Middot, Chapter Three, Mishnah One
Chapter three begins with several mishnayot describing the outer altar, upon which the sacrifices were burned.
1) The altar was thirty-two cubits by thirty-two.
2) It rose a cubit and went in a cubit, and this formed the foundation, leaving thirty cubits by thirty.
3) It then rose five cubits and went in one cubit, and this formed the surround, leaving twenty-eight cubits by twenty-eight.
4) The horns extended a cubit in each direction, thus leaving twenty-six by twenty-six.
5) A cubit on every side was allowed for the priests to go round, thus leaving twenty-four by twenty-four as the place for the wood pile [for the altar fire].
6) Rabbi Yose said: Originally, the complete area [occupied by the altar] was only twenty-eight cubits by twenty-eight, and it rose with the dimensions mentioned until the space left for the altar pile was only twenty by twenty.
a) When, however, the children of the exile returned, they added four cubits on the north, and four on the west like a gamma, since it is said: Now the hearth shall be twelve cubits long by twelve broad, square (Ezekiel 43:16). Is it possible that it was only twelve cubits by twelve? When it says, With four equal sides (ibid), this shows that he was measuring from the middle, twelve cubits in every direction.
7) A line of red paint ran round it in the middle to divide between the upper and the lower blood.
8) The foundation ran the whole length of the north and of the west sides, and it took up one cubit on the south and one on the east.
Section one: The mishnah begins to describe the altar from the very bottom. This area was 32 by 32 cubits.
Section two: The foundation of the altar was an amah in length and ran the entire length on the north and west but not the south and the east. On the southwestern corner and northeastern corner it took up one amah, but did not run the whole length (this will be explained in section nine). The remaining square of the altar was 30 x 30 amot.
Section three: On top of the foundation lies the surround (sovev). The sovev was five amot above the altar, and it was an amah in breadth. This left the altar with 28 x 28 amot.
Section four: The four corners/horns (same word in Hebrew) of the altar each took up an amah in each direction, leaving the altar with 26 x 26 amot.
Section five: Along the sides there was an amah walkway left empty so that the priests could walk around the altar. This walkway was inside the area devoted to the horns. Thus, the final measurement of the altar is 24 x 24. It was on this space that they would set the wood for the fire.
Section six: According to Rabbi Yose, the bottom square of the original altar was 28 x 28, leaving 20 x 20 for burning the wood, after room was left for the foundation, sovev, horns and walkway. This accords with the size of the altar built by Solomon according to II Chronicles 4:1. However, when the Israelites returned from the Babylonian exile, they built the altar larger than it was before. They added four amot to two sides of the altar, forming the shape of the Greek letter Gamma, which made the usable space of the altar 24 x 24. This number is derived from an interpretation of Ezekiel 43:16, according to which the altar was 12 x 12 amot. This number strikes Rabbi Yose as being impossibly small, probably because that would make it smaller than the altar of Solomon. Therefore, he posits that the measurements were taken from the center of the altar, and that 12 amot extended in each direction, leaving a space of 24 x 24.
Section seven: Some sacrifices had their blood spilt on the upper side of the altar, above the red paint (the animal hatat and bird olot) while the rest had their blood spilt on the lower side of the altar.
Section eight: This was explained above in section two.