Getting together in Jerusalem

Delving into Holy City customs and traditions around the penitential poems and prayers.

Hurva Synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter (photo credit: YACHATS/ELKANA STEINMETZ)
Hurva Synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter
Hard-core residents of the “State of Tel Aviv” may not like to hear it, but it seems that Jerusalem was once a financial powerhouse of global proportions.
According to Pini Rafael, that lofty standing of yore will come through in no uncertain terms during the intermediate days of Succot, when President Reuven Rivlin and the country’s two chief rabbis will be joined by thousands of others for the hakhel ceremony at the Western Wall.
Rafael is responsible for guided tours run by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the slihot tours, which take place annually in the month before Rosh Hashana, have become a success story over the years. Thousands of people from all over the country climb up to the capital to get a handle on some of the centuries-old customs and traditions surrounding the slihot (penitential poems and prayers), taking in synagogues in places such as Nahlaot and Nahalat Shiva and, naturally, the Old City.
This year the program takes on extra significance as the slihot season occurs at the end of a shmita year. Every seven years, dating back to biblical times and on into the era when the Temple stood aloft in the heart of the city, the hakhel “assembly” event would take place in the presence of the king. The custom originates from the Bible and is noted in Deuteronomy as a commandment given by Moses whereby all people, regardless of race, religion or creed, were to gather in Jerusalem to hear the words of the Torah. The relevant verses talk of the coming together of “men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns, so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.”
This year’s slihot-related activities are based on the themes of unity and equality which, says Rafael, are very much what the original hakhel event was all about.
“There is something symbolic in the fact that everyone who made the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount wore the same garment. Some of the well-to-do may have had a better quality of cloth, and others who were not so well off may have worn a garment that was worn a bit thin, but basically they all wore the same thing. Everyone was equal then, and everyone came to Jerusalem to listen to the king.” The latter also mingled with the rank and file on the day. “The king would come down to the people,” explains Rafael.
The custom was stopped after the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 CE, and was revived over 19 centuries later.
“The tradition was started up again just prior to the creation of the State of Israel,” continues Rafael. “Since then [1945], almost every seven years, following the shmita year, the hakhel ceremony takes place on the second day of Hol Hamoed Succot.”
In the absence of a modern king, Israel’s president was entrusted with reading out the relevant biblical passage, until the role was taken over by the country’s two chief rabbis.
“This year, Rivlin will recite a prayer for the welfare of the state, the chief IDF cantor will recite a prayer for the welfare of the army, and the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis will read the passage of hakhel from the Torah,” says Rafael. “The reading of the passage from Deuteronomy was supposed to be a reminder to the people about how they should conduct themselves, and to set them back on a spiritual even keel.”
Rafael adds that a couple of millennia or so prior to the advent of the Internet and social media, there was a strong social element to the hakhel gathering.
“There was a sense of togetherness and welcome about the event,” he notes, adding that the immense popularity of the ceremony brought with it some significant logistical considerations. “There are no exact estimates, but it is thought that hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Jerusalem from all over the country and from abroad, too. There are stories of between 300,000 and two million visitors. Think about it. Jerusalem was much smaller, back then, than it is today. And the Jerusalemites had to deal with an enormous influx of visitors.”
Rafael proudly talks about the legendary hospitality of the Jerusalemites.
“So many people came here, and they all had to be accommodated. People would hang a piece of white cloth from a window, which signified that they had room for guests, and when they ran out of room they simply took the cloth down. There was a wonderful sense of togetherness and of mutual support. Locals would even vacate their own home to make room for visitors.”
Naturally, not everyone could get into Jerusalem for the occasion, and not all Jews flocked to the city from all over the globe. But there are compensations.
“People have their own mini-hakhel events where they live, or come to Jerusalem at other times of the year to hold their own ceremony, with their own rabbi,” says Rafael, adding that the city has a long tradition of hosting visitors. “King David took Jerusalem from the Jebusites and, in fact, Jerusalem did not belong to anyone, and it belonged to everyone. So it was nice that you had a house here, but you won’t charge me rent when I make a pilgrimage here.”
Rafael and the other guides from the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter will be on hand, on the day of the hakhel ceremony and throughout the slihot period to welcome groups and introduce them to some of Jerusalem’s treasures and the secrets of its past.
“There were some extremely wealthy people living in Jerusalem back in the day,” says Rafael. “Archeologists have discovered some sumptuously furnished and decorated houses, from the Herodian period and other times, when people had gold mosaics and their own private mikve [ritual bath].”
The theme of extending a helping hand comes up again, and a surprising sense of decorum in this generally laissez-faire part of the world.
“People would come into the Old City from near the southern end of the Temple Mount, where there was a double gate,” continues Rafael. “People would enter via one gate and exit from the other. There was a system which was adhered to. But, if you saw someone entering via the wrong gate, you would go up to him and ask him why he was doing that. Mourners were allowed to enter via the exit, to draw attention to their mourning, and then people would know and would offer them comfort. And, if someone was sick and wanted people to pray for his recovery, he could also stand by the exit gate. It was a very good system.”
The rest of the slihot tour program takes in guided tours that set off from Jaffa Gate and take in the Cardo, four Sephardi synagogues and the Ramban Synagogue.
And, in case that is not enough to draw you into the spirit of the times, there will be an actor on hand who will flit between three characters – a modern-day Jerusalemite, an archeologist and a member of the Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation.
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