F. M. LOEWENBERG is a professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan-University in Israel. He was born in Germany and now lives, together with his wife, in Efrat, a town 22 kilometers south of Jerusalem. At the age of 12 he immigrated together with his parents and brothers to the United States. He is a graduate of Harvard University (A.B.), Columbia University (M.S.), and Wayne State University (Ph.D.). He immigrated to Israel in 1971 and became a professor of social work at Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of many books and articles in professional journals.
Early in the morning of June 7, 1967 Israeli paratroopers entered Jerusalem’s Old City through the Lion’s Gate, the easternmost entrance to the city, and made their way to the Temple Mount. General Motta Gur (1930 – 1995), the commanding general of the paratrooper brigade was not far behind the lead tank. When he reached the Temple Mount he radioed to the General Command: “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” Later in the day he said to his troops, “For some two thousand years the Temple Mount was forbidden to the Jews. Until you came… and returned it to the bosom of the nation.”
What is the Temple Mount? Why is it important? What connection, if any, do Jews have with it? And was the Temple Mount really forbidden to Jews for two thousand years?
Ancient Jewish traditions suggest that all of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) prayed on Mount Moriah, the mountain that today is known as the Temple Mount.i Both the First and the Second Temple, the most sacred places of Jewish worship, were located on Mount Moriah. During the Second Temple period the Jews were in control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, but politically and economically were the subjects of various foreign empires. A rebellion against the oppressive Roman rule in Palestine broke out in 67 CE. Three years later the Roman armies, commanded by Titus Flavius Vespasianus, conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple.
It is widely believed that the Jews abandoned the Temple Mount after the destruction of the Second Temple. Though they continued to pray and hope for a return to this holiest place, they lost direct contact with the Temple Mount once they went into exile. The evidence we will present does not support this myth. There were, of course, times during the almost twenty centuries since the destruction of the Second Temple when Jews were not able to ascend the Temple Mount because foreign rulers prevented them from doing so. But whenever permitted, Jews did go up to the Temple Mount in order to pray there.
We will briefly review the highlights of the continued Jewish presence on the Temple Mount during the past two millennia.
Roman rule (70-300). The Jews of the Roman province of Palestine made their last stand against Roman armies on the summit of the Dead Sea fortress of Masada three years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. But once the rebellion had been put down, Jews were again permitted to visit Mount Moriah, the site where the Temple had stood only a few years earlier. This “liberal” policy may seem strange to contemporary observers but the Romans, who were idol worshippers, did not object to the continued worship of local gods. Once the rebellion had been suppressed there was no longer any impediment to the resumption of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount. And Jews did ascend, as we know from numerous Talmudic accounts.ii
Some Jews continued to offer sacrifices on the Temple Mount on an altar that had survived the destructive fire. There are scholars who suggest that the sacrificial services continued almost without interruption for 65 years following the Temple’s destructions, while others suggest that the sacrificial services were resumed only during the three years (132-135) that Bar Kochba’s forces controlled Jerusalem.iii
Not only did the Jews continue to offer sacrifices and prayer on the mount, but at least once in the half-century following the Temple destruction did they begin to build a new edifice for the Third Temple. Emperor Hadrian (76 – 138), eager to gain the cooperation of the Jews, granted them permission to rebuild their temple. The Jews started to make the necessary preparations, but before long Hadrian, at the instigation of the Samaritans, went back on his word and the project stopped.iv
When, decades later, Hadrian had put down the Bar Kochba rebellion, he ordered the Temple Mount be ploughed under and the altar that had survived from the Second Temple to be completely destroyed. He also prohibited Jews from ascending on the Temple Mount. Despite Hadrian’s decrees and the destruction of whatever had survived from the Second Temple, there is ample evidence that pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to the Temple Mount continued long after 135 CE when Beitar, the last Jewish fortress town of the Bar Kochba rebellion, fell. Hadrian’s decree prohibiting Jews on the Temple Mount was reissued in every generation, indicating that it was not rigorously enforced.
Byzantine Empire (300-618). A decisive turning point in the history of Western civilization occurred in the fourth century when the pagan Roman Empire became a Christian country. Jerusalem which had become a relatively insignificant provincial city now became the focus of Christian pilgrimages and worship. A new church was built on the site of Hadrian’s Aphrodite Temple. This church became the central religious site for the Christian city and replaced the Temple Mount. Not one Christian building was built on the Temple Mount until the Crusaders conquered the city eight centuries later; instead the mountain served for centuries as the city’s garbage dump.
The political and religious changes made life for the Jews of the Roman empire much more difficult. Emperor Constantine renewed the edict that prohibited Jews from living in or even visiting Christian Jerusalem. They were allowed access to the Temple Mount only one day a year on the anniversary of the day when the Second Temple was destroyed. When the Christian Pilgrim from Bordeaux came to the Holy Land in 333, he described in some detail the desolate Temple Mount and made note of a “perforated stone” which the Jews rub with oil once a year on Tisha b’Av. While standing in front of this stone he heard the Jews recite Lamentations and saw that they tore their clothes as a sign of mourning.v
Despite the official proclamation of Christianity, idol worship was still prevalent throughout the empire. Things seemed to change when Constantine’s nephew Julian became emperor in 361. As a child Julian was a Christian, but later he rejected this religion and felt a deep revulsion toward it. He believed that making Rome Christian had been a political mistake and epitomized a sickness in the body politic. Among his first acts after becoming emperor was an edict of universal religious toleration that extended freedom and equal rights to the members of all sects and beliefs – pagans, Jews and Christians. Later he promised that he would do his utmost to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem because he felt strongly that its restoration would demonstrate the falsity of the Christian claim that the Church was the true Israel.
Diaspora Jews greeted Julian’s plan to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple with great enthusiasm, but the Sages were apprehensive, questioning the wisdom of placing their hopes on a man who was here today and gone tomorrow. Julian was upset by the hesitation of the Sages to join his plan and appointed Alypius, his best friend, to supervise the Temple rebuilding project. The imperial treasury supplied large sums of money and building materials. Many Jews came to Jerusalem to assist the skilled craftsmen and masons in the first step which was the removal of the existing foundations. However, the Christian residents of the city opposed the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple and gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray for the termination of the project. All work was halted abruptly when mysterious fire balls killed many of the construction workers. Jerusalem’s Christians saw in this unexpected turn of events a great miracle, but Jews suspected Christian arson. Others suggested that a major earthquake in May of 363 caused the cessation of construction of the new Temple.vi
By the latter part of the fourth century the Temple Mount had disappeared from the landscape of Christian Jerusalem. The attempt to erase the Temple Mount from the Christian world was so successful that the mosaic world map of Medaba which depicts Jerusalem in great detail omits the Temple Mount altogether. Jews, on the other hand, never forgot the Temple Mount, even though no ruin of the actual Temple building remained. Wherever Jews lived, they face Jerusalem three times every day to pray for the restoration of the Temple and the renewal of the sacrificial service. More than that – there are indications that Jews actually did go up and pray on the Temple Mount at this time. The Babylonian Talmud cites instructions issued by a late fourth century sage, Rabbi Bibi, that those who go up on the Temple Mount: are not allowed to spit, to carry a walking stick, to wear leather shoes, to carry a coin purse, or to use the Temple Mount as a short cut — because all of these behaviors degrade the holiness of the place.vii
When Empress Eudocia went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 438 she was greeted in every city on the way by the Jewish population, who viewed her as a messenger of the Redemption which they believed to be at hand. In the Galilee she met with the leading rabbis of the region. They asked her for permission to ascend the Temple Mount once again, something that Jews had been forbidden to do for a very long time (except on Tisha B’av). She immediately agreed with the rabbis and issued a proclamation to this effect. Great excitement gripped the Jews of the area who saw in this edict another sign of the proximity of the Final Redemption. The rabbis sent letters to Jewish communities throughout the world, informing them of the good news and asking them to come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the coming Sukkot festival.
More than one hundred thousand Jews came to Jerusalem on that Sukkot festival, according to contemporary Christian sources. There was, however, great enthusiasm because once again Jews were permitted to ascend the Temple Mount. Jerusalem’s Christians, however, feared that these developments threatened their primacy in the city. Led by the priest monk Barsauma, thousands of Christians from throughout the country assembled in Jerusalem in order to stop the Jews from going up to the Temple Mount. They physically blocked access to the mountain and threw heavy stones on those Jews who nevertheless tried to go up, reportedly killing four Jewish pilgrims. In a subsequent trial the judge ruled that the accused Christians were innocent of murder since the stones “came from Heaven.” The Jews were chased out of the city and did not return for almost two centuries.viii
For 180 years, until the Persian conquest in 618, Jerusalem officially was a city without Jews. But there are grounds to believe that throughout this period Jews continued to go up on the mountain surreptitiously. One supporting clue is a halakhic ordinance included in the sixth century Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba which instructs Jews on the direction they are to face when praying: “…those praying in Jerusalem should face the Temple site… and those who pray on the Temple Mount should turn to the Holy of Holies.”ix
Persian interlude (619-628). King Khosru II of Persia (591-628) invaded Palestine in the second decade of the seventh century in his attempt to re-establish the ancient Achaemenid Empire. The King had agreed with the Reish Galuta, the head of Babylonian Jewry, that in return for supplying 30,000 Jewish soldiers to the Persian army, these soldiers would be given permission to participate in the capture of Jerusalem and a Jewish governor would be appointed to rule over the city. Once the Persians had captured the city, Nehemiah, son of Hushiel, was appointed as governor. One of his first acts was to reestablish the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount. Before long, however, the Persians executed him, either because they feared his messianic pretensions or because they thought that the support of the larger Christian population was more valuable than that of the smaller number of Jews living in Palestine. In any event, the s lost control of Jerusalem after only ten years. The Byzantines regained authority over Syria, Egypt and Palestine in 629 and remained the country’s rulers for another ten years.x
Early Muslim rule (638-1099). Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in May 637. Upon entering Jerusalem on a white camel, Caliph Omar rode straight to the Temple Mount, thus indicating that the Muslims intended to establish their rule over this site. A Jewish letter written in the 11th century describes what happened next. The Jews who accompanied the Arab invaders showed Omar the exact spot where the Temple once stood. In return they received a number of concessions, including the right to reside in Jerusalem, the assignment to keep the Temple Mount clean, and, perhaps most important, permission to pray on the Temple Mount without interference.xi
Jews worked as servants and cleaners of the mosques that were erected on Temple Mount. As many as twenty Jews were employed to clean the mosques. Other Jews were engaged to manufacture and attach the glass and the candelabras and other things. They also supplied wicks. The medieval Arab historian Mujir al-Din al-Ulaymi (1456-1522) described the role that the Jews played on the Temple Mount in the early Muslim period; he suspected that the Jews took these jobs only to gain a foothold on the Temple Mount so that they could offer their prayers at the place where their Temple once had stood.
It has been suggested that at his time Jews received permission to build a synagogue or prayer-and-study hall on the Temple Mount. Some even indicate that the first wooden structure that had been built over the Foundation Stone was originally meant to be a synagogue, but before it was completed the Muslims expropriated the building and gave the Jews another site on the Mount.
Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187). In 1095 Pope Urban II called on all Christians to rescue Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the grip of the infidels. His appeal was answered by masses of people who on their way to the Holy Land massacred entire Jewish communities in the Rhineland and the Balkans. The religious tolerance practiced by the Muslims was replaced by intolerance and vicious assaults on all those whose religion was different. Within hours of breaching the walls of Jerusalem the victorious Crusaders had murdered almost all of the city’s Jewish and Moslem inhabitants.
On the very day of the mass slaughter of non-Christians in the city of Jerusalem, the Crusaders also captured the Temple Mount and there gave thanks to the Almighty for this great miracle. They converted the Dome of the Rock into a church and called it the Temple of God (Templum Domini). Al-Aqsa Mosque became a church, called the Temple of Solomon (Templum Solomnis). The Mount was declared off-limits for all non-Christians as it became the center of religious and civil life in Crusader Jerusalem. The synagogue on the Temple Mount was destroyed by the Crusaders soon after they captured the city.xii
Nevertheless Jews continued to ascend the Mount even during the Crusader years. The most prominent visitor during this period was Maimonides who visited Jerusalem in October 1165. On 21 October 1165 he “entered the Great and Holy House [and] prayed there.” Many scholars suggest that he ascended the Temple Mount and prayed near the ruined synagogue or the ruins of the Second Temple.lxiii
The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela who visited Jerusalem sometime between 1159 and 1172 also wrote that Jews continued to pray “in front of the Western Wall [of the Dome of the Rock], one of the [remaining] walls of what was once the Holy of Holies.”xiv The Western Wall that Benjamin described was not the present Western Wall (which did not become a site for prayer until the 16th century) but the ruins of the western wall of the Temple building itself, on the Temple Mount.
Later Muslim and Mamluke Rulers (1187-1516). Saladin regained control of Jerusalem from the Crusader kingdom in October 1187, after he defeated the Crusader army in the battle of Karnei Hittin in the Lower Galilee. He permitted both Jews and Muslims to settle in the city and to worship on the Temple Mount. Even when the Temple Mount was reconsecrated as a Muslim sanctuary, the Muslim authorities acknowledged that the Jews had the right to erect a synagogue on it.xv
Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249 – 1316), the famous French Talmudic scholar, never visited Jerusalem but had no doubts that in his days Jews prayed on the Temple Mount. He writes, “We have heard that it is the accepted custom to enter [the Temple Mount]” xvi
On the other hand, Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, the well-known Mishnah commentator who arrived in Jerusalem in 1488 wrote that in his days no Jews would go on the Temple Mount.xvii Yet a generation or two later, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi David ben Shlomo Ibn Zimra (1479-1573) wrote that the city’s Jews regularly went up to the Temple Mount in order to view the entire Temple ruins and pray there. He added that “we have not heard or seen anyone object to this”.xviii
Ottoman Empire (1516-1856). The Ottoman emperors became the preeminent power in the eastern Mediterranean once they had conquered Constantinople in 1453. But it was only in 1516 that Jerusalem became a part of the Ottoman Empire. Soon thereafter, Suleiman I the Magnificent (1520-1566), one of the most prominent monarchs of 16th century Europe, ordered the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem that had been in ruins almost three centuries. His positive attitude toward the Jews of Jerusalem persuaded many European Jews, especially those who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal a generation earlier, to settle in the Holy city. Fourteen years after he rebuilt the city walls Suleiman instructed his court architect to prepare the Western Wall of the Temple Mount as a place for Jewish prayer. He issued a firman that established for all times the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall. This royal decree was said to have been issued to the Jews in compensation for their relinquishing their legal rights to pray on the Mount itself – which now became off-limits for all non-Muslims.xix
Outlawed visitors. For more than three hundred years everyone who was not a Muslim was forbidden to enter the Temple Mount. Armed guards kept non-Muslims away. Those who disobeyed and were caught on the mountain were executed, unless they were categorized as feeble-minded. But throughout these 300 years some Jews did visit the Temple Mount furtively – some to pray, some to observe, and some for other reasons. Most of these visitors left no record of their visit so that we do not know how many risked their lives. We only know from the Muslim court records of those few who were caught by the authorities.
For example, one morning in 1833 the Muslim guards opened the Temple Mount and discovered a young Jew who had spent the night there. “He had made great havoc among the costly lustres, lamps, lanterns, and the like – whatever, in fact, he was able to destroy. But it was speedily perceived that he lacked reason, and was not much less than downright crazy.” The Muslims dragged him off the mountain, threw him into prison and beat him mercilessly all day long. They planned to burn him at the stake, but Mahmud Ali Pasha of Egypt, the ruler of the land, ruled against this punishment. He wrote that the guards who had been negligent deserved to receive a punishment. He ordered that the Jew be freed “because the Jew is also circumcised and is thus somewhat akin to a Muslim.”xx
Nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the consequences of the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853-1856) was the opening of the Temple Mount to all visitors, no matter what their religion – a concession that the victorious British demanded. The Ottomans were required to pledge that the Temple Mount would be open daily to all non-Muslims (except on Fridays). However, until 1910 each visitor was required to obtain a special permission which was issued only after paying a large amount of money to the official who issued this document.
In response to this new policy the rabbis of Jerusalem once again issued a decree that prohibited Jews from going up to the Temple Mount. Any Jew who dared to ignore this rabbinical decree faced a fierce response from the Jewish community, including being put under the ban. Nevertheless, an increasing number of Jews ignored this ban and did go up – including many prominent visitors to the Holy Land, such as Sir Moses Montefiore, Dr. Ludwig August Frankel, and Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, as well as many secular Jews from the “New Yishuv”.xxi On the other hand, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the father of the Zionist political movement decided against such a visit in order to respect the feelings of the Jerusalem Jewish community
Just before the establishment of the State of Israel, General David Shaltiel (1903-1969), the Jerusalem sector commander of the Haganah, the Jewish underground forces, consulted with Rabbi Herzog, the chief rabbi of the Holy Land, what to do in the forthcoming war. The rabbi instructed the general that if his forces captured the Temple Mount, they should make every effort to expel all of the enemy forces – but once they had accomplished this, they should leave the Temple Mount as quickly as possible because of the holiness of the place. But Shaltiel never had a chance to follow this directive since in the 1948 War of Independence the Jordanian army occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City and all of its Christian and Jewish holy places. For nineteen years no Jew was allowed to approach the Western Wall or the Temple Mount. This absolute ban was strictly enforced, despite provisions in the Jordan-Israel Armistice Agreement that called for free access to all holy places.
Nineteen years after the Jordanian army captured Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount, Israeli paratroopers entered Jerusalem’s Old City and made their way to the Temple Mount. That was when General Motta Gur, the commanding general, radioed his famous message: “The Temple Mount is (again) in our hands.” Later in the day he issued an order-of-the-day, praising his troops for returning the Temple Mount to the bosom of the nation. He ordered three paratroopers to climb to the top of the Dome of the Rock and unfurl an Israeli flag over it. Four hours later, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered that the flag be taken down immediately.
Avi-Yonah, Michael (1984). The Jews of Palestine: a political history from the Bar Kokhba war to the Arab conquest. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
Baron, Salo Wittmayer (1952-1983). A Social and Religious History of the Jews. 2nd ed., revised and enlarged. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Benjamin of Tudela (1960). The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Jerusalem. Hebrew University. Based on Adler’s edition of 1907. [Hebrew]
Berkovicz, S. (1978). The Legal Status of the Holy Places in Israel (doctoral dissertation, Hebrew University). [Hebrew]
Dinor, B.Z. [Dinaburg]. (1929). “‘A House of Prayer and Study’ for Jews on the Temple Mount in the Period of the Arabs,” Ziyon, 3. [Hebrew]
Elon, Menachem.(1993). Temple Mount Faithful – Amutah Et Al v. Attorney-General, Inspector-General of the Police, Mayor of Jerusalem, Minister of Education and Culture, Director of the Antiquities Division, Muslim WAQF – In the Supreme Court Sitting as the High Court of Justice [September 23, 1993]; English translation in 45, 3 (Spring 1996) Catholic University Law Review. Pp. 866-942.
Gaddis, Michael (2005). There is no Crime for Those who have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Empire. Berkeley CA.University of California Press.
Holum, Kenneth (1989), Theodosian Empresses. Berkeley: U. of Calif.Press
Levenson, David B. (2004).“The ancient and medieval sources for the Emperor Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple”. Journal for the Study of Judaism, 35, 4, 409-460.
Madden, Thomas (2005) The New Concise History of the Crusades, Rowman & Littlefield
Mann, J. (1920). The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimad Caliphate. Ithaca NY. Cornell University Library.
Offenbacher, E. (1985). Prayer on the Temple Mount. JerusalemQuarterly 36:129-140.
Panella, Robert. (1999), “The Emperor Julian and the God of the Jews,” Koinonia, 23 15-31.
Russell, K.W. (1980), “The Earthquake of May 19, AD 363.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 238, 47-64.
Sagiv, Tuvya. (2003). “Ha-knissa l’Har Habayit – T’shuvat Haradbaz” [Entering the Temple Mount – the Decision of the Radbazö, pp. 46-81 in Kumo v’Na’aleh, ed. Yehuda Shaviv. Alon Shvut:Machon Tzomet.
Schwartz, Joseph. (1850). Geography of Palestine, (trans. I. Leeser). Philadelphia. [Original Hebrew:Tevuot HaAretz. 1845; ed. A.M.Lunz, 1900]
Shilat, Yitzhak (1986). “Building a synagogue on the Temple Mount in our days”, Tehumin 7, pp.489-512. [Hebrew]
Shilat, Yizhak. (2003) “Building a synagogue on the Temple Mount in our days,” Tehumin 7, pp.489-512. [Hebrew]
Stemberger, G. (2000). Jews and Christians in the Holy Land – Palestine in the Fourth Century. Edinburgh:Clark.
Ya’ari, Abraham (1943). Igarot Eretz Yisrael (Eretz Yizrael Letters). Tel Aviv. [Hebrew]
* The author may be contacted at email@example.com
i Rashi’s comment on TB Pessachim 88a
ii Among these are TB Makkot 24b, TB Shabbat 15a, TB Rosh Hashanah 31a, and many others.
iii M Eduyot 8.6, Rambam H. Bet Ha-bechira 6.15, Ha’emek Davar commentary on Leviticus 26.31
iv Genesis Rabba 64.10
v Avi-Yona (1984), p. 81, citing Itenarium burdigalensi, ed. Geyer, p. 21f. See also Elon (1993), pp. 890-892. Almost eighty years later Jerome described his commentary on Zephaniah 1.6 the mourning practices that the Jews observed on the Temple Mount on Tisha b’Av.
vi Avi-Yona (1984), pp. 196-200; Stemberger (2000), p.208; Panella (1999); Russell (1980); Levenson (2004).
vii TB Berakhot 62b
viii Gaddis (2005), p.246; Holum (1989), p. 217
ix Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba 4
x Baron (1957), vol.3, p. 23
xi Mann (1920), vol.2., pp.188-89, Dinor (1929).
xii Madden (2005), p. 212; Baron (1957), vol. 4, p. 109.
xiii R. Elazar Ezkari. Sefer Haredim (Mitzvah 83); Shilat (1986), p. 492); Shilat (2003), p. 509-11.
xiv Benjamin (1960),pp. 20-24 (Hebrew).
xv Offenbacher (1985), p.134, citing Berkovicz (1978).
xvi Beit Ha-b’chira on TB Shavuot 16a
xvii Ya’ari (1943), pp. 98-103
xviii Responsa of the Radbaz, v.2, no. 691. See Sagiv (2003) for the full text and a critical analysis of this response.
xix This firman was still in effect in the nineteenth century. One observer noted, ” No one is molested… by the Mahomedans, as we have a very old firman from the Sultan of Constantinople that the approach [to the Western Wall] shall not be denied to us, though the Porte obtains for this privilege an especial tax, which is, however, quite insignificant.” (Schwartz 1850, p. 260)
xx Schwartz (1850), pp. 417-418.