439. What About Elijah?:The prohibition against offering sacrifices outside the Temple

…beware lest you bring your burnt offerings any place you see. (Deuteronomy 12:13)

In Mitzvah #186, we discussed the prohibition against slaughtering a sacrifice outside the Temple. Our current mitzvah addresses the prohibition against burning a sacrifice outside the Temple.

The reason underlying this mitzvah is as we discussed in Mitzvah #186: the Temple is supposed to be someplace special. If one can offer sacrifices anywhere one feels like, what would we need the Temple for? Surprisingly, this was actually a big problem in Biblical times! The Book of Kings tells us repeatedly that the Kings of Judah failed to rid the land of "bamos," the private altars that people established to offer to God. That is, until King Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah) finally took a stand and abolished them once and for all (see 2 Kings chapter 18).

The obvious question about this mitzvah involves the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah), who famously built a bamah on Mt. Carmel, when he showed up the priests of Baal (1 Kings chapter 18). Yes, that would have been counter to this mitzvah, but prophets were sometimes Divinely mandated to do things outside of normative behavior. While God might tell Eliyahu to build a bamah, Eliyahu could not tell the nation to do so, since prophets could not direct people to act contrary to Torah.

This mitzvah applies to men and women in all times and places. In the Talmud, it is the topic of the thirteenth chapter of tractate Zevachim, starting on page 106a. It is codified in the Mishneh Torah in the eighteenth chapter of Hilchos Maaseh HaKorbanos. This mitzvah is #89 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos; it is not listed in the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar of the Chofetz Chaim.