THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RABBI DR BEN­JAMIN EL­TON

“If you make Me an al­tar of stone, you shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if you lift up your sword upon it, you have pro­faned it” Ex­o­dus 20:25

When the al­tar was made in the Taber­na­cle and in the First and Se­cond Tem­ples, stones were used which had never been worked by any iron tool. Even a scratch from an iron im­ple­ment made the stone un­fit for use.

Nach­manides (1194-1270) presents the clas­sic ex­pla­na­tion, that iron in gen­eral, and swords in par­tic­u­lar, rep­re­sent vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion. In a place as holy as the Tem­ple, they would de­file any­thing they touched. That is why there was noth­ing made of iron in the Taber­na­cle, even the pegs that held the struc­ture to­gether.

This bib­li­cal rule still has prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions. Nach­manides’s older con­tem­po­rary, Rabbi Elazar of Worms (11761238), ap­plied this com­mand­ment to our be­hav­iour at meals. Our ta­bles, es­pe­cially on Shab­bat, rep­re­sent the al­tar. While the orig­i­nal al­tar was cre­ated to ex­tend life through achiev­ing atone­ment, a sword is made to shorten life. There­fore the two are fun­da­men­tally in­com­pat­i­ble, and while we do use knives when we eat (just as they used knives in the Tem­ple ser­vice), when we re­cite the Grace af­ter Meals, the knives should be re­moved or cov­ered.

Of course, the anal­ogy be­tween the ta­ble and the al­tar is not ex­act — if we wanted, we could make our din­ing room ta­bles out of stones crafted with iron, we could even have a ta­ble made of noth­ing but iron.

Nev­er­the­less, the sym­bol­ism of keep­ing knives away or out of sight when we ben­sch re­mains pow­er­ful.

When faith and vi­o­lence come to­gether, faith is in­evitably pro­faned. “Re­li­gious co­er­cion” is al­most a con­tra­dic­tion in terms, be­cause when re­li­gion is forced, it is not only worth­less is it poi­sonous. For the sake of faith, we should strive to keep the sword away from our al­tars.

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