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The Mishnah (3:4) discusses the quarrying of the stone that was used for the construction of the mizbeach (altar) and kevesh (ramp). The stone was sourced, but not hewn from the valley of Beit Kerem. They would dig virgin soil and remove the stones whole – it was necessary that it was uncut. The Mishnah highlights two important issues regarding stone cutting. The first is that iron must not touch any of the stones. The second is that any notch or defect would invalidate the use of that stone.
The Mishnah explains that the reason that iron cannot even touch the mizbeach is that their prime functions are in conflict. Iron was created to shorten man’s life while the mizbeach was created to extend it. The Tifferet Yisrael explains that even though iron has many uses, the term for war is cherev (sword) stressing the prime association. Furthermore, different to other materials, even a small amount of iron is particular effective is murder.
It is not simply that the themes are in conflict. The Sefer HaChinuch (40) adds that a person is impacted upon and influenced by his actions. Consequently the message conveyed by the mizbeach of forgiveness, blessing and peace must not be distorted in anyway by the messages of the sword.
The prohibition is based on the pasuk (Shemot 20:22): “And when you make for Me an Altar of stones, do not build them hewn, for you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it.” A sword per se is not specifically the issue, since it teaches in a later pasuk (Devarim 27:5-6): “There you shall build an altar for Hashem your G-d, an alter of stones; you shall not raise iron upon them. Whole stones shall you build the altar…”
The Ramban cites a number of reasons for the mitzvah. After mentioning our Mishnah, he quotes the Ibn Ezra that explains that there is a concern that some of the off-cuts will end up in rubbish heap – a slight on the other half used in the altar. Alternatively the off-cuts might be used by idol worship to construct their altars in the hope that the stone’s origins might provide them with success.
He also quotes the Rambam that explains that the prohibition against any cutting is distance one from the fashioning of stones in the context of worship. The concern is that one might come to transgress the prohibition of creating an even maskit used in the practice of idol worship (Vayikra 26:1).
The Ramban however explain that it is because iron is cherev(sword) and it is the cause for destruction (machriv) of the world. The cherev was the inheritance of eisav (Bereishit 27:40). It is the source of is his strength in the heavens and on earth and through which his might is displayed through wars and bloodshed. By raising any iron implement in the Beit HaMikdash, “you ‘raised over it the sword’ which slays and make corpses (chalalim) and have thus desecrated (chilalta) it.”
The Ramban continues that iron was not used anywhere in the mishkan; even the pegs where made of copper instead. Similarly, in the Beit HaMikdash only the knives used for shechita were made of iron. They took exception since, as he explains, shechita is not an avodah. Cutting per se is not the issue. The shamir worm or silver was used to cut stone when necessary. The issue was with raising iron. This fact, he contents, stands as difficulties for both the Ibn Ezra and the Rambam.
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