Should Jews visit the Temple Mount?

The current halachic prohibition against ascending the Temple Mount originates in the Ottoman period.

By
November 18, 2014 06:39
4 minute read.
Temple Mount

Tzipi Hotovely visits Temple Mount. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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For millennia, the site of the First and Second Temples has been the subject of a halachic (Jewish law) question: where are Jews permitted to walk on the Temple Mount? Rabbis agree that because of the sanctity of the Temple, Jews must not enter the area where the Temples stood. They differ, however, about where the Temples were located, and whether the prohibition applies to the specific site of the Temples, or to the entire Temple Mount.

The First and Second Temples were small buildings, about 50 meters square, which contained an inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, into which the High Priest entered once a year, on Yom Kippur. The Temple Mount is nearly 1,500 square meters, and entering the golden Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine, and its surrounding area – around 200 sq.m. – is forbidden.

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It is recorded that Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides/Rambam, 1135-1204) prayed on the Temple Mount at a synagogue that had remained from an earlier (pre-Crusader) period. Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) wrote that he prayed on the Temple Mount when he arrived in Jerusalem in 1267.

The current halachic prohibition against ascending the Temple Mount originates in the Ottoman period and was restated during the Mandate period by chief rabbis Avraham Ha-Cohen Kook and Isaac Herzog, and halachic authorities like R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan (author of “Hafetz Hayim”). Their position was consistent with the Ottoman and British governments’ and Wakf (Islamic Authority) policy of excluding Jews from the Temple Mount and restricting access to and use of the Western Wall.

When Jerusalem was liberated from Jordanian occupation in 1967 and the Western Wall and Temple Mount opened to all, IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren tried to establish a synagogue on the Temple Mount. This enraged defense minister Moshe Dayan, who instituted two decrees regarding the Temple Mount which are in force to this day: 1) he gave administrative control to the Wakf, and 2) he prohibited Jewish prayer on the site.

To accommodate Jordan, successive Israeli governments assigned custodial rights to it, which were included in Article 9 of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty (1994): “Each party will provide freedom of access to places of religious and historical significance. In this regard ...Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan [regarding] Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem ... The parties will act together to promote interfaith relations among the three monotheistic religions with the aim of working towards religious understanding, moral commitment, freedom of religious worship, and tolerance and peace.”

Confusion about where Jews are permitted to walk on the Temple Mount comes from two words that are overlooked in halachic decisions by rabbinic authorities. They prohibited Jews from setting foot in “the place” (“hamakom”) where the Temples stood – and by extension, the entire Temple Mount.

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Modern research and archeology have clarified that the Temples were built on or slightly north of the Dome of the Rock. The Aksa mosque, the only mosque on the Temple Mount, was built on an area added during the Herodian period when the plaza was expanded, and therefore could not have been part of the sacred Temple area.

The prohibition issued by the Chief Rabbinate – a government authority – relied on earlier halachic decisions designed to prevent Jews from entering forbidden places by mistake.

Although well-meaning, the ban on Jews visiting the Temple Mount ignores reality: more and more Jews are going to the Temple Mount and many rabbis allow visits, with proper preparation, to areas which are not forbidden.

Trying to impose halachic stringency, therefore, will backfire, along with demeaning rabbis who permit such visits.

The Temple Mount has no sanctity for Muslims. The Wakf has desecrated and pillaged the site in an effort to destroy all remains from the First and Second Temple periods. This occurred with the tacit permission of the Israel Police and the Prime Minister’s Office. Protests by Jews and archeologists from around the world have been ignored.

A sign at the entrance to the Temple Mount erected by the Chief Rabbinate halachically prohibiting Jews from entering the site, therefore, has created confusion and requires reconsideration.

Instead of using halacha as a teaching tool, it is used repressively, turning what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called “ish halacha” into “ish politica.”

This confusion has led to the abandonment of the most important site in the world to the Jewish people. If Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael means anything, it is not only to honor and cherish the Temple Mount, but to preserve and protect its sanctity on behalf of the Jewish people and the world.

Muslim and Jewish authorities are obligated to ensure the safety of all visitors.

The fact that Jewish and Islamic history is intertwined on the Temple Mount is significant. It is a symbol of coexistence. Excluding Jews from the Temple Mount and attacks on Jewish visitors violate its essence. Jews should not only be allowed, but encouraged to visit the site, for only when mutual respect and toleration is practiced can there be real spirituality and peace.

Jews should go to the Temple Mount not to make a political statement, but a moral one: peace and prayer – for all. Hateful bigots cannot be allowed to destroy the sanctity of this space.

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