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Notes from Limmud 2005

Ascending the Mount

Yisrael Medad

The Temple Mount is one of the most sacred Jewish sites, and yet, even taking into consideration halachic constraints and problems of identification, most people do not consider that the Temple Mount should be accessible to all, as they would for the Western Wall. The site is unique in this respect. Why is this so; why is Judaism's most identifiable sacred space off-limits?

There is the attitude: Who needs the Mount? We've got enough problems already!

The following comes from The Challenge of Jerusalem: Betwixt Thicket and Altar, by Israel Eldad and Ariel Eldad. (The title refers to the concept that when Abraham took Isaac off the altar, he took the ram from a thicket... and replaced Isaac there instead):

The Temple Mount was captured, it was not liberated. [...]

Immediately the Mount was captured, it should be expropriated from the Waqf [...]

(The Waqf (وقف) being the Muslim body with authority over holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.)

The Jewish attitude towards the Temple Mount relates to the Kotel [the Western Wall] being always seen as the height of aspiration for Jewish pilgrimage. [The Wall is thought by many to be the sole remaining wall of the Temple, though it is actually just a retaining wall built by Herod to enlarge the top of the Temple Mount.] This is the case for two main reasons: It has been a rabbinic ruling for at least five to six hundred years that no Jew is allowed to go onto the Mount. And since the Ottoman conquest, no foreigners have been allowed up there.

Yet we have Arab records from the first Muslim period that they allowed Jews to wail atop the Temple Mount for the destruction of the Temple on Tisha Be'Av. There was even a synagogue there! It was only after the Muslims reconquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders that they forbade all foreigners to go there.

A psychological transformation then took place which imposed our own reasons for this, upon a decision that was actually forced upon us. Namely, we can't go up because the Temple Mount contained the Temple Precints, and there are restrictions on where Jews (apart from priests and levites in a state of ritual purity) can go in the Temple, and for two thousand years no Jew has been up on the Mount.

This, however, is not the case. Maimonides, writing eight hundred years ago, ruled that Jews could go onto the Temple Mount! We learn this from the intersection of the laws of טמאת מת - ritual impurity conferred by the dead - with the formation of the tribes in the desert. The משכן [Tabernacle] was in the middle of the Israelite camp, and next to it were kept the bones of Joseph. So if even a dead body can be that close to the Tabernacle, anyone can go into the Temple.

An argument rabbis put against this was that we don't know where the restricted areas were. The solution to this is to do some archaeology and find out where they were! "It is easier to justify ascending the Temple Mount than milking a cow on Shabbos!" [I didn't get who said this.]

Can we identify what was where? [Underground map of the Temple Mount.] This is problematic from two points of view. First, we don't have permission to dig there; and secondly, in the southern part, two new underground mosques have been built in the last six years, one large enough to carry five thousand people! What happened to the dirt and potential archaeological finds, protected by the Antiquities Law, displaced by the construction of these? They were dumped, thrown away! Only now are we [Prof. Gabi Barka'i] beginning to discover there were Second Temple and perhaps First Temple elements in that rubbish. (This has also caused structural damage to the southern wall of the Temple Mount, which has necessitated Jordanians and Egyptians coming in and bolster the wall.)

One of the points which would preclude people from going up is the belief that there is nothing left to see, not least because of Herod's extending the top of the Temple Mount. But why excuse the massive destruction of something Jewish? The world protested about the destruction of the statues at Bamiyan; we never even heard the Israeli government protesting at the destruction of this part of the Temple Mount!

Coming back to the question of where is prohibited, there are hints that allow us to identify, by elimination, which areas are out of bounds. "The Bend" in the southeast: to its right, there are disorganised, roughly hewn stones; to its left, beautifully ornamented stones, straight, with a border. I.e. the old Temple Mount stopped here, and the new continued on beyond. [The border referred to is a dead giveaway for Herodian architecture.] This is located on the east of the Temple opposite Barclay's Gate on the west (the gate into the Temple at the right-hand edge of the plaza before the Western Wall, today half covered by the path up to the top). This was the end of the Temple Mount before Herod extended it to build his palace.

Now, Romans visited Herod there, and since non-Jews can't go into the Temple, so this is definitely part of the Temple Mount outside the Biblical הר הבית. The Temple Mount is much larger than the 500x500 cubit area which is problematic for entry. If we can identify these non-sanctified areas, there is no problem with entry.

Another identifiable element: at the NW corner, the steps leading down from the upraised platform are not really steps but are part of the wall. It is therefore permissible to ascend there.

[Also other elements not discussed here.]

However, this still leaves at least twelve suggested positions for the sanctified area of the Temple Mount. [Diagrams.] Since there is no authoritative solution, some have ruled all of the Temple Mount is forbidden to Jews.

Rabbi Goren measured exactly 186m east from the Rock, 164 w, 243 s, 224 n. This is important because the sole hint as to the layout of the Temple is in the Talmud in Tractate מידות (Measurements). The most open space is in the east, followed by the south, north and west.

However, the largest extents as measured on the site (above) do not agree with this!

Even so, it is still possible to delineate an area extending 99.69m on the east of the Dome of the Rock, 120m on the south, 69m on the west and 90m on the north, beyond which is outside the inner part of the Temple Mount. Outside this inner part it is possible to enter.

Even if you do have halachic concerns, some people don't go up unless they go to the mikva in the morning, and don't wear leather shoes, and don't bring money with them.

According to Muslim tradition, Omar (who built the Dome of the Rock) had a Jewish aide whom he asked to identify where the Jewish Temple stood. He stood to the north of the Rock. Omar said, "You sly dog. If I stand to the north of the Rock, if I bow down towards Mecca I am bowing down to the Rock." And that is why the Al-Aqsa mosque stands to the south (and therefore outside of הר הבית).

So really the problem is one of sensitivity. Consistently since 1968, when the first court cases were brought to allow Jews entry to the site, the site has been ruled as sensitive, in a way that nowhere else in Israel is. Indeed, this has been the case since 1929! Jews can go there in a secular context, but no expression of Jewish prayer is allowed: wearing ציצית [fringes] externally, shockelling [rocking back and forth while praying], davening [praying], opening a Bible or book of קינות [lamentation prayers].

The speaker, however, holds that if he doesn't make his case now, it will not be made in the future. He does not want to be in self-denial.

Since, Tsachi Hanegbi as Minister of the Interior allowed Jews to ascend the Mount, tens of thousands of Jews have been up there. Perhaps it's better that they go on recognised routes which do not enter the problematic areas.

As for Ariel Sharon's ascent, which is widely alleged to have sparked off the second Intifada, that happened on a Thursday and only a few rocks were thrown. As a quid pro quo, Israel allowed Palestinian police to take responsibility for security on the following Friday [the Muslim sabbath and day of prayer], and it was only then that the riots broke out, fomented by those Palestinian police. The rest of the world got confused about this sequence of events. Maybe if the visit had been on Monday, the riots on the Friday would have come across as more artificial.

Nor was Sharon's ascent so unusual. It was not the first time an MK had gone up there. The intifada was preplanned; Sharon's ascent was just an excuse.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2006-01-11 09:23 am (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
This is interesting but somewhat creepy, I feel. I mean, the stuff about the halachic status of the Temple Mount and whether it's taboo or desirable or some delightfully weird mixture is cool. But the stuff about all those mean nasty Arabs desecrating our holy sites is a bit, um, off. (For example, it's obvious that Sharon's visit didn't cause the second Intifada, cos clearly the terrorists had a choice whether they wanted to carry out violent acts. But that's different from saying that he was behaving in a reasonable way by doing that.)

Date: 2006-01-11 10:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
But the stuff about all those mean nasty Arabs desecrating our holy sites is a bit, um, off.

Why? These are the same Arabs, remember, whose late leader's last contribution to the post-Camp David peaces talks in December 2000 was to deny there had ever been a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in the face of abundant historical and archaeological evidence to the contrary.

There is a matter of mutual respect here. During the Jordanian occupation of the Old City (1948-1967), Jews were never allowed access to the Western Wall; whereas since the Old City passed into Israeli hands, the Israeli government has been scrupulous about leaving Muslim access to the Temple Mount unfettered. If destruction of archaeological material is taking place, something should be done about it!

Besides, where was I talking about desecration of holy sites? The essay should make clear the mosque-building referred to above is outside of the Temple precincts; whilst there are those who will regard it as being a desecration purely by virtue of being located on (or in) the Temple Mount, the speaker does not, and neither do I.

Date: 2006-01-11 12:10 pm (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (ewe)
From: [personal profile] liv
I take your point; there's nothing specifically polemical here, I'm just getting creepy vibes from the account. But you were at the talk, and if you feel that the guy wasn't a Zionist nutter then you're very likely to be right.

Date: 2006-01-11 12:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Well, he is a Zionist nutter. He talked about how within days of first coming to Israel he got thrown off the Temple Mount, and has been thrown off <mumble>ty-<mumble> times since. But I got the impression he's an open-minded Zionist nutter, not an Arab-hater or security paranoiac or religious fundamentalist, etc.

Thanks for the Compliment, I think

Date: 2006-02-21 10:30 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
No, I'm no nutter. If you read some of my Jerusalem Post op-eds on the subject (check this site, for one source: http://yisraelmedad.wordpress.com/), you'd see that a touchy subject can be dealty with rationally.

Re: Thanks for the Compliment, I think

Date: 2006-07-23 08:13 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
When i'm in bad : www.Kotel.fr

Western Wall

Date: 2006-08-14 10:33 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Other site to see the western wall live : www.kotel.fr

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