Of Divine Nostrils and the Primordial Altar: A Pipeline of Sanctity

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Shlomo Zuckier

Many of us are accustomed to mindlessly reading the parshiyot about building the mishkan, without thinking overmuch about the physical plant of the Tabernacle and later Temple. Whether we view such institutions as “a place to offer sacrifices to God”, “a dwelling place for the Divine Presence”, or both, we deem the existence of the edifice to be significant, but ignore its precise structure. However, at times questions regarding the minute details of the mishkan can open a window to much deeper questions pertaining to the nature of the institution and even the relationship between its builders and God. In this case, the altar’s nostrils will aid in our quest for understanding.

While the Torah provides a general outline regarding the construction of the altar—e.g., at Exodus 38:1-7—it does not offer a fully detailed description. The Torah tells us that libations of both wine and water are to be placed on the altar at various points, but the precise process for doing so is unspecified. The mishnah, following a particular position in the Sifrei Numbers 107, fills in some of these lacunae in its description of the water libations (mSuk 4:9):

שני ספלים של כסף היו שם. רבי יהודה אומר: של סיד היו אלא שהיו מושחרין פניהם מפני היין … ומנוקבין כמין שני חטמין דקין, אחד מעבה ואחד דק, כדי שיהו שניהם כלין בבת אחת

There were two silver basins there. Rabbi Yehudah says: they were two made of lime, but their faces were darkened from the wine. And they had holes, two narrow nostril-like [pipes], one wide and the other narrow, in order that both [water and wine] could [reach the] end [of the tube] simultaneously.

The nostril description is intriguing, and it parallels a description of another altar runoff, the pipes through which blood drains from the altar (mMid 3:2). The Tosefta (tSuk 3:14; Lieberman edition and numbering) provides further information on where the nostril-like pipes lead:

ר’ יהודה אומ’: של סיד היו אלא שהיו משחירין מפני היין ומנוקבין כמין שני חוטמין דקין שבהן יורדין לסילון שבנאו מי שבנה את ההיכל

Rabbi Yehudah says: they were of lime, but would be darkened by the wine. They were perforated like two thin nostrils, through which [the libations] would descend to a tube built by the one who built the Temple.

We now know where the drainage “nostrils” lead, and that it was set in place by the one who built the Temple. But who did build the Temple? This is not immediately clear, and the Talmud features an extended discussion on the topic.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 49a-b) provides a more extensive treatment describing these pipes, called shitin.

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: שיתין מששת ימי בראשית נבראו, שנאמר חמוקי ירכיך כמו חלאים מעשה ידי אמן. חמוקי ירכיך – אלו השיתין, כמו חלאים – שמחוללין ויורדין עד התהום, מעשה ידי אמן – זו מעשה ידי אומנותו של הקדוש ברוך הוא

Rabbah bar bar Hannah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: the pipes were created during the six days of creation, as it says “the hidden parts of your thighs are like the links of a chain, the making of a craftsman” (Song of Songs 7:2). “The hidden parts of your thighs”—these are the pipes; “like the links of a chain”—they are hollow (mehulalin) and descend to the Depths; “the making of a craftsman”—this is the craftwork of the Holy One, blessed be He.

This interpretation builds on Song of Songs 7:2, which—in its literal meaning—depicts the female character’s concealed thigh. In a creative midrashic interpretation, this passage is interpreted as referring to the pipes of the altar: these pipes are unseen, and they run from the bottom and side of the altar, which is actually known as its “thigh” (yerekh hamizbeah; see Lev. 1:11). The thigh is compared to hala’im, which is read as mehulalim, “hollow,” a perfect description of a pipe. Furthermore, this interpretation asserts that these pipes descend to the Depths, and that the “craftsman” referred to in the verse is none other than God.

In support of this interpretation, an earlier tradition from the House of Rabbi Ishmael is adduced.

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: בראשית, אל תיקרי בראשית אלא ברא שית

It was taught in the [Study] House of Rabbi Ishmael: “Bereshit” (in the beginning)—do not read “bereshit but “bara shit (“He created pipes”).

The creation of this altar and its pipes traces back to the beginning of creation, to the Genesis of the world itself, as is encoded in the most primordial word Bereshit. As God was creating the world, these preternatural pipes were brought into being as well. One is reminded of the ten supernatural phenomena created as the first Shabbat was beginning, as described in mAvot 5:6.

The continuation of the Talmud on bSuk 49a cites another Tannaitic interpretation to support the idea that these hollow pipes descend to the Depths:

תניא, רבי יוסי אומר: שיתין מחוללין ויורדין עד תהום, שנאמר אשירה נא לידידי שירת דודי לכרמו כרם היה לידידי בקרן בן שמן. ויעזקהו ויסקלהו ויטעהו שורק ויבן מגדל בתוכו וגם יקב חצב בו. ויטעהו שורק – זה בית המקדש, ויבן מגדל בתוכו – זה מזבח, וגם יקב חצב בו – אלו השיתין.

It was taught: Rabbi Yose says: The pipes are hollow and descend to the Depths, as it says: “Let me now sing to my beloved a lover’s song for his vineyard; my beloved had a vineyard at the very fruitful hill (bi-keren ben shamen); and he dug it and removed its rocks and he planted it with quality vines and he built a tower at its center, and even carved a wine receptacle within it” (Isaiah 5:1-2). “And he planted it with quality vines”—this is the Temple. “And He built a tower at its center”—this is the altar. “And even carved a wine receptacle within it”—these are the pipes.

Employing several different levels of word play, the Talmud presents the building of the altar. Focusing on the literary elements pertaining to the altar, it is understandable that the “quality vines” would be interpreted as God’s chosen Temple, and the tower at its center would naturally be seen as the altar. The “wine receptacle” carved inside it can very reasonably be interpreted as referring to the pipes chiseled in the altar that held the wine (and water) libations.

[Alternatively, as the parallel Tosefta (tSuk 3:15) has it, the “tower” is the Temple, the “wine receptacle” is the altar, and “he carved within it” teaches that the altar has the pipes chiseled inside.]

The broader context of the passage is also relevant. For one, the location of this vineyard in Keren ben Shemen (understood as “the very fruitful hill”) is important, as the Bible in many places refers to the altar as having horns, or keranot (see, e.g., Ex. 37:25). Furthermore, there may be a hint here as to who built this altar. The reference to the “beloved” in Is. 5:1, that same dod appearing throughout the Song of Songs (and the speaker of Song of Songs 7:2 cited above), might indicate that God is the one who built this Temple. However, it is also possible that the dod here is a cipher not for God but for King David, as both are spelled דוד! In some Talmudic traditions (see bSuk 53a and below), it is David who sets up the shitin in preparation for his son Shlomo’s construction of the Temple. The Talmud does not clarify with this statement who built the altar and its pipes, and the parallel tradition in the Tosefta is also open to interpretation, with no hint throughout the text that God was directly involved at this stage.

Having presented the various textual interpretations as to the origin of the altar and its pipes, the Talmud then moves on to raise some questions as to its physical makeup:

תניא, אמר רבי אלעזר בר צדוק: לול קטן היה בין כבש למזבח במערבו של כבש, ואחת לשבעים שנה פרחי כהונה יורדין לשם ומלקטין משם יין קרוש שדומה לעיגולי דבילה, ובאין ושורפין אותו בקדושה, שנאמר בקדש הסך נסך שכר לה’

It was taught: Rabbi Eleazar bar Tzadok said: A small chamber existed between the ramp and the altar on the western side of the ramp. Once every seventy years the priest youths would descend there and gather congealed wine that appeared to be like dried fig cake, and would come and burn it in holiness, as it says: “In the holy offer a libation of wine to the Lord” (Num. 28:7).

According to this tradition, which follows one opinion in the Tosefta, the pipes with the libations do not descend to the Depths, as we saw in several other interpretations. Rather, they run to the end of the line and remain accessible for retrieval and liquidation every seventy years. This allows for a second offering, as it were, of the wine, as the congealed wine concentrate is taken and burned. The Talmud’s continuation (49b) spells out, invoking Numbers 28:7, the word “kodesh” (“holy”) means that these wine libations are burned in the Temple.

A series of disputes over various details of the altar’s structure emerges from this Gemara. For one, there is the question as to whether the pipes descend to the Depths or if they don’t descend beyond the point of retrieval. Additionally, there appears to be a dispute as to whether they were built by God or by “whoever built the Temple,” possibly David (or Shlomo, as some later glosses to the Tosefta would have it). Building on a relatively straightforward Mishnah and its description of two nostril-like pipes, we end up with a fair amount of divergence on the details.

These positions differ on more than just the particulars of the tubular basins, as they point to a much larger question regarding the very nature of the altar.

We might best consider this question by returning to the mishnah. What exactly are we meant to understand when the mishnah says that these pipes resemble two nostrils? Is this simply a physical description, or is something more profound at work here? The poetic verse in Deuteronomy (33:10) writes:

    יורו משפטיך ליעקב ותורתך לישראל ישימו קטורה באפך וכליל על מזבחך    

You will teach Your Law to Jacob, Your Torah to Israel;
They will place incense in Your nose, a burnt offering on Your altar.

Here, God’s altar appears in synonymous parallel to God’s nose, as these two sacrificial receptacles are compared. Just like burnt offerings are brought onto the altar, the incense enters God’s nose, as it were, after being turned to smoke. Given the broader context, this metaphor is not too surprising; if sacrifices are called God’s “offering and bread” (Num. 28:2), it is a simple logical extension away to call the altar, where God receives the offering, God’s nose. [For reasons of space we will not enter the question of divine anthropomorphism; however one understands these matters, though, these metaphors are applied for a reason and need to be understood.]

Our Mishnah might be read as the next logical step following this verse. If the altar is God’s nose, it would only make sense that the nose has nostrils—two nostrils, in fact! And, just as the “nose”-altar serves as the point of intake for burnt offerings like the incense and olah in Deut. 33:10, the “nostril”-pipes serve as the receptacles for the libations.

But where do the libations go? On this account, they go all the way to the Depths (tehom). If the smoke of burnt offerings ascends upwards to Heaven, the liquid libations instead run downwards, out of the human world and into the divinely fashioned nether-realm of the Depths.

But how could the man-made Temple connect to such otherworldly realms? How could such a construction have been carried out, even by such great kings of Israel as David or Shlomo? On this approach, the answer is simple—it wasn’t created by human agency. Hence the Talmudic teaching, מעשה ידי אמן – זו מעשה ידי אומנותו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, “‘the work of a craftsman’—it was the craftwork of the Holy One, blessed be He.”

We might even take this teaching a step further. Not only were the pipes of the altar created by God at the time of the creation of the world, but these pipes might have been the very basis of the creation of the world. The Midrash Aggadah (ed., Buber) on the Torah’s first word reads: ברא שית, משיתין של מזבח ברא העולם, “bereshit [should be read as] bara shit: from the pipes of the altar God created the world.” This teaching not only points to the centrality of the primordial altar but also highlights some parallels to another Temple object of great significance, the even shetiyyah, or foundation stone of the world, which sits in the Holy of Holiness. (See mYom 5:2.)

On the other side of this debate, we have a much more mundane understanding of the creation of the altar and its pipes. This position maintains that they were not created by God, but simply by “whoever built the Temple,” as the Tosefta has it. In fact, we find later, at bSuk 53a, a tradition that David built the shitin:

אמר רבי יוחנן: בשעה שכרה דוד שיתין, קפא תהומא ובעי למשטפא עלמא, אמר דוד חמש עשרה מעלות והורידן

Rabbi Yohanan said: When David dug the pipes for the Temple, the waters of the Depths rose and tried to drown the world. David recited the fifteen [Songs of] Ascents and made them subside.

As it appears, David’s attempts to build these pipes were nearly thwarted by his dangerous run-in with the Depths. The netherworld was about to overpower his attempt to dig even the humanly attainable distance, until God intervened. [One might distinguish between the pipes of the Temple here on 53a and the pipes of the altar on 49a. Even so, there would still be the mishnah, cited above, which says that the pipes of the altar were built by “whoever built the Temple.”]

In any case, the perspective that a human dug the pipes fits very well with the approach that these pipes go not all the way down but simply to “a small room” between the ramp and the altar. The purpose of the pipes was not to connect the human world to the divine one. Rather, they served a functional purpose,  providing a physical location for the runoff from the libations. Continuing this more pragmatic view, the teaching of Rabbi Eleazar bar Tzadok notes that the dried wine would have to be disposed of (ritually, of course!) every seventy years. And on this account, when the mishnah says that the pipes resemble nostrils, it is simply meant to describe these pipes, not to attribute any deep metaphysical meaning to the issue at hand.

Our presentation up to this point, largely supported by Tosafot (49a, s.v. Al Tikrei) as well, has presented a frontal dispute as to whether these altar pipes were created by human or divine hands and where precisely they reached. These are not mere technical disputes. They add up to a fundamental, conceptual question as to the nature of the altar, its construction, and the relationship between the altar pipes and God. We might even connect this to the dispute regarding whether humans or God will build the Third Temple.

But maybe it’s not necessary to choose between the two approaches.

If we combine the two tacks, we might suggest a third, hybrid approach to this question. Ritva (49a, s.v. Amar Rabbah; see also Rashi, 53a, s.v. be-sha’ah) raises a contradiction between two statements of Rabbi Yohanan – in one he implies that God created these pipes, and in the other that David built them. The Ritva is open to the possibility that there is a dispute as to Rabbi Yohanan’s position, but also proffers another answer: אי נמי שנבראו מששת ימי בראשית ונסתמו ובא דוד וכראן, “Alternatively, they were created during the six days of creation and were subsequently closed up; David then came and (re-)dug them.” On this view neither human nor divine agency enjoys a monopoly on the creation of the altar. Both work together in partnership to accomplish the goal. Such a view might be supported from the point noted above that David’s re-digging of the pipes almost led to disaster when he came into contact with the Depths, possibly the Depths that God had earlier connected to the altar pipes.

This concept of a joint human-divine effort holds great theological significance. It presumes that, when building the realm of holiness, neither a purely human nor a solely divine initiative is sufficient. Both parties must combine forces to create the idyllic House of God. Especially for constructing the altar pipes, the conduit connecting the human and the divine realm, it is essential that both parties participate in the process.

One might see this theme of joint human-divine action manifest more broadly in matters relating to holiness. As the Gemara explains (bNed 13a), although the firstborn animal is sanctified from the womb, there is nevertheless a commandment to sanctify it. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik develops this theme further, applying it in various places to the sanctification of Shabbat and to Jewish sanctity. Although Sabbath is sanctified by God, Jews are bidden to recite Kiddush and thus sanctify it once again; although Jews are chosen by God to be God’s holy nation (Ex. 19:6), they are still charged with the task to make themselves holy by following religious and ethical guidelines (Lev. 19:2). [The former appears in the essay “Kiddush as Sanctifier of Shabbat” in Shiurim li-Zekher Abba Mari and the latter point is implicit in several of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings.]

In so many areas of sanctity, an inherent aspect of holiness exists, but is only fully realized when tapped into by human action. Following the Ritva, we might say the same for the “nostrils” of the altar. A primordial divine creation, this connector between the holiest location on earth and the netherworlds must yet be uncovered by human agency in order to properly manifest its powers. And that may be why the Tosefta so cryptically stated that the pipes were created by “whoever built the Temple.” More than any one party, it was the fusion of human and divine agency that combined to build this pipeline between the divine and human realms.

The road to the divine netherworld is paved with bilateral intentional actions.

Many thanks to my colleagues Yosef Bronstein, Elinatan Kupferberg, Tzvi Sinensky, and Ayelet Wenger for their helpful comments.


Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.