Entering the Temple Mount Nowadays
Opening Questions – The Temple Mount
In this week’s pararsha, the psukim deal with the impurity that renders a Jew unable to enter Machane Leviya. As will be discussed below, in our times, this area would include part of the Temple Mount. Can one purify himself in order to visit the site? Are the ritually impure permitted to lean on the stones of the Western Wall? Are they allowed to fly over the Temple Mount for an aerial tour? We know that the Beis Hamikdash did not cover the entire mountaintop. Is its exact location known? Rumor has it that the Even Hashesiya, the foundation stone of the Beis Hamikdash, which was visible in the Kodesh Hakodashim, is the stone in the center of the Dome of the Rock. What is the source of this rumor? These questions and others will be dealt with in the following article.
This week’s parasha, Tazriah, mentions tamei individuals whose impurity originates in their body: a person with tzora’as (a spiritual malady, mistakenly translated as a leprosy), a zav (a man suffering from gonorrhea), a ba’al keri (a man who has emitted semen), a niddah (a woman ritually impure because of menstrual bleeding), a zava (a woman ritually impure because of other bleeding), and a yoledes (woman who has recently given birth). Someone whose source of impurity originates in the body has different halachos than one who contracted impurity from an external source, as will be explained.
The Three Camps in the Desert
Once the Mishkan was built in the desert, the camp was divided into three zones: Machane Shechinah (the location of the Mishkan), Machane Leviya (where the Levites encamped) and Machane Yisroel. If you had come into contact with the dead, you were forbidden to enter the Machane Shechina, but were allowed to enter Machane Leviya. If you were impure because of a source that originates in the body, you were forbidden to enter Machane Leviya, but could enter Machane Yisroel. If you were a metzora, however, you could not enter Machane Yisroel. The punishment for entering the Machane Shechina while impure is kares (spiritual excision from G-d).
Three Camps Nowadays
Once the nation entered the Land of Israel and the Mikdash was built, the various zones were redefined. The Gemara (Zevachim 116b) writes:
Just as there was a camp in the wilderness that was divided into different sections, so too, there is a corresponding camp in Jerusalem: The area from the walls of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount has the status of the Israelite Camp. The area from the Temple Mount to Nicanor’s Gate at the entrance to the Temple courtyard has the status of the Levite Camp. From that point inward bears the status of Machane Shechinah.
The halachos that applied concerning entering the different camps in the wilderness can be translated to entering different parts of Jerusalem. For further information, see Rambam, Hilchos Beit Hamikdash chapter 3; Beit Habechira chapter 7:11.
In addition, there are two rabbinic prohibitions: a non-Jew who came into contact with a corpse and a Jew who had intercourse with a niddah may not enter the Ezras Nashim section of the Mikdash or the Chil (an area surrounding the Azara) (Zevachim 116b; Rambam Beit Mikdash 3:5-6). This is the equivalent of Machane Shechina. When these two halachos came into existence is a disagreement amongst the Rishonim. One (or both), however, was instituted during King Yehoshaphat’s reign as mentioned in Divrei Hayomim (II 20:5) “And Yehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Yehuda and Yerushalayim in the House of the Lord, before the new court.” The court was built during the time of Shlomo Hamelech. As such, Chazal explain that here the phrase a “new court” means that the Ezras Nashim received new laws; that is, the Sages of that generation instituted the aforementioned prohibitions. If only one prohibition came into being during Yehoshaphat’s lifetime, the other came later on.
Translating the Halachos to Today’s Situation
Those impure due to contact with the dead may not enter the Azara, the Ezras Nashim, nor the Chil.
Sadly, as there are no ashes of a Red Heifer available nowadays, we all remain t’mei meis (impure due to contact with a corpse). Therefore, entrance into Machane Shechinah is punishable by kares.
One who experienced impurities that originated from within his body may not ascend the Temple Mount. If one underwent proper purification, however, then one could ascend the Temple Mount to the areas outside of the Chil and Azara.
A metzora may not enter the entire area of ancient Jerusalem. This area does not correspond strictly to the Old City of Jerusalem, but transcends it, as some sections of the ancient city were left outside the Ottoman walls. However, since tzora’as does not exist nowadays, the metzorah’s impurity is irrelevant.
Not Setting Foot on the Temple Mount
There is evidence of a custom of refraining from entering the entire Temple Mount, even parts which could be considered Machane Leviya.
In his sefer Kaftor Vaperach (the first Hebrew book on the geography of the Land of Israel), Ishtori Haparchi, (1280-1355) defines the entire Temple Mount as Machane Leviya or Machane Shechina — from the gates of the Temple Mount and inward (chapter 6). He also writes that, at his time, one could pray and prostrate himself only up to point of the walls surrounding the Temple Mount (the western, southern, eastern, and northern walls). He writes that the custom at the time was to approach the Gates of Mercy (sealed shut, on the eastern walls of the Temple Mount) and to pray there.
We need not be discouraged, however. Shlomo Hamelech, in his prayer at the inauguration of the Temple, prayed that all prayers whispered in the Mikdash or even towards it would be answered: “That Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place which You said, ‘My Name will be there;’ to listen to the prayer that Your servant will pray toward this place” (Melachim I, 8: 29).
The Achronim, at any rate, see this source as proof that the custom was not to enter Machane Leviya even after counting seven clean days and immersion in the “living waters” of a spring-fed mikveh. They debate if the reason for this stringency was to avoid transgressing a severe prohibition (with one misstep) or in light of the fact that the Holy Ark is buried in the Temple Mount.
During the time of the Muslim rule over the Temple Mount, non-Muslims were forbidden from ascending the area. In 1919, when the British conquered Palestine, this restriction was lifted. All rabbinic authorities of the time proclaimed ascending the Temple Mount a severe prohibition under all conditions.
Why did they not permit Jews to ascend after undergoing proper purification?
The answer to this question touches upon many halachic issues, some of which can be settled only by the leaders of the Jewish nation. This article will not attempt to deal with all the issues, but rather with one: the identification of the Temple’s location on the mountaintop. Is it possible to identify the area on the Temple Mount where the Temple stood (and will stand)?
Halachic Dimensions of the Temple Mount
In order to define the location of the Holy Temple, we must first outline the halachic dimensions of the Temple Mount.
The Mishna in Maseches Middos (2:1) writes that the Temple Mount is 500×500 amos. The present site is walled in on three sides, with either whole or remnants of walls and foundations serving as walls. Its shape is a trapezoid – the Western Wall’s entire length is 490 meters long; the eastern – 462 meters, the southern — 283 meters, and the northern – 315 meters. Translated into amos following the Chazon Ish’s opinion, it is 500X800 amos. According to Rabbi Chaim Na’eh’s understanding of the size of the ama, it is nearly 1000X570 amos.
The discrepancy between the facts on the ground and the dimensions mentioned in the Mishna can be explained by the fact that Herod doubled the size of the Temple Mount on the north as part of his massive renovations (Josephus’ Jewish Wars, chapter 5). Furthermore, this addition on the north is not considered Machane Leviya; only what the Mishna mentions is consecrated as such.
Finding the Temple Site – The Mitzva
While the Sages of the Mishna provide us with a detailed description of the Temple and adjacent buildings, they do not describe directly its location upon the Mount.
The Chumash, too, leaves us wanting. The Chumash describes the location of Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, “…on the other side of the Jordan, way beyond, in the direction of the sunset, in the land of the Canaanites, who dwell in the plain, opposite Gilgal, near the plains of Moreh” (Devarim 11:30). But the location of the Temple remains obscure: “But only to the place which the Lord your G-d shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there” (Devarim 12:5).
The Sifri (Re’e 62) explains that the Torah obligates us to learn from a prophet where the location of the Mikdash is, but we must not tarry until the prophecy comes. There is a mitzva to actively seek the location as the pasuk writes, “you shall inquire after His dwelling”. After the site is located, a prophet will appear to verify it.
King David spent a night in Rama with the prophet, Shmuel, trying to define the site for the Temple. They based their search upon various drashot of psukim. They were successful, as Gad, the prophet, appeared and verified that they had indeed defined the correct location. King David commemorated the historic search in Tehilim 132: “A song of ascents. Remember, O Lord, onto David all his affliction. That he swore to the Lord, he vowed to the Mighty One of Yaakov; That I shall not come into the tent of my house, and I shall not go up on the bed that was spread for me. I shall not give sleep to my eyes nor slumber to my pupils, until I find a place for the Lord, dwellings for the Mighty One of Yaakov. Behold, we heard it in Ephrat; we found it in the fields of the forest…”
The Mishna (Middos 2:1), in its description of the Temple Mount, continues: “The greater part of it was on the south; following that on the east; following that on the north; and the smallest part on the west. The largest part that was the part most used.” The Mishna does not provide us with details of the location of the Temple upon the mountain, giving us only hints at best. The Rishonim attempted to solve this riddle, but there is no consensus amongst them.
The Rambam (Beis Habechira 5:6), Mefaresh Letamid (927a), Meiri (Middos 2:1) and Kaftor Veperach (chapter 6) agree that the Mishna speaks of the unoccupied land between the wall of the Azara and the walls surrounding the Temple Mount – the number of amos from the southern wall of the Azara to the southern wall of the mountain was greater than the number of amos from the eastern wall of the Azara to the eastern wall of the mountain, and so on. Without detailing the math, the distance between the southern wall of the Ezras Nashim and the southern wall of the Temple Mount comes to between 209-365 amos, according to this view.
Conversely, Rabbenu Shmaryahu (Middos 2:1) and the Rosh (Middos 2:1) understood the Mishna to be speaking of the location of the Temple. That is to say, most of the building was on the southern part of the mountain, partly towards the eastern side. It was far from the northern part and farthest away from the western side.
It seems that Rashi would agree with his student Rabbenu Shamryahu that the Temple stood on the southern part of the mountain. On the pasuk in Yechezkeil 40:2, “In the visions of G-d He brought me to the land of Israel, and He placed me on a very lofty mountain, and upon it was like the building of a city from the south” Rashi explains: “On a very lofty mountain: For it is indeed destined to be lofty, as it is said (Yeshayahu 2:2): ‘And it shall be raised above the hills.’” Rashi is telling us that the mountain upon which Yechezkeil was placed is Har Habayis, and the verse mentions a comparison to a location in the south. Taken together, we can understand that the Temple stood on the southern part of the mountain.
Defining the location of the Temple and the different Camps upon the Mount is difficult due to two reasons: first, the bona fide area of the Temple Mount is unknown today, as we don’t know clearly what area of today’s Temple Mount comprises a later addition by King Herod. Second, the Rishonim argue about the location of the Temple upon the Mount. According to the Rambam and others, the Temple should be found in the western part (towards the north), while according to Rabbenu Shmaryahu and the Rosh it should be found in the southern part (towards the east).
Ascending the Temple Mount
Rabbi Zalman Koren (Bechatzros Hashem, published in 1977) estimated that according to the Rambam the distance between the southern wall and the Chil could be as little as 183 amos. Sha’ar Hamugrabim, the (western) gate to the Temple Mount through which non-Muslims are permitted to enter, is close to 83 meters from the southern wall of today’s Temple Mount (according to Rabbi Chaim Na’eh, 173 ammos). Entering further south is impossible because all the entranceways are sealed and taken over by the Al Aqsa mosque. In any case, a mere few steps north could already be stepping, according to the Rambam, into what may be Machane Shechinah. Worse, according to the Rash and Rosh, the majority of the Temple stood in the south. In this case, entering through Sha’ar Hamugrabim would certainly constitute transgressing an issur kares.
Additional Hints Regarding the Location of the Temple
The Mishna writes that Sha’ar Shushan (The Shushan Gate) was in the eastern wall surrounding the Temple Mount and was directly across from the Heichal. One standing on the Mount of Olives could get a full view of the Heichal through Sha’ar Shushan.
In addition, if the stone in the Dome of the Rock is the Even Hashesiya (the foundation stone), we would know where the Holy of Holies of the Temple stood. We will attempt to understand the sources that claim that the stone in the Dome of the Rock is the Even Hashesiya.
Kaftor Vaperach’s Approach
Kaftor Vaperach (chapter 6) understands that the walls surrounding the Mountain are the same original walls that surrounded the Temple Mount in the past. He writes: “And till today the Gate of Shushan can be spotted on the eastern side and it is sealed shut with large stones. And if you divide this wall to three parts, the opening will be in the first part on the southeastern corner…. And on the north of the sealed gate which is in the east, which we said was the Gate of Shushan, an arrow’s throw there are two very high outside-domed gates whose doors are of iron and they are sealed forever, which are generally known as the Gates of Mercy. And the Arabs are accustomed to this and call them ‘Bab El Rhema’ (“Sha’ar Harachamim” – Gates of Mercy).”
According to these landmarks it seems that while the Kaftor Vaperach follows the Rambam’s approach that most of the empty space was in the south of the mountain, the Shushan Gate was in the southern third of the wall. Seemingly, he seems to indicate that if we take the existing wall and divide it to three, the Shushan Gate should be at the end of the first third because the wall continues north, more than the 500 amos of the consecrated area of the Temple Mount.
In addition, the measurement mentions “an arrow’s throw” which although unclear, certainly directs to further south than the Gates of Mercy — nowhere near the Dome of the Rock.
The eastern wall is approximately 465 meters. The first third is approximately 155 meters. Therefore, the Shushan Gate, and the holy of Holies which was in a direct line across it, cannot be further than 155 meters north. However, since he followed the Rambam’s approach that the empty space in the southern part of the Temple Mount could not be less than 209 ammos which are at least 104.5 meters, it seems to indicate that the Holy of Holies is somewhere directly across from the Kosel plaza as it is today.
Dealing with the difficulties of this approach is beyond the scope of this article. However, even the Kaftor Vaperach himself did not rely upon his measurements to permit walking upon the Temple Mount.
The Dome of the Rock
Rumors throughout the generations have pointed out that the rock inside the Dome of the Rock as the Even Hashesiya – the foundation stone of the Temple which is, according to the Midrash, the foundation stone of the world. This stone was known to have stood inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple. However, the source for this rumor seems to come exclusively from non-Jewish sources. When Omar, the Muslim Caliph conquered Jerusalem in 637 from the Byzantines, a Yemenite Jew who had converted to Islam and lived in Syria came along. This Jew told Omar the large stone on the Temple Mount was the Even Hashesiya. Obviously, this is an unacceptable source that may not be used for halachic determinations, especially as the measurements today do not match up with it.
The Radvaz, though, does mention this rumor (volume II, chapter 691): “And this is clear that under the dome it is Even Hashesiya without doubt and it is what they call ‘aṣ-Ṣakhra’.” This seems to be a reputable halachic source for determining the location of the Temple upon the Temple Mount.
However, accepting this testimony is impossible in light of his later comments. According to the Radvaz that the modern day Kosel plaza which is near Bab el Katin (“Gate of the Cotton Sellers”) is the wall surrounding the Azara. He also writes that the southern wall, south of which is Emek Yehoshaphat where the large foundation stones are apparent, and which contains a building called Midrash Shleima (“Al Aqsa”) is the southern wall of the Azara.
While he mentions that there are only 11 aerial amos from the Dome of the Rock until the Western Wall and the Gate of the Cotton Sellers, there are in fact nearly 100 meters. In addition, between he Southern wall (“Al Aqsa”) and the Dome of the Rock there are nearly 250 meters while the width of the Azara form north to south was only 135 amos (81-65 meters) and the Even Hashesiya was supposed to stand in the middle of the width of the Azara.
The Pe’at Hashulchan (3:12) writes that understanding the Radvaz’s position is impossible and all contemporary poskim agree that although according to the above mentioned Radvaz approaching the Kosel without immersion today is forbidden, this answer is unclear and cannot be relied upon. Since we cannot choose which information to rely upon and which not, the Radvaz’s mention here of the Dome of the Rock as being he Even Hashesiya must also be disregarded as a distorted source.
Therefore, there seems to be no halachic source for the exact location of the Even Hashesiya.
This seems especially true in light of the Radvaz’s closing comment: “And here is recorded for you the reason of the custom to approach only until the Gate of the Cotton Sellers, but you be from the cautious ones, and do not enter a house or an upper level of a building if it is not very far from the Dome.”
Touching the Kosel
The Avnei Nezer (Yore De’ah 450) wrote that while passing beyond the Kosel is forbidden, one is permitted to place his finger inside the cracks of the Kosel. However, the Maharil Diskin was stringent in this regard; many follow his opinion.
Flying Over the Temple Mount
When Sir Moses Montefiore visited the Holy Land in 1827, non-Jews carried him in a closed glass box onto the Temple Mount. His visit was viewed as a violation of the halacha. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer part V, Yore De’ah chapter 26:9) writes that although only the ground was consecrated and not the airspace, certain sources still forbid traveling by air in such circumstances. As such, this is at least a possible transgression, which should not be permitted, as there is concern that the sanctity of the Temple Mount goes up to the heavens.
Setting foot on the Temple mount is forbidden because of a chashah of being t’mei mes while in the Machane Leviya (or the equivalent thereof). This ruling is accepted by all rabbinic authorities today. A soldier who needs to ascend the Temple Mount for the sake of saving lives should consult with a competent halachic authority as to where to stand and how to purify himself before the mission.
There is no need for immersing in a mikveh before approaching the Kosel.
There are various opinions regarding placing one’s fingers in the cracks of the Kosel, but one who does so has upon whom to rely.
Defining the exact location of the Temple is very difficult. In this article we attempted to fulfill the mitzva of trying to do so, but the final identification of the spot will be made through prophetic means.
The halacha is that when you pray, you must pray in the direction of the Beis Hamikdash. One who prays by the Kosel plaza today can either pray straight ahead, or on a slight southern angle as per Rashi, the Rash and the Rosh, or towards the north following the opinion of the Rambam.
Teshuvos Vehanhagos (III, chapter 39) writes that it is most reasonable to assume that the Temple was towards the south. Therefore, one should not turn towards the north when praying at the Kosel Plaza. I heard from the Rosh Yeshiva of the Chevron Yeshiva Rabbi Dovid Cohen shlita, that when his father, Rabbi Yosef Cohen, would pray at the Kosel he would turn himself very slightly south. He didn’t hear the reason for it, but it seems that Rabbi Yosef Cohen maintained that the main approach is that of Rashi.
Rectifying Impurities of the Temple
To end this topic let us quote from the Maharil (Minhagim, Yom Kippur, 247:18) who wonders why most of the Yom Kippur service revolves around atoning for the sins of the Mikdash and its holiness and not for the nation’s sins in general.
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the answer was clear – this sin could potentially prevent acceptance of the entire service in the Temple. As to the current relevance, he continues, today we must pray extensively for forgiveness for this sin as the Temple’s holiness is still present and we must atone for those Jew in the Holy Land who mistakenly enter the holy spot.