The Passover Altar
There were ten miracles that occurred in the Temple on a regular basis. One of these miracles involved the smoke that arose from the fire of the altar. The altar was a large structure situated in the open courtyard of the Temple and there was a fire constantly burning on top of the altar (Leviticus 6:6). This fire consumed the offerings of Israel and sent them heavenward in a pillar of smoke. The miracle that was manifest in the smoke was that the wind never dispersed the smoke. The smoke always ascended heavenward in a solid pillar.
We can imagine that when the pilgrims journeyed from afar to worship at the Temple the first thing they would see from miles around Jerusalem was this pillar of smoke. Long before they could see the towering structure of the Temple itself they would see this pillar of smoke.
In a certain sense this pillar of smoke symbolized everything that the Temple stood for. The Temple stood for Israel’s submission towards God, Israel’s love for God and Israel’s recognition of God’s absolute sovereignty over every facet of existence and all of these found expression in the fire on the altar. The fire represented the yearning in Israel’s heart to connect to God. When Israel saw the fire consuming the offerings they saw how every facet of life ought to be directed towards God and it was at the altar where the Jewish people would dedicate and rededicate their every breath to the God of their fathers.
With all of this in mind we run into a problem when we study that first Passover offering. When the Jewish people slaughtered the lamb on that fateful evening in Egypt there was no altar upon which they could place the blood or the fats of their offering. How can there be an offering without an altar? If the altar and her fire represent the dedication of life in service of God then why was it absent in that first national offering? How could the central message of the sacrificial system be conveyed without an altar?
The passage that describes that first Passover offering can perhaps shed some light on this question. When God commands Moses concerning the Passover He emphasizes the concept of a “house” or a “home”. The offering is to be taken for each “house” of fathers. The blood of the offering is to be placed on the doorposts of the “house”. Yeast and leaven cannot be found in the “house”. The meat of the offering must be eaten in one “house” and it cannot be removed from the “house. And when the Israelites are to explain the miracle of Passover to their children they are to say that God passed over our “houses” while He smote the Egyptians and He saved our “houses” (Exodus 12:3,7,15,19,27,46).
The houses that were saved were the houses that God loved (Numbers 24:5). He loved them because of the charity and justice that was planted in those houses by Israel’s forefather Abraham (Genesis 18:19). And justice and charity are more beloved by God than the offerings (Proverbs 21:3).
The fire and the smoke of the altar only represented the yearning to connect to God and Israel’s submission towards God. Justice and charity are in and of themselves a connection to God and submission to God (Jeremiah 22:16).
Just as the blood of offerings sanctified the altar (Leviticus 8:15) so it was with the houses of Israel. These houses were sanctified with the blood of the Passover so that Israel can be a nation unto God (Exodus 6:7).
The Passover offering was not done without an altar. The altar was the home of the Jew. The altar of the Temple is actually meaningless without the altar of the home. It is only to the degree that we have incorporated the concepts of charity and justice into every step of our daily life that the fire on the altar represent a true yearning for God (Isaiah 1:10-17). But if we don’t know God in our daily lives then what does the smoke on the altar mean?
If you found this article helpful please consider making a donation to Judaism Resources by clicking on the link below.
Judaism Resources is a recognized 501(c) 3 public charity and your donation is tax exempt.
Yisroel C. Blumenthal