Ascending the Temple Mount

Thanks to those who go up to the Temple Mount, our sovereignty over the Mount, and the entire country, becomes clear.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

On the 17th of Av 5754 (July, 1994), Rabbi Shlomo Goren ztz”l, Chief Rabbi of Israel 5733-5743 (1972- 1982), sent an important letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l:

“To the honorable Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, May your peace abound!

I find it my moral duty to respond to the reports emanating from your Foreign Minister, that there is a plan to compromise with King Hussein on giving King Hussein sovereignty on Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount), and in so doing, captivate the heart of the Hashemite King, who claims ownership of Jerusalem and the holy sites.

I would like to inform you that Har HaBayit is considered the kodesh ha-kodeshim (holy of holies) of the Jewish nation, and don’t be deceived by fabricated stories that, in any event, Jews are not allowed to ascend and pray on Har HaBayit. I enclose with this letter, my book “Har HaBayit” that I published two years ago, with some 12 maps in which I demarcated the boundaries of the places on the Temple Mount that Jews are forbidden to ascend, and the areas in which Jews are permitted to ascend and pray there. From the maps, I have provenb that, according to halakha, Jews are permitted to enter the majority of the Temple Mount. In addition, in the aforementioned book, I determine where a synagogue for Jews to pray can conceivably be built.

We have no intention whatsoever to prevent Muslims from ascending the Temple Mount and praying in their mosques; we do request to leave the vacant areas of the Temple Mount where there are no mosques, and are under the open sky and under Jewish sovereignty, and allow Jews to pray there as they please.

From the destruction of the Second Temple until three hundred years ago, prayer of the Jewish people on the Temple Mount did not cease:

With the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabban Gamliel, Nasi of Israel, established his office on the steps of the Temple Mount, and from there, Torah went out to the Jewish nation, as clarified in Tractate Sanhedrin (11b). Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel also established his base on the steps of the Temple Mount (Tractate Avodah Zara 20a).

On fast days, there were special prayers to say on Har HaBayit with the blowing of the shofar, as explained in Tractate Ta’anit (15b): “They would act in accordance with this custom only at the Eastern Gate of the Temple, and on the Temple Mount.”

The traveler from Bordeaux (4th century) related: “And the Jews would come once a year (on the 9th of Av) to this place (Har HaBayit) and weep and mourn at a certain stone that remained there from their Temple, and they would anoint it with oil” (see, “Zion” journal, book 3, p. 111 onward, the article by Yehuda Yitzchak Yechezkel). Rabbi Avraham son of Rabbi Chiya HaNasi (12th century) describes the “Beit Ha-Knesset ve’Ha-Midrash” (“House of Prayer and Study”) that existed for the Jews on Har HaBayit, as he related: “Also, the kings of Ishmael treated them well, and allowed the Jews to come to the Temple Mount, and build there a house of prayer and study, and all of Israel’s exiles would come up to the house on holidays and festivals and pray there, and set their prayers corresponding to the tamid’in and musaf’im (communal offerings)” (see, the important article of Professor Ben-Tzion Dinur, ‘House of Prayer and Midrash for Jews on the Temple Mount in the Days of the Arabs’, “Zion” journal, ibid, from p.4 onwards).

Rambam (Maimonides), during his ascent to Jerusalem in the month of Sivan 4926 (1165), prayed in the house of prayer on the Temple Mount. This emerges from Maimonides’ letter quoted in “Sefer Haredim: Sha’ar Teshuvah” chap.4 (see also, Dinur’s article (ibid), p. 87, note 178, and Yechezkel’s article, pp. 107-114). The great traveler R. Benjamin of Tudela, who resided in Jerusalem for about two years in the 12th century, describes the prayer of the Jews before the dome of the even ha-shti-ah (the foundation stone). As early as the 16th century in the days of the Radbaz – R. David Ben Zimra, “the whole world used to ascend those same ascents (on the Temple Mount) to see the whole House from there, and we did not hear or see anyone that protested” (Responsa Radbaz, Vol.1, siman 691).

I do not want to discuss here the halakhic aspects of entrance to Har HaBayit, for us, it is enough to remember that Rambam, who is considered to be machmir (strict) in this matter, prayed there himself, so after that, what are we to say?

The uniqueness of the ‘Kotel HaMaaravi’ (‘Western Wall’) as a place of worship for Jews is historically recent, and does not exceed three hundred years. It began after the decrees and restrictions imposed by the Muslim rulers on the Jews, and the eradication of the ‘Beit Ha-Knesset ve’Ha-Midrash’ that had existed for centuries on the Temple Mount.

However, under no circumstances is there any self-virtue to the Kotel – whose entire sanctity is that it borders the Temple Mount – to be a substitute for Har Hashem (the Mount of God), because the Western Wall, about which said in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2: 2): “The Shechinah (Holy Presence)never departed from the Western Wall”, is referring to the Western Wall of the Kodeshei Ha-Kodashim (Holy of Holies) or the Azarah (Temple Courtyard) in the Beit HaMikdash, and not to the kotel of Har HaBayit (which I have already clarified in my book ‘Har HaBayit’).

The prayers near the Western Wall symbolize the exile of the Nation, and their expulsion from Har HaBayit, and our prayers on the Temple Mount, symbolize the return of the Nation to their Land, and to the place of their Holy Temple.

Rabbis who lack the topographical and halakhic knowledge of the Temple Mount and so are cautious not to ascend Har HaBayit and pray there, are permitted to be machmir (stringent) on themselves, but we, and the entire nation, should be permitted to pray freely on the Temple Mount in halakhically permitted areas, after immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), and Muslims should be given free access to their mosques on the Temple Mount. But God forbid, from handing over sovereignty over the entire Temple Mount to the Waqf or King Hussein.”

About three months after the letter was sent, on the 24th of Marcheshvan 5755 (October 1994), Rabbi Goren passed away. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took time off from his schedule to comfort the family of Rabbi Goren ztz”l.

The Foundation of the Halakha

To explain the halakha, first, it should be pointed out that on Har HaBayit there are two sections – the first section, and it is the smaller one, includes the place of the Mikdash and the Azarot, and is called the ‘Machaneh Shechinah’ (the innermost camp). In the opinion of Rambam and the majority of poskim, it is forbidden to enter it today, because we cannot be cleansed of tumat met (the defilement of the dead). The other section is termed “Machaneh Leviyah” which today can be entered after immersion in a mikvah.

It is well-known, however, that in the years before the establishment of the state, due to various concerns, the rabbis, including Maran HaRav Kook ztz”l, instructed not to ascend all of Har HaBayit.

Three reasons motivated Rabbi Goren to permit aliyah to the majority of the area of the Temple Mount.

1) The precise mapping of the Temple Mount conducted by the I.D.F. Engineer Corps under his orders after the liberation of the Temple Mount. With these maps, it was possible to determine accurately, which areas were permitted to enter according to all halakhic opinions.

2) The many testimonies that for more than a thousand years after the destruction of the Holy Temple, Gedolei Yisrael (eminent rabbis) were accustomed to pray on the Temple Mount in the permitted areas.

3) The threat to Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

It is worth noting that one of the probable reasons for placing warning signs not to go up to the Temple Mount during the reign of the Turks and the British, was to prevent provoking the Muslims and rulers who governed the country at the time, and during riots, did not properly protect the Jews.

The Words of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook

There are those who question this issue from the words of Moreinu ve’Rabbeinu Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah HaKohen Kook ztz”l, but from reading his official position in the proclamation from the 27th of Shvat, 5737 (1976), the opposite conclusion emerges:

“The enormous halakhic prohibition of entering [Har Habayit] because we are still, according to halakha, in a state of impurity, does not pertain, harm, or detract even in the slightest, the importance of our proprietary ownership over that area of the glorious, holy place. Our Chief of Staff, Mr. Mordechai Gur, together and in assistance with our honorable teacher and guide, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, foremost of Israel’s rabbis, merited liberating this holy place from non-Jewish authority, and it, as well, as all parts of our holy Land, is in our possession and ownership. Under our possession and ownership, they [the Muslims] organize for themselves prayer arrangements on Fridays. Groups of our soldiers stationed there, guard and supervise them by order of our government. Even if we are careful not to enter there, according to the attributes of Jewish law, in spite of this, and for this reason, our ownership over the entire area remains unequivocally permanent and binding, and the existence of non-Jews there is only with our permission, and under no circumstances, are they owners of this place.”

The Meaning of His Words

His remarks indicate that sovereignty is the most important point, for indeed, the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel) requires that Eretz Yisrael be in our possession, and not abandoned to other nations – let alone Har HaBayit, the place of our Holy Temple. Since sovereignty at the time was clear, as he went out of his way to detail the signs of sovereignty and rule on the Temple Mount, he did not seek to clarify details of the limits of the prohibition according to halakha. However, had he heard that as a result of the failure of Jews ascending the Temple Mount the flag of Israel was removed from Har HaBayit; the permanent police station was abandoned; there is no longer a permanent military presence on the Mount; police and soldiers are not allowed to enter the mosque; the Muslim Waqf claims to be the sovereign ruler of Har HaBayit, and the Arabs are no longer just “organizing for themselves prayer arrangements on Fridays”, but rather, from there, incite the entire world against Israel, and Arab gangs curse and insult police and soldiers and Jews who ascend the Temple Mount – had Rav Tzvi Yehudah heard all of this, I am convinced he would have been outraged, and supported all legitimate means within the framework of halakha to strengthen sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Indeed, thanks to those ascending Har HaBayit and the government ministers who support them, the situation is changing for the better.

It is also evident from his wording, how much Rav Tzvi Yehudah respected Rabbi Goren and his halakhic authority, making it possible to assume he would have trusted his halakhic inquiries, and along with him, encouraged ascending Har HaBayit.

Blessed are Those Who Ascend

Towards Jerusalem Day, I once again bless those who go up to Har HaBayit in purity. Thanks to them, our sovereignty over the mountain and all of Eretz Yisrael is revealed. Through this, may we merit learning Torah in the proper way. “For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.