The Temple Mount

To Jews, the holiest place on earth is the Temple Mount, the Jerusalem hill where the First and Second Temples stood, and where Judaism teaches that the Third Temple will one day be built. For centuries, however, two mosques-the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa-have stood on the Mount instead. Even today, Israel does not allow Jews to pray there. During the past year, more and more Jews have been trying to break the blockade.

The chief reason for barring Jews from the Temple Mount is Muslim opposition and threats of violence, which are sometimes implemented. But here, unlike the situation at the Makhpela Cave in Hebron, where the Muslims also demand exclusivity, there is another factor at work: a Jewish religious ban against anyone entering the site of the Holy of Holies, against certain categories of people entering other parts of the Temple compound, and against anyone entering the Temple site in a state of impurity.

After the Six-Day War, the chief rabbis and most other halakhic authorities ruled that it is forbidden to enter the Temple Mount precinct. A minority of rabbis, headed by Rabbi Shlomo Goren, ruled that one may go to parts of the Mount after purifying oneself appropriately.

The pervasive impurity is due to direct or indirect contact with the dead and can be eliminated only through the ritual of the ashes of the red heifer (see Numbers 19). The ashes may have been available for several centuries after the destruction of the Temple. But, according to Rabbi Goren, Jews prayed on the Temple Mount even after the ritual had definitely lapsed. (Presumably they were following the view that the ban applies only when the Temple is in place.)

There are two opinions regarding ascending the Temple Mount while the Temple is destroyed. One opinion holds that the prohibition is in force only when the Temple is standing. For centuries following the destruction of the Temple, Jews did ascend the Temple Mount and pray there. In the words of Rabbi Goren,

It can be stated with certainty that for centuries there was a house of prayer for Jews on the Temple Mount. It began with the first Arab conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century according to [the Christians'] count. The Jews fought together with the Arab armies, and they were granted supervision of the Temple Mount and the gates. . . . The al-Aqsa Mosque was built as a house of prayer for Muslims outside the boundaries of the original Temple Mount, and therefore it faces southward, toward Mecca. At the Jews' request, Omar built the sonctuary of the Dome of the Rock to serve as a house of prayer for the Jews, after the Jews showed him the place where the Temple had been built. It does not face Mecca. From . . . historical documents in our possession, one learns that the Jews worked . . . in the mosques on the Temple Mount . . . lighting and cleaning the lamps.1

The other opinion, that of Maimonides, says that the prohibition is eternal and one may not enter the Temple site. But Maimonides himself is said to have prayed there! It follows that he did enter the compound, but stayed on a portion of the Mount that he knew was not the actual site of the Temple.

Because the halakhic consequences are serious, Rabbi Goren ruled that one must follow Maimonides and the most stringent opinions and assume that the prohibition still holds. Because the precise location of the Temple is unknown, one must be careful not to enter any questionable area. He determined what parts of the precinct were certainly not within the Temple and permitted prayer in those areas.2

Those who advocate ascending the Mount today note that, although most sacrifices are contingent on the Temple and purity, the Passover sacrifice must be made if all (or most) Jews are impure. Hence scrupulousness about not entering the Temple site causes violation of another major commandment. (Others point out that matters are more complicated: The sacrifices must be offered correctly; today, however, we are not sure who is a priest and exactly what the priestly garments should be.)

Not everyone agrees with Rabbi Goren. Haredi and other decisors continue to rule that it is prohibited to ascend the Temple Mount. They reason that some parts of it are off-limits to everyone, while others are off-limits to persons who have not purified themselves in a ritual bath. Many people, however, would go there without purifying themselves properly and would not be careful to avoid the forbidden places. Finally, because we cannot be sure that the available maps of the Temple site are accurate, the entire compound must be ruled off-limits.

Since 1967, police have permitted Jews on the Temple Mount as tourists, but forbid them to pray there. Any Jew (or Christian) who even appears to be praying is hustled away. In fact, police keep anyone who looks like a religious Jew off the Mount. Two movements, whose members insist that ascending the Temple Mount is halakhically permissible, are currently endeavoring to get the Israeli ban revoked so that Jews can pray there. The Temple Mount Faithful, led by Gershon Salomon, has been around for years, making periodic attempts to ascend the Mount. In October 1990, when the group announced plans to lay a cornerstone for the Third Temple (although police had promised to prevent them from even visiting the site), thousonds of Muslims rioted on the Mount, attacking worshippers at the Western Wall below as well as police on the Mount itself.

Hai Vekayam is a fairly new organization, founded in 1993 by right-wing activists who advocated replacing Israeli law with Jewish law and called on Israelis to refuse to do army reserve duty because of government policies they deem in violation of halakhah. In late 1994 the organization turned to attempts to pray on the Temple Mount.

On numerous occasions in 1995, members of these groups were arrested whenever they tried to ascend the Mount to pray. In recent years, however, the High Court of Justice, responding to petition after petition filed by the groups, has inched closer to ordering police to allow them up.

In July 1994 the Court ruled that the Faithful must be allowed to ascend the Mount (but not to pray there) on Tisha Be'av, the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. When the day came, however, the police kept them off, citing intelligence information that the visit would lead to Arab riots.

In August 1995, in accordance with another High Court ruling, police allowed four of the Faithful onto the Mount, on condition that they not pray there. After Muslims threatened the Jews, police barred other Jews from the site. Later in the day, after receiving warnings of riots by Muslims on the Temple Mount and throughout Judea-Samaria and Gaza, police officially closed the Mount to both Muslims and Jews, although 200 Muslims were permitted to pray there, 100 at a time. During the Sukkot festival in October, about 30 Faithful were allowed onto the Mount in pairs-again on condition that they refrain from praying; eventually the Faithful themselves decided not to have any others go up that day because they considered the police behavior in making sure that they did not pray to be an embarrassment to the entire Jewish people.

Israel Yearbook and Almanac 1996, pp. 266-267,

1.Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Sefer Har Habayit (The book of the Temple Mount), (Jerusalem, 991/92), p. 359.

2.For many years Rabbi Goren conducted the Yom Kippur musaf service, which includes a recitation of the High Priest's annual Yom-Kippur observance in the Temple, in the one part of the Temple Mount not under control of the Waqf (a room in a Border Police station that overhangs the Western Wall just north of the Western Wall Plaza). More recently, daily services have been held there, attended mainly by soldiers stationed in the vicinity; these continued after Goren's death in October 1994.

Return to News Article, March 16, 1997




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