A Matter Of Merit
‘They Added Four Amos’
The Mishnah (Middos 1:3) states that the mizbe’ach of the second Beis Hamikdash exceeded, in size, that of the first by four amos, both to the south and the west, even though a smaller number of Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael during this period. The Gemara offers three different reasons for this expansion.
R. Yosef suggests that a miraculous divine fire – esh shel shamayim – burned on the mizbe’ach in Solomon’s Temple, which supernaturally consumed sacrifices very quickly. In the Second Temple, for lack of special merit, this fire did not exist. The Jews were therefore forced to enlarge the mizbe’ach to accommodate all the sacrifices.
R. Shimon b. Pazi in the name of Bar Kapparah suggests that in Solomon’s Temple the nisachim would flow down the altar’s side into an underground pit located nearby. In the Second Temple era, the Sages decided to expand the altar to overlap the pit. They reasoned that just as the sacrifices must burn on top of the altar, so too the libations must be consumed by the altar and not flow down its side because of the principle she’siya k’achila (lit. “like its eating is its drinking”).
In Solomon’s Temple, since Exodus 20:21 states, “Make for Me an altar of earth,” the Sages thought there should be no perforations; they believed there must be a direct connection to the earth.
R. Yosef (62a) suggests yet another reason. Before the Second Temple was built, it was revealed to the sages of the Great Assembly – Anshei Knesses Ha’gedolah – that the maximum size allowed for the altar was actually larger than previously thought.
The Sfas Emes (novella, ad loc.) questions the logic of Bar Kapparah’s reason. It doesn’t seem possible, he says, that the Sages in the second Temple era unearthed a theretofore-unknown halacha, namely that she’siya k’achila (the libations must be absorbed directly through the altar). It is unthinkable that the libation rite was incorrectly performed during the entire First Temple era.
The Sfas Emes, therefore, suggests that during the First Temple era, a divine fire not only consumed the sacrifices quickly but also had the supernatural ability to consume the libations. Thus, the principle of she’siya k’achila was satisfied. However in the Second Temple era, during which the Jews did not merit a divine fire, they had to enlarge the altar so that it overlapped the pit.