September 24, 2020

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"Pro-Palestinian" Jews inadvertently make case for Jewish prayer on Temple Mount

The “Jews for Justice for Palestinians” website reproduces an article from Middle East Quarterly that calls into question the traditional holiness of the Western Wall.

Middle East Quarterly’s article is entitled “Is the Western Wall Judaism’s Holiest Site?” We all know the answer to that – no, of course not. The site of the Holy of Holies in the Temple on the Temple Mount, widely assumed to be in the area of the Dome of the Rock, is.

The anti-Israel site however retitles the article “There is no Western Wall tradition” in an attempt to delegitimize the importance of the Kotel, because the article argues (fairly persuasively) that the current site of the Kotel was not even available for prayer before the 16th century, when an earthquake leveled the houses that were built up against that section of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and Suleiman the Magnificent created an area for Jews to worship that became the site of today’s Kotel.

But the article really proves that the Temple Mount was always the focus of prayer for Jews, and they only prayed at the retaining walls (from all directions) when Muslims barred them from worshiping on the Temple Mount itself.

This may be the best overview in English on the history of Jewish prayer that centered on the Temple Mount in the post-Temple period.


Once the Second Temple was demolished by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., prayer replaced sacrificial worship. Most scholars agree that Jews offered prayers on the Temple Mount even after the destruction of the Second Temple. “During the first period after the destruction of the Temple of Herod, the Jews continued to go and weep at the ruins of it,” read a report by the British Royal Commission, established in 1930 to determine the claims of Muslims and Jews at the Western Wall. The report also noted that “the Jews’ wailing-place at that time seems to have been the stone on Mount Moriah where the Mosque of Omar [in the Christian Quarter] now stands.”[3]

But before long, all this changed. Early in the second century the Roman emperor Hadrian prohibited Jews from worshipping on the Temple Mount. They were permitted to assemble for prayer only on the Mount of Olives from where they had an unobstructed view of the ruins of the Second Temple. The prohibition to ascend the Temple Mount was strictly enforced during Hadrian’s lifetime, but the periodic need to re-issue the decree by subsequent emperors suggests that enforcement was often lax after his death. In fact, Jews did pray on the Temple Mount during the remainder of the second and most of the third centuries, but even when they were prohibited from doing so, there is no indication that they chose instead to pray at today’s Western Wall.[4]

Once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official state religion in the fourth century, the situation of Jerusalem’s Jewish community became precarious. During most of the next three hundred years, Jews were not permitted to live or visit Jerusalem, but there were periods when this anti-Jewish policy was relaxed, and Jews were permitted to live in or visit the city. Yet there are no records of Jews praying at the Western Wall during those years. After the Persian and Arab conquests of the city in the seventh century, Jews were again allowed to reside in Jerusalem. They chose to live on Mount Zion where they had a number of synagogues. They even had a synagogue on the Temple Mount but no prayer services were conducted at the Western Wall.[5] 

An eleventh-century document, found in the Cairo Geniza describes how Jewish pilgrims frequently circled the Temple Mount (from the outside), stopping at each of the gates to recite specific prayers. Moshe ben Yitzhak, a mid-11th-century pilgrim, is reported to have prayed daily at one of the Temple Mount gates. At that time, Jews prayed at all of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount. The Western Wall was not accorded any preference. When they prayed at the Western Wall, they did not worship at the site that nowadays is known as the Western Wall Plaza but rather north of this area because, at that time, buildings prevented access to the area currently used. This same geniza manuscript from 1057 confirmed that the Jews paid special taxes for the privilege of praying at the Temple Mount gates and on the Mount of Olives.[6]

Until the thirteenth century, prayer on the Temple Mount was sporadically possible. Benjamin of Tudela (1130-73 C.E.), the famous Jewish traveler who visited Jerusalem during the Crusader years, wrote in his travelogue:

In front of the [Dome of the Rock] is the Western Wall. This is one of the [remaining] walls of what was once the Holy of Holies. … All the Jews come there to pray before this wall.[7]

The wall that Benjamin described was not the present Western Wall (which, as previously noted, is part of the outer retaining walls of the Temple Mount) but the ruins of the western wall of the Second Temple, which were apparently still standing in his days. Maimonides, who arrived in Jerusalem in 1165, also prayed on the Temple Mount, but his letters make no mention of praying at the site where the Western Wall is now located.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Shimshon, who arrived in Jerusalem in 1211, describes in great detail his first days in the city. He ascended the Temple Mount soon after arriving and often prayed on “the Mount of Olives, the place where they used to burn the [Red] Heifer.”[8] But on “Shabbat we prayed the afternoon prayer [on the Temple Mount], on the very place where the uncircumcised used to erect their idols.”[9] Again, no mention is made of praying at the Western Wall of our days.

Early in the fourteenth century, Jews were barred from entering the Temple Mount by the Mamluks, who ruled Jerusalem from 1250 to 1516. Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1366), author of one of the earliest books of the geography of the Holy Land, Kaftor v’Ferah, wrote that in his day, Jews prayed at the eastern wall and outside the gates of the southern wall. He describes the geography of Jerusalem in great detail but makes no mention of a holy site at the western wall.[10]

This is a strong case that Jews continued to ascend to the Temple Mount to pray up through the 13th century, and when that was not possible only then would they pray at whatever site afforded them proximity or a view of the holy spot on the Temple Mount.

The Kotel is just as holy as any other part of the retaining wall of the Second Temple, although the western part is closer to the Holy of Holies and therefore more desirable. This is why so many (usually women) are found reading Psalms all day at the site of the Western Wall tunnels nearest the Holy of Holies.

It is also why the “Kotel HaKatan,” the “Little Western Wall” to the north of the Kotel, is actually a holier spot than the Kotel itself. But that wasn’t available for prayer, apparently, until much more recently, while the Kotel was been a gathering spot for prayer since the 16th century.

This article, rather than taking away from the holiness of the Kotel, actually proves the holiness to Jews of the entire surrounding areas of the Temple Mount in all directions, and how the scores of existing Muslim structures on those holy walls are actually a desecration of the Jewish holy site.  The article shows the veneration that Jews have always shown towards the Temple Mount.

The author’s earlier article on the synagogue on the Temple Mount itself is even more fascinating:

Did the Jews build a synagogue on the Temple Mount in the century immediately following the Muslim invasion? All historians agree that the Jews played a prominent role in identifying the holy areas on the Temple Mount; these same Jews subsequently worked as servants and cleaners of the mosques that were erected there. The medieval Arab historian Mujir al-Din al-Ulaymi (1456-1522), born in Ramle but a lifelong resident of Jerusalem where he was buried, described the role that the Jews played on the Temple Mount in the early Muslim period in his comprehensive history of Jerusalem and Hebron, as follows:
The Jews who served as servants [in the mosques] were exempt from paying poll tax, they and their descendants forever. At first these numbered ten, but later their number rose to twenty. Their job was to clean the mosques. Other Jews were engaged to manufacture and attach the glass and the candelabras and other things. They also supplied wicks. Most interesting is Mujir al-Din’s suspicion that the Jews consented to engage in these jobs in order to gain a foothold on the Temple Mount so that they could offer prayers in the place where their Temple once stood.14 At this time Muslims did not consider a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount problematic because they had not yet designated the mount as a sacred site.
Several scholars wrote that Jews received permission to build a synagogue or prayer-and-study hall on the Temple Mount. Some have even suggested that the first wooden structure built on the site of the Temple was meant originally to be a synagogue, but that before it was completed the Muslims expropriated the building and gave the Jews another site on the Temple Mount as a substitute location for their synagogue.Sebeos, a 7th-century Armenian bishop and historian, wrote about the existence of a Jewish prayer hall on the Temple Mount as follows:
After the Jews enjoyed the aid and protection of the Arabs for a long time, they conceived the idea of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon. They identified the location of what they called the “The Holy of Holies” and there they built a prayer hall, using the foundations and the remnants of the original building. Once they had started to build, the Arabs became jealous and banished them from there. Instead, they gave the Jews another area on the Temple Mount for a synagogue.15
Solomon ben Jeroham, a Karaite exegete who lived in Jerusalem between 940 and 960, wrote in his commentary on the Book of Psalms that the Muslims had permitted the Jews to pray on the Temple Mount for many years.
When, with the mercy of the God of Israel, the Romans were thrown out [of Jerusalem] and the Islamic kingdom appeared, permission was given to Israel to enter [the city] and live there. Furthermore, the courtyards of the Temple were turned over to them and they prayed there [on the Temple Mount] for many years. Afterwards [slanderers] told the Muslim king that they did bad things there, that they drank intoxicating wine and desecrated the place. He therefore ordered them expelled to one of the many gates and there they prayed for many years. But they continued to do bad things and there came a new king and he expelled them from the Temple Mount completely.16
The 11th-century letter written by the Elder of the Jerusalem Jewish community that we cited earlier also stated unequivocally that from the time of the Arab conquest of Jerusalem until the present time (tenth or eleventh century) Jews were allowed to pray without interference on the Temple Mount or at its gates.17
Petachiah of Regensburg, a Bohemian rabbi who set out from Prague to Palestine in 1175 and arrived in Crusader Jerusalem no later than 1187, reported that in his days it was “common knowledge” that the Dome of the Rock (he called it the ‘Umar-mosque) was designed originally to serve as a synagogue.18
The midrash collection called “Nistarot de-Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai” [The Esoteric Teachings of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, believed to have been compiled at the time of the Crusaders] brings the following account:
… the second king who arose to Ishmael was friendly to Israel, and he mended their breaches and the breaches of the Heikhal, and dug up Mount Moriah… and he built there a place for prayer [lit., a place for bowing down] on the Foundation Stone [that is, on the site of the Temple].19
Many years ago Professor Dinur wrote a comprehensive article on “A Jewish synagogue and study hall on the Temple Mount during the Arab period” in which he summarized all the evidence available at that time concerning Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount during the Muslim period.20 He suggested that the building that eventually became known as the mosque of ‘Umar was originally built by Caliph ‘Umar as a synagogue or prayer hall for the Jews. He cited evidence of the existence of a synagogue on the Temple Mount from the 9th century on.This synagogue, known as the Mahkema, was located on the southwestern side of the Shalshelet Gate. After the Fatimid rulers conquered Jerusalem in 969, this synagogue was rebuilt and used until the Jews were banished by Caliph alChakim in 1015. Jews returned to this synagogue on the Temple Mount after a subsequent ruler cancelled al-Chakim’s ban. 21
While there is disagreement about where the synagogue was located on the Temple Mount, most scholars agree that there was a functioning synagogue on the Temple Mount during the first century after the Muslim conquest—and perhaps even later. Subsequently (the exact date is not known) the permission for Jews to have a synagogue on the Temple Mount was cancelled.  

There are two conclusions that these articles point to:

One is that Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, both halachic and historic, and that  for centuries this permission was actually granted by Muslims themselves.

The other is that the entire area surrounding the Temple Mount is holy, and when some non-Orthodox Jewish groups want to stake their claim to the right to pray at the Kotel, they actually have no reason not to accept any prayer area around the retaining walls, since the holiness of all of those areas are roughly the same.

(h/t Richard Landes)

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