb. חֵיק] of the earth" and the other, in the middle, "the ḥeiq of the ledge" (Ezek. 43:14, 17). Their purpose was to collect the blood of the ḥaṭṭ'at, which was daubed at these points (43:20; see below). If rabbinic tradition for the Second Temple holds good for Ezekiel, then even the remaining ḥaṭṭ'at blood was collected into the middle gutter, for it was dashed on the upper part of the altar walls (see Mid. 3:1).

It has been suggested that Ezekiel's altar corresponded to the one he remembered from the First Temple, in which case it would be an exact description of Ahaz' altar. Supporting this view is the Syrian-Mesopotamian influence upon certain of its features. It is known that Ahaz copied a Damascene altar. Its storied structure resembles the ziggurat temple-tower. The uppermost tier is called 'ari'el or har'el; the latter may mean "God's mountain." Perhaps Isaiah's symbolic name for Jerusalem, Ariel, has its origin in this altar (Isa. 29:1–2, 7).

Ezekiel also envisions inside the Temple an incense altar, which he calls "the table that is before the Lord" (41:22). That it is of wood may reflect the reality of 597 b.c.e., when Nebuchadnezzar stripped all the Temple cult implements of their gold (ii Kings 24:13).

Sanctity and Theology

The altars are legitimate only in the Promised Land. This is not because the power of Israel's God is spatially limited – He controls the destiny of all nations and can be addressed in prayer everywhere (e.g., i Kings 8:33 ff.) – but because of the basic concept of the sanctity of Israel's territory: it is the Holy Land. This principle underlies the argument against the erection of a Transjordanian altar (Josh. 22:19), as well as the legal fiction of taking Israelite soil abroad, adopted by the Aramean Naaman (ii Kings 5:17) and, perhaps, by his Israelite townsmen (cf. i Kings 20:34). The sanctity of the altar is evidenced by the theophany which concluded the week-long consecration rites for the Tabernacle: "The presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the whole offering and the suet pieces on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:23–24). It is an assumption common to biblical tradition that a sanctuary is not fully consecrated – or is not divinely sanctioned – unless it has a tradition of a theophany upon its altar (i Kings 18:38; ii Chron. 7:1), or that its altar is built on the site of one. The altar has mediating powers; it may bring God to earth, and it enables humans, through worship, to reach heaven. This is nowhere more evident than in Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the Temple, when he proclaims that even in a foreign land Israel's armies or exiles need but turn to the Temple and their prayer will travel to God along a trajectory that passes through their land, city, Temple, and then, at the altar, turns heavenward (i Kings 8:44, 48; cf. 31, 38). The altar, then, is the earthly terminus of a Divine funnel for man's communion with God. It is significant that later Judaism carried the tradition that the air space above the altar was an extension of its sanctity. The sanctity of the altar is evidenced by the asylum it provided anyone who "seized its horns" (e.g., i Kings 1:50–51). An early law, however, stipulated that this privilege was not to be extended to murderers (Ex. 21:14). On this basis, the altar provided no safety for Joab (i Kings 2:28–34); even then, Solomon tried at first to remove Joab who "seized the altar horns" (verse 34) from the altar before he had him killed (verse 30). The altar is consecrated with the "oil of anointment" (Ex. 40:10); it is the only object outside the Tent to fall into the category of the "most sacred" (Ex. 29:37), though not to the same degree as the Holy of Holies inside it. For example, the non-priest is prohibited from viewing the inner sancta (Num. 4:20) but is only barred from touching the altar (Ex. 29:37); the disqualified priest is barred from contact with the sanctuary Holy of Holies, but in regard to the altar, as the verb karav (qrv) or niggash ("encroach") shows, he is forbidden only to officiate at it but is free to touch it (Ex. 28:43; 30:20; Lev. 21:23). The composition of the Holy of Holies also bespeaks this sanctity differential: the inner sancta are plated with gold, the altar with bronze; in transit the former are covered with a blue cloth, the latter with a purple cloth (Num. 4:4–14). Laymen were permitted access only to a corridor within the sanctuary enclosure to perform the required preliminary rituals with their animal oblation (the presentation, laying of hands, slaughter, and flaying of the animal; Lev. 1:3–6), and to assemble there as spectators (Lev. 8:3–4; 9:5). Only the high priest may bless the people from the altar (Lev. 9:22, "and he descended"). Solomon, who performed this function, did so in front of the altar (i Kings 8:64–65).

The sacrificial altar must not only be consecrated by an application of the anointing oil but by a week-long ceremonial, during which the altar horns are daubed with the blood of a purification offering (Lev. 8:15) each day of the week (Ex. 29:36–37). The meaning of this consecration can be deduced through a series of analogies with other uses of sacrificial blood, such as the purification rite of a healed leper (Lev. 14:14–17, 25–28); the investiture of new priests (Ex. 29:20; Lev. 8:23–24); the reconsecration rites for defiled altars (Lev. 4:25, 34; 5:9); and the smearing of the lintel and doorposts with blood of the paschal sacrifice (Ex. 12:7, 22). The things which receive the blood are extremities; i.e., the very points of the object which a hostile force would strike first in attacking it. In the ancient Near East, temples were periodically smeared with supposed potent substances at precisely the same vulnerable points, in order to expel the malefic power from the object and to protect it against future incursions. The blood rites therefore had a purgative and an apotropaic function. It is not too difficult to deduce that in Israel these rituals had the same dual purpose; i.e., to purge the altar of any uncleanliness and to protect it from future evil influence. The verbs used in regard to purification apply to the altar but never to man. The blood for each stems from a different sacrifice: for the altar the ḥaṭṭ'at is used but not for humans. Indeed in the case of humans the ritual purification has already taken place by previous ablution (for the leper, Lev. 14:2–9; for the priest, Ex. 29:4). The function of the blood rite therefore is to ward off evil; it is an apotropaic act (cf. the paschal sacrifice, Ex. 12:23). The consecration of both priest and altar was performed, however, by the anointing oil (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 8:11).

The blood of sacrifices must terminate on the altar, if not on its horns, then upon its walls and base. This leads to another equally significant function of the altar: the blood prohibition. Israelites and non-Israelites alike are constrained from eating blood, because it is the life of the animal (Gen. 9:4). The blood must be drained and returned to the Creator. There is only one legitimate place where this can be done: at the altar of the central sanctuary. The altar, then, is the instrument by which the animal's life is restored to God. Indeed, in Leviticus occurs the clear, unambiguous statement that whoever slaughters an ox, sheep, or goat elsewhere but at the sanctuary altar is guilty of murder (Lev. 17:3–4). It is permitted to kill animals and eat their flesh but the blood must not be tampered with; it must be returned to God via the altar, if the animal is sacrificeable, and via the earth if brought down in the hunt (Lev. 17:13–14). Thus, the sanctuary altar legitimates animal slaughter; it is the divinely-appointed instrument of effecting expiation for taking animal life (Lev. 17:11).

The prohibition of making steps on the altar "that your nakedness be not exposed upon it" (Ex. 20:23) is another evidence for the sanctity of the altar. The early altar at the sanctuary of Arad, with a step to it, illustrates that the prohibition was practical, not theoretical. For this reason, once Israelites adopted trousers, a Persian invention, the priests were required to wear breeches (Ex. 28:42–43).

Incense Altar

All the biblical accounts of the sanctuary speak not only of the sacrificial altar but also of an incense altar within the sanctuary building. The incense altar of the Tabernacle is described in detail (Ex. 30:1–10; 37:25–28). Its dimensions were 1 × 1 × 2 cubits. Like the sacrificial altar, it contained horns, rings, and staves for carrying, and was made of acacia wood. However, it differed from it in being plated with gold, not with bronze; also, the plating extended over the top for it was solid and had a roof, in contrast to the sacrificial altar. Its place was directly in front of the curtain, flanked by the two other golden objects, the candelabrum (Ex. 25:31 ff.) and table (23 ff.). Incense was burned upon it twice daily at the time of the tamid, or "daily," offering. No other offering but the prescribed incense was tolerated (9b).

Reference to the incense altar of Solomon's Temple is found in the construction account (i Kings 6:20–22; 7:48) and in the incense offering ascribed to King Uzziah (ii Chron. 26:16). In his blueprint for the new Temple (Ezek. 41:22), Ezekiel may have been thinking of the incense altar he saw in the Temple (as a priest, he had access to it).

The historicity of these accounts has been called into question since the critical work of J. *Wellhausen in the late 19th-early 20th centuries on the assumption that the burning of incense was not introduced into Israel until the Second Temple (see i Macc. 1:54). However, many small altars have been found in Ereẓ Israel dating back to the Bronze Age, too small for animal offerings. Some actually approximate the dimensions of the Tabernacle altar and are even equipped with horns, e.g., at Shechem and Megiddo. An incense altar, identified as such by its inscription, has been recently excavated in Khirbet Mudayna in Jordan at a site dating to the early eighth century b.c.e. Thus, the incense altar was standard equipment for neighboring temples and cannot be denied to Israel.

Since there is no reason to deny that there was an incense altar in Solomon's Temple, there remains only the question of the incense altar ascribed to the Tabernacle. Scholars have been nearly unanimous in declaring it an anachronistic insertion based upon the Temple. Their suspicion is strengthened by the placement of its description not in the text containing the rest of the inner sancta (Ex. 26), but after the description of the entire Tabernacle and its paraphernalia (Ex. 30:1–10) – an afterthought, as it were. The objection is fallacious. The fact that it is not found in its "logical" place is in itself reason to suspect that another kind of logic obtained there. Functionally, the incense is outside the carefully graded sanctity outside of chapters 28–29; as such its description appropriately follows those chapters.

[Jacob Milgrom]

In Halakhah

In talmudic sources the word "altar," when unqualified, refers to the outer altar (Yoma 5:5), which stood in the Temple Court in the open, a distance of 22 cubits from the corner of the porch (Mid. 5:1). Most of it was in the southern sector (Yoma 16a; but see the opinion of R. Judah, ibid.; see also Zev. 58b). For building the altar for the Second Temple prophetical testimony was needed to determine the exact required location (Zev. 62a). This altar is also called "the altar of bronze" because of its bronze cover (Hag. 3:8) and "the altar of the burnt offering," because daily burnt offerings and other sacrifices were offered upon it (Men. 4:4).

According to talmudic sources the altar was ten cubits high (but Jos., Wars, 5:225 has 15 cubits). It was a structure of stones joined together with earth (Mekh. Sb-Y. Yitro 20; Epstein, ed., 156) and consisted of four square layers formed of stones, plaster, and a filling of mortar (Zev. 54a), the wider stones being placed below and the narrower above, as described later (Suk. 45a; Mid. 3:1; Zev. 54a). These dimensions made the altar four cubits larger on all four sides than the altar of Solomon's Temple (ii Chron. 4:1; Mid. 3:1). The first layer was 32 × 32 cubits (according to Jos., ibid., 50 × 50), and one cubit high. The second layer was 30 × 30 cubits and five cubits high. The lower projection of one cubit each on the north and at the northeast and southwest corners, which were one cubit higher than the ground (Tosef. Zev. 6:2; Mid. 3:1), was called the base. There was no base in the southeast corner (Zev. 54a). In the southwest corner there were several narrow apertures through which the blood flowed down to the water channel, and from there to the brook of Kidron (Mid. 3:2; Yoma 5:6). Five cubits from the ground, i.e., in the middle of the altar, a red line, the "hut shel sikrah," encircled it, indicating the place for the upper and the lower sprinkling of the blood (Mid. 3:1; Tosef. Zev. 6:2). The third layer was 28 × 28 cubits, and three cubits high. The cubit-wide projection which encircled the middle of the altar was called the sovev ("surround"). The priest walked along it, to offer up the burnt offering of a bird (Zev. 6:5), and to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices upon the altar with his finger (Zev. 5:3). The fourth layer constituted the "horns" of the altar. They were four stones, one cubit by one, placed at the four corners of the altar. After deducting the breadth of the horns (one cubit) and another cubit within, used as a path for the priests (karkov, "border"; Tosef. Shek. 3:19; Zev. 62a) when removing the ashes, an area of 24 × 24 cubits remained which was assigned as the place of the fire. The larger fire was in the southeast corner (Tam. 2:4) and the smaller, for incense, opposite it in the southwest corner (Tam. 2:5). Although open to the sky, it is stated that the rain never extinguished the wood fire, nor did the wind disturb the column of smoke (Avot 5:5). In the center of the altar there was an enormous heap of ashes called tappu'ah ("apple"), because of its round shape (Tam. 2:2).

According to R. Meir, the dimensions of the projections of the base, of the surround, and of the horns, were measured by the larger cubit, which was six handbreadths (Kelim 17:10; Tosef. Kelim, bm 6:12–13; see Men. 97b). On top of the altar there were two bowls, either of silver or limestone, into which the water and the wine of the water libation were poured during Tabernacles (Suk. 4:9). During the rest of the year the wine libation was poured into the bowl on the east (Tosef. Suk. 3:14; Sif. Num., Shelah 107). From the bowls the wine flowed through a gutter in the floor of the court (Tosef. Suk. 3:14) into the pits (foundations of the altar) in the southwest corner (Mid. 3:3). The wine was absorbed in the pit or congealed inside the pipe between the porch and the altar, and the pipe consequently had to be cleaned. In the opinion of R. Yose, the pit penetrated to the abyss (Tosef. Suk. 3:15; Suk. 49a).

The stones of the altar were smooth (Zev. 54a), taken from the virgin soil of the valley of Beth Cherem (Mid. 3:4). The use of iron was forbidden in its erection. The stones were plastered over twice yearly, at Passover and at Tabernacles, and, according to Judah ha-Nasi it was plastered with a cloth every Sabbath eve (Mid. 3:4; Maim., Yad, Beit ha-Behirah 1:16). In the times of the Hasmoneans the Syrians placed the "Abomination of Desolation" upon the altar (i Macc. 1:54). When the Temple was subsequently cleansed they were doubtful whether it could be used, and hid the stones (ibid. 4:44; Meg. Ta'an. 9; Av. Zar. 52b) in a chamber in the Bet ha-Moked (Chamber of the Hearth; Mid. 1:6). The dedication of the altar (i Macc. 4:53–59) became the central feature of the festival of Ḥanukkah. One reason given for the Ḥanukkah celebration lasting eight days is that it took this much time to build the altar and plaster it (Meg. Ta'an. 9, 25th Kislev). At the southern side of the altar there was a stone ramp, 32 cubits long and 16 wide, enabling the priests to reach the top of the altar without transgressing the prohibition contained in Exodus 20:26 (Mekh. Yitro, Ba-Hodesh, 11; see above). There was a space between the end of the ramp and the altar (Zev. 62b).

Altar and ramp together were 62 cubits long (Mid. 5:2), the ramp overhanging the lower part of the altar. From the large ramp two smaller ones branched off, one on the east side in the direction of the surround, and the other on the west in the direction of the base (Zev. 62b and Rashi ibid.). The existence of a ramp to the surround is mentioned explicitly only by the amora Judah b. Ezekiel. Usually one ascended the altar from the right-hand side of the ramp and descended from the left one (Zev. 6:3).

Lack of precision in the aforementioned dimensions of the altar and the ramp did not disqualify them from use (Tosef. Men. 6:12), but the absence of the horns, the base, the surround, the ramp, the lack of a square appearance, or the slightest flaw in the altar would disqualify the sacrifice (Tosef. Suk. 3:16; Zev. 62a and 59a).

Only the slaughter of birds took place on the actual altar (Zev. 6:4–5); other sacrifices were slaughtered to the north of it (Zev. 5:1–2; Mid. 3:5). If the slaughtering took place on the altar, however, the sacrifice was acceptable (Zev. 6:1).

During the Second Temple period no fire descended from heaven (Yoma 21b) as it did in the First Temple (Zev. 61b). A tradition was preserved that the fire of the First Temple was concealed in a well and was brought out in the days of Nehemiah (ii Macc. 1:19–24).

Whenever the altar was not in use for regular sacrifices additional burnt-offerings were offered (Tosef. Shek. 2:8). These are referred to as the keiz ha-mizbe'ah ("summer fruit" of the altar; Shek. 4:4). A special regulation "for the benefit of the altar" was enacted to ensure continual sacrifice on the altar (Git. 5:5; Git. 55a). The altar fire continued to burn even at night so that the portions of the sacrifice which it had not been possible to burn during the day would be consumed (Ber. 1:1; Tam. 2:1). The priests would rise early in the morning and undergo ablution in order to be privileged to remove the ashes (Tam. 1:2; Yoma 1:8; 2:1). After ascending to the top of the altar they cleared away the ashes (Tam. 1:4) and shoveled them on to the ash heap (ibid. 2:2). When the heap was overfull the ashes were removed, but during the three Pilgrim Festivals they remained there as they were considered ornamental (ibid.).

Priests alone were permitted to approach the altar and minister (Zev. 116b) and proof that a person had "stood and ministered at the altar" (Yev. 7:6) was accepted as evidence of his priestly lineage (Kid. 4:5; cf. Ter. 8:1; Jos., Ant., 9:160). The altar and ramp made sacred whatever was prescribed for them. Even if disqualified sacrifices were placed upon them, they were not removed (Zev. 9:1–7; Tosef. Mak. 5:4; and Tosef. Tem. 1:14). A vow made "to the altar" was considered as referring to the altar sacrifices (Ned. 1:3; Tosef. Ned. 1:3).

In the talmudic era the principle that the altar because of its sanctity served as a refuge for murderers who seized hold of its horns was restricted (Mak. 12a; Num. R. 23:13; cf. tj Kid. 4:1, 65c).

The altar played an important role in the festival ceremonies. During Tabernacles a daily circuit with palm branches or willow branches (Suk. 43b) was made of the altar and verses of Hallel were recited. On the seventh day the circuit was made seven times (Suk. 4:5), and the people took their leave of the altar with expressions of laudation, "Beauty is thine, O Altar! Beauty is thine, O Altar!" (ibid.).

During Passover, so large was the number of paschal lambs sacrificed in the Temple court, that the sprinkling of the blood against the base of the altar was performed by successive rows of priests (Pes. 5:5). The omer was waved on the east side of the altar and offered on the west side (Men. 5:6); so also with the waving of the two loaves on Shavuot (ibid.). The baskets of first fruits were placed at the side of the altar (Bik. 3:6; Tosef. Sanh. 3:6).

The golden altar (Yoma 5:5), also called the inner altar (Tam. 3:1), stood in the center of the center of the sanctuary (Yoma 33a–b), opposite the parokhet ("curtain") which separated the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies (Tosef. ibid. 2:2). Incense was burnt (Men. 4:4) and the sacrificial blood was sprinkled upon its sides (Men. 3:6; Lev. 5:1–2; Yoma 5:7). The measurements of the golden altar were the same as those used in the Tabernacle of Moses (Ex. 30:1–10) except that the larger cubit of six handbreadths was used (Kelim 17:10).

In the Aggadah

The altar as a symbol of atonement recurs again and again in rabbinic literature (Tosef. bk 7:6). Johanan b. Zakkai explains the prohibition against the use of iron in erecting the altar, because the sword (iron) represents catastrophe, and the altar, atonement (ibid.), its whole (shelemot) stones "bringing peace (shalom) between Israel and their Father in Heaven" (ibid. 7; Mekh. end of Yitro). In line with this homily, the Mishnah taught: "It is not right for that which curtails life to be lifted up against that which prolongs it" (Mid. 3:4). The word mizbe'aḥ ("altar") is interpreted as suggesting, by assonance, the four words mezi'aḥ, mezin, meḥabbev, mekhapper ("removes evil decrees, sustains, endears, atones"; Ket. 10b); or as a *notarikon, its four letters being the initials of Meḥilah-Zekhut Zikkaron – Berakhah-Ḥayyim ("forgiveness-merit (memorial) – blessing-life"; Tanḥ. Terumah 11). Because of the merit of the altar, blessing accrued to Israel (Tosef. Ma'as. Sh. 5:29), and because of it, the Holy One blessed be He will punish the kingdom of Edom (Tanḥ. Terumah 11). Its dimensions and its parts are also interpreted symbolically (ibid. 10; Mid. Tadshe 11).

According to one aggadic opinion, Adam was formed from earth taken from the site of the altar, in order that the site of his atonement should give him power to endure (Gen. R. 14:8; tj Naz. 7:2, 56b).

According to a late aggadah the altars of the ancients – Adam, Cain, Abel, Noah – were erected on the site of the altar where also Isaac was bound (pdre 31), and it was from them that Jacob took the stones that he placed at his head at the ford of the Jordan (Gen. 35).

According to R. Isaac Nappaḥa the fact that the Temple was built on the site of the *Akedah (Zev. 62a) is the basis of the saying that "whoever is buried in the land of Israel is as if he were buried beneath the altar" (Tosef. Av. Zar. 4:3; arn1 26:41; S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), p. 163). The idea of the Sanctification of the Divine Name implicit in the binding of Isaac also gave rise to the metaphorical use of "building an altar" as an expression for such an act (Lam. R. 1:16, 50; Git. 57b). The more usual metaphor is "… as if he built an altar," used with reference to one observing the commandments of Judaism (Ber. 15a; Suk. 45a–b; Men. 110a).

By interpreting scriptural verses the aggadists coined such expressions as, "as if an altar was erected in his heart" (Otiyyot de-Rabbi Akiva, 8), and "the altar shed tears" (Sanh. 22a). Plagues afflicting a person are merely "an altar of atonement for all Israel" (Ber. 5b, see Rabbinovicz, dik, 5of, 1, 14).

After the destruction of the Temple, a Jew's table is regarded as taking the place of the altar (cf. Tosef. Sot. 15:11–13), and it was said that "now that there is no altar, a man's table atones for him" (Ber. 55a; Men. 97a). The halakhic authorities explain many table customs on this basis (Shibbolei ha-Leket, Buber's ed., 141; Sefer Ḥasidim, 102).

[Bialik Myron Lerner]


de Vaux, Anc Isr, 406–14, 527 (incl. bibl.); Haran, in: em, 4 (1962), 763–80 (incl. bibl.); idem, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 272–302; Aharoni, in: ba, 31 (1968), 2–32; J. Milgrom, Studies in Levitical Terminology, 1 (1969), 37–41; Maim. Yad., Beit ha-Beḥirah 1:13–2:18; Barth, jjlg, 7 (1909), 129–130; J. Doktorovitz, Middot ha-Battim (5697 – 1936/7), 45–54; M. Weiss, Beit ha-Beḥirah (5706 – 1945/6), 11–27, 101–3; Ginzberg, Legends, index; Bialoblocki, in: Alei Ayin, S. Schocken Jubilee Volume (5712 – 1951/2), 51–52, 55; S. Lieberman, ibid., 81; idem, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950); idem, Tosefta ki-Feshutah 4 (1962), 684, 710, 871, 879–83; C. Albeck, Mishnah [5], Seder Kodashim (5719 – 1958/9), 313, 324–7, 424–5, 433–5; Safrai, Ereẓ Yisrael, 5 (1958), 212; S. Scheffer, Beit ha-Mikdash (5722 – 1961/2), 25–29; D. Conrad, Studien zum Altargesetz (1968). add. bibliography: S. Japhet, i & ii Chronicles (1993), 564; Z. Zevit, in: D. Wright (ed.), Pomegranates and Golden Bells (fs Milgrom; 1995), 29–38; C. Meyers, in: M. Fox (ed.), Texts, Temples and Traditions (Harran fs; 1996), 33–46; K. Smelik, in: M. Vervenne (eds.), Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Literature (Brekelmans fs; 1997), 263–78; N. Na'aman, in: vt, 48 (1998), 333–49; S.D. Sperling: in, R. Chazan et al. (eds.), Ki Baruch Hu (Levine fs; 1999), 373–85.

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In religions around the world, from prehistoric times to the present, an altar has almost always been regarded as a central locus of worship, a holy place set apart for divine-human interaction. Derived from the Latin word altus, meaning "high place," altars have occasionally consisted of earthen mounds or of wood, but most of them have been made of stone, providing a fixed surface on which sacrifices could be offered to supernaturals thought to be important in particular cultures. Jewish altars figured importantly in the Jerusalem Temple of biblical times, and the practice of making both thank offerings and guilt offerings has remained embedded in the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Early Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world featured altars as central foci of worship. Some of them served simply as tables on which believers shared a common meal. Most of them, however, were viewed in a more sacrosanct way: as the place where the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or Mass was celebrated. This perspective became increasingly dominant as local practices developed into ecclesiastical traditions. Consecrated to sacred use by church officials, the altar came to be regarded as a symbol of Christ's presence, a place where his sacrificial death was reenacted as a sacrament beneficial to whose witnessing the liturgical act.

During the Middle Ages altars were placed at the apse, the eastern end, or back of churches, essentially obscuring them from public access. They were placed behind rood screens (screens containing a crucifix) in Western practice and behind an iconostasis among the Eastern Orthodox. In this seclusion altars became quite ornate, offering a medium for displaying crosses, candles, statues, monstrances, elaborate carvings, reliquaries, tabernacles, paintings, and tapestries. The magnificence of these secondary elements often made altars the most notable features in churches built between 500 and 1500.

Protestantism, which emerged in the sixteenth century, often devalued the significance and use of altars in Reformed liturgies. Rejecting the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice, Protestants of many varieties retained only a table, using it to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Most of them also retained the traditional elements of bread and wine, but congregations usually thought of themselves as observing no more than a commemorative meal.

In modern times use of altars persists in both perspectives. Many churches stemming from Calvinist or evangelical traditions make pulpits the center of their worship, and altars survive only as tables, a means of nurturing group solidarity, not a place of sacramental significance. Protestants of Anglican and Lutheran heritage have stayed much closer to perennial attitudes regarding altars in Christian worship, those ideas maintained in Roman Catholicism since the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Changes authorized in 1963 by the Second Vatican Council have occasioned noticeable modifications. Modern liturgical renewal has stressed a simpler altar, a streamlined shape placed centrally amid the congregation, with officiants facing the people. Simple, dignified decoration exhibits a cross and candles with moderate use of images. Less ornate altars, placed much nearer the people and featuring celebrants who do not turn their backs on worshipers, convey once again how the Eucharist is both spatially and theologically central to many contemporary Christians. Modern altars thus replicate the sacrificial connotations that they have projected for thousands of years.

See alsoChurch; Liturgyand Worship; Preaching; Relic; Ritual; Synagogue; Temple; Vatican II.


Leach, W. H. The Altar in Your Church:Its History, Purpose, Position, and Adornment. 1945.

Pocknee, Cyril E. The Christian Altar inHistoryandToday. 1983.

Henry Warner Bowden

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altar. Block, pedestal, stand, or table on which to place or sacrifice offerings to a deity. Jewish altars had horn-like ornaments at each corner, and this type of decoration also occurred in Classical Antiquity, with simplified horns or ears, also known as acroteria. Classical altar-tops have similarities to cinerarium- and sarcophagus-lids, and influenced the design of Neo-Classical gate-piers, tops of door-cases, and the like.

Christian altars, consecrated for celebration of the Eucharist, are elevated tables with a plane top, usually of stone, although the Reformation insisted on replacing them with wooden Communion- or Holy-tables. In a church the high altar is the chief altar and is sited at the east end of the chancel. The sides (horns) of altars are termed Epistle (south) and Gospel (north).

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altar, table or platform for the performance of religious sacrifice. In its simplest form the altar is a small pile, with a square or circular surface, made of stone or wood. Its features vary according to its purpose. The altar of libation usually has a drain for the liquid, and so does the altar of bloody sacrifice; the altar of burnt offering (including incense) often has a depressed hollow for a fire. Altars in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in Greece, in Rome, and among the Aztec and the Maya were highly adorned with friezes, cornices, elaborate platforms, and canopies. At Pergamum there was a huge monumental altar 40 ft (12.2 m) high. Altars as a rule were out of doors in the ancient world and in Central America. The Christian altar is the place to celebrate the Eucharist, a sacrifice in the traditional view. In the Western Church the altar is a long, narrow table of stone or wood, often reminiscent of a tomb; at its back is a reredos, which often bears a canopy. In the Roman rite there are in the middle of the altar a crucifix and a tabernacle to contain the reserved Host, although recent legislation of Roman liturgical reform suggests that the tabernacle be placed elsewhere in the church. There is a recess in each altar containing bones of martyrs; this is even true of tiny portable altars carried by chaplains. In Eastern rites the altar is square and has no backing or reredos; it is away from the wall. Most Protestant denominations have no altar; a typical practice is to have a permanent communion table below and in front of the pulpit.

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al·tar / ˈôltər/ • n. the table in a Christian church at which the bread and wine are consecrated in communion services. ∎  a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, esp. for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity. PHRASES: lead someone to the altar marry. ORIGIN: Old English altar, alter, based on late Latin altar, altarium, from Latin altus ‘high.’

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Altar (Lat., altare, ‘to raise up’). A structure, often raised, either natural or humanly made, usually with a flat surface, on which offerings are made to God or gods. In Hinduism, the vedi (altar) is the centre of the world, axis mundi, because the divine comes into the world at that point. The word bēma (Gk., ‘altar’) may refer to the whole sanctuary, hiera/hagia trapeza (‘sacred/holy table’) being reserved for the altar.

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altar OE. altar, alter = OS., OHG., ON. altari; Gmc. adoption of late L. altar, altāre, altārium for L. altāria n. pl. burnt offerings, altar, prob. rel. to adolēre burn in sacrifice. The native OE. word was wī(ġ)bed, wēofod ‘idol table’; the alien word was applied spec. to the Christian altar.

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altar the table in a Christian church at which the bread and wine are consecrated in communion services; a table or flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, especially for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity. The word comes ultimately from Latin altus ‘high’.