Taking a look at two millennia of Jerusalem customs

Not only is Jerusalem mentioned some 850 times in the Bible and dozens of times in the siddur, our love for Jerusalem was also expressed in the form of laws and customs after the Destruction.

HANANEL EVEN HEN and Shiran Habush celebrate during their corona-era wedding at an Efrat public park on March 15. Jerusalem and its destruction have been remembered at weddings by Jews throughout the world for 2,000 years (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
HANANEL EVEN HEN and Shiran Habush celebrate during their corona-era wedding at an Efrat public park on March 15. Jerusalem and its destruction have been remembered at weddings by Jews throughout the world for 2,000 years
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
According to recent press reports, during the coronavirus crisis, 300 Diaspora Jews were brought for burial to Israel, mostly in Jerusalem. The bodies arrived by cargo planes and even by private chartered jets. At a time when most flights to Israel were canceled, Jews from abroad spent huge sums of money in order to bury their loved ones in Jerusalem. Why would they do this? What is so special about burial in Jerusalem?
I would like to answer these questions in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, celebrated this week in honor of the 53rd anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.
How did the Jewish people maintain its ties to Jerusalem for 1900 years after the Destruction of the Second Temple? Judaism has always stressed that beliefs must be grounded in practice. Not only is Jerusalem mentioned some 850 times in the Bible and dozens of times in the siddur (prayer book), our love for Jerusalem was also expressed in the concrete form of laws and customs after the Destruction throughout the Diaspora, and within the city from 70 CE until today.
Therefore, let us examine two sets of Jerusalem customs. The first set were observed by many – and sometimes all – Jewish communities throughout the world for hundreds and even thousands of years in order to remember Jerusalem. They include: wedding customs; funeral customs; prayer customs; fast days; and mourning customs observed throughout the year.
Wedding customs
The three most well-known wedding customs are placing ashes on the groom’s head, reciting the verse “If I forget thee Jerusalem” (Psalms 137:5-6), and breaking a glass at weddings. In addition, there are a number of lesser-known customs worth mentioning:
In betrothal contracts written by R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (d. 1810) it was stipulated: “The wedding will, God willing, take place in the Holy City of Jerusalem. But if, Heaven forbid, because of our sins, the Messiah will not have come by then, the wedding will take place in Berdichev.” Today, some Jews write similar phrases in their wedding invitations.
Beginning in fourteenth century Germany, and especially in Italy, brides would wear large rings crowned with an ornate building in addition to their actual wedding ring. Some maintain that these buildings represent the Temple in Jerusalem so that the bride should remember the Holy City on her wedding day.
Burial customs 
As for burial customs, Prof. Isaiah Gafni has shown that Diaspora Jews began to be buried in Israel in the third century because they believed that burial in Israel atones for one’s sins and that those buried in Israel will be the first to be resurrected. Jews preferred to to be buried in Jerusalem and especially on the Mount of Olives where the resurrection of the dead was supposed to begin. Thus, many Diaspora Jews made aliyah to Jerusalem in their old age in order to die and be buried there, while the remains of many others – as we have seen above -- were taken to Jerusalem for burial after their deaths.
Other Jews who were not buried in Jerusalem were buried with their feet facing Jerusalem so that when resurrection comes, they will be ready to stand up and walk towards the Holy City.
Finally, there is a widespread custom to comfort mourners both at the cemetery and at the house of mourning with the sentence: “May God comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem” or: “May you be comforted by Jerusalem.”
Prayer customs
Aside from the frequent mention of Jerusalem in the liturgy, there are a number of prayer customs associated with Jerusalem:
The Talmud states that Jews all over the world face Jerusalem, while the Jews of Jerusalem face the Holy of Holies (Berakhot 30a). Many ancient synagogues faced Jerusalem, this was the practice codified in Jewish Law and it’s the universal practice until today. Similarly, a person must have doors or windows in his home facing Jerusalem so that he can pray through them (Berakhot 31a).
Jerusalem was also remembered on Tisha Be’av and the other three fast days – along with The Nine Days or three weeks of mourning before the Ninth of Av. Specific Jewish communities added mourning customs on Tisha Be’av, such as putting ashes on their foreheads, wrapping the Torah scrolls in black, and announcing how many years had passed since the Destruction of the Second Temple.
Furthermore, a number of mourning customs were observed throughout the year:
The Mishneh in Sotah (9:11) indicates that “singing ceased at wedding feasts.” The general trend was to allow religious music while prohibiting secular music. Indeed, the latter type of music is prohibited by some Orthodox rabbis until today.
Finally, after the Destruction of the Second Temple, there were many ascetics who refused to eat meat and drink wine, since they were no longer offered in the Temple. Rabbi Joshua “said to them: My sons, to mourn too much is impossible and not to mourn is impossible. Rather, thus said the Sages: a person plasters his house and leaves a small section unplastered in memory of Jerusalem. A person prepares a feast and leaves a little bit out in memory of Jerusalem. A woman makes jewelry and leaves a small item out in memory of Jerusalem, as it is written (Psalms 137:5-6): ‘If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.’” (Tosefta Sotah 15:11-12). This passage was quoted by the Talmud and standard codes of Jewish law and these customs are still observed by some ultra-Orthodox Jews until today.
Thus, we see that Jerusalem and its Destruction were remembered by Jews throughout the world at weddings, funerals and throughout the year for 2,000 years.
Local Jerusalem customs
The second category consists of laws and customs observed by residents of Jerusalem and pilgrims since the Destruction. These customs, can be divided into four main categories: laws and customs which reflect the fact that the city was a melting pot; unique mourning customs; customs which mimic laws and customs of Second-Temple Jerusalem; and customs which express the Jewish love for the city.
As a melting pot
When R. Joseph Schwartz arrived in Jerusalem from Germany in 1837, he reported to his brother back home that bridegrooms in Jerusalem read a special portion from the Torah (Genesis 24:1-8) on the Shabbat after their wedding.
Yet, this custom is not indigenous to Jerusalem. It is already mentioned in 11th century Rome and 13th century Saragossa and was observed in many Jewish communities. Thus, a large percentage of the laws and customs of Jerusalem reflect the fact that the city was a melting pot for Jews from all over the world.
In mourning
In addition to the mourning customs described above, pilgrims and natives of Jerusalem observed a number of unique mourning customs:
The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 26a) rules that one must tear one’s garments upon seeing the cities of Judea, Jerusalem, and the Temple in ruins. This law was codified by the major codes of Jewish law and actually practiced by visitors to Jerusalem since the first century. As Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro (the “Bartenura”) wrote in his famous letter of 1488: “And at a distance of three quarters of a mile... the blessed city was revealed to us... and there we rent our clothes as required. And when we continued a bit more, our ruined holy and glorious house was revealed to us and we rent our garments a second time for the Temple...”
The Avelei Tziyon or “Mourners of Zion” lived in Jerusalem and elsewhere ca. 850-1175. They “sigh and groan and await the Redemption and mourn for Jerusalem”; they “do not eat meat or drink wine and they wear black... and they fast... and they ask mercy before God” to rebuild the Temple.
Finally, since the 1860s, some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem prohibit the use of instrumental music even at weddings. Today, this custom is explained as a sign of mourning for the Destruction. They circumvent this prohibition by holding their weddings at Moshav Ora outside the city limits or by using vocalists who accompany themselves on drums.
As in the times of the Temple
Given the proximity to the ruins of the Second Temple, it is not surprising that the Jews of Jerusalem developed some laws and customs aimed at mimicking some of the laws and customs of the Second Temple.
The Talmud states (Bava Kamma 82b) that in the Second Temple period “one does not allow a dead body to remain there overnight,” i.e., burial must be performed on the day of death or on that very night. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (d. 2006) claimed that this custom has been observed in Jerusalem “for a few hundred years.” It is explicitly mentioned by five 19th century writers and is the accepted custom in Jerusalem until today.
The most impressive custom in this category of imitating Temple times is mentioned in over twenty sources written between 921-1330. Jews would gather in large numbers on the Mount of Olives on the three pilgrim festivals and especially on Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot. They would begin by making a circuit around the gates of Jerusalem and then ascend to the Mount of Olives. There they would perform seven hakkafot (circuits) around a special sacred stone while reciting the traditional Hoshanot poems. The priests would wear special clothing. The Gaon of Eretz Yisrael would stand on the special stone and declare the dates of the festivals, bless the Diaspora Jews who had donated money to the Palestinian yeshivot, and excommunicate sinners such as the Karaites. Thus, the Mount of Olives became a surrogate Temple Mount on which Jews imitated specific laws and customs of the Second Temple.
As an expression of love for Jerusalem
Finally, the Jews of Jerusalem and Jewish pilgrims developed various customs which expressed their love for the city:
Beginning in the twelfth century, we hear of many customs associated with the Western Wall. Visitors would recite specific passages from the Bible and the Mishnah related to the Temple and the Sacrifices as well as special prayers composed by well-known rabbis.
Finally, R. Moshe Reisher reports in 1868 that “it is the custom [in Jerusalem] to circle the city on Hol Hamo’ed – men, women, and children – in order to fulfill the verse (Psalms 48:13): ‘Walk around Zion, circle it, count its towers’ and this is an ancient custom.”
In conclusion, our love for the City of Jerusalem did not start in 1897 or 1948 or 1967. It began in the Bible and prayer book and was expressed over the course of two millennia by the Jews of the Diaspora who remembered Jerusalem throughout the year and by the special customs observed by the Jews of Jerusalem. May we continue to remember Jerusalem at our happiest hour (Psalm 137:6) as we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim.
The writer, a rabbi and professor, is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc., Jerusalem.