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While looking at drawings of the Temple's Altar, I was impressed by its dimensions: up to 5m (16ft) high and 15m (100ft) wide. Here's a pretty truthful depiction (courtesy of WIKI) that gives an idea of its size:

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Here's another picture from Mesivtah©needs permission? that shows the full altar from a different angle:

enter image description here

As we can see the whole area has no railings. I thought I was a safety freak, but the Mishnah describes that some careless Cohanim actually fell and were hurt (Yomah 2,2):

מעשה שהיו שניים שווים רצים ועולים בכבש, ודחף אחד מהן את חברו, ונפל ונשברה רגלו.

It once happened that two were even as they ran up the ramp, and one of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg.

Interestingly, even after the incident they didn't think of adding the railings, they (the court) simply canceled the lot altogether.

Please look at the two Cohanim I marked with red arrows - they endanger their lives (or at least their service as Cohanim, because a broken limb can lead to disqualification). THere's also a 50cm Hasovev around the Mizbeah about 2.5m high (notice marks ב and י"ז)!

The top of the altar is called "גג" - "roof" and the Torah has a specific and explicit double commandment/prohibition of "making a railing for your roof" and "prevent personal injuries in one's house" (Deut. 22,8):

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא־תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי־יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ׃

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.

(My Rabbi offered a simple Tiruzt, as many Mitzvos don't hold in the Mikdash (Mezuza?), we can learn it from the Posuk says "בביתך" you're obligated but not in G-d's house :)

So why didn't the Mizbeach have railings or safety guards?

  • How do you know there wasn't? – Heshy Jun 11 at 10:45
  • @Heshy Because even after the incident they didn't think of adding the railings, they canceled the lot altogether! – Al Berko Jun 11 at 11:14
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    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/92879 – DonielF Jun 11 at 13:20
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    I don't see anything about the runners falling off the ramp. I always understood it to mean that he fell on the ramp and broke his leg/foot. – msh210 Jun 11 at 23:25
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    The characterization of the Mishnah in Yoma (2:2) as "some careless Cohanim actually fell and were hurt" may be incorrect. The Mishna says, "ודחף אחד מהן את חברו", "and one of them pushed his fellow". I read that an intentional act of violence. – IsraelReader Jun 19 at 4:44
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The Tiferes Yisrael (Middos, Chap. 3, Yachin, 8) posits that there was a quasi-מעקה on the top of the Altar.

דחוזרין ומניחין מקרנות ולפנים, אמה א' סביב בגג המזבח לצורך הילוך רגלי הכהנים, והיו ב' אמות אלו שבין הקרנות ושל הילוך הכהנים משוקעים קצת שלא יחליקו הכהנים ויפלו מהשפה, [ונראה לי דגם בסובב הי' מה"ט שפתו גבוה קצת סביב] ועל ידי זה היה שפה גבוה קצת לגגו של מזבח סביב, דהיינו, הרוחב אמה שבין קרן לקרן סביב והרוחב אמה סביב שמיוחד להלוך רגלי הכהנים סביב למזבח, רוחב ב' אמות הללו היו משוקעים קצת בגג המזבח, ועל ידי זה הי' כעין מעקה סביב לגג המזבח, כדי שלא יחליקו הכהנים משם ויפלו [כש"ס זבחים ס"ב א', וגם זה נשמט ברמב"ם, וצריך עיון]".

The Tiferes Yisrael refers to Zevachim 62a as source for this suggestion:

תנו רבנן, איזהו כרכוב בין קרן לקרן מקום הילוך רגלי הכהנים אמה. אטו הכהנים בין קרן לקרן הוו אזלי? אלא אימא, ומקום הילוך רגלי הכהנים אמה. והכתיב (שמות לח, ד) תחת כרכובו מלמטה עד חציו? אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק, תרי [כרכוב] הוו, חד לנוי, וחד לכהנים דלא נשתרקו.

Rashi:

וחד לכהנים דלא נשתרקו - ולמעלה בראש המזבח העמיקו סובב כמין חריץ עמוק דבר מועט להיות להם שפתו היקף מעקה קטן סביב שלא יחליקו:

Translation:

Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: There were two entities called "karkov". One was a slight protrusion above the midway point of the altar for aesthetic purposes, and one was an indentation on top of the altar for the benefit of the priests, to ensure that they would not slip off the top of the altar.

This notion that the "karkov" served as a quasi-מעקה, is also mentioned by Rabbi Yosef Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon, in his work "Tzofnath Paneach" (Terumos, Chap. 1, p. 8. column 1):

ועיין זבחים דף ס"ב ע"א גבי כרכוב לכהנים דלא משתרקי, משמע קצת דהוי זה בגדר מעקה

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    Great answer. Did you see the chevel nachalaso I brought above in a comment? – רבות מחשבות Jun 19 at 10:33
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    @רבותמחשבות Yes, I did. Thank you. I didn't reference it., because I disagree with some of the things he writes there. Most irking is the non-existent Sifri quoted in שו"ת משנה הלכות. He was most likely misled by the Torah Temimah (דברים כב, אות עח) who added the word מזבח, as if it were part of the words of Chazal. I checked numerous editions of the Sifri (including the 1st) as well as Yalkut Shimoni (930) (including 1st & 2nd editions). The word "מזבח" does not appear in any version, ומצוה לפרסם. – IsraelReader Jun 19 at 15:46
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    good to know, thanks! – רבות מחשבות Jun 19 at 16:37
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There could be another explanation. Rambam in Hilchos Beis Habdhira says that the Altar was not a building, but one of the tools, used in the Temple (just like the Menorah or the table).

As such it is exempt from the railings because it is not a building to start with, like building a giant chair.

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The Sifri (Ki Tetzei, 229) explicitly exempts a ramp from needing a railing:

ועשית מעקה לגגך. אין לי אלא גג, מנין לרבות בורות שיחים ומערות [חריצים] ונעיצים, תלמוד לומר ולא תשים דמים בביתך. אם כן למה נאמר גג, פרט לכבש

The question is, does this refer to all ramps, or only the ramp of the altar in the Temple, is the subject of debate, and is beyond the scope of this discussion. The main point is that the ramp of the altar in the Temple was certainly exempt from a railing.

  • Thank you. The verse I've found continues כבש בית, not כבש הזמזבח. What does it mean? Well then, that about גג המזבח? – Al Berko Jun 18 at 22:02
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    I rolled back your editing. My reading of the Sifri uses the first edition (Venice, 5306), and all subsequent editions, including Finklestein’s. In addition, the Gra did not emend this reading, so we know that he also accepted it. This is also the reading in Yalkut Shimoni (930) (including 1st & 2nd editions). The word "מזבח" does not appear in any version, and is the invention of the Torah Temima, ומצוה לפרסם. - Note, Sefaria has the period in the wrong place. It should read: אם כן למה נאמר גג? פרט לכבש. בית, פרט לאולם. [An alternate version read: בית, לרבות היכל. גג, פרט לאולם.]. – IsraelReader Jun 19 at 6:25
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I asked this question to many of my friend Rabbis, and all were stumped but one - R' Shimon Greenfield. He came up with an interesting idea (my translation):

In the Temple, we face numerous contradictions, e.g. regarding Sacrifices on Shabbos, putting Mezuzos, etc. It appears that this question presents yet another opposition - between the structure of the Altar and other Mitzvos of the Torah.

As the structure and the measures of the Altar are prophesized, and they did not include additional parts, like railings, we could conclude that it wasn't the part of the divine plan and the structure [of the Altar] overrides other considerations.

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